It may disappoint all my professors, but one of the most impactful lessons I learned in college came from a student, a senior we’ll call Nick to protect the innocent. A few other students and I came into the dorm common room to find Nick perched in front of the PlayStation in the exact same position and wearing the exact same clothes he had on when we left the prior evening.

“Nick,” I said, “Did you play video games all night?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“What about your thesis?”

“I’ll do it later.”

Everyone in the room felt a sense of secondhand doom settle over them. The thesis was due in 18 hours.

I didn’t think I’d feel that sense of secondhand doom again after graduating, but on a few particularly rocky Total Economic Impact™ (TEI) engagements, it still pops up. Clients want to wait to reach out to their customers until after we’ve finished talking to stakeholders or assume that it will be easy to simply call someone up and schedule an interview a week ahead of the deadline. After experiencing a few projects that dragged on for over double their original timeline, I have two principle pieces of advice for clients who assume that securing customer interviews can be knocked out in an afternoon.

The first, as you may gather from the cautionary tale about the dangers of procrastinating, is to start reaching out now.

Just kicked off the project? You should start thinking about customers.

Scheduled to kick off a TEI in a few months? Now’s a great time to start identifying customers you think would provide good interviewees.

Considering buying a TEI next year? If you want to make the most of your future investment, start looking at potential customers now!

The second sounds more difficult than it is: When talking to customers, make the TEI sound worth their while. At first blush, this might seem difficult — how is a key stakeholder at one of your customers’ organizations giving up an hour of their time anything but a favor to you? Well …

  1. Customers have investments to justify internally, too.
    It can be easy to forget, especially on smoother sales, but the decision to buy your product wasn’t made in an afternoon. Chances are that a few stakeholders in your customer’s organization put quite a bit of effort into persuading budget-holders, C-level executives, and other members of the buying group into giving your product a shot, and while TEI is anonymous, companies that participate in a specific TEI will easily be able to tell which insights came from their interviewee. The TEI is guaranteed to give you an ROI for an organization similar to theirs to tout, and if the project includes a lead-generation tool, your customers may even be able to put in details specific to their organization to derive a unique, accurate ROI. Everyone likes to be rewarded when they stick their neck out, and a thoroughly researched study from a trusted third party showing that an investment paid tangible, provable dividends is quite a reward for someone who went to the mat for your product.
  2. TEI participation is an easy, painless way to gain access to customer advisory boards.
    Laura Ramos’ excellent research on using customer goodwill contains many insights worth learning from, but one that many companies have particularly begun following her lead on is moving away from one-off customer advocacy programs to ongoing programs that reward constant, active participation. If your company has a customer advisory board or other long-running loyalty programs, you can remind your customers that compared with other activities, participation in a TEI interview is anonymous. This means that it’s much easier to clear with legal and PR (and only a one-time, hour-long commitment) but still counts as an activity to gain access to the perks of customer advisory board membership.
  3. Customers can (anonymously) learn from each other.
    With most industries, it’s rare for organizations to candidly speak with each other about difficulties they face and the solutions they’ve settled on to overcome adversity. Since most TEIs involve multiple anonymous interviews, access to a TEI case study presents a rare chance for your customers: They can read about how other organizations — possibly even their competitors — dealt with the same problems they have and how they made use of your solution. Larger enterprises can often see certain features of a solution go unused due to red tape or organizational dysfunction, so reading quotes from a smaller organization using those features can be a wake-up call. Conversely, smaller organizations can learn from enterprise accounts and glean insight into how their environments and practices around your solution might have to change as they scale up.
  4. TEI interviews are a great chance to give candid, anonymous feedback.
    When asked to participate in a TEI interview, most of your customers will probably assume that they’re being asked to gush about your product. While it’s true that we love interviewing folks who are head over heels for the solution we’re asking about, it’s not the gushing we’re after — it’s the truth. TEI interviews are anonymous and conducted without anyone from the solution owner present because we want to ensure that customers feel they can speak to us honestly and without reservation. This doesn’t just result in a better study, but also acts as a prime opportunity for customers to provide you with clear, unambiguous feedback that we can pass on anonymously to you.

Lining up customers for a TEI case study can be intimidating, and understandably so. Vetting potential customers, walking interviewees through our processes, and scheduling the actual call can be a bit of a pain (though it’s all a little easier if you share this amazing video explaining the process!). But with a little consideration of what your customers are going through — how big they are, what they need from you, and who on their side might be chomping at the bit to prove how great your product is — it can go much more smoothly than you might think.

Especially if you don’t wait until the day before the deadline to put the video game controller down.