What to do when key customers say no to a case study

by | Jul 18, 2020

What can you do when a key customer won’t agree to participate in a case study? 

This is a common challenge – especially with big customers. And it’s an urgent challenge if you have only a few customers.

How can you tell a credible story of the value your company provides?

This article suggests a workaround that can be effective. 

It isn’t for everyone. But it can work well for companies of any size and any marketing budget.

Make your case study anonymous

In other words, go ahead and tell the story of the value you’ve delivered. And do it without naming your customer. 

If you’ve delivered value, you must tell your market about it. 

Why bury your message just because your customers don’t want to be part of your story? 

Publishing anonymous case studies has advantages, disadvantages, and risks. You’ll read about those in a moment. 

Let’s talk first about why some customers resist working with you on case studies. 

Why your customer won’t agree to a case study

Customers may have a variety of reasons for not wanting to do a case study. Here are 4 common ones: 

1. They have a policy against public endorsements.

Many big companies won’t let vendors disclose them as a customer. Such policies often come from headquarters. 

As much as your customer may like you, they may feel powerless to go against their company’s mandate. Or they may feel it’s not worth the effort. 

2. They’re cautious or secretive.

They may be in a highly regulated industry, and they don’t want to risk scrutiny or noncompliance. 

Or they may see your solution as an important competitive advantage they don’t want to share with competitors.   

3. They want something in return.

They may want a payment, a concession on your fees, free services, a commitment to new product features, or something of the kind. 

It may be more than you’re willing to offer.  

4. They’re not happy enough. 

They won’t provide a case study until you’ve addressed problems they see in your relationship.

These obstacles may all be genuine. But don’t let them stop you from thinking of ways to move past them.

Anonymous case studies have 7 big advantages

Anonymous case studies may be even more effective than ones that name your customer. 

Here’s why:   

1. You can tell a better story. 

The best stories include conflict and challenges. 

No reader is interested in a story where everything goes smoothly. 

Engaging stories have a powerful emotional appeal.

Accounts of conflicts and challenge overcome will make your story more compelling and memorable. 

But many customers don’t want to talk about challenges, problems, or conflict. 

They don’t care about how much more effective your story will be.

They want to show what a superb business they run, what brilliant managers they are.  

They want to avoid anything they may think reflects poorly on them. 

If you don’t name your customer, you can tell a story that’s more interesting, dramatic, and nuanced.   

2. You can include richer details.

After reading a good case study, your prospect should think, “This company is like ours. We face the same issues.” 

If you don’t name your customer, you can provide more of the details your prospects are likely to identify with.   

3. Anonymous case studies are faster and easier to produce. 

If you’re not asking a customer’s permission to tell their story, you face fewer hurdles in getting it approved. 

You can avoid the long cycles of permissions, review processes, revisions, and approvals.  

4. You can avoid making concessions. 

If you don’t name the customer in your case study, you probably don’t have to offer them anything in return.     

5. You can display your industry knowledge and expertise. 

When you tell a fuller story, you show how well you understand an industry.   

Your industry knowledge and experience are key selection criteria for many prospects.  

You build confidence that you understand industry problems and can help overcome them.    

6. You can show the full value you’ve delivered.  

Your customer may want to focus on only a narrow range of benefits your solution provided.   

But your Customer Success team may know of other benefits your customer is less willing to talk about.   

Such benefits can expand the discussion of value your company delivers.  

A software company sold warehouse a management system (WMS).

It’s a crowded market, so they were looking for ways to differentiate the value they offered.  

For one customer, their WMS reduced errors in creating accurate invoices. 

The customer’s invoice error rate had been running near 15%. 

The new WMS showed exactly what the warehouse shipped, rather than what their customer ordered. So they started billing accurately. 

Invoice errors dropped to near zero.  

The customer eliminated invoice adjustments and reduced costs in Accounts Receivable. They also improved the experience for their customers.  

But the company that bought the WMS didn’t want to admit it had an invoicing  problem. So they wouldn’t approve that part of the story.      

An anonymous case study could have included it.  

7. You can earn credibility and trust by talking about problems you and your customer resolved.  

No mid-sized or big IT project goes flawlessly. Most prospects understand this.    

They won’t trust a picture that’s too rosy.   

The important thing to your prospects is not that you avoided all problems or complications. They care about 3 things:  

  • What were the unexpected gotchas?
  • How might your prospect avoid them?
  • How did you and your customer resolve them cooperatively?

Maybe your customer caused a delay by not having their data ready in the right format.    

Or maybe Covid-19 stopped your team from traveling.  And that caused delays. 

But you made up for lost time by working remotely.   

Customers may not want to talk about such things “on the record.” But you can raise them in an anonymous case study.   

Show how you helped the customer overcome them.    

Anonymous case studies have 2 weaknesses you can’t overcome

Despite the strengths of anonymous case studies, they have 2 limitations that are hard to overcome.  

1. They lack social proof and trust.  

When a well-known, respected customer offers a public testimonial, it carries weight as an endorsement.    

If you can’t name your customer, you lose this value.   

Anonymous case studies raise the question, “Why didn’t they name this customer?  Did they just make this up?” 

For many skeptics and cynics, anonymous case studies are likely to be fiction.   

You may help overcome this perception by telling the story in vivid, specific details that would have been hard to invent.     

Your case study might also mention why you can’t name the customer.    

2. You can’t attribute direct quotations.    

In an anonymous case study, you have no one to quote directly.  Or at least you can’t identity the people you quote.   

Most readers won’t believe unattributed quotations.   

The absence of direct quotations removes color and emotion from your story.  Stories without color and emotion are less memorable.   

Weigh your risks and try to mitigate them    

The risks of anonymous case studies may be strong enough to persuade you not to publish them.

But before you decide, let’s look at some risks and ways you can help reduce them. 

1. You may irritate your customer.  

Even if you don’t name your customer in a case study, they’ll recognize themselves when they see it. 

They may fear their identify is equally obvious to any of these groups:

  • Investors or lenders
  • Industry analysts
  • Regulators
  • Competitors
  • Insurers
  • Their customers.   

This could cause internal problems for your strongest supporters. They may have to scramble to defend you.

They may also feel you’ve breached their trust.    

A negative reaction could have serious consequences for your relationship.

Your customer could:  

  • Stop making private reference calls.
  • Decline to buy more from you or cancel renewals.  
  • Speak against you in the marketplace.
  • Stop sharing information with you.
  • Take legal action against you. 

Understand why your customer won’t take part.  

See if you can negotiate around their obstacles and concerns. 

Your customer advocates may expect you to honor their policy against naming them. But they may not care so much if you tell their story anonymously. 

Your champion may give references and private endorsements as long as you don’t publish information about the relationship.  

If your customer is secretive, see what details are most sensitive. 

Is their major concern that their internal approvals will take too much time and effort? They’re too busy? 

If so, you may face only minor risk in moving ahead with an anonymous story.  

Don’t surprise your customer. 

Put yourself in their shoes.

What kind of internal mess will your advocates face if someone in their company says you’ve broken an agreement?   

Don’t blind-side them by publishing a case study that’s transparently about them.    

Withhold details that could identify them. 

Be careful not to disclose details that would expose your customer’s identity.  

This is especially important if your customer wants to protect sensitive information.  

It may be an important detail to say your customer is a dairy processor with 2 plants near Memphis, Tennessee.

Before you share it, be sure they’re not the only one that fits your description.   

Leave out elements that may embarrass someone. 

Don’t make enemies or cause difficulties for people in the story who your customer will recognize.

Even if you’re careful, their managers and colleagues are likely to know who they are.  

Show empathy, not judgment.   

So if your customer’s IT organization dropped the ball, don’t call them out for it. 

If their middle managers opposed the project, be diplomatic how you say so.   

2. Your story may be inaccurate. 

If you create a case study without involving your customer, you risk misstating facts. 

Stick to what you can verify through multiple sources.

Check facts carefully with the people on your team who can confirm them. Seek at least 2 sources for each detail.

Tell the truth, and nothing but the truth.

Tell as much of the truth as you think you can without causing problems for your customer.    

Pay close attention to language and tone. 

Don’t come across like a cheerleader or a sale person.

Be more like a journalist covering a business story for Fortune or Forbes

Keep it neutral and understated.   

3. You may face legal action. 

The risk here is that you may disclose something your customer sees as confidential, sensitive, or in violation of your agreements. 

Your prized customer could sue you to stop publishing your case study, even if it’s anonymous.  

They could also sue for damages if your case study has caused them real damage or out-of-pocket cost.

Be careful in quoting numbers and data.  

Numbers and data may be especially sensitive or proprietary. 

So don’t be too precise in citing them. Use approximations, ranges, and percentages.       

Check information in your case study against your customer’s public disclosures.

You customer can’t fault you for disclosing information that’s already public.  

Clear it with Legal counsel. 

Before you invest much effort in preparing an anonymous case study, run the idea past an attorney. 

Clear the story with Legal again after you’ve written it.    

4. You may lose the trust of your prospects. 

When your prospects see you’ve written an anonymous case study,  they may question your ethics. They may fear that you’d do the same to them.

You can reduce that concern in 2 ways:    

  • Explain why you’ve made the story anonymous, consistent with your customer’s wishes.
  • Mention any measures you’ve taken to protect your customer.  

Proceed with your eyes open

After you’ve considered the preceding factors, you may decide it’s worth writing an anonymous case study. 

As you do so, keep these principles in mind so you get the most value from your efforts: 

Above all, make the story engaging.

If your story isn’t interesting from its headline through its first 3 short paragraphs, no one will read it.

It can’t persuade people who don’t read it. 

So include conflicts and challenges at the beginning. Talk about the problems your customer faced.

Include enough details to make the story vivid. Help your readers see the scenes your story sets.    

Make your customer the hero.

A good case study is not about your company or your product.

It’s about your customer and how they solved a business problem with your help.  

Your company is the guide, the enabler.

Your customer is Luke Skywalker. You’re Obi Wan Kenobi. 

Help your prospects visualize you in that role. 


How to Write an Anonymous Business Case Study That Doesn’t Suck.” Luke Gain. June 8, 2020. Velocity Partners blog.

Dig deeper

Marketing Made Simple. Don Miller. J.J. Petersen. 2020. 

Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen. Don Miller. 2017.