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EPISODE 031: John Carter Applies Storytelling Lessons He Learned from Making Films into His Sales Processes
John Carter is the sales director at Alexandria-based Pinxter, an app development company that develops custom apps for associations, nonprofits, and member groups for year-round member engagements. He works with member groups designing mobile communications for collaboration, education, revenue and growth. Prior to Pinxter, John handled business development and supervised campaigns for Coca-Cola, Condé Nast, Maxxis Tires, Burger King, and AT&T. He co-founded the nation’s first point-of-purchase advertising network in America’s 12 largest commercial airports.
He’s also produced three feature films with Emmy- and Oscar-winning casts. His latest film, American Exploitation, deals with the little-known and probably misunderstood human sex-trafficking industry and focuses on the small wealthy town of Naples, FL. When selling to an individual or a group, he focuses on the need for story to engage his buyer. “Without story, you’re just not relevant,”John says, “and your buyer is just not interested.”
Find John on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: What do you sell today and what excites you about that?
John Carter: This took me a while to really understand. When I get that question I used to go right to the product. Now I think it’s important to describe what I do as a better way for people to tell stories to inspire, educate, simplify, motivate, collaborate, and even launch new movements.
Fred Diamond: How did you get into sales as a career?
John Carter: I went into it right after college. I sold for a radio station and was thrown to the wolves. [Laughs] Wow, I learned a lot. I mean, I guess I was 21, 22, and selling ads for local AM radio station in Gainesville, GA.
Fred Diamond: Storytelling and the need to tell stories in the sales process: Why don’t you tell us what that means?
John Carter: I think that as humans it’s critical for us to be able to tell story and hear story. We use story to embed critical pieces of information, knowledge, to educate ourselves—something that’s entertaining by the fire so that we can pass that along to future generations, to friends, to family. The better the story, the more we remember it. In terms of selling, you might have a product or a service. If it’s going to improve their life, you want them to remember it. So what better way to do that than to wrap that in a compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end? What’s in it for me? How is this going to make my life better? Well, tell me a story!
Fred Diamond: So tell us a little bit more about Pinxter. What exactly does Pinxter do to make that happen?
John Carter: Today, as we all know, collaboration more and more is on the mobile device, and that was [Steve] Jobs’s promise: He was going to make this thing that’d inspire and educate people, you could collaborate on it. Well, a phone is just a phone without any sort of program or application that allows you to do that, so I found this group that has done an amazing job at making apps for specific member groups. Those apps—they’re native apps—allow you to collaborate and get inspired, get educated, by and with your specific member group that you’re more interested in.
With our careers and our professions, what that looks like is an association or a club that you’re a member of. You’re able to more efficiently, to connect and collaborate with the people who matter most to you in your personal life and your profession. We use these apps, these native apps, to do that. It really takes your phone up to a whole new level.
Fred Diamond: John, go back to some of your first sales jobs. What did you learn?
John Carter: I just would walk up and ask somebody, “Hey, don’t you want your commercial on the radio?” I didn’t really look at what their product was, who our audience was, and how that product, whether that story was told in 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or one minute, was going to translate to that audience.
And you have this retail store in Gainesville, GA. Maybe they’re selling tires. They have a story of why they do what they do and how they might make your car safer, perform better with their tires. Well, it was more about, “Hey, look, we’re going to translate that story of why you’re a second-generation car-tire seller and what you do that’s special and unique for your customers. We’re going to provide a way for you to be able to tell that story effectively.”
Truly people needed that ability. If I’m driving on the road and I’m listening, and I need a new set of tires, I want that story. I want to know what’s going to make my life better other than just a set of tires, how are these people really going to do something for me that the other guy couldn’t. And so we were the storytellers. We had the radio station, we had the medium, and we had writers. We had the ability to make the message. And it was on me as the salesperson to find out what that unique story was and get that to the copywriter so that it was told properly.
Fred Diamond: One of the key themes that keeps coming up over the Sales Game Changer Podcast is the need to provide more value to your customer. Your customer has plenty of options. How do you provide more value?
John Carter: Maybe I’m wearing this out a little bit, but how often have you called somebody up and said, “Hey, man. Coffee tomorrow—wait till you hear what I’ve got to tell you. You’re not going to believe what happened at work today. You’re not going to believe what happened out on the soccer field with my kids.” Or, “Let me tell you another story.” I mean, the campfire story is more alive than ever before.
We need it more than ever before. We are on these islands with these phones and on the internet. We are still lonely as a species, and we still desperately need to impart specialized knowledge, data, and information to each other. This podcast is a great example of that. We’ve got this new technology. Fred, you’re using it, right? What have I learned over 25 years of doing this for small business and big business? The better the story, the more we’re going to remember it.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about what you’re truly an expert in. John, tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
John Carter: Concept to script, scripting and concept to produce an emotion picture image, that story, and getting it in front of an audience. And what I’ve learned, Fred, is that mastery never ends. You’re always looking for that new thing, that advantage, that little key piece of learning or getting a little better. And I’m taking that and putting it into becoming a full-time sales professional with Pinxter. It’s very rewarding, and it’s very relevant.
Fred Diamond: So how has filmmaking been associated with your sales career?
John Carter: First of all, filmmaking is expensive, so you’ve got to talk a lot of people into writing a check. You really need to have your story down. You need to know why this is compelling, how you’re going to do it, how much it’s going to cost, how long it’s going to take, when investors will get a return. It’s a big sales process, but I read something in a book, The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo, and he brought something by Peter Guber, a little passage here that I thought was really cool. Peter Guber ran Mandalay Entertainment Group for some time, and he says the following: Purposeful storytelling is a game changer. He says that anyone can build a story in three steps, and this is so relevant to selling. Step number one, grab your viewer’s attention with a question or unexpected challenge. [Next,] give listeners an emotional experience by telling a story around a struggle that will ultimately lead to conquering the challenge. And this is classic, this goes back to the Romans. How far back do you want to go? And then number three, galvanize—I love that word—galvanize listeners with a call to action.
Fred Diamond: That could be a really compelling device to show your customer that you understand the challenges that they’re going through and are a resource to help them achieve some of those challenges.
John Carter: There are a lot of different ways that you can be of value as a sales professional. You can change the game for someone significantly. You can transform their whole business if you take the time to really understand who they are, where they came from, and where they want to go.
Fred Diamond: Tell us someone who has significantly impacted you as a selling professional.
John Carter: Two men come up for me: Raymond Goldsmith was the founder of the point-of-purchase advertising network. It’s kind of amazing. We were the first ones to actually have monitors with a looping advertising network in the 12 largest airports. This is back in the late ’90s; we were on laser disk. But Raymond taught me, “John, no one is going to sell for you. You can’t assume that people are going to just understand your value, what you’re able to do for them. You can’t just leave it to someone else to tell that story to sell for you. You have to really learn to become a sales professional.” And I had the instincts for it, but I think just recently I’ve realized what that’s all about and what a worthy journey that is.
That leads right into the second person, my father-in-law. Second- , now third-generation construction company. He asked me one day, “John, what business are you in?” I said, “Well, I’m in production and marketing. We do commercials.” He goes, “No, John. You’re in the sales business.” Everyone within the organization affects sales. Everyone’s in charge of telling that story, understanding it, understanding the clients, and loving it. And just loving the fact that they can have an impact on another organization. So we’re all in the storytelling, the selling together.
Fred Diamond: John Carter, what are the two biggest challenges you’ve faced today as a sales leader?
John Carter: One is kind of a piece of learning; the other is kind of funny. It’s with that “no.” I think almost everybody, when we hear no, it’s just, oh, boy. No, no, don’t have time, no. Wow, kind of a scary thing to hear. But if I’ve done my homework and I do feel like I’ve got a good understanding and I do have something to bring to the other person or the organization, when I hear no, I hear, “Tell me more story.” They just don’t understand yet. That’s a recent thing for me. We sell apps, and that’s the simple way to put it.
Fred Diamond: You just mentioned something that’s a very interesting distinction. We’ve often heard “no doesn’t mean no; it means not yet.” I love the way you just said no means “tell me more story.” Very impactful. What’s the number-one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re the most proud of?
John Carter: Just last week I was in front of a group of customers in an association. I’d been working on my pitch for quite some time. I was able to string together the story of why this product, this piece of software is relevant to them, and they got it! They were like, “Wait a minute, this isn’t a website, this isn’t some sort of app for an event that we’re going to do in six months. This truly is going to take my phone and turn it into a whole brand-new device that I never thought I had.”
I was able to really weave that narrative together, feel their questions, and come back to them right there in the room, with 7, 8 features of this piece of technology. I could just see it in their eyes. So it was the learning and the process and the storytelling and the listening and to be able to bring that value, just last week. It was really exciting for me.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment, John Carter, where you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard” or “It’s not for me”?
John Carter: Great question. Yes, in the thick of the night when I wake up and I’m not going to make it, Fred. It’s just, nothing’s going to work. My go-to is, “I’m just going to go to Florida and teach tennis.” [Laughs] Love tennis. Yes, yes, doubt killed the warrior. All I can say—and I’m beating this dead horse but it works—is when that happens, I go back and I say, “Okay, John. Hang on a second. [Don’t think about] the product itself right now or the service, not what I did two weeks ago or four years ago, not that. What if I’m sitting around the campfire with six or eight people and I’m telling this story today about what I’m doing to connect people, what I’m offering. What does that sound like?” And I instantly start to feel better. I instantly start to feel like I’ve got a reason to wake up in the morning and get in front of people, because I think as sales professionals we’re at our best when the campfire’s roaring and we’re in front of a small audience.
Fred Diamond: What’s the most important thing you want to get across to younger sales professionals, junior sales professionals, to help them improve their career?
John Carter: The word “no” means “Tell me more.” I had a great client a year or so ago that we sold a commercial package to. They were an auto-repair business, and their previous commercials weren’t doing well. I said, “Let me just come over and talk to you.” So I go over, and long story short is he was selling this technical solution like, why your 2004 Honda Accord needs $3,000 worth of work to keep going and what a timing belt is all about, etc.
This technical, “why you need to spend the money”—what I found out we’re selling was if you’re a young family and you’ve got a couple of new kids and you want your car to last another 50,000 miles, come here. And your car payment won’t be $350 a month, your repair payment will be less than half of that. So what they’re selling was extending the life of the existing car you have, so you have a lower monthly payment. We got to the truth of what they were actually selling, and you can’t do that unless you have that dialogue directly with the customer. “No” means “tell me more.”
Fred Diamond: Very good. What are some things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
John Carter: I go to my PowerPoint. I don’t always use my PowerPoint presentation for every sales pitch, but when I do I want to really form this great narrative, this beginning, middle, and end—what Guber said. We’re going to ask compelling questions, and we’re going to face the challenge. We’re going to have a galvanizing conclusion. My PowerPoint of like 10, 12 slides has that, so I go back to that, and every time I do, Fred, every time I get back to that PowerPoint, I find one little tweak.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
John Carter: We’re pumped around here. We just signed on as an official channel partner for a major organization that distributes marketing software for associations and really helps associations market themselves, increase memberships. They have been doing it for quite some time and are very successful at it. We’re their official partner on mobile software, so we build their apps. I leave here today and we’re going to a conference to start spreading the good word about how we can take what they do in terms of web-based solutions in training and into the mobile space.
Fred Diamond: John, sales is hard. If people don’t return your calls or your emails, why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
John Carter: Everybody uses Steve Jobs, but I think there’s something here that I haven’t heard it too much. And it’s the essence, the core of what he promised with these new mobile platforms that he created. What Jobs did was say, “Hey, look, I’m going to give you this new thing, and it’s up to you to really use it.” So he gave us this tool to create anything we wanted, right?
And I think we’ll look back at this today, and actually we’re still doing it after so many years, we’re still finding new ways to use what he gave us. And I think he initially said what these things can do for us is create storytellers who ignite our inner fire, storytellers who can educate, simplify, motivate, and launch new movements. And if I think about what we’re doing with an app on these phones, we’re doing that! We’re just taking this tool that he gave us and we’re putting software on it that allows organizations to do those things and educate, simplify, motivate, launch movements. I mean, that’s the promise, so yeah.
Fred Diamond: What’s the final thought you want to share to inspire our listeners today?
John Carter: I’ll go back to the fact that as humans we have to hear no all the time, and doubt killed the warrior. And I think that if we love what we do and we do our homework and we surround ourselves with good teams, no matter what, good things will start to happen.