Posted: Thu 14th Mar 2019
Stories help business owners explain products and services to customers. They are often more powerful than simply describing what you offer.
"The story is the only thing that's going to stand out," said sales expert and Enquir3 director Daniel Plowright. "In most markets, you are going to be competing against someone else. The people who are telling the best story will succeed, particularly in B2B."
In this member-only guide, we look at how to structure the stories you use to sell and increase the impact they have.
Leading customers through your journey
Small business brands are often wrapped up in the founder's story. Talking about your journey and why you started the business provides the structure for a story.
You've probably explained the business in lots of different situations. You could get asked at a barbecue by a relative or have to pitch to an employee or start-up support scheme. Start by reflecting on how you tell this story.
Karen Green is a food business consultant and director of Food Mentor. She helps business owners pitch buyers. Green advises founders to use storytelling to help people understand products. "The successful ones, whether movies or product stories follow a classic path," she said.
Old normal - couldn't find a healthy, gluten-free snack
Clear goal - wanted a product that tasted great
Obstacles - developing the recipe was a nightmare
External allies - an amazing product developer helped me
Struggle - convincing someone to make it for me
New normal - the product's launched
The approach helps buyers understand why customers love the brand - other people are experiencing the 'old normal'.
"Lead customers through the entrepreneur's journey and they will feel like they're part of it and will want to get involved," Green added.
Starting with your company's 'why'
Simon Sinek's start with why method advoccates building businesses around a cause, purpose or belief. This helps inspire people, whether it's clients, staff or your own personal motivation.
"A business' 'why' helps customers share the passion the business owner is feeling. It enables them to engage better with the brand and give it credibility. People love passion and are prepared to pay more if that resonates with their own values," said Green.
When you're telling a story introducing your business it can be more powerful to start by explaining why your company exists rather than what it does.
Paul Durrant is the founder of PDT Sales Consultancy. He argues that talking about your purpose will differentiate you from competitors that are just talking about what they do.
Simon Sinek's seminal lecture on the subject is a good place to start your research if you want to find out more about the 'why' approach.
Structuring your story and what to include
Creating stories starts with the target market and the point people are at in the buying process. This helps to understand their motivation and what you need to include.
"What circumstances is the prospect is in?" asked Plowright. "Typically, they have some problem or opportunity. They've crystalised what their problem is and they are looking for a service provider. You need to share what you've put in place to address that."
Your client's goals might include resolving a problem, saving time or money or having their quality of life enriched in some way.
"If you communicate how you solve clients' problems in a concise and memorable story people are more likely to remember it when they next have a problem or need," said Durrant.
Creating a grid with your products on one side and main customer groups on the other helps identify the stories and case studies you need.
You might sell a bookkeeping service and a consultancy session to help small businesses budget. You key clients are small retailers and restaurants. That grid produces four potential stories.
Having a story about a retailer that increased revenue by applying something from the consultancy session builds credibility. Using industry terminology and picking suitable case studies demonstrates expertise. Plowright added that you can use written versions on your website too.
"Draw up a profile of each of your target markets. Research their buying habits and motives and modify your messaging accordingly," said Durrant.
Adding facts can strengthen a story and give it credibility. You could share the number of people that are gluten intolerant or are undiagnosed in the healthy gluten-free snacks example. The buyer's now more interested because it's a big market and they may be one of the people that's affected.
The Hero's Journey
The Hero's Journey is a common story structure. It follows a character as they go on an adventure, learns something through adversity and return transformed. Green's story suggested story structure has its hallmarks.
The structure appears throughout literature and film and was probably present as far back as prehistoric campfire stories. When you recognise the structure you start to see it everywhere. From George Lucas' Star Wars to Moby Dick.
What's this got to do with sales? The Hero's Journey is one of the most powerful ways to impact an audience. What if your customer was the hero? What if they overcome adversity using your product or service?
"The hero of the piece should be your client," advises Plowright. "Let's say you provided a service and asked for a testimonial. You should take that opportunity to sell what they do too."
Starting a cold call
We've all been on the end of cold calls and know it can be uncomfortable. Any business owner that's tried will know how nervous it can make you when you're interrupting someone's day.
But it's a crucial part of selling. Marketing is important to building brands and making sales, but many businesses rely on phone calls. Particularly if they're B2B.
Having several stories that are relevant to the person your calling will boost your confidence. These calls normally start with a snappy introduction to your business - remember to think about your why - and a polite request for their time. The next step is the perfect opportunity to open with a story relevant to what their business does.
Using stories in cold calls means you can avoid bringing up prices or detailing the product in the begginning stages of the call. Doing this too early can feel uncomfortable and may risk putting people off.
Practising your storytelling
It's helpful to practice your key stories. Try to strike a balance between knowing what to include and being too formulaic.
"A very well rehearsed story can seem staged and not give the real power that a story should," warns Green. "I think creating two or three headlines that lead the listener to the brand values is helpful. Then each time the story is told it comes from the heart but uses that logical sequence."
Knowing customer case studies will help you feel more confident and be able to talk about the business in a more natural way.
Plowright had a slightly different take on how you should prepare.
"If you've got a sales team or a business owner out there they ought to know these stories off by heart. Ultimately, every time they're asked to do their pitch it should include similar elements," he said.
Reflect on the experiences you have with different people. Are there parts of the story people don't understand or did you hit on something people love? Incorporate it next time around.
"Road test them on friends, families and business associates," advised Durrant. "That will allow you to modify their stories - so that they're more engaging and memorable. Just remember that a good story normally needs refining to make it a great story,".
People might even repeat explanations back to you in helpful ways. Business mentors, investors and even your mum may distil a wordy part of your story into a succinct sentence.
Stories help people explain your business for you. If you're selling B2B it's likely the person you're dealing with will have to pitch the idea internally. Whether they talk to a manager, CFO or even the business owner depending on the size of the deal. Having a great story will empower them and create an advocate.
People will share the story outside of their businesses too. These referrals are incredibly valuable.
"If a story is concise and memorable someone else can repeat your story on your behalf. This improving your chances of getting a referral," said Durrant.