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Nailing the journalistic interview - dos and don'ts for your customer reference program

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 3, 2017
Putting media and customers together is a brilliant plan - until it isn't. Here's my field tested guide for avoiding the gotchas. With some smart prep, you can make sure your customers have a good interview experience, and a good editorial result. Customers who get interview requests may want to review this also.

Awarding gold medal
As we charge forward into event season, vendors have the chance to get their customers in front of influencers of all stripes. If things go well, you emerge with editorial gold: journalistic coverage of your customers. But things don't always go well.

Even companies that work hard on their customer reference program run into trouble. That trouble comes in two main flavors: media coverage that doesn't capture the customer view, and customers that find themselves in interview situations they aren't comfortable in. This second problem can be minimized. That's important as customers deserve a good interview experience - or none at all, if they prefer.

Customer stories have a unique appeal - that's why we put them at the core of our diginomica coverage. Readers dig them, and as my colleague Den Howlett wrote in March, they have an undeniable way of earning vendor credibility (Customer storytelling is the vendor sales lifeblood - we've told 648 stories and want more).

We compile these in our diginomica use case library. The latest company to pull this off was NetSuite, which managed to hook our team up with a high proportion of quality stories (see how they did it in SuiteWorld 17 - an emphasis on customers).

In most cases, customers who are willing to sing your praises should start with a customer case study. This is an ideal chance to get clarity on what numbers and benefits they are willing to sign on to. You may be able to move from a case study to a testimonial video. In fact, the customer case study is the foundation for one of your two main content marketing themes.

The customer case study - a content foundation

Customers are not always clear on what interviews entail. Customer case studies are very different than journalistic interviews. I've covered case studies off in:

A customer case study is almost always funded by the vendor, with the understanding that the customer will approve the final text, including any numbers or testimonial quotes. As most of you know, the approval process often causes hair loss. This isn't the interview subject's fault. Be prepared to lose some case studies in the approval void:

Even with the most fastidious planning, you’re going to lose some case studies in approvals. Sometimes it’s legal, sometimes it’s PR, sometimes it’s a manager whose rubber stamp turns out to be a metal spike. Accept it just like receivables accept some level of bad debt.

Expect a fairly high casualty rate – perhaps as high as 20 percent. Keep in mind that even if you can’t publish the case study, you can get some wins from the experience. I’ve seen customers turn down case studies but still present the same material at conferences.

Journalistic customer interviews - a different animal

Journalistic interviews are a different animal. When customers interview with media outlets, there is no article approval. Editorial credibility requires the writer/analyst/media to tell the story in their own words, without review or supervision.

At almost every show, I interview at least one customer who hasn't had a chance to talk these things through. There is nothing more awkward than finishing an interview with a customer, whose final question is, "Can I approve this before it goes out?" It's the vendor's job to make sure this situation never arises. It's an understandable concern on the customer's part - just the wrong time.

Most customers that do interviews at shows are not C-level, media-savvy executives; they are subject matter experts or managers knee deep in a project worth talking about. As such, they might perceive interviews as more of an unwanted chance to get into trouble with PR/legal - without much upside. Add in some distrust of media (also understandable), and it's not an easy situation to finesse.

Doing it right - prep for a journalistic interview

That's why it's helpful to get the internally-produced customer case study done first. Once that's out there - the story and numbers are agreed upon - the interview subject has a higher comfort level. Another option, if the case study isn't out, is to agree to cover material based on a customer slide show presentation. Since these slides are almost always vetted internally, that can work.

Why would a customer agree to a journalistic interview?

  • They truly appreciate the difference your solution has made and they really want to sing your praises in return (the best reason of all).
  • They are interested in branding their company (this is often true for companies that aren't household names).
  • They are interested in branding themselves (nothing wrong with some self-interest, as long as there is a project success story behind it).
  • They have agreed to participate in these types of interviews as part of a negotiated sales deal that includes such participation (this can be a savvy move as long as the customer isn't acting solely out of obligation).

Customers might agree to journalistic interviews during an event or on a call/video in between events. One mistake vendors make: assuming that just because they have a great relationship with a customer that the story is worth telling.

Separating good interviews from gotchas

It's hard enough to get customers to go on the record; it's very difficult to turn them down once they say "yes." The biggest interview gaps I see are:

  • Customers who aren't ready to speak to meaningful outcomes (immature projects)
  • Customers who have a nice story but are really outside the scope of a brand's positioning, for example a very small customer for a vendor that is now targeting large enterprise. Or, an industry they are moving away from. Or, an on-premise customer for a vendor trying to make waves in cloud. I'll happily write these stories up, but they might not have been the best choices on the vendor's part.
  • Customers who are not prepped and ask the aforementioned questions about content approval.

What constitutes a good customer interview?

  • In most cases, you want a go-live story. The go-live doesn't necessarily have to be enterprise-wide. It might even be a pilot. But usually it's at least a division or region. Why?
  • Because the customer can then speak to tangible/quantifiable benefits and lessons learned. Financial benefits/ROI are ideal, but benefits in terms of user adoption, better customer service, better/cleaner/faster data are all helpful.

How to prep a customer for a journalistic interview

If your customer asks to see every question in advance, they probably aren't a good candidate. Journalists tend to go off script here and there; we tend to be compulsively curious which is both annoying and occasionally useful. So how would I prep a customer for a journalistic interview?

  • Show them examples of prior work by that publication or journalist to make sure they are comfortable with the style. If they have a negative media perception, talk through that. Most enterprise journalists left standing do a good job with customers, and aren't looking to make them look awkward or controversial. They want to hear how technology impacts outcomes.
  • Let them know it will be painless, and maybe even enjoyable. 30 minutes is about what's needed to do it right. It's fine if certain subjects are off limits - good to know those ahead of time.
  • Some customers will insist on a formal agenda for the conversation. That's a deal break for me, but I will provide a topic flow, which usually goes: personal background -> about the company/competitive landscape -> industry challenges - > technical/biz problem -> evaluation/selection -> implementation -> managing people/change -> results -> lessons learned. A video interview is shorter and will skip some of those segments. This flow is similar to any informal conversation, where you build up to the most sensitive topics.

Another mistake companies make is assuming the bigger brand name is the better/sexier interview. In my experience that is rarely the case. Bigger brands tend to be tighter-lipped, with more hoops to jump through on all sides. The best stories are not about the biggest names, though they can be. Bigger projects are great for talking about scale. I just wrote about DBS Bank - not well known in the U.S. or Europe - household names in Singapore. Their open source scale made that story interesting.

The wrap - the use case effort is worth it

It's important for customers to know that media outlets will correct any factual issues quickly. Just be careful to emphasize that factual issues are a narrow definition that includes things like misspellings and corrections of some product names. I hear from PR folks looking to make "corrections" that are really about brand positioning. Those corrections aren't going to happen. Readers can sniff out hand-crafted positioning miles away.

Remember to advise customers if media have access to their sessions. By default, media considers customer presentations publishable and public, because, well, they are. Prep can avoid these situations before they snowball.

Updated May 3, 7pm PT with a few minor tweaks and a trim of the concluding section.

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