The Impact of Customer Case “Stories”

sales, sales tacticsThis post has been sitting in my editing queue for a month. Then I read a great article on telling stories from Harvard Business Review Storytelling that moves people. First thing in my head — Don’t post your own version. Well, you can see I over-ruled myself. BTW, please read the HBR article, it’s really great and without a doubt better than mine.

First, let me tell you a story (yes, I have to tell a story in a post about stories – what do you expect?) One of my good friends is one of the best technology sales people I know. From the time we started in the business 15 years ago, he was unbelievable. His secret: He is a storyteller. He explains the company via relevant customer stories, he overcomes objections via stories, you name it. Sit in a room with him and he will have you utterly engaged. Remember, it’s not just the story. The storyteller knows the audience and can deliver a story that tugs at their emotions. They laugh, they cry. He is now a successful sales leader who just started a new role. The company he works for is moving into the enterprise space. Bigger deals, different selling, etc. The message is getting there, but not formalized. He walked into a room of executives and told them the story of one of their other customers just like them. He gave the background of the organization, the situation, and even described the executives. The executives in the room were hooked as they realized that this company is just like theirs. He presented their challenges and made them sound daunting and monumental. Then he told them how they worked together to solve the issues. (Love this — great sales stories always show how the vendor works with the protagonist to solve the story). He then delivered the punchline — success. Not just ROI and numbers, but anecdotally how his customer protagonists felt and how they become internal heroes. The moral of this story — he got another huge deal.

Since I don’t consider myself a great sales person, I try to watch and observe the best in action. Interestingly, I am working with another VP of Sales who is exactly the same as the person I described above except he takes it a step further. He uses stories in every conversation. For example, I noticed he uses stories to help people know that he understands what they are talking about. I made a recommendation to him. He replies with: “I get it, I have seen this before at company X. We were faced with x…” It really made me realize something I knew before, stories might be the most powerful weapon available to sales (and marketing).

Oh yes, I mentioned marketing too. (On my last couple sales posts, my content marketing muse Ardath Albee will remind me that my sales recommendation goes for marketing as well.) In this “case” (no pun intended), marketing is extremely relevant because for all the entertainment value marketers have pored into their demand generation content, they continue to make case “studies” aka really boring customer content. It’s actually interesting, because we believe the buyer is consumed with the bottom line, the metrics, but the why, how, and who are just as critical. Anyone can say a number. If you have a lighthouse account, don’t just tell me: “We delivered 300% ROI for Lighthouse Account A”…tell me the story…where they were before, during, and after…then give me the punchline.

Sales people tell me all the time “I need case studies”. Of course you do…but you will be even more impactful if you can tell it to the right buyer at the right time. The same people that say: “I need case studies” are the people that just send over a marketing-centric document with big words and no meaning. Don’t get me wrong, case studies provide validation which is critical, but it is even more critical is to build trust and credibility with the buyer and to prove that you and your organization can help them. And stories are often the best way to do this. A story will undoubtedly have more impact than all the dry mumbo-jumbo from your script pitch or bullet points and will certainly have more impact than a dry marketing document.

customer success story, sales, sales training

The keys to a great customer case story:

1. The protagonist

Remember, every great great story has a protagonist. Here is the problem for most organizations, they think they are the protagonist. That is wrong. The protagonist is the buyer and you are the enabler. You want the listener to imagine themselves in the shoes of the protagonist. Think about it: Most compelling stories about someone who the reader/viewer can relate to, respects, or aspires to be (think Superman). The protagonist faces adversity, challenges or insurmountable odds and is ultimately able to overcome them. The audience can’t stop reading/watching/listening as a result.

2. The challenge or obstacle

I look back at my favorite stories and my protagonist faced insurmountable odds and found a way to solve it. These are my favorite stories. People give you money if you solve pain. If you identify the pain in your conversation with the buyer, you have the potential to help them understand your value by presenting a story with a similar protagonist with a similar challenge.

3. The journey

Tell the story of HOW they solved it. We all know it took more than just your solution — it took people, process, strategy, and technology. We also know it wasn’t easy. If you tell a story that is “they loaded us in and snapped their fingers and voila”. That’s not a good story. There was struggle and the buyer knows it. The HBR story even mentions an antagonist — love that. If your story is all rainbows and unicorns, you won’t be believable.

4. The hard-fought victory

Remember, if you are selling you are in the business of making heroes. When you tell the story, the protagonist overcome these odds, and solved this problem.

5. The impact

Now you can deliver the impact. Here is how ROI numbers are delivered today: “Dear prospect, I’d love to have a conversation with how we saved <Company X> $3 million in revenue”. At TOPO, we mystery shop sales people. I listen to sales calls all day. I call it the “impact-less ROI mention”. Can you see me here? Imagine, delivering  a story with real impact where you bring your prospect into your story, let them follow along, and then deliver the punchline. I’m sold just writing this. It is also important to mention the impact for the protagonist. Things like being promoted to the VP or winning employee of the year are part of the impact of working with you.

Once you become adept at delivering a customer story, you start to see the possibilities: Value prop validation, objection handling, feature explanations, etc. The transition is easy: “Let me give you an example relevant to your business…” Deliver stories and you will prove to your buyers that you understand them, their business and have the experience and track record to help make them your next protagonist.

A note to the sales leader: When training reps, customer case stories are critical to your reps. Instead of a product-marketing heavy product training, provide case stories and run exercises to train reps and how and when to deliver them.

Now, go.

Photo by CatNipStudio
Craig Rosenberg is the Funnelholic and a co-founder of Topo. He loves sales, marketing, and things that drive revenue. Follow him on Google+ or Twitter