Understanding the Art of the Customer SME Interview
If you’ve caught any of the recent NBA or NHL playoffs, you may have noticed the importance of momentum in these contests. At the professional level, all of the players have talent, but just a few key plays can swing momentum from one team to the other—and these swings can determine the outcome of a single game or an entire series. The same concept applies to marketing projects. It’s crucial to get off to a good start.
When you do get off to a good start, everyone involved gains growing confidence that the project is going to run smoothly, be successful, and have an impact on the marketplace. Establishing positive momentum early is especially important when creating customer success stories. The stakes are higher: beyond the story itself, the project involves an important customer relationship.
The customer interview is a critical early step in building momentum for the project, and is crucial to the development of an effective success story—or any content that requires a customer subject-matter expert (SME). The interview offers opportunities not only to collect necessary information but also to capture the story in the customer’s own words. Those words should be at the center of the marketing content you are producing—letting your satisfied customer tell his or her own story will help you increase the content’s impact to influence the decisions of potential customers.
But how should you approach the interview? What can you do to maximize its value in developing the success story? Following a few simple guidelines can help you ensure a profitable interview experience that generates the results you need for an effective success story, and establishes the early momentum for the project.
1. Talk to the right people.
It’s always great to get a quote from a C-level executive, but the most productive interviews usually involve the people who selected and implemented the product or service you’re promoting—the people in the trenches. The interviewees should be able to articulate the business challenges that led to a change, the reasons for choosing your product or service, and the benefits achieved.
Your account team is often the best source for identifying the right person or people to be interviewed. In some cases, it can be beneficial to have multiple interviewees on the same call to make the most efficient use of everyone’s time.
2. Get the facts beforehand.
The interviewer should know the answers to many questions before the interview starts. Conducting background research and discussing the success story with the account team ahead of time will nail down customer information and details about the chosen solution, such as product model numbers or configurations. Knowing the facts helps the interviewer devise informed questions and make the most of the time allotted for the interview.
3. Have a conversation, don’t conduct a quiz.
An interview should be an informal, interactive conversation, not a test of knowledge. Putting the interviewee at ease is essential for producing a candid, authentic endorsement of your product or service. Having a core set of questions ready is fine, but the interviewer should be prepared to improvise. The discussion should flow naturally from one topic to the next.
4. Lead the witness when necessary.
In a court of law, attorneys aren’t allowed to “lead” witnesses, encouraging them to say particular things in certain ways. There is no such rule when conducting success story interviews. In some situations, it is more expedient to propose ideas to the interviewee than to wait for him or her to land on just the right theme. For example, the interviewer could ask, “Would you say that this product has helped your business reduce the time to market for new services?”
5. Be ready for surprises, and get the real story.
Interviews don’t always go as planned. A customer might be using a slightly different product, employing a product in an unanticipated way, or achieving unexpected benefits. The interviewer should be prepared to go with the flow. Unless the story starts to drift drastically from the intended messaging, it’s often useful to see where surprises lead. You want your customers to tell the most compelling story, even if it’s not precisely the one you expected. In some cases, we’ve seen unexpected customer stories shape and/or reshape messaging developed by marketers, and in the process, make value propositions much more effective.
In addition, remember that readers are interested in how the people involved overcame the obstacles preventing their success. Often, the most interesting challenges are found beyond project funding or new technology. Did an organizational change contribute to progress? Did a new manager bring a new perspective? Did a policy change enable the solution? Weaving these human elements into the story can make it more interesting and informative.
6. Represent the brand.
When talking with SMEs, interviewers are helping to manage one of your most valuable assets—your customer relationships. Whether you work with outside agencies or internal departments to conduct interviews, you need interviewers who understand your products and your messaging, can represent the values and image of your brand, and get the customer to express the value they attribute to you in a quotable, interesting, and even entertaining way.
7. Above all, be a professional.
While it goes without saying that each interview must follow the highest standards for professional courtesy, politeness, and of course, punctuality, it’s so important that I’ve saved the most important point for last. Because we’re dealing with customers, it’s vital the entire experience be a good one. And that begins and ends with character traits that are rarer in today’s world than they should be.
Every year, TDA writers conduct hundreds of success story interviews with a broad array of customers from a large cross section of industries and organizations. We incorporate the content from those interviews in case studies, articles, social media, presentations, and other deliverables that showcase our clients’ products and services from the perspective of their satisfied customers. By employing tips like those described above, you too can improve all of your content marketing with the voice of your customers.
And of course, don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help.