Want an Edge in the Age of Digital Selling? Craft Meaningful Stories

Sales today is facing a perfect storm of challenges: Buyers have more control over the sales process than ever; they’re concerned and distracted by a unique combination of supply chain upheaval, high employee turnover, and rising inflation; and finally, buyers aren’t willing to give as much time to salespeople because of tight schedules and all of the previously mentioned concerns that are eating up their bandwidth. It all means that selling is harder than it’s ever been before.

Sales Has Changed, and Sellers Must Change with It

What’s more, the move to digital has completely transformed the way we sell. Whether a business buyer is searching for office supplies or enterprise technology, they can easily and quickly access huge amounts of information about almost any product or company long before they ever talk to a sales representative. This is an especially challenging shift for business-to-business (B2B) sales, where chief sales officers have been slower than their business-to-consumer (B2C) counterparts to move away from thinking that the traditional sales process is the best — maybe even the only — way for buyers to learn what they need to know before pulling the trigger to buy.

Putting a finer point on the impact of this change, Gartner research found that B2B buyers now spend only 17% of their total purchase journey in conversations with sales reps. Considering the average business purchase involves multiple potential suppliers, any given sales rep gets roughly 5% of a customer’s total purchase time, according to the research.

That’s worth repeating. You or your sales rep can now expect to get only 5% of a customer’s total purchase time!

The good news is that in this quickly changing age of digital everything, salespeople can turn to a traditional, time-honored, and tried-and-true method for closing more deals: craft authentic, audience-centric stories.

First, Embrace the New Realities of Selling

Despite spending increasingly less time with sales reps, research shows that one of the biggest reasons people buy is their experience with the seller. So, when a buyer does finally interact with a salesperson today — even if it’s only for a small fraction of the entire buyer journey — it’s more important than ever to build relationships. Why? Because it will help you quickly lead to these three outcomes:

  • Create trust and connection between the buyer and the seller, as opposed to seeing an opportunity for the seller to roll out all of the product’s features and functions (which, by the way, the buyer likely already knows about!)
  • Guide the buyer through the mountain of information already consumed, downloaded, or printed out, to help reach a decision 
  • Put the buyer at ease with the whole process

To achieve those goals, sales needs to come to terms with a few new realities.

Sales is no longer the source of all knowledge and wisdom

As sales converges with marketing and customer service, selling has become “more about helping and less about hyping,” in the words of Joel Book, director of digital marketing insight for Salesforce. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has a similar attitude toward the role that salespeople need to play today: “Engaging people is about meeting their needs — not yours.”

A bad salesperson concentrates solely on what they want to say. A good salesperson understands prospects want to be heard — and not have their time wasted listening to information they already have or don’t need to hear. Sales leaders who are reluctant to acknowledge their customers’ digital-first proclivities will be outpaced by their competitors who are delivering significant value through digital and omnichannel sales models.

“We are witnessing a decided end to the era where sales reps were the channel; now they are merely a channel to customers.” — Gartner, 5 Ways the Future of B2B Buying Will Rewrite the Rules of Effective Selling

Sales needs to be a sense-maker, not an information bombarder

In the new sales model, sales reps and specialists will play a more prominent role navigating self-learning customers toward more confident decisions, not by arming them with more information, but by helping them make sense of the information they already have. The age is gone when salespeople made a good impression by rolling out all of their product’s features and benefits via emails, white papers, e-books, and sales sheets.

Why? Because sales prospects already have that information, and they trust it. They’re simply overwhelmed. Nearly 9 out of 10 respondents to Gartner’s 2019 Buyer Survey felt the information they had encountered in a recent purchase was generally of high quality, relevant, and evidenced. Yet over half reported feeling overwhelmed specifically by the volume of trustworthy information they encountered as part of their purchase journey.

So more information isn’t necessarily the answer if you want better sales. Sales reps instead need to help buyers make sense of it all — and, of course, guide them to the decision they hope for.

Second, Learn How Every Customer Is Unique

A well-planned presentation is key to success when presenting your ideas to colleagues. But the needs of audience members change depending on their modality, and typically it’s easier for virtual audiences to feel left out. For this reason, make sure that your presentation takes both in-person and remote audiences into consideration, but focus on virtual participants first to make sure they feel heard and seen.

Take the time to learn about your buyer

If you want to build trust and credibility with buyers, you can’t assume that the same pitch will work for all of them. Rather than starting your process by building your story in PowerPoint (or Google Slides, or whatever format you use), first spend some time considering the mindset of your prospect. 

Who are they? What makes them unique? What is happening in their world? You might be surprised to learn — and it’s a good idea to assume — that certain assumptions about your audience are wrong. Digging deeper will give you more insight into what’s familiar for them, ensuring your narrative is relevant and effective.

Ask questions — and carefully listen to their answers

How do you learn about your prospect? Use storytelling to deepen understanding and engagement. Here are three tactics for doing just that:

  1. Have prospects tell their own stories about current challenges, and ask for specific examples and anecdotes. This helps your buyers think through their problems in a different way and discover new insights on their own — which in turn builds their trust in you. It also helps establish you as someone supporting them to separate the wheat from all of the information chaff they’ve amassed about whatever it is that you’re selling.
  2. Identify each buyer’s “root cause” — the singular problem they’re facing that has led them to you. Again, walk in the shoes of each individual buyer and see things from their point of view. The alternative is missing a larger opportunity for personal connection — and closing a deal.
  3. Don’t get stuck in the tactical items you’ve built into your presentation, or all the minutiae of your products or services. Instead, direct your buyer to think about their business in a different light, from the perspective of their root cause for needing what you’re selling. This will help you create excitement and motivate your buyer to join you on this journey.

Third, Learn How to Tell a Great Story: 5 Top Tips (It’s Easier Than You Think)

Now, about that thing mentioned at the top of this article: the power of storytelling for better selling. The human brain is wired for stories. Here are three clear reasons why meaningful, authentic stories are much more likely to get a prospect to act the way you want them to:

  1. A story helps people connect with an idea through emotion. It helps give your buyer a reason to care about what you’re selling and about you.
  2. It helps your prospects better understand the complexities and abstractions of your product or service, because you put all of that in a context that’s more tangible and relatable to them and addressing their most pressing pain.
  3. It weaves facts and data (all of those important features and benefits that are your differentiators) into a story that creates a much more memorable, more effective sales presentation.

In short, a great story creates the connection and trust that buyers are craving. It doesn’t just pile on more information for them to wade through.

And the best part? Great storytelling is not only a learnable skill, it’s easier than you might think. Here are five tips for crafting an engaging story that gets your prospect to say “yes.”

  1. Build a compelling story

A surefire way to capture any prospect’s attention is by applying a universal story structure, which has four elements: setting, character, conflict, and resolution.

  • Set the scene and ground the conversation with context by introducing a setting — for example, their root cause for seeking what you’re selling.
  • Use characters to create empathy — maybe similar companies with the same problem, or even a story about yourself or a fictitious character.
  • Create tension by adding some conflict — for example, the consequences of sticking with the status quo or of buying from a competitor.Finally, share the action that your buyers should ultimately take — guide them to choose your product or service.
  1. Give them something to stay focused on: your BIG Idea

Your story needs a singular throughline — the one clear thing you want your prospect to take away from the presentation. Think about it like this: If you only had one chance to send an email to your entire sales pipeline to explain your main selling point, what would the subject line be? 

This is your presentation’s BIG Idea. It needs to:

  • Address the central issue — the root cause — that your buyer cares most about
  • Tie back to helping your buyers make sense of what they’re seeing and help guide them to a decision
  • Help them feel confident in what they’re learning elsewhere and make the learning journey clear-cut and painless, by offering a clear path for them to stay on
  1. Customize the broad-brush canvas

After you have created a compelling story for general use, you need to adapt it for different prospects and markets. This ties back to the importance of listening to your buyer and realizing each prospect is unique.

With a solid story structure already in place, you only need to switch out content in the appropriate sections. Maybe you can “mix and match” your characters or the setting. Or you can swap out case studies or testimonials to be as relevant as possible for each prospect.

Over time, your sales team might try to build a “grab-and-go” library of customization options you can all share to connect better with vertical markets, regions, buyer demographics, etc. Just be sure to steer clear of the dreaded Frankendeck!

  1. Use your data wisely

Data can easily become the demise of a great story. Or it can play a wonderfully engaging supporting role. Are you using data strategically to bolster your ideas? The trick is to wrap your data inside of your story, not the other way around. The best storytellers do exactly this because they keep one important fact in mind: People are 22 times more likely to remember information when it’s wrapped in a story.

When you do use data, be sure it directly and clearly helps your buyer navigate all of the information they already have (yet another admonition not to pile more information on top of your overloaded buyer).

  1. Guide buyers to a choice

When it’s all said and done, you want to make it easy for your buyer to feel that you’re offering them a trustworthy path to a rational choice. You want them to feel you’re helping them make the right choice amid a chaotic market or among a confusing array of options.

One way to embrace this sense-making approach is to apply the unique value-add that you bring to guide customers to make a confident decision. Another way is to minimize uncertainty over competing perspectives and potential alternate actions the buyer might make — make their decision-making process easier, not more challenging.

When It Comes to Selling, Story Is Key

No matter how much digital technology changes the role of the salesperson, one thing remains true: Great storytelling will always win the hearts and minds of buyers. Because at the end of day, and especially in the B2B sales world, people want to buy from people they trust and whom they feel have truly listened to them.

The time you get with prospects may be getting shorter and shorter. But the victories will go to salespeople who, no matter how limited their face time with a prospect is, can tell a story that shows that they thoroughly understand their buyer’s most critical problems and help them cut through all of the noise to guide them toward a better future.

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