Oct 30, 2023

Read Time 4 min

How customer success can use storytelling to drive renewals


Is storytelling a legitimate persuasion tactic?

In 2009, authors Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn devised a social experiment to find out. The pair purchased 200 small figurines for an average price of $1.25—and a grand total of around $250. Next, they hired authors to write a story to go with each figurine and put them for sale on the auction site eBay.

The results were phenomenal. Collectively, the figurines sold for $8,000, which by our back-of-the-napkin-math yields an ROI of 3,100%.

Why is this so effective?

Stories may trigger a hormonal response in the brain that author and coach David JP Phillips called an “Angel’s Cocktail” in a talk for TEDx Stockholm. Some of these include:

  • dopamine, which boosts focus, motivation and memory;
  • oxytocin, which fosters trust; generosity and bonding; and
  • endorphins which are linked to creativity.

In short, the evidence suggests storytelling has a physiological effect on people. To put it another way, facts may tell, but stories sell.

Should customer success teams use storytelling?

Storytelling is a method of conveying information in a manner that is demonstrably captivating, memorable and persuasive. As such, customer success teams can use storytelling techniques to help convince customers to renew their annual subscription contracts.

To be sure, we’re not advocating customer success managers (CSMs) just make up any old story. Rather, CSMs should collect and analyze account data—and use the data to develop a story of how a product is helping customers solve problems.

Indeed, that was the key message behind a presentation by Keishla Ceaser-Jones and Stephanie Workman-Bolden at BIG RYG, the Customer Success Leadership Conference. Keishla is the senior director of partner success and digital experience at EAB, and Stephanie is the director of partner success and Discovery Education. In their workshop titled “Create data-driven stories that drive customers to action,” the pair shared a framework and tips CSMs can use to develop compelling stories with high fidelity.

Five steps to become a better storyteller and captivate your customers

1. Develop a storytelling framework

Comedian Aaron Woodall jokes that Star Wars and Harry Potter are effectively the same story. In both tales a young male protagonist is orphaned and sent to live with an aunt and uncle. That is until a mysterious stranger teaches him about ancient magic. The protagonist winds up leaving home to study this magic – and eventually discovers the truth about his father.

The similarity between these stories isn’t a coincidence. In fact, author Joseph Campbell traveled the world in the 1920s to study ancient mythology. He found that while distinct cultures – Asian, African, European, Polynesian, and Native American – had evolved separately, the stories they had passed down through time all followed the same basic framework.

Accordingly, customer success needs to develop its story framework. Keishla and Stephanie tied the stages of every story— beginning, middle and end—to the steps in a customer’s journey: adoption, engagement and usage. When you think about it, that framework is very similar to the “problem, solution, results” format marketing often uses for case studies.

Stephanie says creating a framework does two things for customer success: first, it creates a shared understanding and language to use internally across departments. Second, it enables CSMs to map their activities to phases and see how their actions drive better outcomes for customers.

2. Gather customer’s product data

This step might seem obvious on the surface, but the framework you establish helps you focus your data collection efforts. For example, the data you collect about user adoption will be different from the data you collect about usage.

  • Adoption data might include elements such as the number of logins created for a specific customer account, how many have completed onboarding, or the time it takes to complete product training.
  • Engagement data could cover interactions inside and outside the product. Do they open emails? Are they attending user conferences and webinars? Are they referenceable? Are they completing NPS surveys?
  • Usage data will look at active users, time spent using the product, throughput and the top features used.

Some SaaS products have performance dashboards built in that help. Others use a customer success platform, like ChurnZero, which automates data collection into a consolidated view.

3. Analyze the data for patterns and relationships

The next step is to review the data and draw some conclusions. Step back and try to look at the bigger picture. How is a customer’s activity—adoption, engagement and usage—impacting the value they are getting from the product?

It’s important to remain as agnostic as possible when reviewing the data. Let the data tell the story, rather than cherry-picking certain data points to support the story you want to tell.

Careful data analysis can lead to breakthrough thinking. For example, during World War II the U.S. was looking for the optimal way to reinforce aircraft with armor. The goal was to better protect planes from being shot down. This was crucial to get right because armor is heavy and affects aircraft performance and fuel requirements.

A special team analyzed the bullet holes on the aircraft that returned from missions. It concluded the armor should go where aircraft are most likely to be hit. Yet one statistician disagreed. He recommended armoring the areas that didn’t have any visible damage. While less obvious, the data was telling him that the planes that got shot there didn’t make it back.

4. Storyboard your findings

A storyboard outlines your findings. In broad terms, it describes the beginning, middle and end for each of the stories you are telling around adoption, engagement and usage. Try to look at things from your customer’s perspective and allow the narrative to emerge from the data.

For example, if you have a lot of users, perhaps there’s a good story about adoption and adoption rates. If you only have 10 users, a better story might be around throughput – a success story that might lead to improved adoption.

5. Visualize the data

This is the phase where you depict the data from the story visually in a chart or graph. It’s important to keep things simple. Too many charts or slides can overwhelm the customer. By contrast, too little data can leave them lost or wondering how you arrived at your conclusion.

“Be intentional about your slides and treat them as tools,” said Stephanie. “They should not be speaking for you. They should complement what you’re saying.”

Transforming data into narratives

By weaving the customer’s journey and experiences with a product into a story, CSMs can highlight successes, address challenges, and showcase the value that has been delivered. It’s not just about throwing numbers and facts at them; it’s about making a real connection, showing that you understand their challenges, and celebrating the wins together.

One of the best opportunities to engage customers with storytelling is during quarterly business reviews (QBRs). Discover how to run a more effective QBR from preparation and kickoff to conclusion and follow-up in our blog, “How to lead quarterly business reviews (QBRs) customers want to attend.” You’ll learn tips for creating a captivating presentation, as well as strategies for encouraging active participation, clear communication, and accountability among QBR attendees.


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