Salespeople have always been storytellers – that’s not news. We like to sweep people off their feet, painting a picture of how their life could be if only they had X product.
A Stanford research study showed that statistics alone have a retention rate of 5 – 10 percent, but when coupled with anecdotes, the retention rate rises to 65 – 70 percent.
‘We’re not selling a product, we’re selling a lifestyle’, the cliché goes – and it’s a cliché for a reason: because it’s true. We sell ideas. We sell solutions. Often, in the B2B world, what we’re really selling is time and an easier life. All of these things are somewhat intangible, so in order to put them into a context the customer can relate to, we tell stories.
However, in the age of the empowered buyer, customers have grown more discerning about the way they listen to and interpret stories. Sweeping statements and optimism aren’t going to cut it anymore: they’ve done their research. Apart from anything else, when you’re in B2B sales, your customers are also sellers. They know how the game is played. That’s not to say they don’t want stories anymore – of course they do, that’s how humans communicate. But they want smart stories. Stories with as much grit as glitter. Stories that represent realities they can both identify with and envision.
So, with all that in mind, let’s consider what makes a good story and how we can use storytelling techniques for sales success.
Great stories change your brain activity, making you more cooperative.
The Neuroscience of Narrative, Paul J. Zak PhD
The elements of great storytelling
Before we begin, think back to the last great book you read or film you watched. What made that story so good? Was it the writing? The exotic locations? No. In all likelihood what made you fall in love with the story was the way it made you feel. The writer/actor/director/storyteller achieved that by creating empathy, establishing a connection between you and the action. This connection is the pathway to good storytelling, so that’s first and foremost what you need to establish when you’re selling your product.
How do we do that? With character, plot and delivery.
Every story needs a protagonist. In fiction, this could be anyone at all, but when it comes to selling, your hero or heroine needs to bear a pretty close resemblance to your customer. Even if you’re talking up other customer success stories, you need to highlight the similarities between this customer and the one you’re standing in front of. For example, if I was telling a customer success story about iPresent to the marketing director of a mid-sized international company, I would choose one of the stories that featured a similar sized company and a marketing director facing similar challenges.
Like you, Jill was managing a relatively small marketing team that was producing great content but she was finding they were getting very little traction among the team of 250+ salespeople spread out across the globe. She believed in the content and she trusted her team but she wasn’t getting any real feedback from the sales reps – she wasn’t even sure they were using it. It seemed her team were still getting a lot of requests for new materials, which in itself was enough to prompt her to find a better solution, since her department was already stretched and they didn’t have the time to drop everything to create new resources.
This is just an example, of course, but do you see how I have highlighted a few character traits for my new customer to pick up on? We know who Jill is: a marketing manager of a small department dealing with a large team of salespeople who are geographically dispersed. We know some of Jill’s pain points: frustrated by the lack of feedback from sales and stretched to capacity by additional requests for new material. These are all identifiers that, if I’ve done my homework, my new customer ought to be able to empathise with. You’ll note there’s also a little bit of flattery in there (‘producing great content’) – there’s absolutely no harm in that so long as you don’t go overboard.
As well as a character, in the above example you can also see the beginnings of a plot. Our marketing manager finds herself in a scenario that is both less than ideal and pretty static. In order to make a change, Jill is going to need to go on a journey.
As plot devices go, the journey is pretty essential. Whether it’s physical (the quest plot) and/or emotional (the coming of age plot), every story needs some kind of transformation that leads to a culmination in which the protagonist’s inner/outer life is changed. This is where your product comes in. You are the game-changer.
Unfortunately you can’t just say it like that. That’s not how stories work.
If we told a story that went like this:
Jill was having a hard time ensuring that the collateral her team created was being used by salespeople so she bought a Sales Enablement Platform and all her problems were solved.
You wouldn’t buy it. There’s no detail. No emotional depth. No reason to believe. Stories aren’t just blurted out: they’re unravelled.
Our new customer needs to know that Jill did a bit of research (it’s great when other people have done the research – saves you some time!) and that she identified a Sales Enablement Platform and tablets as a potential solution for X, Y, Z reasons. For the sake of both good storytelling and total transparency, I like to be up front about Jill’s concerns – such as the fact that a lot of her sales team was made up of old school reps who’d never used a tablet before – and how our solution addressed those concerns (with full training, in person if needed). Finally, we all love a happy ending, so I try to make sure that I’ve got the goods to wrap the story up well – i.e. with both stats-based results and some anecdote that will appeal to my customer. In this case, for example, I might point out that Jill enjoyed a much better relationship with the sales team now that they were able to easily find and employ the collateral she had worked so hard to produce.
What she has found particularly valuable is not only the time her team has gained now that they’re not being asked to produce new content at the drop of a hat, but also the insight the sales reps are able to provide from the front line. They feed customer questions back to Jill and the team and she turns it into more valuable collateral. It’s a win-win.
If you’re looking for some ideas on where to start with the resources you take to a sales meeting, download our free white paper. We’ve got you covered with all the basic marketing content you need for a first sales conversation.
In prose, delivery tends to be about language. In film, it’s a mix of language, images and audio effects. In sales, we work with what we’ve got: our bodies, words and tools.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of body language when you’re telling a story. If you want your customer to engage with it, you need to be engaging. Lean in, use your hands and be expressive. If you don’t feel confident, practice – in the mirror, with your colleagues, with your family – until you find your style.
- Choose your words carefully. You want to strike the right emotional chord, and that may vary from customer to customer. Again, practice.
- A good story needs to flow. If you’re faffing about with a glitchy presentation or struggling to gesticulate while balancing a laptop in one hand, you’re going to lose that flow. Get the right tools for the job and eliminate the potential for technology to slow you down.
The other advantage we have over fixed media like books or films is our ability to adapt to our audience. Read the room and tailor your presentation accordingly. Create a series of resource playlists that work for different customers and different sales scenarios so that you’re always ready with the visuals you need to support your sales story. Think of it like a ‘choose your own adventure’.
There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
And they all lived happily ever after
In this blog I’ve given an example of one type of story – the customer success story. In truth, in the context of a sales meeting, this is likely to be just one part of a bigger story, which would also include the story of our company, our product story and, encompassing all of that, the story of the journey we’d like to see this new customer take with us. The same storytelling techniques will always apply: even when we’re talking about our company, we are thinking about our customers and we need to ensure they see themselves at the centre of every story.
One final thought: Calling it a story may immediately make you think it’s disingenuous, but stories aren’t the same as lies. If I told you about my journey to work this morning (not worth telling – southern England cannot cope with winter weather), I’d still be deploying the storytelling techniques I’ve highlighted here. Like I said, it’s how humans communicate. We can’t not tell stories. Let’s just make sure we’re telling them well.
Have you got any great selling stories to share with us? We’d love to hear them!
Want to see how iPresent could help you share your stories with your customers? Request a demo below.