A tale of 2 testimonials — is one of them yours?

How much should you expect to pay a freelance writer to do a case study or testimonial?

Nothing brings more credibility to a B2B website than detailed case studies and testimonials from customers about how a product or service benefitted them.

Just about every  company I’ve done work for has asked me to interview a major client and craft a testimonial for marketing purposes. Before I start the work, they ask me what it’s going to cost. After six years of tackling these projects, I finally have an answer:

“Five hours of my time for a great case study or four hours of my time for no case study at all.”


I can explain with — what else? — a case study of two testimonial projects.

Case Study #1: Company A and their client WidgetSoft

Company A’s project got off to a great start. Even before they contacted me, their VP of sales called the CEO of WidgetSoft and asked if we could get a testimonial from their head of IT. The WidgetSoft CEO agreed.

Company A’s VP sent me

    • background on their product
    • the history of the relationship between the two companies
    • phone numbers for the IT folks WidgetSoft.

I studied the materials, set up two phone interviews (mentioning the CEO’s agreement when I called), conducted the interviews, and wrote a draft. After Company A reviewed my draft, I sent a revised version over to WidgetSoft for review, along with a request for a photo of Company A’s product in use at WidgetSoft. When the draft came back, I incorporated their comments and changes and submitted the final version to Company A — along with a bill for 5 hours of my time.

Case Study #2: Company B and their client Gadgetron

Company B’s PR person called me to say that one of their salespeople had a buyer at Gadgetron who just loved Company B’s product. They wanted me to write a testimonial after talking with the exuberant salesperson and his customer.

I set about contacting the Company B salesperson, with repeated emails and phone messages. A week later, he got back to me with

    • links to background on their product
    • some numbers on how many units they’d sold to Gadgetron at various times over an unspecified period
    • a phone number for the IT buyer at Gadgetron.

Dead end on the roadI studied the materials and called the number. Sure enough, the IT folks at Gadgetron did indeed love  Company B’s  product. But the buyer’s numbers for how many products they’d purchased were considerably lower than the numbers from Company B. I also found out, at the end of the 30-minute interview, that Gadgetron’s PR department does not let employees endorse products, so I couldn’t quote any of the nice things the buyer told me. When I reported all this back to the Company B PR woman, she said “Well, can’t you write something?”

It was downhill from there. I  called the Gadgetron PR guy, who’d never heard of Company B. He said I needed to send him all of my interview questions and he’d see if he could get an executive to comment. Emails went back and forth, and eventually he sent a feeble quote to the effect that “Gadgetron believes that every company needs to buy products such as those made by Company B and other companies.” A photo? Get real.

By now, the PR person at Company B was impatient and exasperated. She sent me the original email from the salesperson, full of vague claims and what I now knew to be overstated numbers, and suggested that based on that I should be able to write some sort of case study. When I suggested that she ask the VP of sales at Company B to call one of the executives at Gadgetron, her response was that she couldn’t “bother” the VP of sales with “that sort of thing.” They’d hired me because I write testimonials, she noted, so why hadn’t I written one? With a sigh, I emailed her the name of her PR counterpart at Gadgetron — along with an invoice for the four hours of my time spent failing to write her testimonial.

The Bottom Line

If the second scenario above sounds familiar, it’s time to make some changes. If you’re the PR person, take a lesson from Company A (or, better yet, look for a job at Company A). If you’re the writer, take a firm stand. Say that you’ll be happy to conduct and write up an interview with an executive at their client company — as soon as they line one up for you.

A few words about testimonials

If you come across a detailed, comprehensive testimonial — for an individual or for a company — you can pretty much be assured that it’s well deserved.

To get a good reputation, you need to do more than just please clients and colleagues. You need to get them to talk to others about how pleased they are.

And, to get a really great reputation, you need to focus their talk — make sure it’s falling on the right ears. Telling other people what you want them to say about you, and to whom? Is this getting complicated? It sure is.

Starting small: Linkedin recommendations

If you use Linkedin, you’ve probably gotten a request from someone to write a recommendation that will appear under on the person’s profile page. How did this strike you? Was it something you wanted to do? Was it easy to do? Did you feel comfortable doing it?

I ask these questions because I struggle with recommendations — and writing them should be easy for me:

• I’m a sole proprietor, so I don’t have to ask my boss if it’s OK to gush about another company.

• I’m a professional writer, and it’s relatively simple for me get out some words of praise, be they glowing or merely reserved.

And yet, I struggle with these testimonials. Am I writing what the person wants me to say? Am I writing what their prospective clients would want to hear? (And are those two things even aligned in the requestor’s mind?)

The Big Time: corporate client testimonials

I bring up these issues because I’m often asked to help craft endorsements and testimonials about companies from their clients.

If doing a two-paragraph recommendation for a former colleague on Linkedin has its challenges, the issues with corporate client testimonials can be massive.

Does this customer-service policy make me look fat?

Typically, a company sales staff would love a client organization to write a testimonial that hits on each one of its strategic sales points. Let’s say that for Company A, those are

• trendy design

• rapid delivery

• customization of the product (on large orders)

• local service contractors for rapid repairs

The problem is that few customers are involved with all four sales points. The company that loved your trendy design and quick delivery has never called you for repairs. The company that loved your customization and needed a quick repair had no need for rapid delivery and barely noticed your product design.

It may also be that the customer who loved the design and delivery was disappointed when the repair work was bungled.

And yet, the expectation is that the client somehow sees you exactly as you see your (idealized) self.

Talk is cheap; hard data requires senior management

The sales force’s “dream” testimonial is filled with numbers that substantiate the customer’s high opinions of your work and quantify the difference your product or service made in their operations: With your service contract, they experienced 50% less downtime than they had while getting service from your competitor. As a result of your product’s trendy design, they doubled their sales to 20-somethings and high-spending homeowners.

Ah, but the problem is that the store manager or buyer for your customer’s organization has no authority to reveal that business-sensitive data. They know that the CEO or CFO of their company would need to sign off on it — and might well decline to make that sort of business data public. All they are authorized to give you are kind words and soft generalizations: They love your great customer service, and 20-somethings like your nice designs.

The CEO or a VP of Company A could, of course, ask his or her counterpart at Company B to make the endorsement. But, in practice, that sort of “ask” is rarely on a CEO’s or VP’s radar.

The good news

I’m not leaving you with much good news if you’re in the business of soliciting or writing client testimonials, but there is a silver lining for those of you who read them: If you come across a detailed, comprehensive testimonial — for an individual or for a company — you can pretty much be assured that it’s well deserved.

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