Guilty of ‘show up and throw up’ selling? Use stories instead

Great selling isn’t about persuasion or about blurting out your product’s best features – it starts with genuinely listening to the customer’s story. But how do you do this, and at what point do you bring in your own story? Sales expert Scott Roy has the answers

Storytelling is a simple yet powerful skill that can help you sell. A well-told story helps listeners to relate personally: they literally form pictures in their minds of the people involved, the location and the situation, and instantly compare the story to their own, similar experiences. 

However, having trained tens of thousands of sales people in over 40 countries, at Whitten and Roy Partnership we find very few people who use stories during their sales efforts. Those who do often tell them poorly, or use them at the wrong time. 

Most salespeople rely on pitching the features and benefits of their product, trying to present something that – they hope – fits the customer’s situation and piques their interest. But this means simply guessing at what prospective customers might need. You’re relying on your ability to convince them to buy. At best, you’ll get lucky; at worst, customers will find you pushy and become annoyed. 

At best, you’ll get lucky; at worst, customers will find you pushy and become annoyed

We call this the ‘show up and throw up’ method of selling. It’s what most people around the planet think selling is. Imagine what it’s like on the other side: being forced to listen to a pitch, whether it’s relevant to you or not. We really dislike this approach to selling. It’s a particularly poor match for organisations who operate in the social or environmental space.

Thankfully there is a different, more enjoyable, and more effective way to sell. It involves not just telling stories, but listening to them as well. Your story needs to be told well and at the right time, but great selling starts with the listening to the customer’s story, not yours. 

Start with the customer’s story

Understanding each customer’s situation and the problems they need to solve should be your primary concern. Each organisation with something to sell will have different products, pricing, distribution channels, and so on, to talk about. But the approach to selling applies to us all: first, find out the customer’s problems, then follow with your solutions that you tailor to their situation. 

We call this DQ Selling®, which stands for Decision Intelligence. We believe the salesperson’s job is to help customers make the best possible buying decision. To do this effectively, two subjects need to be explored thoroughly: the problem the customer has and the solution that will solve it. 

Good Stories - a day of marketing and comms for social enterprises

So, start by listening intently to the customer’s story. Body language – using eye contact, nodding your head, taking notes – sends a message that you are fully tuned in. Repeating back to them now and again what you’ve heard lets them know you’re listening properly, and encourages them to dig deeper into their problems. 

However, this practice of listening requires discipline. For instance, early in the conversation a potential customer will share a problem you know you can solve. At that moment it will be very tempting to jump in prematurely with your solutions. But the consequence of this impulsive action is that the customer usually shuts down discussion of further problems, and you risk losing the opportunity for larger, faster, more certain sales. 

Jump in prematurely with your solutions… and you risk losing the opportunity for larger, faster, more certain sales

Instead, teach yourself to say, “Tell me more about…” in reference to something the customer has already said. This will keep you focused on their story, which will keep opening up more depth and understanding of their problems. Selling in this way requires thinking on your feet and paying very close attention to what’s being said.

When you do this well, you will probably hear multiple problems, not just one. The more problems you unearth, the more opportunity there may be to help. As a result the customer will understand their problems more clearly, which means they will be more eager to solve them. By understanding the impact of having these problems, especially in terms of what it is costing them financially, the customer will feel more urgency to find a solution. With this state of mind, the customer will now be interested, even eager, to hear your story. Selling doesn’t get any better than this. 

Using your stories to sell

Now it’s time for your solutions. This is when you present your value proposition to describe the features of your product and the benefits it brings. Tailor your solution to fit only the problems of this potential customer, rather than telling them about everything your product does.

The customer will understand their problems more clearly, which means they will be more eager to solve them

As you describe aspects of your product that solve key problems expressed by the customer, use third partystories. These are stories of your other customers – those who faced similar problems to your prospective client in front of you, and who have already bought from you. We use a simple and memorable format to do this (PAR): 

  1. What was the Problem that another customer had? 
  2. What was the Action they took, linked to your product’s features and benefits? 
  3. What was the Result they achieved?

Told in this way, prospective customers get a clearer picture of how your product would help solve their problem. They will therefore give more weight to the claims you make about your product and build their belief in your ability to deliver. 

This is the ideal scenario – short of having a satisfied customer accompanying you on sales calls, good storytelling about third parties is the next best thing. 

We suggest taking some time to write out some of your stories in this format so you become comfortable with them. Over time, you’ll build up quite a collection. If you don’t have stories of your own, learn those of a more experienced colleague’s while you develop your own. 

Learn to use PAR stories at different points of the sales process, including short encounters at conferences, when you’re closing a sale, handling objections, negotiating terms, and generating referrals. It takes some preparation to think through which stories to use and how to use them. 

Enjoy selling with stories, first by listening and understanding your customer’s story, then sharing your own experiences of other customers that match their situation. Selling in this way will give people confidence in you, your product and your ability to deliver. 

Whitten and Roy Partnership will be leading a session on sales and storytelling at this year's Good Stories conference, on Tuesday 26 February. Find out more and get tickets here.