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Why Most Business Case Studies Fail

If they're so important, then why do they usually suck?
May | 3 | 2016

May | 3 | 2016
I know a thing or six about writing effective case studies. I have asked for and written detailed case studies for all but one of my books. All told, I’ve probably penned 50 or so case studies over the years.

When I peruse the websites of most startups and established software vendors and service companies, I’m astonished at what I see. My observations typically fall into two buckets:

  • Those that lack proper case studies
  • Those with case studies that suck

Rarely have I ever seen an effective three- to four-page representation of how a company’s wares helped one of its clients. When was the last time that you read a well-written case study by a software vendor or consultancy? I’m guessing that it’s been a while, if ever.

Why Case Studies Matter

Although the research is far from conclusive, people tend to be become more risk averse as they get older. I’d argue that this phenomenon is particularly acute in large, mature organizations. Ditto for those in relatively static industries such as at the public sector, healthcare, non-profits. Many people are scared that their decisions will result in failure. To be fair, this is an understandable concern. As I describe in Why New Systems Fail, most IT projects do.

Case studies provide much-needed social proof for ambivalent prospects.

Case studies provide social proof and decrease the level of discomfort that a decision-maker faces. For instance, let’s say that a VP at Company X sees that [insert name of prominent company] successfully uses Company Y’s product or services. All else being equal, that VP is more likely to consider Company Y’s wares for herself. Brass tacks: A good case study can close the deal.

Why do so many vendors lack proper case studies?

There are many reasons for this. Consider startups for a moment. By definition, they are just starting up. As such, it’s often impossible for them to tell the story of a client that has had success using their products and services.

For established software vendors, the problem may be similar. Some extremely successful companies have recently launched new offerings and heard nothing but crickets. Months or even years after, no organization has signed up. Then there’s the confidentiality issue. Many clients simply aren’t comfortable going on the record with a formal quote or case study. Security, privacy, and political concerns are typically at play here.

So why do so many case studies suck?

Of the case studies that I do see, the vast majority fall into the terrible category because of vagueness. By that, I meant that their write-ups often lack sufficient detail. Next, there’s the jargon issue. I’ve seen some case studies that didn’t make a lick of sense. The customer quotes just didn’t seem authentic, often due to wildly unrealistic claims. A 237.14% ROI? How can anyone be that precise about such a measure?

Finally, many gloss over everyday implementation issues. In all of my years, I’ve never seen a “perfect” deployment of any important enterprise technology or service. Ever. There’s no magic button to cleanse data, address coding issues, make disparate systems talk to each other, etc. No vendor’s case study accentuates the negative, but intelligent and informed prospects will call bullshit on Pollyanna tales. Stories that seem too good to be true probably are.


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1 Comment

  1. Mike Russell

    Great points, sir.
    How do you suggest changing the fear of telling the whole story, warts and all? Have you seen any business case studies that succeed at sharing the grimy details?

    I’m particularly curious to hear your thoughts, as I’m building a site for my case-study-writing and I would love to bring about the authenticity you call for. One project at a time, of course.



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