Three Steps to a Great Case Study

Case studies are one of the world’s perfect combinations, like peanut butter and jelly or chocolate and…more chocolate. Case studies combine testimonials from your customers with your own narrative about what you do and how you do it. Or to use another metaphor, you customer paints a picture and you get to choose the frame, so that the case study appeals to the potential customers you most want to reach.

For a case study to achieve that goal, you need to take three important steps:

1. Allow someone objective–not you–to conduct the interviews. You have preconceived notions about what your customer wanted, what pleased your customer the most, why your customer worked with you, and what (if anything) the customer would have changed. Your preconceived notions get in the way. Your customer also may feel inhibited when you are conducting the interview about your own company’s work.

2. Choose your interviewees from those who were closest to your project at the customer location, even if they were lower on the hierarchy. You might interview the owner/manager for an overview and then interview one of staff you worked with directly for details. If possible, avoid anyone on the customer’s staff who wants to help you sell your services with words that contain smooth praise but very little original content or personality. Their well-meant help just doesn’t sound natural.

3. Do not edit words into the mouths of interviewees. It’s okay to combine statements for a smoother flow (people do tend to circle back to topics), and it’s certainly okay to fix grammar. But do not add words to make the interviewee say something exactly the way you want. Remember the perfection of case studies: if something doesn’t get said by the interviewee or isn’t explained correctly, you can always say it yourself.

Recently I conducted interviews and wrote case studies for business owners in the organizational development and executive coaching fields. Their customers ranged from government agencies to healthcare, technical and service companies. In all cases, the business owners were delighted with the comments by interviewees, around which we wove a narrative that included statements by the business owners themselves. The interviewee comments were spontaneous, unique and in some cases unexpected; the business owners’ comments were well thought out to further explain mission, services and values. Together, interviewees and business owners created rich and interesting case studies–peanut butter and jelly supreme!