Using Stories to Help You Sell

by Tony Reiss

Stories are also particularly effective when we’re asked those tricky questions that clients like to throw at us when we’re pitching for business.

Faced with “what would you do if…” and “how would you handle…” questions, there’s a great temptation for professionals to try to demonstrate their expertise by trotting out legal theory for how situations should be handled.

But that’s not what clients actually want to hear. They want the confidence that you have handled these situations and that you will be able to deal with them in practice, not in theory.

The best way to handle these questions is with evidence – a short story or anecdote about a client situation where you faced such an issue and were able to address it.

When I pitched for a project to introduce a Client Relationship Management programme, I was able to use a number of stories about overcoming resistance, managing such a programme, delivering results and issues relating to culture change. Each of these gave me credibility when the client asked how we could address the organisational obstacles to change, or how we could make sure they really achieved the benefits they were looking for from the programme.

Some stories are reusable for multiple situations. One of my stories about overcoming resistance was about a partner who had lost out in a partner vote for the Senior Partner role and who was initially obstructing initiatives launched by the Board. This story doubled up as a story about stakeholder management.

Sometimes the story doesn’t even have to be about a great success to be effective. I sometimes tell a story about how I’ve learned the hard way on a previous project. One story is when I hadn’t involved the Managing Partners in overseas offices early enough and so had struggled with implementation until I eventually got them on board. It wasn’t a story about a great success I’d had – but it told the prospective client that I’d been in that situation before and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. We won the project, and in a debrief meeting later the client told us that had been the key moment when they knew we had the right practical experience to work with them.

These “early lessons” stories can be even more effective than success stories as they’re highly believable, don’t come across as pompous or “show offy”, and really send a clear message that because of that hard lesson you’ve known what to do right ever since.

Of course, the “early lesson” type story has to be set a decent distance in the past – it can’t be a mistake you made the previous week!

Most professionals should be able to create a list of tricky questions they often get asked and prepare stories as evidence to address them. They’re best not replayed verbatim as stock answers, but stored away as an easy-to-recall memory to build on.

And using stories to answer tough questions is not only more believable – it’s much more interesting than a dry theoretical answer too.

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