This is an email I received from James Mayfield Smith regarding my post about the top IBM sales rep. I had a phone conversation with James and then we exchanged emails. He’s got a very convincing view on the role of storytelling in sales (he refers to it as strategic applied mythology). Why convincing? When I look at the way that I’ve sold over the years (what I’ve depended on to win) and my observations of others who were successful, there is no question that storytelling was important. Here is his email (with permission). It’s worth the read.
I’ve got a few thoughts about your review of the Fortune article about the IBM sales rep Vivek Gupta. I agree with your assessment that Gupta is “business-driven, fearless, [and] able to thrive in a complex organization” and that these traits are keys to his success. When his actual sales process was outlined, something else came to light as well. Gupta is a master of many skills, and chief among these is his ability to find the story that his customer lives and to build himself into that story as a solution provider. When he studied the telecom business referenced in the article to look for its “pain points,” he was really looking for the stories that the company told itself about itself. This concept is central because one of the key functions of a sales person is to influence behavioral change (i.e. convince a prospect to buy from his company). From a mythological perspective, the quickest and most effective route to behavioral change is by either changing a customer’s story of what is possible in the world (i.e. it’s possible to increase effectiveness by outsourcing your IT needs with us) or by changing a customer’s story of who they are in that world (i.e. by focusing on what you do best, you can achieve a higher ROI). A sales professional who masters the ability to work in the realm of story via strategic applied mythology (a methodology which encompasses philosophy, psychology, strategy, and skills application) and delivers on that story gains preferred position with a client and earns its business. Gupta is a great example of how this type of customer-centric, solution-selling works when the basic skills are in place and the proper attention is devoted to having the sales conversations required to identify the client’s hidden stories and then become a part of them.
You may be wondering why one should bother with utilizing a story-oriented lens when a good sales methodology with solid skills training, effective measurement, and ongoing reinforcement is effective. The answer lies in the fact that humans are story-driven creatures. It’s in our genes and it is what we do…our tribal shamans are now medical doctors, research scientists, and clergy. Our traditional stories are now Hollywood films, the Wall Street Journal, and Internet blogs. We continue to be story-driven, and our behaviors are largely influenced by the stories we live and that often live us. Much research shows that data that does not align with a story that I am living either creates psychic dissonance and conflict or else is ignored. Regardless of whether one likes the idea, most decisions are made for underlying emotional reasons that the decision-maker is often unaware of. A good sales professional who understands the principles of strategic applied mythology, however, can systematically uncover the key stories within an organization and utilize them to his advantage. This is no replacement for basic sales skills, but rather, a soft-skills over-arching strategy approach that organizes and explains the elements that are effective to winning a sale. For example, I could take one of your executive overviews of a training company and apply my lens to explain why that methodology works. What I do explains why what works actually works, and offers a lens to examine, predict, plan, and execute success.
Another of the many applications of strategic applied mythology to sales training is to increase the effectiveness of a sales force by enrolling each sales person into the vision of the company. The best sales professionals know and believe in the value they bring and clearly see how their role and their jobs impact their lives positively. These professionals have the vision and motivation of the CEO. This can be replicated, as there are processes to help sales professionals begin to articulate their own higher vision and to integrate how that is served by fulling living the mission of the company. This type of values alignment and integration leverages the potential human capital of a sales force by reorienting it towards strategic objectives.
Should mainstream sales training companies add this skill to their curricula? I don’t see that happening. Not because it wouldn’t provide salespeople with additional capabilities. I suspect research would prove that there is real value resulting from formal programs in storytelling, especially for those selling services and other intangibles. Why not then? There are just too many other things to accomplish in the area of sales performance improvement. I write about those on this blog: business skills, advanced competitive selling skills, political leverage, strategic negotiation, executive-level selling, coaching, relationship bulding… And then there is measurement, leveraging technology… Lots to do that are already on the list.
If any of you reading this have had experiences with storytelling, either comment or drop me an email.