“The top 20% of my team outsell the others by a large margin. All of them are natural storytellers. Imagine what we could do if we helped the next 20 or 30% learn this skill.” This is what a top sales manager at one of the world’s largest business-to-business (B2B) companies told us when we were exploring the effective use of storytelling techniques in sales organizations. Findings from a study among 6,000-plus salespeople in 90-plus companies by research firm CEB showed that the gap between average-performing salespeople and star performers is close to 200% for solution sales.
This means that “helping the next 30% learn the skill of storytelling” can bump up sales of the entire team by 20%. There is clearly a very valuable opportunity here for companies to help their average performers improve their skills and close the gap.
My experience with teaching over 300 very senior leaders the skill of storytelling shows three things. First, we are actually all natural storytellers. It’s just that we had wrongly labelled it as time-pass, for children, for entertainment and not for the world of business. When we are exposed to how a structured approach to storytelling in business can be very powerful to get our message to stick, the penny drops and drops real quick.
Second, the impact of using stories is very high across sectors and industries but the biggest impact is in B2B companies where the frontline’s conversation with the client is the only method of persuasion. Unlike the business-to-consumer (B2C) companies, these teams don’t have the luxury of a high decibel advertising campaign backing their sales efforts.
Third, both the above points are true across countries and cultures. So in summary, storytelling is a skill easy to learn and has dramatic impact when used in business and even more so when one is selling complex solutions.
With this as the backdrop, over the next few articles, I am going to outline how people selling complex solutions in B2B situations can dramatically benefit from learning this skill.
Regardless of the specific sales process you follow, there are four things you need to do to help customers get what they need.
First, you need to build rapport with your customer. People buy you first. People don’t care about your idea before they care about you. Stories about you and your company, as we will discuss later in the article, are a great way to do this.
Second, you need to establish your credibility. It’s clear that in B2B sales, corporate credibility is important, but so is personal credibility. The prospective client needs to know whether you and your company can deliver what you promise. Are you reliable? Do you understand your client’s needs? Are you responsive to your client’s needs? Stories are at the heart of building credibility.
Third, you need to demonstrate value. The acclaimed management consultant Tom Peters had said that the secret of business success was to make the consumer ‘delighted’ with the product or service. The information you share at the pitch or in the proposal should be able to show the consumer how you really understand their business and why your product or service will give them more than what they came looking for. The story you tell will be most effective when you develop it with your customer, so that when they receive your material it’s totally familiar—as much their story as yours.
Finally, you need to ask for the business. Here again we need to master the skill of handling objections. We know that our standard approach to counter arguments with data is most often unsuccessful. This is because you can never replace a story with a fact. You need to replace it with another powerful story.
Now let’s go back to how to use stories to build rapport. This is where you can use two different story structures: connection story and success story.
Connection story is a story you tell about yourself where one of two things is achieved. Either you establish that you are like your customer—similar values, similar beliefs or similar background. The famed influence psychologist Robert Cialdini has shown that we are most influenced by people just like us. This is achieved not by telling your customer you are just like them. Rather, let them work that out by telling them a story that illustrates that. You can read more about connection stories here.
The second part of building rapport is getting the customer to come to a conclusion that he is dealing with a team and a company that has been very successful in helping clients like him. Here again, a claim will not do. Use a success story.
Success stories are case studies. But not written is the usual cold, dry, formulaic manner. Full of jargon, claims and assertions. Often trying to oversell. Instead, they are written in a way where the customer can resonate with the client in the case study, understand that he feels the same way and be able to anticipate that he too can get the same success if he decides to use your product or service. Narrating your successful case studies in this manner harnesses the three big powers of stories: stories are easy to understand, stories are easy to remember and stories are easy to retell. This way the knowledge of your success remains with your customer. Again, you can read more about success stories in my article here.
In the following article we will discuss how stories can be very powerful in the rest of the sales process. In establishing credibility, demonstrating value and finally asking for the business.