Why You Must Tell Stories To Succeed
Stories work. Because we are human beings with emotions, senses, and a vivid imagination and not computational business case machines. Many startups fail to tell a compelling story and rather provide more of a feature catalog of their capabilities. This is why I wrote this short guide on how to tell a great story for you as a founder or any person working in sales to help you gain more market traction quicker.
For me, telling a great story in B2B sales should always contain these 7 building blocks.
Problem: What problem do you solve for the customer?
If you do not solve a problem, you lack a reason to exist. Your job is to solve a problem that is current, relevant, urgent, and for which there are currently no solutions available.
- Relevance: Ideally, you tackle either a -10 problem (you prevent your customer from going out of business or dying) or a +10 problem (your customer triples market share, gets promoted or married thanks to you). On any problem between -7 and +7, it is hard to build a sustainable business because people are change-resistant and the urge to act is not big enough.
- Urgency: There is a difference between important (+10/-10 problem) and urgent (Now, Next, Later). Your customer might find Cyber-security, a new website, or a great culture important, but it is also acceptable for him to only act on it in 12 months. Therefore, B2B sales cycles often take 6–18 months, so you need to find that trigger that makes your customer act earlier.
- Unsolved: There are many issues we initially struggle to understand why nobody has fixed them yet in 2019. It is however important to understand the “why”. The individual customer might have tried (many) times before to solve this issue and be reluctant to try again out of fear of failure.
Solution: What exactly can you do for the customer?
Once you identified a relevant, urgent and unsolved problem, your customer will ask you what you are doing to solve it. This is NOT your moment for “feature-fucking” such as “We built an AI-powered Big Data SaaS solution that can do 47 things and they are all awesome”. Be specific what you can do for that specific customer and how you fit into the customer’s setup and specifically who benefits from working with you.
Buyer: “What’s in for me” for the CEO, CFO, Head of R&D, etc.?
I find it helpful to think in these 3 clusters in order to define how to work with your relevant stakeholders:
- Decision Maker: Signs your offer, typically a “CxO”, or “VP”. “Follow the money”. A top-down approach usually works, if you do not omit the Problem Owner and Influencer.
- Problem Owner: Needs your solution operationally, typically a “Head of” or “Manager” that is unable to buy your solution herself
- Influencer: Can kill the deal if they want, typically staff functions such as procurement, finance or IT
Similar roles often have similar job descriptions. A CEO’s job for example is to increase revenue, decrease costs, and reduce risks. And it might be of concern to her that your company does not tie into their top 3 strategic priorities, does not provide business value or that it is too risky to bring you on board with the ongoing projects. That being said, know that you are selling to people with individual motivations, values, and concerns (see below). Not companies and not roles. You need to understand the specific personalities you are selling to instead of thinking “you are a CFO and that makes you tick — like all CFOs.” Everybody has different reasons for objecting to your proposal.
Objections: How can you proactively resolve your customer’s concerns?
“Why shall I raise concerns that might kill the deal, and that even proactively?”, you might now ask. Because your customer will raise them. It is just up to you if you want to be part of the conversation and through that can exert certain control over the conversation. If you refrain to do so, your customer will “find” her own answers and blow off the deal for reasons you will never understand. And no, “I do not have time / I do not have the budget for it” are rarely the real reasons a customer does not buy from you. Everybody has the same 24 hours in a day, and it is not even the person’s own money she is spending. That means your counterpart simply does not want to hurt your feelings by telling you that you did not provide enough value and they lack the trust that you will be able to resolve their objections.
Testimonial: How can you leverage social proof to build trust with your customer?
We are gregarious animals. That implies that social proof and testimonials from people we trust are often worth more than the greatest business case, technology, and surely PowerPoint deck. Every time another person than you talks about you positively is of great value. This works even better if that person has a stellar reputation in the market as your customer can relate well to that person as he is e.g. working in the same industry or has a personal relationship with said person.
Testimonials work best if they are authentic. It is therefore even positive if a testimonial at least initial concerns other potential customers can identify with. If you ask customers for a testimonial, they will often ask you to write it for them to review and sign-off to help you, but also to save effort. This can work but ideally, you get the chance to create a video, interview, or another interactive format with them rather than a shiny flyer. Remember, stories work, and we are all people that want to learn from other people how we can reduce our risk of doing stupid things.
Risk Reversal: How can you reduce the risk for your customer?
Customers will often ask you for a free trial, a Proof of Concept or similar options to find out if working with you will actually result in the benefits you promised them. This is not only because of corporate financial and operational concerns. This is also because they might, in the worst case, lose their job if they bring in a partner who does not live up to the set expectations.
The problem with the options listed above is that it does not force your counterpart to reveal her true intentions. She might want to genuinely work with you, but also just be a bored middle manager striving to experiment with innovative solutions like yours. This is where a risk reversal option such as a money-back guarantee can help you close more deals faster. You might now have similar concerns than with bringing up objections proactively. “But what if I worked a lot for a customer, she then claims her money back and I have no revenue?” That only happens if you did not deliver the value you promised because an opting-out by claiming paid money back is psychologically harder for a person than an opting-in such as moving from a Proof of Concept to a subscription.
Now, if you are unsure that you truly create value for the money you charge, fix it, now. And if you need to do Proof of Concepts, I suggest calling them pilot projects at the very least. Because “Proof” and “Concept” are not words associated with “Trust” and “Bottom-line impact”. Also, your customer might not have truly understood why you will succeed where others failed.
Differentiator: What is the one thing you do better than anybody else?
Up to now, you did not even mention competition or why you as a company are awesome, but only what you can achieve for the customer. And that is the way it should be. However, there might be a competitor telling your potential customers a similar story. If you want to win the deal, you need to understand and claim the 1–2 key selling points that only you can provide to your customer that nobody else can. Uniqueness is hard. And crucial to get right. Just like sales.