For most organisations the recession has meant fewer deals, which in turn means less choice of customers as candidates for case studies. We know of some reference programmes with more case study candidates than they have budget (nice but frustrating), and  some with seemingly endless budget (lucky them) if only the right case study candidates can be found.
When faced with a potential case study opportunity it’s always tempting to say yes (and if the customer knows they have been proposed how do you say no?) but it’s always good to stop and consider the potential gain and be as selective as possible – the ones who can shout the loudest may not necessarily be your biggest or most powerful advocates.

So how do you decide which case study candidates are the right ones to pursue?

Approval from ‘on high’ – just because an IT manager in a regional office has agreed to do a case study, does not mean the decision to proceed has been cleared by the ‘powers that be’.

When you are first connected with a willing customer, try and pre-empt this problem by asking them to sign some kind of release/intent to proceed – even if they do not bother to get this cleared by the comms or legal departments it does give you a degree of confidence. With some skin in the game things should move more smoothly with this customer.

The right spokesperson – ensuring that the spokesperson is fully aware of the case study process and what is expected of them before you proceed with a case study is crucial.  Customers can be strong advocates and keen to see their name in writing but they may not have considered the time needed for the interview, the fact that they will have to be quoted, they will need to review the draft and possibly even chase for internal approval.

Take the time to brief a customer before you agree to go ahead with the case study, explaining the process and if possible, sharing some sample interview questions so that they know exactly what to expect and what is expected of them.

Ask why – A customer that has spent a lot of money with your company does not necessarily make a good case study candidate. Before you commit, make sure you ask why they chose you above the competition.  This will be the crux of the case study and needs to be more than simply price or convenience (or as we have been told many times, “because it was mandated, actually I would have preferred to work with company X”).

Know the numbers – prospects do not make buying decisions based on ‘they saved us money’ or ‘they improved efficiency’.  These days ‘fluff’ doesn’t cut it; hard facts supported by strong metrics are essential and this is often where customers are reluctant to share. Before the case study proceeds, make sure you ask the interviewee up front if they will be able to discuss any ROI figures openly – this should be an important deciding factor in whether the case study goes ahead.

Is a case study right? – always remember that there is more to a customer reference than simply a case study.  If your customer is a strong advocate but doesn’t fit any of the above criteria, then it doesn’t mean you have to leave them out of the reference programme altogether and of course things may change over time.
Consider asking them for a reference quote, putting them forward for telephone references or using them as an event speaker – sometimes charisma is just as important as content :o).