6 Steps to Obtaining Final Customer Approval of a Case Study

June 13, 2017 by

While they consistently rate among the most effective forms of marketing content with technology buyers[i], case studies can be costly to produce. Getting even the happiest of customers to share their story often requires considerable time and effort. Then there are interviews, writing, editing, review cycles, layout, illustration, etc.

So naturally, when you go to all that trouble, you want to get your money’s worth. You want to be able to use your case studies for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, things can change rapidly within your customer’s organization. People leave unexpectedly. Attitudes, priorities and philosophies change as well – including those regarding how the company’s name is used by others.

That’s why it pays to obtain written, customer approval for each case study you produce, as soon as it’s ready for publication.

To that end, I’d like to describe for you a six-step process for securing final approval of your next case study. We’ll start by choosing our approval document.

Step 1: Decide on your approval vehicle

In today’s litigious business climate, it’s always best to have documented customer approval of your published case studies. Documentation preserves a record of your customer’s approval, even if their organization changes. It covers your back in the event of a lawsuit. And it may even allow you to keep using a case study despite an adverse change in your customer’s policies.

In general, documentation of case study approval comes in one of two forms:  email approval, or a formal release.

Email approval is the faster, simpler approach. Your customer simply returns your approved case study to you in an email, which states – using wording you’ve supplied – that you may use the attached case study on your website, in sales opportunities, in newsletters, for PR purposes, etc. The form is short, easy to customize.

Email approvals also go through fewer review steps and intermediaries than a formal release form. Why? Because the legal teams don’t get involved.

On the downside, email approval offers a lower level of protection. Approval emails aren’t signed and don’t usually detail conditions of use. A management change or some unfortunate incident – even if unrelated to your solution – could cause a change of heart on the part of the customer. They could then simply withdraw their consent, saying their earlier email approval is no longer valid.

A formal release form, on the other hand, is signed, does dictate precise terms of use, and (provided the signatory has the proper authorization) is legally binding. Thus, it provides greater peace of mind for you, the vendor. On the other hand, obtaining a signed release adds steps to the process and the potential for multiple iterations of each step. This often delays approval while the two side’s legal eagles dicker over wording.

A formal release form will usually contain:

  • A statement of purpose (the rights the release conveys)
  • An authority statement (the signatory has read the case study and has the authority to sign the release)
  • The release, which will generally include:
    • Conditions for use of the story
    • Conditions for use of comments and data provided (i.e., re-use of the story material)
    • Authorization of use by the vendor and its channel partners

Naturally, your release form will be customized for each customer, based on what was learned and agreed during the project’s pre-approval process, and what gets worked out between legal departments.

Your first step in your final case study approval process, therefore, is to decide what level of protection you need. Are you comfortable accepting email approval to streamline the process? Or do you need the added protection of a signed release form, despite the hassle it might entail?

I would suggest you start by deciding on a general policy, if you don’t already have one in place.

Consider your typical customers. How large are their firms? How eager are they for the additional publicity your case study would afford them? How guarded are they about endorsing vendors and allowing dissemination of their business practices and third-party use of their company name? Then, consult with your upper management and legal representatives. What are they comfortable with? Your answers to these questions will help you decide what type of approval to seek for most of your customer stories.

Finally, review your policy and decide on your approval vehicle on a case-by-case basis.

You can do this immediately following pre-approval and project start. Refer to what you know about this customer and what you learned during the pre-approval process. Is this customer significantly different from our norm? What do they require for approval? Must their legal team be involved? What use conditions have they specified?

Also consider your present situation. For example, if time is of the essence – to meet a publication deadline or to support an upcoming event or scheduled campaign – you may want to settle for email approval, even if your normal policy is to pursue a signed release.

Once you’ve decide on the right vehicle for your current customer, you can send her draft wording of the agreement for review.

Step 2: Internal review

As soon as you receive a polished draft from your writer, you’re ready to begin review of your case study. Even if you face a tight deadline, however, it’s wise to start with an internal review, before you circulate the story outside your own firm.

Establish a team of one or two within your organization who review every case study. They should make sure the document contains relevant, consistent messaging and adheres to your company’s style guidelines. At the same time, send the draft to those closest to the customer, like your account rep or installation engineer. Ask them to check technical details, and see if they have any additional data or anecdotes that might enhance the story.

Limit your review to only those necessary, however. The more people involved, the longer it will take to arrive at a clean, polished draft you can send to your customer.

And don’t delay! Email your writer’s draft to your entire internal review team immediately. Tell them when you need their feedback, and follow up with those who don’t respond by the deadline. Timely turnaround is important, because customers often mirror your own apparent urgency. If you deliver the draft to her several weeks or months after interviews were completed, your customer may get the impression the project is of low priority, and treat it as such.

Remember, the situation within your customer’s organization will likely change over time. Priorities change. Policies change. Your principal contact may leave the company. Such events tend to slow the review cycle and might even sink the project. The best way to avoid such circumstances is to get your case study in your customer’s hands as quickly as possible.

Getting stories to customers quickly maximizes the chances they will still be happy with your solution, still enthusiastic to participate in your case study, and still there to keep the review cycle rolling.

Step 3: Channel Partner Review

Distributors, resellers, systems integrators and other channel partners often play a significant role in customer success stories. They often make first contact with the customer, sell them your solution, look after its implementation at the customer’s site, or otherwise add value to your products and services.

In such situations, it’s their story too. They’ll want to make sure they’re properly represented. And they may be able be to add or clarify points that strengthen the story. If that’s the case, make sure to get their input. As with your internal reviewers, send only to those close to the project, tell them when you’ll be expecting their input, and follow-up if you don’t hear from them by that date.

Some companies ask channel partners to sign a case study release form. This is usually similar to the one signed by the customer, but with wording that addresses how the partner may use the approved case study for their own marketing.

Step 4: Customer Review

The ease and efficiency with which this step is completed usually depends directly upon the groundwork laid during the permission or “pre-approval” phase of your case study project. If you did the work in that phase, this step usually goes smoothly.

Once internal and partner reviews are complete and revisions made, clear any remaining comments, then proofread and spell-check your revised draft. You’ll want to send a fresh, clean copy to your customer.

Send the story as an editable Word (.doc) document, not a PDF. Activate change tracking, and encourage the customer to request revisions and make comments directly in the document itself. This makes it easier for your writer to incorporate the requested changes. If you send the story as a PDF, comments must be written in a separate document and manually transferred later. This slows the process and increases the chances for errors during revision.

Attach the story to an email to your customer champion which:

  • Thanks the customer for talking about her experience
  • Announces the attached draft for her company's review and approval
  • Includes the text for email approval, if applicable
  • Provides instructions on
    • How to edit the document
    • How to deal with the email approval text or release form
  • Gives timeframes for
    • When you’d like to have the document in hand
    • When you’ll follow up
  • States any reasons for special urgency (publication deadlines, events, etc.)

Also attach a copy of your release form, if you are using one for this project.

Finally, follow up. Customer review time is the biggest unknown in the case study building process. In fact, customer story expert Casey Hibbert, author of Stories that Sell, says “I’ve seen story signoff take anywhere from an hour to a year.” [ii] You have less control over this step than any other, and your project is a lower priority for your customer’s firm than it is for yours. Let’s face it, customers are busy with other things – things that have a greater impact on their bottom firm’s line.

Really, all you can do is follow up regularly, with persistence. Always remain polite, positive and respectful. And be patient. It may take some time to get a response.

Step 5: Sign-off

Once your customer has completed her review and returned all her organization’s revision requests and comments to you, review the requested changes. In most cases – if you laid the proper foundation during pre-approval, and your writer has been conscientious – these will be minimal and minor, and you can simply hand them to your writer for insertion, polishing and final proofreading.

If any customer comments require significant subsequent editing, however, send these back clearly marked in an otherwise clean copy. Explain the additional edits, so the customer can review them quickly. You may need to negotiate some of the wording to meet everyone’s goals. Keep it friendly. Think win-win, and collaborate with your customer to finalize a mutually satisfying story.

Then, once all edits have been agreed upon, be sure to get your customer’s written approval of your use of their story, through either the email or signed release form discussed in Step 1.

Step 6: Thank Your Customer

Always thank customers after they’ve gone through the case study process.

But not with email. Email messages are too informal and too easily missed.

At the minimum, send a personalized, handwritten note on a nice card or stationery. Have the not signed by all those involved on your side. You might even have it come “from the desk of” one of your top executives, like the CMO or VP of Marketing.

Also, if you produce case studies frequently, establish a thank-you protocol. Assign a specific point person to follow through, and authorize a budget for thank-you expenditures.

What expenditures? Well, other ways to say thank-you to case study participants – always in addition to a personal thank-you note – include:

  • Personal phone call from your account rep, telling the customer how much her involvement was appreciated by your organization
  • Branded promotional items with your company logo
  • Framed, high-quality print of the story – these frequently end up on customers’ walls
  • Gift card from a prominent local or online merchant
  • Gift basket of packaged gourmet food items from a specialty delivery company
  • Personalized gift, if your account rep or implementation technician has learned something about the customer’s personal interests
  • Invitations to VIP events you host in the customer’s area or at trade shows they attend
  • Access to your executives through product advisory boards or exclusive events

Remember, saying “thank you” to your customer in a personal way isn’t just polite. It can help deepen your relationship and engender greater loyalty to your brand.

Take-away Points

  1. Two major keys to obtaining customer approval of your case studies are:
    • A solid pre-approval process
    • A solid final approval process
  2. The groundwork for a quick, smooth final approval of a case study is laid during the pre-approval process.
  3. A good case study final approval process should include the following six steps:
    • Decide on your approval vehicle (email approval or signed release)
    • Internal review
    • Channel partner review (if applicable)
    • Customer review
    • Sign-off
    • Thank your customer

Next Steps

Need help publishing a case study and getting it through all its approval wickets? CopyEngineer can assist with customer pre-approval and post-production sign-off, as well as customer interviews and writing. Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or send me an email.

Also, be sure to catch next month’s Technical Response. In July, I’ll be covering what to do when you run into common obstacles along the path to case study approval.

Finally, if you’d like to get Technical Response delivered to your email inbox – and receive two free reports on creating better white papers – click here.

References

[i]    Eccolo Media 2008 to 2015 B2B Technology Content Survey Reports, Eccolo Media Inc., 2008 to 2015.

[ii]   Hibbard, Casey, Stories that Sell: Turn Satisfied Customers into your Most Powerful Sales and Marketing Asset, AIM Publishers, 2009.

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