It’s hard to turn the pages of any business or leadership magazine these days without coming across something about the value of storytelling. Whether it’s for leadership, marketing, sales, or some other purpose, the benefits of telling stories in business is well documented.
What’s more often overlooked is the value of story listening. In other words, getting your employees, customers, or other stakeholders to tell you their stories.
I recently interviewed professional buyers at dozens of companies including Microsoft, Abercrombie & Fitch, Kroger, Costco, and others. I asked them, “What stories should the sales people who call on you want you to tell them?” Three kinds came quickly to the surface:
- Personal stories to get to know them better. Storytelling is the shortest distance between being a stranger and a friend. Salespeople are quick to tell their own personal stories, but less quick to ask the buyer to reciprocate. People like to talk about themselves, and they like people who let them. And since we do business with people we like, getting a buyer to share a personal story is the quickest way to get them to do business with you.
- Stories about the biggest problem they’re facing. Just asking them what their problems are isn’t good enough. That only gets you a short answer. A story gives you a glimpse into the kind of solution they’re looking for and gives you most of what you need to sell it to them. If they just tell you, “I’m looking for a more efficient warehousing network,” you really know very little about what they need. But if they tell you a story about how the last shipment they made went out late because they couldn’t find the right product in their warehouse so they had to run a custom production schedule and then ship the product express delivery, only to then find the original product right where it was supposed to be all along, etc., well, now you know what you’re dealing with.
- A story about how their favorite supplier became their favorite supplier. Anyone can tell you they want their suppliers to be flexible and responsive. But you were already planning on being those things. The story, though, gives you a tangible example of what excellence looks like to them. One procurement manager told me, “Nobody’s going to tell you their favorite supplier is the one who caves on price more than all the others. They’re going to tell you about that one supplier who did something amazing.” Once you know what “amazing” looks like, you’ll be in a better position to be amazing, too.
So, how do get these stories? Getting buyers to talk is easy. Getting them to tell you stories requires a little more work. Here are three tactics being used effectively by successful salespeople at dozens of companies around the world.
- Shut up and listen. This is probably the most obvious but underutilized tactic to elicit stories from buyers. Human beings abhor silence in a conversation like nature abhors a vacuum. We’re desperate to fill the void with something. If you can resist the temptation for that something to be your voice, you have a near certain chance of that something being the buyer’s voice. Give them room to tell a story and they probably will.
- Ask open-ended questions that require a story for an answer. “What’s your biggest problem right now” is close-ended and gets a short answer. “Tell me about the first time you realized your biggest problem was your biggest problem” is open-ended and is guaranteed to get an interesting story.
- Tell your stories first. If all else fails, lead by example. If you want to get buyers to tell personal stories about where they grew up, you tell a personal story about where you grew up. If you want them to tell a story about a problem they’re having with their computer, you tell a story about a problem you’re having with your computer. You know this works because it works on you. When people tell you a story, the most likely thing that’s running through your head is “Hey, something like that happened to me once,” and now you can’t wait to tell them about it. Just remember, when the buyer interrupts and starts telling you their story, refer back to tactic No. 1 above: Shut up and listen.
Paul Smith is the author of "Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust and Close the Sale" (AMACOM, 2016). He is a widely sought out speaker, coach, and trainer on business storytelling techniques whose clients include Hewlett Packard, Bayer Medical, Progressive Insurance, and Ford. As the author of "Lead with a Story" (AMACOM, 2012), his work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, Success, and Investor’s Business Daily. A former Procter & Gamble communications research executive with an MBA. from the Wharton School of Business, he lives in suburban Ohio. For more information, please visit LeadWithAStory.com.
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