Don’t get me wrong, I like a good story as much as the next guy. I love movies and am captivated by books and short stories, but watching The Titanic didn’t make me run out and buy a life boat. This is part of the reason why I find the recent trend is sales training that focuses on helping salespeople become better storytellers so interesting.
I get it, marketing controls much of the money that is spent on sales training. What’s more, many smart, well intentioned marketing people believe that the core problem in sales effectiveness is that their salespeople simply aren’t effective enough at telling the story marketing has created. I say this as a fellow marketer, lifelong sales professional, and with the greatest respect to marketing people who hold this view: You are wrong.
Selling Isn’t Telling
While it’s essential that salespeople be able to describe their products and services in the most compelling fashion possible, the idea that there is ONE most compelling story for every prospect with whom they work is a faulty assumption.
First, different buyers value the characteristics of our solutions differently. In addition, what makes our solution better than competing alternatives depends on which of those alternatives are being considered by the buyer in the current evaluation.
Rarely will an evaluator sit down for an exhaustive review of every possible point of differentiation and capability that could be meaningful, which leaves the seller having to choose which parts of the story to prioritize and which to leave out. As a result, the most compelling story for Buyer A could be significantly different than the most compelling story for Buyer B.
Giving the salesperson one story for both reduces the impact and places emphasis on the delivery of a canned story over understanding the unique characteristics of each buyer.
A Better Alternative
So what should marketing do instead? How can the sales development dollars be invested? Should the story be ignored entirely?
Here are specific actions marketing can take to ensure sellers know what story to tell which customers AND be as effective as possible:
1. Define the ideal customer profile.
Every product and service marketing delivers, in fact every capability, is important because it solves some problem for some customer.
What sellers need to know is:
- What problems are solved
- The characteristics of a person or business who would likely have these problems
- What question the seller can ask to determine the degree to which a given prospect matches this profile
Marketing can help supercharge the sales effort by quipping sellers with these characteristics and questions even before new products are launched.
2. Identify clear competitive advantages.
People buy the solution that most closely resembles their criteria at the end of their evaluation. When a seller properly engages with a prospect or customer, the seller has a tremendous opportunity to influence or shape this criteria. This can dramatically improve his chances of winning; however, it requires not only the skill to engage the customer, but also the knowledge of what criteria favor his solution versus the specific alternatives being considered by the buyer.
This is why competitive intelligence is so critically important. Unless marketing can help define what the ideal criteria would be to position us most favorably against a particular competitor, sellers will lack the knowledge needed to shape the criteria effectively – no matter their skill at doing so.
3. Provide a model for the story, not the story itself.
While the characteristics that matter to one buyer may be different than those that resonate with another, the overarching model for how they will evaluate the story does not. It will always be based on their perception of the impact the solution has on their situation or business.
Therefore, marketing should provide sellers with a model for linking the capabilities of their solution with meaningful impact. The model should focus the seller on identifying or reviewing specific criteria or the problem with the buyer, the reason that problem exists, and the unique way in which the solution will address the underlying cause of the problem.
The seller should then tie the solution back to the original issue by clearly quantifying the expected improvement the solution will deliver. Will it eliminate the problem all together, or will it reduce it by 30%? When sellers understand the model, they are better equipped to shape the story in a way that is most compelling for each buyer based on her specific situation and criteria.
4. Create several sample cases.
Given the right questions to ask, a clear understanding of their competitive advantages, and some help creating compelling scenarios that demonstrate the specific impact their solutions can have for their prospects, most sellers will be well equipped to succeed.
The final ingredient is to provide sellers with specific examples that tie all these things together for several sample scenarios. By creating several samples, marketing can help salespeople visualize how to apply the questions and presentation model to their own prospects and customers, and see how what they learn in earlier conversations is best leveraged in presenting the solution. This full 360 view is key to their ability to execute in the field.
Marketing Can Help Drive Sales Effectiveness
Make no mistake, marketing can absolutely help drive sales effectiveness. However, doing so requires a departure from the normal objective of defining a single story/message that will resonate with the broadest possible audience. That is an outstanding objective for marketers but it is not the objective for sellers.
The seller’s objective is to leverage her understanding of each unique buyer and his criteria and then define the optimum story and deliver that unique story in the most compelling fashion possible.
When marketing understands the difference and focuses not on trying to make sellers better at marketing but helping them get better at selling, everyone wins, including prospects and customers.
Bob Sanders has more than 25 years experience in sales, sales management, and marketing. Bob has served as President and CEO of AXIOM Sales Force Development from 2006 to 2018. His passion about sales behavior and coaching helps develop people into their best selves. Since Bob joined AXIOM as a partner in the fall of 1993, he's helped dozens of companies around the world generate hundreds of millions in additional revenue. Bob holds a degree in Marketing from Miami University. He has been a keynote speaker at numerous corporate events and industry conferences. He is a founding underwriter and frequent contributor to the Sales Management Association. He co-authored AXIOM's “Selling Sciences Program™” workbook and audio program, and is a contributor on "A Journey to Sales Transformation". When Bob is not advocating on behalf of buyers and sellers worldwide, he is an avid cyclist, father, and husband.