Storytelling is a popular topic among marketers. Open your favorite social media platform, and you won’t have to look far to find marketing professionals discussing various aspects of storytelling - how we use data, emotions, customers, value, brand, purpose, and, of course, copy in storytelling. But you know what rarely comes up? Sales. Or selling, for that matter. We might admit that we aim to inspire customers to take action with our storytelling, but selling rarely gets a mention.
Marketers are from Disneyland; sales folks are from Glengarry
While marketers obsess over storytelling, sales teams seem less infatuated. If you look at sales training (and sales folk do a LOT more formal training than marketers do), you will see a focus on negotiation skills, building empathy with a buyer, handling objections, and closing. What rarely makes the list? Storytelling.
The result can cause whiplash for prospects. Marketing is sweating over every line of copy and meticulously crafting little jewel boxes of stories to entice prospects to take action. But then, the minute the prospect hits sales, what do they get? A firehose of features! A product walkthrough that takes an attitude of “Hey, we are just here to give you the facts, Jack!” No perfectly crafted value propositions woven into a story, no narrative that strings the pitch together, nada.
We gave sales the stuff, but they ignored us!
I’ve worked with teams where the marketing department has attempted to fix this problem by crafting a sales pitch that takes their marketing stories and turns them into a PowerPoint deck for sales. How many times have I heard from marketers that this works? Zero. “We gave them the stuff,” the marketers complain, “but they just ignored it!” When I talk to sales teams about these marketing-created sales pitches, the most common complaint I hear is that marketing has added “too much fluff” that doesn’t help them sell.
Sales and marketing are DIFFERENT
In my opinion, the main problem is that marketing doesn’t fully understand the sales team's needs when it comes to a narrative. Our marketing stories don’t fully serve what a salesperson needs to do in a first-call pitch. Let’s look specifically at the differences.
Our goals in marketing are very different from our goals in a sales situation. Often in marketing, we are simply trying to capture an audience’s attention and get their permission to continue marketing to them. We can do that effectively with entertainment, for example. Have you ever noticed all those memes on social media? They work well to convince folks you are a fun account to follow. We are ultimately trying to persuade a prospect to take action, but only when they are ready and not all the time.
Sales, on the other hand, is generally dealing with the folks who have already raised their hand in some form and are in a purchase process. Our primary job in sales is to help guide prospects through the purchase process. Stories created mainly to entertain and engage are inappropriate in this context. Sales needs a story structure designed to help educate a buyer about how best to make a decision.
Discovery - a discussion with the prospect about their particular situation and constraints - is also a critical sales function in a first call. A story structure that doesn’t leave room for discovery isn’t going to get used by sales.
The difference in goals should reflect the way we create a story. It isn’t surprising that the most popular storytelling framework among marketers - The Hero’s Journey - is never used in sales. It simply doesn’t fit the goals.
The differences don’t stop there. In marketing, we create stories, and they live within the content they were created for. Sales needs room to stretch the story on the fly in a live environment. They need to be able to swap out parts of the story for other parts that align with the customer, and sometimes, they need to do that while they are in the middle of a meeting with a prospect.
Often, in marketing, we are building content to engage, educate, and nurture a prospect over a long period of time until the person is actively in a purchase process. In marketing, we can veer slightly toward the vision of where we see the product and the market in the future because many in our audience are not in a purchase process quite yet.
Sales is dealing with a prospect that is in a purchase process right now. Their content needs to speak to the immediate value a buyer can expect from purchasing the product. Our stories in sales need to be firmly rooted in the present reality of the differentiated value we can deliver to their business the day the product goes live.
Marketing generally casts a much wider net than sales. They are reaching out to folks who are not always great fit prospects today but could be in the future. Sales, on the other hand, is dealing with a very narrow set of prospects that are actively engaged in a purchase process right now. The stories we tell in sales can be much more specific because there are certain assumptions we can make about prospects that we cannot make about folks in the market who aren’t actively looking to buy right now.
Much like the format point above, marketing is generally in broadcast mode. We are pushing out ads and content, and customers have limited ways to talk back to us. Sales, on the other hand, is having a back-and-forth with a prospect. Sales can and should be asking questions, looking for feedback, and handling objections. Does your hero’s journey marketing story take that into account? It wasn’t designed for that.
Positioning is the connecting thread between sales and marketing
Due to all of the reasons above, I believe that a good sales narrative needs a different structure than we would usually use in marketing. That said, sales and marketing should use the same inputs for whatever storytelling structure they choose, and those inputs should come from our positioning.
Both marketing and sales communicate the value that the product delivers that no other solutions can. Both have a common definition of what a good-fit prospect looks like. Both teams need to understand the alternative approaches, including the status quo and more direct short-list competitors. Our positioning defines the inputs for marketing and sales content - we ultimately need commonality across marketing and sales because our positioning defines where we win and why.
If we want to tackle storytelling for the sales side of the house, we have to
Start with our positioning as an input.
Map that positioning into a sales pitch structure that meets the sales team's needs outlined above.
A storytelling structure designed to meet the needs of salespeople
In the sales structure I use, here’s exactly how I handle this:
Guidance and persuasion are primary goals. My sales story structure has a “setup” phase that gives the rep a way to help customers understand our point of view on the market and the pros and cons of alternative ways to solve the problem. This allows the rep to offer proactive guidance to the prospect by painting a picture of the entire market so that they can make better choices.
A defined spot for discovery - Step 2, the “alternatives” step of my sales pitch structure, is designed to have a conversation about the market, but it is also the perfect opportunity for a rep to do discovery. How is the customer currently solving the problem? What else has the customer tried? What other solutions is the customer looking at? What are the customer constraints? Step two gives reps a very natural place to work through these questions.
A flexible format - My structure has several places where a rep can make on-the-fly changes to ensure the story resonates with the prospect. Step 6, or the “Proof” step, is often done with a case study. Many companies that use my structure will have a library of case studies so that the rep can use one that matches the prospect’s situation most closely. Step 7 is an optional step for handling unspoken objections. Again, many companies will have a pre-built set of objections that a rep can pull from depending on the prospect’s situation.
A focus on the immediate timeframe - This sales structure is based on the company’s current positioning. The heart of the pitch is the company’s differentiated value. Put another way, it is centered on the answer to the question, “Why pick us over the other alternatives?” This isn’t a theoretical strategy question or a fuzzy vision of the future that may or may not come to pass. This is firmly centered on how you beat today’s competitors with today’s product.
Designed specifically for prospects in a purchase process - Because positioning is the starting point for the sales pitch, it is designed specifically with your best-fit prospects in mind.
Designed to accommodate interaction - A good salesperson will naturally make a pitch interactive, but it helps to have a sales pitch structure designed with that interaction in mind. As already mentioned, the “Alternatives” step was designed for a discovery conversation. The “Perfect World” step is designed to get alignment with the customer about our point of view on the world. Step 7, the “Objections” step, is designed to be a conversation around objections. The final step, “the Ask,” is a conversation about what steps we jointly agree to take next.
My new book, Sales Pitch, gets into the gory details of the structure. If you want to go deeper, you can start there.
Modifying a sales pitch to work for marketing is easier than the reverse.
I have concluded that marketing stories don’t work as a sales pitch, but the opposite is often not the case. It’s true that for early-funnel “edutainment,” a sales pitch is not appropriate, and I have used the hero’s journey structure for customer case studies, and I see no reason to change. However, there is a lot of other content where we could easily start with the sales pitch and work in reverse. Here are some examples (notice there isn’t a hero’s journey in sight - these are all much closer to piece parts of the sales narrative):
An online explainer or walkthrough video - it would make sense that this would follow a similar structure to your sales pitch. Here’s one from Pantheon (signup required, sorry!)
A buyer’s guide - Customers crave insight into how they should evaluate products, and we are in a perfect position to give it to them. The “setup” part of the sales pitch gives us everything we would need to create a buyer’s guide. Here’s a guide from Gearset and not exactly a buyer’s guide, but close, from Help Scout.
The “point of view” whitepaper or guide - The setup part of the sales pitch is designed to communicate the company’s point of view on a market. It makes sense that we would have content that goes deeper into why we look at the market the way we do. Here’s an example from M-Files and another from Postman, and another from Checkr.
The founder/CEO conference or media talk - We never want to be selling from the stage, but our market insight makes a great topic for a conference talk, and I’ve seen many founders make good use of that. Here’s the CEO of Checkr talking on Bloomberg. Here’s the CEO of GeoComply at Websummit.
In my work with companies, we work through the positioning and then build a sales story that mirrors that. I started doing that because I felt that a live sales pitch was the best way for B2B companies to test their positioning. I’ve now seen the additional benefit on the marketing side of the house. It’s much easier to start with a sales story and work backward to marketing than attempting to do the opposite.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments!
I wrapped up Season One of my podcast, Positioning with April Dunford. If you missed it, you can binge-watch/listen here. Do you have any topics you would like me to cover in Season Two? Let me know in the comments.
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