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Product Story telling in SaaS

Pardeep Kullar
Pardeep Kullar

So many articles about story telling focus on examples like Nike and Apple and mention things like "Think Different" and I can't really learn anything from that. All I want is advice on how to write product stories. However, are we supposed to be telling the Luke Skywalker story arc? The hero's journey? In this post I'll list some product story telling advice and structures I found from across the web and use that advice to write some Upscope product stories.

Product story telling is different to brand story telling

We're focusing on product story telling so let's separate out brand vs product story telling.

Definition of brand story telling:

"... involves telling the story of the brand itself, humanising the story and explaining why the company was made and how it is differentiated from other businesses out there. It can also help encourage them to want to support the company itself, if they get invested in your backstory. If that happens, it’s very difficult for any other company to then win that loyalty off you."

Definition of product story telling:

"involves telling the story of a product – including why the company made it, some of the unique struggles they faced in doing so, and the changes it has made to their customer’s lives. This is generally much more tempting to potential customers than a basic list of features and facts as it tells them directly how this purchase could improve their lives in the long term and provides an inspirational outlook"

Source.

The problem I have with most story telling examples is that they confuse the brand and product story and I really just need product story examples because here's a relevant quote about brand story telling:

"You know what [your brand story] is—it’s what you tell your customers your product is going to do for them [that matters]. Does it deliver on the brand promise consistently?” Source.

We're not Nike whose underlying brand story is about honouring great athletes and we're not Apple who can "Think Different".

We're a simple SaaS company that needs to build a brand and that starts with simpler story telling around the product and what it does for the customer.

That's what we'll focus on here.

Story telling advice on the web

Use the classic "Greatest sales deck ever" story structure

I'm including this one simply because of how many times it's mentioned although the actual story telling we're focusing on is shorter and would make up one part of a deck.

When it comes to story telling examples I come across this one deck often, either in its original form or when someone has made their version of it.

Here are the key steps mentioned in the original article.

  1. Name a big relevant change in the world
  2. Show how there will be winners and losers
  3. Tease the promised land
  4. Introduce features as magic gifts that overcome obstacles to that promised land
  5. Present evidence that you can make this story come true

See the original explanation of the deck here.

Here is how Uberflip used that same deck to build their story line.

Here is how DocSend used that same template as well.

The DocSend example has stats on how much it improved their read through rate:

"With our old sales deck, only 17.5% of all viewers made it to the last slide, and you can see the steep drop-off after viewers open the deck.

Now, 65.4% of all prospects who open our deck click through to the last slide, and, what’s more, our new deck is actually two slides longer."

Avoid the uncanny valley

The commonly quoted example of the uncanny valley is the movie "Polar Express" where the characters were not cartoonish and not human and so were in that middle area of provoking creepiness and revulsion.

"... the uncanny valley is a hypothesized relation between an object's degree of resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to the object. The concept suggests that humanoid objects that imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers" Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

The same applies to story telling where you can easily go overboard and it becomes weird instead of interesting.

Trying to squeeze a Luke Skywalker story arc into the first draft of a SaaS product story is not simple and can go wrong. However, it does have relevance in other ways e.g. "Who is your product's Vader?". Who is the bad guy?

The bad guy with most cleaning products is a fictionalised cartoonish germ.

The bad guy for fun colourful Airtable is boring Google Spreadsheets.

The bad guy for web analytics firm Oribi is Google Analytics with its user unfriendly complexity.

The main point here is that using a common story structure can work but following the story arcs too closely can lead to that uncanny valley of distracting weirdness.

A story everyone can relate to

It's worth watching the whole video but you can start from around 2 minutes in to skip the intro period.

Important notes from this are how Drift went with an analogy of an empty store, which is an experience everyone can relate to, rather than saying "You're a marketer looking for leads...".

"Sometimes it's useful to get that specific but we wanted to capture lots of people who might not have that job"

They specifically chose a more universal analogy. The analogy is the framework.

One great question they bring up in the video is 'How do you make someone feel like that's their personal story rather than yours?'

Conflict and Resolution

This is from the following Hubspot video.

Conflict is the lesson in how the character transforms. If the story lacks conflict then it's a sales pitch.

Make sure the conflict fits the prospect's problems, needs, their buyer's journey stage. Otherwise they won't connect.

Understanding buyer persona is one thing but also understand buyer's stage. Are they at awareness, consideration or decision.

Where there is conflict your audience wants resolution. The idea of the resolution is to wrap up the story and call your audience to action. Resolution could be next steps or a call to read more content.

Write for the stadium of you

This is a sanity or bullshit checking process.

It's is a method mentioned in Tim Ferris' Tools of Titans / Tribe of Mentors books by a successful writer.

The key advice is to write as if you're in the middle of a stadium full of duplicates of yourself all watching what you're doing.

Why?

They know you inside out. They are you. You cannot lie to them.

For example, if you're writing about your own life and you write something genuinely fearless which honestly expresses your emotion then they'll applaud. If you don't have the courage to write the truth and try and sidestep it with justified nonsense, they will know it and be silent.

It's a powerful image to keep in mind in order to write down your best work because you know when it's not up to scratch. You'll be watching!

Resentment builds up when you write for invisible people

Another great quote from Tim Ferris's books by a writer is how you end up resenting the reader if you don't write what you really believe and that ends up showing in your writing as bitterness.

It's such an odd idea at first but makes sense. If I'm writing something I really believe in but then I change it because I believe the invisible reader might not like it, I end up resenting that reader. In time, that resentment towards the reader shows as bitterness within my writing and the reader can sense it.

Write for your one best reader

Here's an interesting perspective that follows on from the above "Stadium of you" perspective.

"Go after the best reader, not the most readers. Rather than seeking 10M views in 10 hours, find the one reader who will make you $10M in 10 years."

This is from Balaji's twitter thread for Venture Capitalists and immediately triggered a thought. It's so easy to end up writing and for more than one person in order to fill every hole but trying to do that makes the writing go down the drain.

However, if you do manage to keep just one person in mind, which person do you write for?

I sometimes write to my dumber younger self, so that my dumber younger self can skip the mistakes I made.

However, if it's for a product where the customers are not my younger dumber self, who do I focus on? Not the average person but the one person who really needs to hear it and needs it the most. The one who will benefit the most from it.

One simple structure to follow

This one is a good summary of story telling structures you'll see across the web:

A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS.

The above structure is from this blog post and we'll use it further below.

There are plenty of other story telling structures but you can go crazy trying them all.

For example, here is the classic Pixar structure:

"Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day…"

We'll stick to the first one for now.

Upscope product research and story lines

Finding the character's pain points

Upscope is a new interactive form of screen sharing often used by customer support representatives.

What does it do for support reps? They can, in one click, not only see what the customer sees on their screen but also send their mouse cursor over the internet to appear on the customers screen and click and scroll for them. It's new technology and it can be magic with non-tech savvy consumers or simply helping anyone to navigate any website.

How do we build a product story around Upscope that would resonate with customer support reps?

Start with the pain point.

Customer support is tough.

If you interview most customer support reps they'll probably be polite about their job's stress points but dig a little deeper and the underlying pain emerges.

We can't interview that many people and coax out the real issues so we need another way of finding those opinions.

Uncovering the real pain points behind customer support

Where can we find this? Besides customer interviews the real raw truth can be found in odd places on the internet.

For example, have you ever been to the youtube comments for customer support related videos? Here's a post on what we found there and below are some key comments:

"bathroom was my HAVEN. I would hide there 10 times a day"

"place my customer on hold for 3 mins and I just stare at the monitor."

"Selfishly enjoying the 5-10 minutes of silence when your phone didn't ring"

"Constantly looking at the clock during calls, thinking when will it end"

"I've worked at the call centre before, CONSTANT ANXIETY AND NERVOUSNESS"

"I now work internal tech support for a logistics company and love my job now and feel like a new man not tied to the phone."

"I was so jealous of the security guards"

"quitting that job was the best decision you ever made"

I'd rather work a couple fast food jobs at once before I take another call center job again.

"people interrupt me and ask  questions about the thing I’m explaining"

working for collections for a bank for almost a year and its soul crushing the management are awful

This job has made me dead inside

I now work internal tech support for a logistics company and love my job now and feel like a new man not tied to the phone

When I worked in food, they pay sucked, it got busy, but I was with other co-workers and we felt like we were all in it together. Working at a call center is like working in hell.

So many fraking rules you literally cant mess up you got to be a freaking robot

Ok, so these are the negative comments but there were very few positive comments and while it is youtube comments, this was still extraordinary.

What do the few positive comments tell us? See some below.

The call center job that i had was for tech support. We helped old people find the power button on the computer, etc. It was so relaxed. Sometimes it would be back to back then other times there would be 5 - 15 min between each call, so i had plenty of time to talk with the people around me.

Where I found my niche. Where they want you to stay with the customer as long as possible.

The people were 99% nice and calm because they were receiving free benefits. It was rare to get a mean person honestly,

There are some call center jobs where there is no magic fix. If you're calling up someone to demand overdue payments then there's no easy way to make that enjoyable.

What are the key underlying pain points we can focus on

The people who were most satisfied in their job appeared to be in technical support and were guiding people through a product.

The people most stressed were treated like robots who were on call after call with management directives for standards they had to reach while helping angry customers that made them anxious.

Now, we can't fix all those problems and any attempt to do so would not be authentic and we'd be making the mistake of 'doing everything for everyone'.

However, let's look at the underling common pain points:

  1. Anxiety, nervousness, soul destroying
  2. Relentless call after call
  3. Robotic
  4. Hiding in the bathroom
  5. Putting people on hold and staring at the monitor to take a break

How do they feel now? How do we imagine they want to feel?

These are people who don't feel in control. They feel controlled.

They feel like children when they want to feel like teachers.

They feel like hiding when they want to stand tall.

They feel like they're following a routine when they want to be free.

They feel anxious and weak when they want to feel confident and strong.

Below we'll use the structure mentioned earlier to write out some stories based on these emotions.

A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS.

As per the advice above, we'll keep in mind the stadium of us, point out the conflict and resolution, avoid the uncanny valley where we go off into weirdness, honestly empathise so we don't resent the imaginary reader and focus on the best reader.

Upscope story line 1: Anxious customer support reps

This one focuses specifically on reps who work with often angry customers. The angriest customers are found in contact centers that handle money or food queries.

Title: Your customer service reps don't need to be anxious anymore

Customer service reps are anxious about the next angry customer lining up to shout at them.

Rather than escape to hide in the bathroom just to breathe they need technology where they take charge and can fix the customer problem before the customer builds up steam.

Upscope co-browsing is for seeing what your customer sees, instantly, and taking control to teach the customer how to fix the problem.

Reps using Upscope are not taking deep breaths while hiding in rest rooms, they're at their desks grinning.

Upscope story line 2: Teachers not robots

You ever seen how, within a supermarket that has self-service checkout and normal checkout, the people who are teaching people to use self-service are far happier than the people sitting on chairs all day scanning your products like robots. The teachers are happier.

Title: Your support reps are motivated teachers not sad robots

Some customer support reps feel like robots, taking call after call, while looking at the clock waiting for the day to end.

To unleash their desire to teach rather than robotically ask questions, you can give them the ability to reach across the internet and draw on the customer's screen to guide the customer through their problem.

This ability to use the customer's screen as a whiteboard is provided by Upscope co-browsing.

Support reps using Upscope are not watching the clock for the day to end, they're carefully watching their students to see that the lesson is understood.

Upscope story line 3: Putting customers on hold

Title: Service reps putting customers on hold just to catch a breath now have another option

With angry customers a support rep might put a customer on hold simply to gather their thoughts and look through the data to understand what happened.

The customer is getting angrier while they're on hold and the rep is anxious.

If the support rep could instantly see how the customer got to the problem and navigate to the solution for them, both would come out happier.

That's how Upscope screenshots and co-browsing works together. They show you the source of the customer's problem and let you click on the customer's screen to solve it.

CSRs using Upscope don't put customers on hold simply to take a breath, they're in control, relaxed, and showing the customer that they've got this.

Upscope story line 4: Using memes and humour

Memes are perfect companions to stories and the customer support rep is a job with opportunity for great drama and humour.

We've got support reps hiding in toilets, crying under desks, staring blankly at monitors, being jealous of the security guards and many other deeply emotional situations.

It's an opportunity to state the reality of customer support.

This image is a better attention grabbing and instantly understood title than any other I can think of.

Your CSRs are anxious, tired, looking at the clock, worried about the next angry customer and ready to pack up and work in fast food with less pay.

It's time they had a little more control over how they helped customers and how they solved problems. It's time they led the customer, like the experts they are, rather than anxiously waited for the onslaught.

Upscope co-browsing replaced those long phone calls full of routine instructions. It replaced telling your customer where to click. It replaced asking them "what page are you on?". It has given CSRs control over the customer's screen to do what the customer really wanted in the first place: Fix their problem.

Looking at the above I realise I would not normally have written any of this. I would have written a more bland version as some of the above would have felt controversial but if the reader is someone who worked in a contact centre, it would be more likely to resonate than something like "Lower your call handling time". That might be relevant but does not capture or show empathy for the real lived experience and is not going to catch their attention the same way.

This has been a very useful exercise so far.

I've created a couple more Upscope product stories over here a little more specific to our co-browsing service.

Pardeep Kullar

Pardeep overlooks growth at Upscope cobrowsing and loves writing about SaaS companies, customer success and customer experience.