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Story-Oriented Selling

This is an email I received from James Mayfield Smith regarding my post about the top IBM sales rep.  I had a phone conversation with James and then we exchanged emails.  He’s got a very convincing view on the role of storytelling in sales (he refers to it as strategic applied mythology).   Why convincing?  When I look at the way that I’ve sold over the years (what I’ve depended on to win) and my observations of others who were successful, there is no question that storytelling was important.  Here is his email (with permission).  It’s worth the read.

I’ve got a few thoughts about your review of the Fortune article about the IBM sales rep Vivek Gupta.  I agree with your assessment that Gupta is “business-driven, fearless, [and] able to thrive in a complex organization” and that these traits are keys to his success.  When his actual sales process was outlined, something else came to light as well.  Gupta is a master of many skills, and chief among these is his ability to find the story that his customer lives and to build himself into that story as a solution provider.  When he studied the telecom business referenced in the article to look for its “pain points,” he was really looking for the stories that the company told itself about itself.  This concept is central because one of the key functions of a sales person is to influence behavioral change (i.e. convince a prospect to buy from his company).  From a mythological perspective, the quickest and most effective route to behavioral change is by either changing a customer’s story of what is possible in the world (i.e. it’s possible to increase effectiveness by outsourcing your IT needs with us) or by changing a customer’s story of who they are in that world (i.e. by focusing on what you do best, you can achieve a higher ROI).  A sales professional who masters the ability to work in the realm of story via strategic applied mythology (a methodology which encompasses philosophy, psychology, strategy, and skills application) and delivers on that story gains preferred position with a client and earns its business.  Gupta is a great example of how this type of customer-centric, solution-selling works when the basic skills are in place and the proper attention is devoted to having the sales conversations required to identify the client’s hidden stories and then become a part of them.

You may be wondering why one should bother with utilizing a story-oriented lens when a good sales methodology with solid skills training, effective measurement, and ongoing reinforcement is effective.  The answer lies in the fact that humans are story-driven creatures.  It’s in our genes and it is what we do…our tribal shamans are now medical doctors, research scientists, and clergy.  Our traditional stories are now Hollywood films, the Wall Street Journal, and Internet blogs.  We continue to be story-driven, and our behaviors are largely influenced by the stories we live and that often live us.  Much research shows that data that does not align with a story that I am living either creates psychic dissonance and conflict or else is ignored.  Regardless of whether one likes the idea, most decisions are made for underlying emotional reasons that the decision-maker is often unaware of.  A good sales professional who understands the principles of strategic applied mythology, however, can systematically uncover the key stories within an organization and utilize them to his advantage.  This is no replacement for basic sales skills, but rather, a soft-skills over-arching strategy approach that organizes and explains the elements that are effective to winning a sale.  For example, I could take one of your executive overviews of a training company and apply my lens to explain why that methodology works.  What I do explains why what works actually works, and offers a lens to examine, predict, plan, and execute success. 

Another of the many applications of strategic applied mythology to sales training is to increase the effectiveness of a sales force by enrolling each sales person into the vision of the company.  The best sales professionals know and believe in the value they bring and clearly see how their role and their jobs impact their lives positively.  These professionals have the vision and motivation of the CEO.  This can be replicated, as there are processes to help sales professionals begin to articulate their own higher vision and to integrate how that is served by fulling living the mission of the company.  This type of values alignment and integration leverages the potential human capital of a sales force by reorienting it towards strategic objectives.

Should mainstream sales training companies add this skill to their curricula?  I don’t see that happening.  Not because it wouldn’t provide salespeople with additional capabilities.  I suspect research would prove that there is real value resulting from formal programs in storytelling, especially for those selling services and other intangibles.  Why not then?  There are just too many other things to accomplish in the area of sales performance improvement.  I write about those on this blog:  business skills, advanced competitive selling skills, political leverage, strategic negotiation, executive-level selling, coaching, relationship bulding… And then there is measurement, leveraging technology…  Lots to do that are already on the list. 

If any of you reading this have had experiences with storytelling, either comment or drop me an email.


5 Responses

  1. Dave, you are speaking my language! I’ve been moving my practice into the story realm for the last eighteen months or so. I’m helping one B2B company right now gather “why they bought, what they like” stories from its customers, to test and validate its marketing messages, to discern if there are reasons customers buy their offering that aren’t reflected in the current messages, and to learn if there are latent issues with the service.

    A lot of the power-base mapping of companies espoused by Holden and others is simply learning the story of the prospect… how the company got where it is, who pulls the levers and how decisions get made. These stories are essential for any successful salesperson to know. The best already do, more or less unconsciously.

    Bringing the value of story-gathering and narrative into the open I think is potentially a great benefit to the sales profession…. at minimum because it helps to explain the emotional content of buying decisions, which we all know is a huge factor.

    Dave, I could talk about this all day! We should get on a call if you’d like to discuss further. Thanks a lot for bringing up an important topic.

    regards, John

  2. Dave – great point, and an interesting and useful perspective.
    Most all sales training provides for a time when the salesperson repeats back to the customer what they understand about the customer’s situation, in the salespersons own words.
    My sales training peer has designed a training class that has salespeople creating a “mission statement” for their customer, based upon what the salesperson understands about the customer, what they have, and what they want.
    Isn’t this all “storytelling”? The salesperson is describing a situation, characters, motives, and needs. Who could resist such a story when it is about them?
    I will use this perspective when training salespeople. The salesperson’s goal is to gather information from the customer, and give it back as the customers’ ‘story”, demonstrating their understanding of the customer and their ability to help the customer.

  3. Dave,
    I’ve enjoyed our conversation and appreciate that you’ve brought it to your blog readership. I’m not surprised about your feedback…that an expert researcher of sales training methodology is likely to find storytelling valuable, but lower on the list of priorities than many other basic skills is to be expected.

    This makes sense from an executive’s perspective…AND I’ve seen engaging junior reps with a good story of who they are and what they do beat out senior reps with more skills and experience by appealing to the emotional side of human nature. It’s as if their natural storytelling ability and warmth are a crutch to help compensate for other skills still in development. Similarly, a consultative salesperson can leverage excellent active listening with skilled reflection or subject matter expertise even when other skills are lacking. In the end, all other things being equal, a client often says that they just liked the good storyteller better or that what they said made sense for their business.

    I could definitely see storytelling skills as an offering for veteran reps who’ve heard all the basic techniques before. They’d have no choice but to actively participate in such a course, with targeted mini-lessons, clear rubrics, and short role-playing performances in true-to-life sales scenarios. This would be followed up with video feedback, trainer and self-reflection, and a three-step program for specific skill development and reinforcement.

    The ability to execute a message with a good story is just one tiny piece, though. The real value of strategic applied mythology (and similar methodologies that are customer-centric, consultative, and solution-based, is that it provides a way for a sales professional to really begin to look for a client’s basic stories and to become a character in them. It’s about thinking, and it provides a road map to how the client thinks, feels, and makes decisions. Such training naturally equates to targeted conversations, focused efforts, and strategic planning, all of which lead to closed deals, increased revenue, satisfied customers, and ongoing relationships. Isn’t this what it’s really about?


    James Mayfield Smith
    Sales and Marketing Professional
    Innovation Consultant
    Strategic Applied Mythologist

  4. Dave,

    I’m happy to see someone integrating hard sales analytics with the often-termed “soft” story-telling skills. Perhaps the labels get in the way; they are certainly useful.

    I’m a huge fan of stories; they have also been tremendously helpful in my sales and in my seminars.

    I won’t repeat what others have said, but I’d like to add one thought. I have noticed a curious effect of stories when it comes to influencing people. When someone gives me advice (or I try to give them advice), whether they take it or not has a lot to do with the relationship between us–history, chemistry, connection, track record, etc.

    But when I hear a story, or tell one, much of that is put in abeyance. I react to the story almost independent of the one telling it. I have no sense of “not invented here,” but find I can easily apply it as a metaphor to others. Without the rejection or acceptance that comes with all the rest.

    Basically, people don’t like to be told what to do. But stories offer a sort of pure gift–they come without strings. We hear what we want, and make it our own.

    I think it’s no accident that the greatest stories of all time are often stories about stories. 1001 Arabian Nights. A Christmas Carol. It’s A Wonderful Life.

    One writer on leadership (I think it was Warren Bennis or Howard Gardner) suggested that the essence of leadership was the living out of a story that we could connect with. In our own time we have two “stories” running for US President–a war hero, and a winner in the melting pot American dream game. Which story we resonate with has a lot to do with our choices.

    No wonder then stories play such a powerful role in selling.

  5. Dave,

    I agree with the points James makes and I believe they are great insights. I used story-telling extensively at Microsoft first as an Account exec and then as a strategist.

    My experience with it is that is extremely powerful if you have formed a genuine solution to customer specific issues. The skills you mention, such as business skills, political leverage and so forth are foundation skills. I regard them as necessary prerequisites to be effective in enterprise selling and relationships.

    At Microsoft I systemized in an consulting service a method to develop these customer centric stories. I am currently developing an offering to make this approach more widely available.

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