Case Study Questions: “Tell Me About…”

This post was written by John White on Thu, 24 May 2012 11:55:45 +0000
Posted Under: case studies,interviewing customers,tell your story

Case studies and customer success stories don’t just happen; your questions make them happen. Here are some ideas on new ways to draw out your interviewees.

Tell me about...You’ve scheduled a phone interview with a customer who is willing to reference your products. You’ve sent along a list of questions on the topics you’ll be covering.

Now all you need to do is get her to say nice things about you. That’s no slam dunk.

Interviewing for case studies

Some people are a good interview. They talk freely about their business and how they use your products to save time and money. They practically write the case study for you.

Others…not so much.

  • Some people are guarded in their remarks. They don’t know what they’re allowed to say – even when you assure them that they’ll have the opportunity to review the piece before it’s published – and they’re afraid of breaking some internal company rule and getting into trouble.
  • Some interviewees are naturally reticent. They don’t like talking to people and they don’t appreciate being put on the spot to artificially pay you a compliment.
  • Some references aren’t really references. They don’t know anything about you or your products, but all the people you really wanted to talk to are on travel, so they dumped the interview on somebody in Accounting.
  • Some customers think it’s all about them. They look upon the interview as an opportunity to go on at length about their own company, or to help you fill out your product requirements for the next version of your product.

I’ve posted before on some basics of customer interviews and great case study questions, but those are for best-case scenarios. How will you humor and please a tough interview, yet still get enough of a story and recommendation to make the case study worth writing (and worth reading, more important)?

Veteran journalist Peter Rowe offers three succinct tips based on the hundreds of interviews he’s conducted for feature articles.

1. Latch onto a theme

“I go into these interviews with a theme in mind. Sure, it’s nice to hear war stories from a 94-year-old WWII vet, but I have to tie them into an underlying theme, like the impact a distant war can have on the home region, or a demographic trend the interviewee embodies. I just keep nudging people back to that theme with my questions to make sure I get what my readers are going to want.”

Your case study questions can do that as well. Pick your theme:

  • Companies in the entertainment industry use our products
  • Our services help our customers get closer to their own customers
  • Mobile apps built with our tools run 15% faster

and nudge your interviewee back to it.

2. Collect insignificant details

“When the interviewee gets stuck or starts giving me monosyllables, I ask about details. ‘As you were getting onto the troop train, what was going through your head? Did you have a travel bag with you? What was in it? What conversations were going on around you? Did you have the jitters?’ Now sometimes he’ll just say, ‘I don’t remember,’ but I find that most of the time, silly questions like these get the wheels turning, and later in the interview something will pop into his head and he’ll come out with a remark that makes for a good read.”

You don’t want to fill your case study with the answers to banal questions like:

  • Who in your company used our service first?
  • How did you discover us?
  • Do you remember the first time you saw our product in action? What did you think?

but they can net you a few pull-quotes. They also show the interviewee that you’re not solely interested in landing big fish, and that you’ll take little ones as well.

3. “Tell me about…”

“Nobody can resist ‘Tell me about…’ If a person can’t do anything else in the world, he can still tell a story. All I do is give him a ball and an open field and I tell him to run with it any way he likes. It’s a pure invitation to a story.”

This works in a case study interview because people forget that you are in fact trying to write a story, and that’s what people want to read. Save your features and benefits for the datasheets; you’re trying to start a conversation with a prospect, and the best way to introduce yourself is by drawing out a story from a valued customer:

  • Tell me about the way your business uses products like ours.
  • Tell me about the kinds of customers you have, and the kind of customers you want to have.
  • Tell me about how your company makes money, and why our services make that easier.

Is this how you conduct your case study interviews? What kind of questions do you ask? If your case studies are starting to have a cookie-cutter look to them, get back onto the path of making stories out of them. It makes for better copy.

And tell me about the time you did this successfully.

John White is a marketing communications writer who posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer,” then take your best shot at hiring him.

photo credit: wadem

Comments are closed.