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Selling is Really Shorthand for Storytelling

Aug. 1, 2009

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By Charles S. Fifield, MBA

When we buy something, we're really buying a story. A salesperson's job is to tell a story. For example, last year Americans bought six billion dollars worth of bottled water. What happened to tap water? Did tap water start to taste bad nationally? No. When we buy bottled water, we buy a story of freshness, cleanliness, and sometimes taste. It's not about which brand we like the best, because essentially all bottled water is the same. It's about storytelling.

The most skilled salespeople understand that the story is not about the product/service or the company, but about the customer. Different customers are looking for different stories, and the salesperson's job is to figure out which story they want to hear.

"The salesperson has the chance to embody the story, to feel out the perspective/worldview of the person they're talking to and tailor the story, an authentic [customized] story, to that particular person," says Seth Godin (How to Stand Out in a Crowd). "Very few people are going to give $100,000 to a university on the Internet. You need that development officer to show up. And when she does, she's telling a story. That story might be about your legacy, it might be about your kids, it might be about what you owe yourself."

When Godin recently went shopping for a mattress, he noticed right away that without the signs and prices, you can't tell one mattress from another. "It's 100 percent about selling," he says. "It's not about brands. And I spent four hours in Queens talking to an amazing sales guy about how he sells mattresses. You can learn an enormous amount, because customers are buying stories."

Maybe the customer wants to hear a story about how he'll sleep better. Maybe he wants to buy the mattress that's half off, and believe he got a good deal. Maybe he wants the best mattress ever made or he simply wants it because an influential person said it was the mattress for successful people. Maybe he wants a mattress made with space-age technology. "The customer comes to exchange [information and] money for a story, and they'll believe the one that best matches their worldview," Godin explains. "If you tell the salesperson your back hurts, you're saying, 'please tell me a story about the very best mattress that will help my back.'"

This doesn't mean that the customer is losing out on value or being tricked. On the contrary, the story's happy ending is what they are paying for. Remember, however, that customer relationships are delicate and must be nurtured. You need to tell honest, authentic stories, or customers will stop believing you in a hurry. "The minute a company asks you to sell out your customer, to charge more than you should, or bring them a product that's no good, you need to think hard about sacrificing that thing you own, because that relationship of permission - your reputation - is everything."

Godin, Seth www.sethgodin.com, Seth Godin's blog

Charles Fifield, MBA, Lecturer, Baylor University

After 33 years in sales with an emphasis on financial services, Professor Fifield has spent eight years teaching undergraduate and graduate courses including Professional Selling and Communications, Negotiations and Conflict Resolution, and Operations Management. He serves as the coach for the Baylor Sales Team and coordinates the Music and Entertainment Marketing Degree. He holds an MBA in Finance and International Business from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a BBA in economics from Southern Methodist University.

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