Problem stories

These are stories about people who encountered exactly the kind of problem your product is designed to solve. They’re especially helpful if buyers don’t even know they have a problem. Importantly, such a story allows buyers to understand the problem in a more personal, visceral way than just being told, “I’ll bet you have this problem.” Here’s an example.

Kevin Moulton is director of sales for a technology company specializing in online security. When meeting with prospective clients in the banking industry, he’s likely to tell them about a trip he made a few years ago to Las Vegas. He was there for a corporate event, but like everyone else, he made it a point to take in some of the Vegas night life.

“About 1 a.m.,” he explains, “I realized I was out of money, so I found the nearest ATM. I put in my card and password, but the machine denied the transaction. Apparently, my bank thought it might be fraudulent. I don’t have a problem with that. I like that my bank looks out for that kind of thing.”

What the bank personnel did about it, however, did create a problem for Kevin. They called his wife.

“So it’s 4 a.m. in New Jersey where we live, and they call and wake up my wife. And you have to imagine what she’s hearing on her end of the phone. It must have sounded something like, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am, but your husband is trying to get cash in Las Vegas at 1 o’clock in the morning. Do you approve?’ How pissed do you think I was at my bank?”

What bothered Kevin even more was that the bank had an emergency phone number for him on file, which was his cell phone number. “But did they use it?” he grumbles. “No! They called my home instead. I called the bank the next day and reminded them that they had my cell phone number. They said, ‘It’s our policy to call the home number.’ Well, then, why do they even have it?”

Kevin ends with this frustratingly unanswered question, appropriately delivered in an exasperated tone. The story establishes the problem that in their zeal to protect their customers from fraud, banks sometimes make it too difficult for their customers to do legitimate business with them. They can even, as this story illustrates, cause strife in their customers’ personal lives.

At this point, after telling this story, it’s very easy for Kevin to ask if his prospects might have a few protocols that could similarly frustrate a customer. And since they almost always do, he goes on to share ways his company can help fix that. “For example,” he says, “you could send a one-time password to your customer’s cell phone. That way, you avoid the fraud without disrupting your customer’s life.”

The “problem story” is a critical part of a sales pitch and is a must-have in your repertoire of stories.

[You can find this and dozens of other examples and lessons on storytelling in sales in my book, Sell with a Story.]

PAS square profile 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 StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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