How to Use Business Storytelling to Shift the Sales Cycle

There is a time-honored (because it’s often successful) sales process in business that is remarkably similar to the storytelling process. It goes something like this:

  • What to do prior to prospecting to prepare yourself and your prospects

  • The act of prospecting

  • Calling on a prospect (in person, over the phone, or through an electronic connection)

  • Asking for the sale

  • What needs to happen post-sale to keep the buyer coming back for more

You know the marketplace is changing. And you may have experienced this shift yourself. Reflect on a recent major purchase you’ve personally made. Maybe it’s a car or an appliance, a laptop, or an expensive handbag or piece of luggage. Did you do any research before talking with a salesperson?

If so, what kind did you do? Did you do an online search? Did you look at any expert opinions or customer reviews? Watch any videos or listen to any testimonials? Did you talk with friends and family? Were you searching for stories? Did you find any?

With the advent of smartphones, checking anything out in advance with just about anyone is as close as your fingertips. Prospective customers are shifting the very way buying and selling occurs.

Is it any surprise that research by Google and the Corporate Executive Board found that customers reported being 57 percent through the sales process before engaging a sales rep, regardless of price point? Although this research was done in the business-to-business (B2B) space, it still applies to individual purchase decisions.

In a November 2012 presentation at the SES Conference & Expo, Lee Odden, CEO of @TopRank Marketing, ups that number. He cites research from SiriusDecisions 2012 that says 70 percent of a B2B buyer’s journey is complete before a sales lead. He takes what he calls the customer’s journey (awareness-consideration-purchase-retention-advocacy) and maps all different kinds of content to it to demonstrate what he believes potential buyers are researching:

  • Awareness: PR, radio, TV, print, word of mouth

  • Consideration: Online ads, e-mail, pay-per-click, social ads, reviews, blogs, media

  • Purchase: E-commerce, brick-and-mortar store, website

  • Retention: Community forum, frequently asked questions (FAQ), knowledge base

  • Advocacy: Promotions, blog, social networks, newsletter

This social change is one reason why you can use stories in marketing and the sales process: A whole variety of story practices can be integrated into all these mediums and outlets.

In addition, if prospects are truly shifting the sales process — which means they may be calling on your organization rather than you calling on them as prospects — you’d better know the stories they’ve already heard and seen about your organization and your competitors through these outlets.

You’d better know stories about their industry or demographic. And you’d better be prepared to evoke these stories from them. They’re not going to respond favorably to hearing you spout success stories. They already know them. That’s why they’re talking to you and your firm in the first place.

What’s the upside here? The good news is that the marketing stories your organization has planted in the media will (hopefully) give you and your organization a unique voice, automatically creating distinctions between you and your competitors. When written well, these marketing stories can engender four types of connections: physical, mental, emotional, and the human spirit.

If you’re in sales, you know that selling a product or a service’s features and benefits doesn’t engage people emotionally or at the level of the human spirit. That’s why you should ask prospects and customers how they feel about your product or service throughout the sales cycle and their experience of it, and why they chose you.

Don’t ask what they think about it — yes, even with products or services considered to be commodities, like fruits and vegetables (if you’re a street vendor) or grass cutting (if you have a lawn service company). Not only might you be surprised by what you hear, the information will help you identify the prospect’s Emotional Selling Point (ESP).

Once you have this ESP, you’ll be able to wisely choose and share hip pocket stories to solidify this connection.

To be able to ask about how they feel and what they’ve experienced, more than ever you need forge a relationship with prospects and buyers that can withstand the test of time. Ironic, isn’t it? In a world that’s more electronically connected than ever before, developing a trusted, authentic bond is still key.

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