Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Power of Narrative in a Sales Environment

I had a fascinating meeting this week with one of my candidates. We were talking about the power of storytelling in a sales environment. He recounted to me an indelible lesson he had learned early in his career from one of his first mentors. I have taken some liberties with the particulars of the story, so the details are not exactly as he recounted the story to me, but the principals remain the same.

A young salesman was sitting across the table from his sales manager and mentor. The crusty old sales veteran offered the following comments:

“Jim, you look great today. I especially like that tie. In fact, I admire that tie so much, that I am wondering if I could borrow it for a day. I have a presentation tomorrow to a key client, and if I could wear that tie, I would feel like I could not fail to close the sale."

“Sure, Norman, I’ll be glad to lend it to you. Here you go.”

“Thank you. Now let me offer you a lesson. Let’s assume that the tables were reversed and you had asked me for the tie. In fact, go ahead, ask me if you can borrow my tie – the same one you just gave me.”

“Norman, I love your tie. I could really use that tie for a presentation tomorrow. Do you mind of I borrow it?”

“I am glad you like the tie. As a matter of fact, it is my favorite tie, and I only wear it on very special occasions. When I was getting dressed this morning, I said to myself: ‘Why not wear Aunt Matilda’s tie today; the new guy is starting in the North Shore territory, so it is an important day!’

You may wonder why I call this tie ‘Aunt Matilda’s tie.' I’ll be glad to tell you. You have not been around here long enough to have heard my personal history, but it is common knowledge that my mother died when I was six year old, and I was pretty much raised single-handedly by my Aunt Matilda. She was one of the most frugal women I have ever known. She would not spend a nickel more than necessary on herself. Most of her clothes came from K Mart.
The day I before I was to begin my new sales career here at ABC Global – 21 year’s ago tomorrow – Aunt Matilda said to me: ‘Norman, let’s get in the car; we’re going shopping for a new tie for you.’ I cringed at the thought of a K Mart tie, but I wanted to be appreciative, so I got in the car. On this occasion, I let her drive. So, imagine my surprise when she pulled up in front of Brooks Brothers!

I followed as she walked straight to the back, found a Manager and asked to see the special Limited Edition of imported silk ties reserved for Preferred Customers. We were shown an impressive collection, and Aunt Matilda said to me: ‘Pick out the one you like the best. Never mind about the price!’ So, I chose this tie – 'Aunt Matilda’s tie'! I could not help noticing as she handed her money to the clerk that she gave him six $20 bills. $120 dollars for a tie in 1983! Can you imagine!

Aunt Matilda died in her sleep at age 87 just last month. This remained her favorite tie, and I wore it to her funeral.
I am happy to lend it to you. Treat it carefully, please.”

Norman paused, and drove home the point of the story:

“Compare the ‘value’ of the tie before the story of Aunt Matilda and after the story. Same tie – but a completely different value. Sales, my boy, is all about telling the story to make sure that you help the customer to place the appropriate value on the product or service that you are selling. It is all about the story. The value lies in the story!”

* * * * * * * * * * *

I welcome your feedback on this issue
Al Chase


Unknown said...

Well said, Al. Honestly, any time that I can use an anecdote to convey a point that I could've just stated factually, I do. People always remember a story better than a fact. We're social creatures, not databases. Although my stories tend to be a tad more concise than Aunt Matilda's tie!

Anonymous said...

At 8:42, Josh said . . .

What a great read, Al. A great story, and well told.

At the end of my reading, I asked myself, "From whom has the tie acquired its value--from Brooks Brothers, from Norman, or from Aunt Matilda?"

Aunt Matilda is an interesting answer, don't you think?


Inci Kaya said...

You are right from a salesmanship point of view. That's what all advertisers and salesmen want to do to sell better, to sell more, to sell at a higher price.

I want to say a few words about what the opposite side of the table should be thinking: A smart and educated customer should be able to hold off on getting sold on the 'perceived value' of the tie and judge it for what it's worth to him only. Regardless of the story, if this person were buying the tie, the sale price demanded sounds like it would have been jacked way up. After all, what you're getting is a USED tie. What is that worth to you now? Not much... you can get a used tie at a thrift store for a few bucks. Similar tie - such a hugely different price. Or, maybe you don't need a tie after all.

In other words, advertising and pricing in stores always leads you to believe that you are buying an exclusive product; and they'll offer it to you at the attractive price of say, 69$, marked down from 100$. So at first impulse, you feel like you're getting a bargain. However, the truth is that you are potentially wasting 69$ on something that you may not really need, but are led to believe you do.

The true value of a purchased item lies in how much you need it and how much it will add to your personal value. I hope that people take this into consideration and think twice about their impulsive spending decisions. Perhaps that way we can avoid accumulating tons of cool and semi-useless items that end up as junk in our homes.


Anonymous said...

Comments on "Narrative in Sales": This story represented, for me, exactly the type of disingenuous attitude that makes me dislike sales and the people who are best at it (because, unfortunately, it does work). Maybe the soldiers calling in fake coordinates in your Iraq piece were just doing what they were taught in our culture that values manipulating people with lies to get what we want-usually more money to buy more things that we really don't need but think we want because we bought into a bogus narrative about them. anonymous, just don't want to follow your sign-in process).