The major premise of Simon Sinek’s bestselling book Start with Why can be summarized in his statement “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” It should make sense, then, that in order to know you well enough to trust you, a buyer needs to understand why you do what you do for a living. What drew you to the profession or the company you work for? The reasons say something about who you are as a person. And the passion you show, or lack thereof, will influence the buyer’s natural affection for you. After all, who doesn’t want to do business with someone who’s passionate about what they do? As such, this should be one of your earliest stories. Here’s an example.
Chris Powers had wanted to make partner at the public accounting and consulting firm Crowe Horwath since the day he joined the company. Eight years later, in 1998, his dream was about to come true. He’d made the cut. All the hard work and late hours had paid off. The promotion was scheduled to go through on April 1 of that year, a day he’d been waiting for with much anticipation. When it finally arrived, he walked into his boss’s office . . . and resigned.
“What the hell? Are you crazy?” was the response. What could make him do such a thing? The answer was Keith Krach. Keith was the co-founder and CEO of Ariba, one of the early pioneers of using the Internet to streamline the procurement process. Keith met with Chris and offered him a job as one of Ariba’s first sales reps. It obviously wasn’t the job title that lured Chris away. So what was it? Chris explains:
My dad was a high school basketball coach. He played for John Wooden in both high school and college. So I grew up loving sports, and I played them all. Once I started my career after school, I started to miss the fun and camaraderie of the team environment, of playing together as a team, and winning together.
Keith must have had similar experiences, because in our first conversation, he convinced me of three things that made it impossible to say no to him. First, he said, “We’re going to work hard, but we’re going to have fun doing it.” He made it clear that I was going to be part of a culture that sounded like the one I was missing from sports.
Second, he showed me that Ariba had game-changing technology that was really going to impact how businesses bought and sold from one another—and how we could help them do that faster, more reliably, and save them money at the same time. The Internet was still new and absolutely nobody was doing what they were doing. That was really exciting to me.
Third, he said I was personally going to be able to influence my customers and their business results like I was as a consultant, but that I would be doing it as part of a real team effort.
Chris explained that the sort of sales call he would conduct at Ariba wasn’t the typical solo salesperson in the room with a buyer. It was usually two or three people from Ariba in the room with the buyer, all with specific roles to play, just like in sports.
“It was a no-brainer,” Chris said. “I signed up and traded in my partnership to become employee #92 in a company that grew to over 2,000. And it was absolutely the best decision I ever made.”
One of Chris’s early customers was Debbie Manos-McHenry, then director of operations at KeyBank in Cleveland. She recalls listening to Chris tell his story in one of their first meetings. She described it as both inspired and inspiring (When’s the last time a buyer described your opening words in a meeting as “inspiring”?), and explained Ariba’s team selling effort in equally glowing terms.
She said it reminded her of the E.F. Hutton TV commercials from the 1970s, where someone in a crowded restaurant starts to share with a friend what her E.F. Hutton adviser told her, and everyone in the restaurant turns silent and leans in to listen. But in this case, Debbie said, she was the one who felt like E.F. Hutton, because all the Ariba people in the room were intently listening to her. The team environment Chris was craving wasn’t just working for him. It was working for Debbie, too.
More importantly for our purposes, their very successful business relationship started with a compelling story about why Chris Powers took the job he did.
What’s your story?
[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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