The Best Way to Sell Is With a Story

Tony Agresta

Most salespeople could teach a course in rejection. They’ve been through it so many times they can rattle off the typical objections from customers and prospects:

“I don’t have time to hear this pitch”
“It’s not a high priority for us”
“I already have a solution”
“How’s this really going to help me?”

The best prepared salespeople have a comeback ready to go.

The best approach typically lies in the hands of a story. Challenge their assumptions by teaching them something they didn’t already know that can help their businesses: provide a solution to a problem through a customer use case. Storytelling gives a prospect a compelling reason to hear you out. It’s a powerful conversion tool at least as old as the Gospels.

Well-told convincing stories help build relationships with customers. They demonstrate your company’s knowledge and expertise, they confer credibility, and they lay the groundwork for trust. Storytelling is vital at every point in the sales cycle.

Cold calls. There’s no better way to crack the ice than telling a story about a customer who uses your product or service to save time or money or to work smarter. Nearmap, the company I work for, captures, manages and delivers high-resolution aerial imagery to engineering and construction firms, governments, property and real estate companies, solar installers, telecoms, and others. We make our imagery available within days of capture instantly accessible and consistent from one location to another.   

To the prospect who says, “I already have imagery from Google Earth,” we like to tell stories about customers that used older, outdated imagery in the past.  For example, Apex, N.C., is a rapidly growing city near Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. Hyper growth fuels the need for new homes, schools and infrastructure. City planners couldn’t rely on satellite pictures that are fuzzy and outdated; they needed current information that could be accessed from the cloud on their desktops – access that didn’t require multiple on-site visits to inspect roadways, sidewalks and town assets.

Building relationships. In the early and mid-stage of the sales cycle we focus on building relationships by sharing relevant, targeted content all of which tells a story.   Early stage prospects often gravitate toward videos and short, educational demonstrations. We’ll share industry articles that speak to the value of aerial imagery recanting how Nearmap has been integrated into a customer’s workflow.

Prospects at this point often want more technical specifics. A water utilities company updating an ancient water system, for example, might want to know how to integrate our software within its current Geographic Information System (GIS), allowing analysts to quickly inspect, plan, design and calculate storm water runoff that translates into monthly water bills to pay for all maintenance and expansion. Other companies integrate massive amounts of data collected from video feeds about underground utility lines and want to display all of that data in context with clear imagery of buildings, roads and homes. Engineering firms perform site location analysis to determine whether or not a large track of land is suitable for a master plan community. Are there environmental concerns?   What’s the impact on neighborhood communities? What access points would be best? Building relationships and developing trust is grounded in storytelling – and sales needs to be specific about challenges faced, the solution a customer settled on then quantify the impact it’s had on the organization. How has it changed that way they work?

Closing the deal. With a prospect this far down the path, you don’t want to inundate anyone with extraneous information that could distract or sideline the deal. Often, the prospect is looking for reassurance via references. At this stage, an appropriate and properly prepped existing customer becomes your storyteller, explaining how your product made his life a lot easier. For example, Momentum Solar has emerged as a national player in the solar energy market. To make the leap, they needed rapid access to high resolution aerial maps allowing them to quickly qualify and target homes and business. They needed the imagery to represent both “leaf-on” and “lead-off” imagery for precise calculations and proposal development. James Kennedy from Momentum Solar says it best: “With Nearmap, all the necessary information is in one easy-to-use program.  We can decide if the property is suitable for solar within two to three minutes. The high-resolution imagery displays roof space, shading and any obstructions so we can make accurate, timely assessments.” Nearmap has allowed Momentum to create anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 additional leads weekly above and beyond where they were in the past.   They have also slashed the time it takes to deliver a quote to prospects.

That line of storytelling works well to help close a solar installer, but might be lost on a construction company. If you’re going to tap a customer, you need a good match, making sure it is in the same business as the prospect. And, once that customer agrees to play that role, you must coach it on how to tell the right story. When these things align, it can be a great way to clinch a sale.

There is a hitch. Turning salespeople into storytellers isn’t always easy. Getting them trained and on-script takes time. Teaching them sufficient adaptability, to tell only stories that meet a prospect’s unanticipated needs, is an ongoing challenge. We try to hire people who believe that telling stories is the best way to make a sale. We train our salespeople to be extremely knowledgeable about our customers, as well as our products, and to rely on our tech, development and marketing teams for backup.

But even the best sales training is worthless without rigorous content development. It all ties into classic product marketing: developing use cases that pose a customer’s challenge, the solution you provide, and the impact it had on the customer. Without creating templates for content, you can’t scale storytelling.

Once these structured stories are in place, you can easily repurpose them across customer presentations, press and news releases, social media, e-marketing and website marketing, events, white papers and webinars.

As long as your stories address key questions – “So what?” “Why should I care?” – most prospects will listen. Getting their attention is always the first step.

Tony Agresta is vice president of marketing for Nearmap USA.