The Customer Success Manager’s Guide to Storytelling

7 minute read

October 2, 2017

The Customer Success Manager’s Guide to Storytelling

Because everybody loves a good story. So much so, in fact, that storytelling is now one of the most powerful tools in a salesperson’s bag. What’s more, spinning a good yarn doesn’t just sell more stuff; it lets you charge higher prices for that very same stuff.

Don’t believe me? Check out this infographic from Adweek:

Not to be too simplistic, but here’s what this all adds up to:

better stories = higher sales = healthier bottom line = everybody’s happy

“Great, but what does that have to do with me?”

Excellent question. If you, Mr. or Ms. Customer Success Manager, can keep the heart-warming tales of customer success rolling in, you’ll give all your coworkers a reason to kiss your feet.

Which is why today’s post is going to teach you how to tell those stories.

“Wait a minute! I’m not a storyteller. Isn’t this a job for marketing?”

Ok, you kinda got me there. Except … I’m not really trying to turn you into a storyteller per se.

Instead, I want to give you a quick and easy way to give the real storytellers what they need. How to get the necessary details, package them up and ship everything off to marketing so they can put everything together into one or more compelling pieces of content.

It all comes down to 2 essential steps:

  • How to dig up the details that make for a good story
  • How to arrange a compelling narrative

Here we go.

Step 1 : Digging Up the Details of a Good Story

A few days ago, I wrote a post on listening for customer success managers. It’s relevant, so go ahead and take a look at it. I’ll wait.

Got it? Great. Now you know the difference between active and passive listening.

Oh, you didn’t go back and read the article? I forgive you. Here’s a quick recap:

1. Passive Listening: It’s when you hear what people are saying but don’t spend much mental energy processing or pressing for further details.

2. Active Listening: It’s when you focus intently on hearing a customer’s story, then press on to ask meaningful questions that draw out deeper, juicier insights.

Don’t worry. Active listening isn’t time consuming. It’s just conscious listening. Piecing together the details of a good story shouldn’t take much more than 15-30 minutes on the phone with an attentive ear.

Email works if you really have to, but you’ll miss a lot of nonverbal information passed via body language and/or tone of voice. If you can do it in person, all the better.

Once you decide how you’re going to do it, here are some questions to ask:

  • Why did you buy our product?
  • What need were you trying to fill?
  • What was your life/business like before you found us?
  • How has it changed as a result?
  • What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?
  • What pain did you experience then that you don’t experience now?
  • What results has your business seen?
  • How have your hopes for the future changed?

This list isn’t exhaustive; it’s just a set of prompts meant to start you in the right direction. Focus on actively listening to your customer and asking penetrating questions about their story with your product.

In other words, act like a 5-year old. Press the ‘why’ button as much as possible. Keep digging until you hit the raw emotion that lies behind every decision to buy a product.

Take as many notes as you can, but don’t worry about putting them together right away. You’ll have time for that later. For now, just jot down everything—whether you think it’s useful or not.

Step 2 : Arrange a Compelling Narrative

Once you’ve got a mass of notes on your customer, it’s time to organize them into a compelling story structure. Thankfully, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here or come up with some brand new way to tell a story.

In 2004, Christopher Booker published an analysis of the greatest stories told over the last 5,000 years. His helpful work covered humanity’s most popular tales like Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf and even the movie Jaws.

He found that there are 7 basic models of a story throughout all literature:

1. Overcoming the Monster – The hero must overcome the quintessential ‘bad guy’ to save the day and restore the world to its proper order. Examples: Batman, Star Wars

2. Rags to Riches – The hero goes from relative obscurity to greatness. Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, The Pursuit of Happiness

3. The Quest – The hero goes on a journey from point A to point B in order to find a particular item or to accomplish a major task. Example: Lord of the Rings

4. Voyage and Return – Like the Quest, but with the addition of a return home as the plot line’s primary emphasis. Example: Wizard of Oz

5. Comedy – In the classical sense, comedy involves a messy conflict that gets more and more complicated until a plot turn ties everything together in one final moment of clarity. Examples: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridget Jones’ Diary

6. Tragedy – The main character’s inherent flaws ultimately come out into the light of day and become his or her undoing. Examples: Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby

7. Rebirth – The hero falls from grace somehow and then works his or her way back to the top. Examples: Sleeping Beauty, Despicable Me, Rocky

Each one of these models represents a potential narrative arc for your customer’s story. All you have to do is look at your notes and decide which one “fits.” I’ll give you an example of how to do that in just a moment.

But first, here is a basic 5-step framework for structuring the narrative progression of your customer’s story. Again, this comes from Booker:

1. Anticipation – Things start smoothly, but brewing tensions threaten to upset existing stability.

2. Dream – Even in spite of these foreshadowed tensions, the hero of the story continues to succeed. Their future looks bright.

3. Frustration – A turning point strikes that stops the dream in its tracks and brings light to the tensions lain dormant so far.

4. Nightmare – The story goes from bad to worse as disaster strikes and the characters’ true natures are revealed. The hero is forced to reach deep within and find the resources to move forward.

5. Resolution – The climax. Someone or something comes in to save the day.

Keep in mind that this is just one model. It isn’t the only model. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, then you’ve probably seen something like this:

  • Exposition
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution

Booker’s model draws out the drama later in the story, but if you have no idea what I’m talking about, stick with the model I shared above. Ultimately, the model you use doesn’t matter, as long as you have a coherent frame in which to plug the details.

Using the Models

I’ve given you quite a bit to consider here, so I want to wrap up with an example that puts this all to practical use.

Let’s say I’m a Customer Success Manager for a SaaS company operating in the cloud-based bookkeeping space, and I want to tell the story of one of our recent customers.

Here’s the pile of notes I collected from my imaginary customer (Shipley Shipping Supplies, or S3 for short):

  • They’re a small 8-person shop selling shipping supplies online, originally founded 3 years ago by 2 brothers who immigrated from Venezuela.
  • Up until recently, their method for bookkeeping was keeping piles of receipts and invoices on various desks, loosely sorted according to date.
  • If you walked into their office, you’d see piles of paper everywhere. Once in awhile, a pile would get knocked over and everything would be a jumbled mess.
  • They could never find what they needed.
  • None of their accounts balanced out correctly.
  • Despite their administrative dysfunction, sales have been climbing steadily for the past few years.
  • A few months ago, a supplier called about a late payment. After a day spent sorting through the piles, our customer found they’d paid the wrong supplier. It took another day to track down the payment, get a refund and pay the correct supplier.
  • Just before purchasing our product, the customer was fined $20,000 by the IRS after an audit.
  • Thanks to our product:
    • The piles are gone. They hired an intern to sort through everything and plug it into your easy-to-use, intuitive interface.
    • Their accounts are all balanced.
    • All accounts-payable are satisfied.
    • They can now easily look up transactions.

Ok, now what do I do with all those bits and pieces?

First, I want to pick a narrative model that fits the facts. In this scenario, I like ‘Overcoming the Monster.

The ‘bad guy’ to be overcome is, of course, the unyielding mass of paperwork littering my poor customer’s office.

I could potentially style our company and product as the hero of the story, but I know we’ll get more traction by painting the customer as the hero.

After picking my model, I can plug the facts into the 5-part framework I shared above:

a) Anticipation – In just their 3rd year of business, S3 was killing it. Sales were piling up, but so were the stacks of paperwork that came with every successful transaction.

b) Dream – Revenue was going through the roof. S3 was on track to have their best year yet. Nothing could stop them.

c) Frustration – One day, an angry supplier called up looking for a payment that was 30 days overdue. S3’s COO spent an entire day sifting through paperwork, only to find that this vendor’s payment had been sent to the wrong place. He spent another day sorting out the mistake.

d) Nightmare – Accounting errors like the one mentioned above began to multiply. When tax time came, a number of accounting inconsistencies triggered an audit from the IRS. S3 was forced to pay $20,000 in fines. That nearly put them under.

e) Resolution – S3 had no choice but to get their act together. They found us on the web, called and found out we specialize in helping people just like them. After getting an intern to plug everything in, they were back in business, better than ever. The monster was slain and they couldn’t have done it without our help.

Wrapping It All Up

Remember, the point isn’t for you to become a Nobel Prize writer here. It’s for you to gather the relevant details, put them in a narrative frame and ship everything off to the folks in marketing so they can work their magic.

Talk with the relevant players in your organization and try to implement a process like this one as soon as possible. You’ll be amazed just how much narrative grist you can generate for their content mill.

Not to mention, it can be a lot of fun..

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Kenny S.

Written by Kenny S.

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