Storytelling: Why It Rarely Works in Sales Prospecting

Many a book has been written on storytelling. Especially in marketing. Today, storytelling (as a practice) is creeping into sales prospecting. But is it effective to start conversations from cold?

Many a book has been written on storytelling. Especially in marketing. Today, storytelling (as a practice) is creeping into sales prospecting. But is it effective to start conversations from cold?

Like so many “best” practices this one rarely works for sales reps. Because stories are usually presented:

  • Outside the buyer’s decision-making context (not buying context … the many parts preceding it)
  • Selfishly, in a way tries to force conversation about the seller’s value
  • To help uncover a “hidden pain” the prospect has yet is unaware of

Yes, B2B buyers are concerned more with business value, how your solution is different … less with features and benefits. But until prospects discover, on their own:

  • why buying might be needed,
  • a way to manage their own internal change

… they won’t be in a position to want your story.

In many selling contexts, this reduces your story to a self-centered means-to-an-end: A discussion clients don’t see value in (yet).

Sellers using storytelling as a conversation-starter often suffer. Especially when clients don’t routinely invest in what is being sold.

After all, why would prospects want to hear a story (about a problem they don’t know they have) unless they were ready to consider change? Biased questions create push-back.

In Defense of Storytelling

“Sometimes prospects aren’t willing to open up to sales rep’s questions which are aimed to discover and build pain,” said a colleague who co-founded a SaaS company selling solutions to leaders of sales teams. His targets are often reluctant to invest. The status quo feels just fine.

“Sometimes prospects get frustrated at answering questions without being told why. Sometimes its difficult for prospects to understand ‘whats being sold to them’ and need the context. Storytelling helps prospects resonate with a sales person as they can relate to another customer in the same sector, with the same job title, with similar objectives.”

But here’s the problem: Buyers (who are not buyers yet) aren’t interested in helping you discover pains … and build upon it.

“Qualification or discovery questions on cold calls can sometimes feel like traps to prospects,” says sales trainer, Josh Braun. “How are you going to use this to sell me? Where are you leading me? It’s like when a mall kiosk person says ‘Can I ask you a question?’ You look away because you know they are asking to lead you somewhere.”

Prospects are very good at identifying and resisting your biased questions. Sadly, these are the questions sellers are trained to ask … which serve only their (not the client’s) need.

“This situation happened on a sales call I reviewed for one of my own reps today,” my colleague continued. “The prospect pushed back on my rep’s questions which were aimed at discovering how he could help and where the opportunity existed. As soon as he told a relevant customer story, the conversation changed for the better.”

But did the conversation continue? In most cases they do not. Prospects may get clear on what you’re trying to sell to them; however, they may become less motivated to continue the conversation!

Instead, what if the sales rep asked, “What would need to happen for you to give sales managers a way to monitor and act on how reps are interacting with prospects?”

The “why” is obvious: The rep asks because he’s interested more in the prospects’ current capabilities… less about qualifying them into a deal. By focusing the prospect on their own (lack of) capability there is no need to be put into a defensive posture.

Bottom line: Avoid the push-back completely, save the story for later.

Assume a Neutral Role First

What if your communications technique re-framed: Away from coaxing the prospect into talking about their “why” (which they don’t have), toward a neutral role.

What if you first helped the client realize a problem exists with neutral questions?

The question, “What would need to happen for you to give sales managers a way to monitor and act on how reps are interacting with prospects?” is not asking to consider what they’re missing out on. Instead, it is asking the client to consider a problem (or advantage) they don’t (yet) know exists.

Here is another neutral question my colleague should be asking when calling-in cold: “How are you measuring your sales managers ability to help reps drive qualitatively better sales conversations?”

How, not “are you.” This forces introspection: “Gee, I’m not measuring managers’ ability to help reps communicate better…. why should I be?” Now they’re on a path to developing their ‘why.’

Under your neutral guidance.

If prospects don’t have a need for your tool you cannot nurture that need out of them. You must help them, first, develop a ‘why’ that is not tied to the pre-determined need you have (for prospects to develop a why enabling your eventual sale).

Here are action items for you to consider:

1) Why would a customer who is not, yet, able to initiate the change needed (to bring you in) want to hear a story?

2) What if you, instead, got better at facilitating conversations addressing clients internal decision systems? (helping the champion navigate their internal decision process… and, thus, shaping the RFP)

3) What if you got better at identifying what created the buyer’s status quo — then helped internal champions create a business case within the framework of their decision process?

Stories may be of (better) use when we are invited to share them by the prospect — for their reasons rather than being a means to convince them of something they’re overlooking/not seeing. That feels too much like persuasion.

As Edith Crnkovich, of DXC Technology and self-proclaimed sassy storyteller, says,  there is more value in “having the sales person first seek to understand the customers business issues before launching into a story. I don’t think we spend enough time doing that and this is mostly about asking a lot of questions first.”

What do you think?

A Lie That Keeps You From Success (Part 1 of 3)

“It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.” The words of 19th centrury historian, Alexis de Tocqueville are even truer today. But not only in the realm of politics. What’s keeping you or your sales team from generating appointments and leads with social selling? Bold, eye-grabbing fibs told by technology vendors and sales trainers whose livelihood depend on adoption of their false inventions. All based on a social media revolution that does not exist.

“It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.” The words of 19th centrury historian, Alexis de Tocqueville are even truer today. But not only in the realm of politics.

What’s keeping you or your sales team from generating appointments and leads with social selling? Bold, eye-grabbing fibs told by technology vendors and sales trainers whose livelihood depend on adoption of their false inventions. All based on a social media revolution that does not exist.

Get on board, the train is leaving without you! We’ve reinvented sales prospecting and you’re missing out!

But here’s what the gurus (cleverly) don’t tell you: Prospecting best practices remain the same. What works rarely changes. With social selling:

  • your cold calling tactics should evolve a bit—not reinvent themselves
  • LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube don’t replace cold calling—they advance it

Cold calling is alive and thriving. In fact, effective cold call tactics can feed your social selling strategy. Sellers have the chance to improve cold calling and social selling thanks to new tools.

“I often wonder … if the advocates to the ‘death of cold calling’ movement have mixed us a martini using battery acid instead of vermouth and somehow managed to make it pleasing to the palate,” says Kraig Kleeman in a lucid stream of thought on the Association for Talent Development’s LinkedIn group.

5 Signs Your Social Selling Strategy Is a Ticking Bomb
“The (cold calling is dead) argument appears delicious and intoxicating, but somehow its outcome creates a harmfully poisonous effect,” says Kleeman.

He is right. The tsunami of false claims about cold calling being dead can cause you to believe it is a factual reality—and act accordingly. Therein lies the danger.

Believing cold calling is less effective might cause you to rush into social selling and:

  1. Use LinkedIn as a replacement to cold calling—and be banned for using connection requests
  2. Fail to spark conversations with buyers via LinkedIn updates due to misguided tips
  3. Ask for appointments in “first touch” InMail/emails to prospects (big mistake!)
  4. Waste time trying to spark conversations in LinkedIn Groups because of ineffective scripts
  5. Teach ineffective methods to your entire team by hiring a misguided social selling trainer!

Let Social Filter: Trust Your Instincts
What works in cold calling works in social selling. Period. Don’t let any guru tell you otherwise.

An effective cold call produces raw insight on where the buyer is in the decision-making process. If they’re in it at all! It doesn’t set an appointment. It doesn’t ask for a meeting. It is discovery-focused. You’re filtering prospects and placing them in “buckets.”

An effective cold call is brief, blunt and basic. It facilitates to both sides: “Might there be a larger conversation to be had here? Why, when and how?” Done!

The buyer is in control and sets the meeting, demo or call date. Your job is to find the pain—uncover (or confirm) the reason why this prospect might want to talk to you.

Next, your job is to start a journey toward the buyer discovering (for themselves) why they want to talk more. It’s a process, a discipline. That’s why cold calling works so well!

This is the most effective way to approach social selling. First, have a system. Second, focus on the buyer so much they ask you for the next contact—or ask you to stop.

Let social media filter leads for you.

Don’t Do What You’ve Been Told
This may sound crazy, but it’s the best advice I can give. Stop using social media and LinkedIn to:

  • Make initial contact with prospects via LinkedIn connections
  • Send emails/InMails that ask for appointments—overlooking cold call best practices
  • Post updates on LinkedIn without a way to provoke buyers to contact you
  • Comment in LinkedIn groups without a means to spark curiosity in you (get response)
  • Message prospects on LinkedIn using a common group as a reason to speak

If you’re doing any of these, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. Otherwise good people who are looking to ride a wave have given you bad information. Unfortunately, they’re using fear and unbridled enthusiasm as weapons. Just say no.

Boldly Stand-up for the Facts
Kleeman wisely reminds us how the degree of sales productivity can be judged by observing. Take a look at what is going on around you. Notice who is adopting practices based on speculation versus the adoption of fact.

Take a look at the output each group is achieving. (How much money they’re making!)

In other words, are your sales peers being praised as “social selling leaders” simply for “being on” social media? Or are they being financially rewarded based on the facts—how much business they’re winning?

The Best of Both Worlds
Throwing out the old and implementing a very unproven new is hogwash. It’s a lazy strategy based on hot air. Tools like LinkedIn are providing a better way to identify and warm-up cold prospects … and finding “ready to buy” leads. Tons of value there. But …

“Try telling a broker of refurbished airplane parts that raw list cold calling is not a vital activity for revenue capture … try telling a manufacturer of plumbing, HVAC, and home improvement products that cold calling aimed at resellers and end users is ineffective,” says Kleeman.

“You just might need a degree in martial arts or unfettered access to the US military’s drone missile fleet to defend yourself,” he jokes.

Cold calling is alive, thriving and (surprise!) feeding winning social selling strategies. Today is your chance to improve cold calling and social selling thanks to new tools.

Forget about reinventing sales prospecting! Make sure your team has a prospecting strategy that exploits what already works using new social tools.