Coaching the Breakup – Helping your Prospect Fire Their Current Supplier to Make Room for You

[#22 of the 25 Most Useful Sales Stories]

This is the most creative use of storytelling in closing the sale that you’re ever likely to come across. It’s definitely not one I expected to find when I was doing the research on sales stories. But I did, from a guy we’ll call “Brad” who worked for a company that published high school yearbooks.


The Situation

So, imagine you’re a high school English teacher and the adviser to the student yearbook committee. One of your jobs is to decide which publisher to produce your school’s yearbook, and you’ve worked with the same one for years. Their sales rep has always been easy to work with, has high integrity, and is a generally likable person. In fact, under other circumstances, you could easily see yourself being friends.

But while her company does good work, you’ve recently come across another yearbook publisher that offers a better product at a more aggressive price. Now you have to fire the rep you’ve been working with for years. And that’s no fun. In fact, it can be daunting. How’re they going to react? Will they be mad at you?

According to Brad, these are legitimate questions. He’s heard it all. Some reps get offended, as if the buyer’s being disloyal. Some lay on a guilt trip and complain that the buyer is taking food out of their children’s mouths. Some desperately offer to drop their price.

Some even start to cry. And while tears might be a little extreme, most of these reactions are no different from what you’re likely to find in any industry. Business is personal when you’re in sales and your livelihood depends on the revenue. That’s why getting dropped by a customer feels like getting dumped by your high school steady. And to anyone who’s ever had to do it, you know that being the dumper is almost as painful as being the dumpee. And that’s why firing your supplier can be an awful experience—so much so that some people just won’t do it. They’d rather keep their current supplier just to avoid the emotional turmoil.

The Story

And that’s why one of the stories in Brad’s bag is called “coaching the breakup.” It’s how he helps prepare a new client to end their existing relationship as painlessly as possible. In its most common form, the story he tells is about how one of his other clients navigated the breakup. So, it might start out something like this:

I’m really looking forward to working with you. But I know you’ve got a difficult thing you have to do now—explain all this to your current publisher. And I can tell you’re a little stressed about that. So I thought it might help if I told you how some of my other customers handled it.”

And then Brad can walk the buyer through a few success stories of how other customers handled, for example, the offer to drop the price (by asking, “Where’s that discount been all these years?”), or how they handled the crier (by reiterating how this isn’t personal, it’s a business decision), or how they slowed down and continued to work with the old supplier for the rest of the school year before transitioning to the new supplier next year. The story he tells depends on what the prospect thinks the most likely reaction will be.

So, if breaking up is hard for your prospects to do, develop your own breakup stories to help coach them through it. It might help to have some conversations with your other customers to find out how they did it. (By the way, you’ll get some of your best stories that way. Don’t be shy about asking for stories. Think of it as a flattering excuse to schedule some time with your customers.) Your own company’s procurement department is another great source for these kinds of stories. I mean, who else has more experience firing suppliers than a professional buyer? Right?

Next step

Find out how your best clients handled firing your competitors before they started doing business with you. If breaking up with existing suppliers is a barrier to closing the sale with one of your prospects, craft one of these “coaching the breakup” stories and use it when you get close to landing a new customer.

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Source: Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author.

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