Writing up a case study on a successful project can serve many purposes. It can be a stand-alone marketing piece, a chapter in a book or part of your training material. However, if you are going to write a case about a client you normally need their cooperation. How do you get that?
First, Do You Need Client Cooperation?
When a consultant is brought into a client they implicitly or explicitly agree to protect the client. If the client has learned how to do something well then the consultant should not share that with competitors; if a client has done something embarrassing the consultant has an obligation to keep that under wraps. There is a pact of confidentiality.
In some cases it might be alright to do a disguised and anonymous case without a client's explicit consent. You will have to be the judge of whether the disguised case breaches the implicit pact of confidentially—but err on the side of caution.
A disadvantage to having a disguised case is that it may feel less credible to readers than one about a named organization. An advantage is that in an anonymous case you may 'smooth out' the story line more easily than in a real case. For example, if one of the HR managers retires mid-way through the case that may be irrelevant to the tale. In an anonymous case you may simply refer to the 'HR manager' and skip the unimportant retirement. With a named client you may feel compelled to mention the manager’s retirement and say a little about their replacement.
The test as to whether you need client approval is simply whether anyone is likely to get upset. If the case is disguised but the client thinks “I know you are talking about me!” then you may have a problem. Think hard about the people involved and how they may react when they see the case you've written. It's always better to ask for permission even if you are sure no one would recognize the organization nor learn any trade secrets from your case.
Who Has to Agree
If you do want to name the client, or have them actively involved in helping you with the case, then for RO interventions you probably need to the approval of the CEO. RO projects are usually big enough and deep enough that you need to go right to the top.
Obviously the case will have to be primarily flattering to the CEO or there is little point proceeding. If you do get the CEO’s support you may think that's all you need but because RO projects range wide you should seek out the support of everyone involved. You won't need their formal agreement if the CEO is onside but you should make it clear that you will look out for their interests and make sure no one looks bad.
It is also a good idea to ask to be introduced to the PR people. They have a stake in anything written about the organization and will appreciate being included. Furthermore the can be of real assistance, perhaps even offering their editing skills. They may want to re-use the content in their own way and you should encourage them to do so.
Who Controls the Content?
The potential downside of a case write-up for the client is straightforward—no one wants to look bad. People can be quite sensitive to nuance so this is not a minor issue. Furthermore RO projects involve big change and that usually means resistance to change and no one will want to be portrayed as one of the dinosaurs who was working against the better interests of the organization.
One way to minimize this fear is to go back to making the case somewhat anonymous. The client may still be happy to be helpful, but won't worry as much about the downside. “Somewhat anonymous” could mean that the organization is named but the individuals are disguised—you can tailor how much is revealed depending on the situation.
The other step is to promise the client you will show them the case before anything is published. That gets us to the question of who owns the final content. The answer is straightforward; they have the authority to veto and the ability to make suggestions for changes but the ultimate content is yours.
Vetoing does not usually create problems; the bigger problem occurs when someone has suggested some changes that you don't like. Either they are badly written or if the PR department is involved they may insert marketing fluff. The trick is to take some of their changes to show you are responsive; but not to cede control over the writing.
What's the Up-Side for the Client?
Most people are happy to be supportive of your efforts to write a case. However, you should be clear about what the upside is. Here are some points:
- You can help other organizations learn from your experience
- It will be good PR for the organization, improving their reputation with customers, supplier and both current and prospective employees. A requisite organization is a good one to work with or work for.
- It will be good PR for CEO, he or she can be seen as progressive and successful
- The project of writing the case will help reinforce the RO lessons; perhaps even prove to be a useful onboarding tool.
Understand what will appeal to the CEO and other key players, make the pitch, and allay their fears by promising they can review and veto the content.
Cases are great but you will normally want client approval. While they are likely to be supportive don’t take that support for granted and make sure all your ducks are aligned so that no one is upset by your case and no confidentiality is violated.