Storytelling is all the rage in business today – and in sales in particular – because it works.
But having trained thousands of executives and salespeople in storytelling, I can tell you the first and most important thing you need to understand about storytelling is not the structure of a great story, or how to use emotion and surprise properly, or even how to deliver your story in front of an audience. The most important part of storytelling is knowing when to tell a story and choosing the right story to tell.
Storytelling is a powerful tool in sales – if you tell the right stories. So, what sales stories do you need?
I set out to answer that question two years ago when doing the research for the book, Sell with a Story. I interviewed professional sales and procurement managers at over 50 companies, including Microsoft, Costco, Xerox, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hewlett Packard, Kroger, Cushman & Wakefield, Huntington Bank, and Children’s Hospital.
I asked both the salespeople and buyers where storytelling was being used in the sales process, and what kind of stories were being told. To my surprise, I found stories being used across the entire sales process, from introducing yourself to the buyer, to building rapport, to making the actual sales pitch itself, to handling objections and negotiating price, to closing the sale, even to managing customer relationships after the sale.
In all, I found 25 unique types of stories being told. Each is outlined briefly below along with where it belongs in the sales process. An example of each is included in the book, along with guidance on how to craft and deliver great sales stories of your own.
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Introducing yourself to the buyer
1. Explaining what you do, simply – a short, often fictionalized story to tell at a conference or on a cold call to help the prospect understand quickly and concretely what you do. The goal is to get them to want to get to know you more.
2. Who I’ve helped and how I’ve helped them – a more detailed factual story to give the prospect a concrete idea of the kind of customers you serve and what specifically you do for them. Goal: to schedule a sales call.
Preparing for the sales call
3. Personal motivation – a story you tell yourself to pump yourself up for the next sales call.
4. To relax and take the stress out of the call – a different kind of story you tell yourself to prior to the next call if what you need is not motivation, but to remove stress.
Stories about you:
5. Why I do what I do – People don’t care what you do until they know why you do it. This story explains why you chose the industry/company/job/role you’re in now.
6. “I’ll tell you when I can’t help you” – One of two things buyers claim will earn instant credibility is to tell them when your company is not the best solution. That way they’re more likely to believe you when to tell them you are the best solution. Telling a story about a time you did that with another client is a quick way to earn that credibility without having to wait for it to happen again.
7. “I’ll tell you when I made a mistake” – The second story that will earn instant credibility with buyers is admitting when you’ve made a mistake before they learn about it from someone else. Telling a story about when you made a mistake with another customer and admitted it will deliver that credibility without even having to make a new mistake.
8. “I’ll go to bat for you with my company” – Disagreements will happen, and your company isn’t always going to be in the right. Buyers want to know that when that happens, you’ve got their back and will fight for them with your management. Telling them you will isn’t convincing. Telling them a story about the last time you went to bat for a customer will be.
9. “I’m not who you think I am – a story to help dispel negative pre-conceived notions a buyer might have about you before they even come up. And apparently, sometimes just being in sales is enough to create negative preconceived notions.
Stories about your company:
10. Founding – Nobody ever started a company for a boring reason. Every salesperson needs to be able to tell the story of the person who founded their company and why.
11. “How we’re different from our competitors and why” – a story to differentiate you from your competitors. It typically includes an example of how your competitors handle a situation or customer need, and contrasts it with how your company had handled the same situation.
Making the main sales pitch
12. Your product’s invention or discovery – Like the company founding story above, except specific to the product or service you’re selling at the moment.
13. Explaining the problem – a story about someone who encountered exactly the kind of problem your product or service is designed to solve. These stories are especially helpful if your buyer doesn’t even know they have a problem.
14. Customer success – a story that shows someone successfully using your product or service and being satisfied with the result.
15. “Two roads” stories – a combination of a problem story and a success story. Both tell the story of someone with the exact same problem. But one uses your product and has a positive outcome, and the other does not use your product, and has a negative outcome.
16. Adding value – This is a story that literally adds to the value or attractiveness of the product you sell, because now buyer isn’t just buying the product. They’re getting the story that comes with it. (Example: Pig Island)
17. Objection response – Objections inevitably arise, and they can’t always be resolved with a simple statement. Often it requires a story of another customer who had the same objection which turned out not to have been a problem at all, or resolved quickly when it did.
18. Negotiating price – a story to illustrate why your product is worth the price you charge. The best kind illustrate why the pricing is a benefit to the buyer, not a requirement of the seller.
19. Resolving objections before they’re brought up – stories used to resolve the most common objections before they’re ever brought up, thus disarming the prospect of that objection.
Closing the sale
20. Creating a sense of urgency – a story to use when the buyer says, “I’ll buy, but now is not the right time.” This is a story about the negative consequences that resulted when a previous prospect waited to buy, and regretted it.
21. Arming your sponsor – Sometimes the final decision-making will happen you’re not in the room. In those cases, your internal sponsor will never be able to remember your entire sales pitch. But they can remember a single, compelling story. Arm them with one prior to that meeting.
22. Coaching the breakup – Before a new prospect can buy from you, often they have to fire their current supplier. That can be emotionally daunting. Stories about how other customers of yours have gracefully transitioned from an old supplier to you can help coach them how to do it without the angst.
Managing customer relationships
23. Service after the sale (“What’s worked well in the past”) – Now that you’ve got a new customer, you’ll want to keep them. Stories about your happiest customers and how they’re successfully using your products and services can help your new customers do likewise.
24. Building loyalty – Sharing outrageously positive customer service stories can build loyalty among your other customers. They won’t want to miss out on that service if they ever need it.
25. Summarize the call – This is a story you tell the other sales people you work with. It’s the story of the successful sale you just closed or the unsuccessful one that got away. This is how to capture the wisdom from the sales call for your boss, peers, or the next generation of salespeople calling on your customer.
Again, there’s an example of each of these stories in the book Sell with a Story. Over time, I’ll be adding links to examples on line.
Your next steps: Review this list with your team. Pick the ones you need most urgently and create a “Story Wish List.” Then, go on a hunt to find them.[You can find this and dozens of other examples and lessons on storytelling in sales in my book, Sell with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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