EPISODE 483: Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell with Mike Adams

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on December 12, 2021. It featured an interview with Mike Adam, author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

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MIKES’ TIP: “I work with large corporations. One of the things we do is collect the stories that we find when we’re training their salespeople, because salespeople are great at telling stories, and put them in a story bank for our clients so that new salespeople don’t have that problem. But if you’re in a company that doesn’t have a collection of stories, and that will be most companies, you’ll need to learn how to find them yourself and collect them yourself and share them with your colleagues. That’s an enjoyable skill to learn.”


Fred Diamond: Mike, it’s great to see you here. I read the book. It’s interesting. Sales professionals will ask me all the time, “Fred, you run the Institute for Excellence in Sales. You’ve had over a million interactions with your podcast. Just give us one or two things that we should do.” I always say, “Number one, get so familiar with your customer’s marketplace, challenges, and industry, so that you could be of extreme value to them.” Then number two, I say, “Get a pocket full of stories. Always have a pocket full of stories, 30-second, one-minute stories that you can bring up to provide some insight to your customer.”

Mike, talk about that for a second. Your book, it’s a great book, and you take us through the seven stories through the sales process. I don’t want to go too much into your history, people can go find out about you, you’ve been a sales leader. By the way, I’m in Northern Virginia in DC, Mike has very kindly gotten up in the middle of the night in Melbourne, Australia, so thank you so much. What prompted you to write the book? Let’s get into it.

Mike Adams: Thanks for having me on the show, Fred. Yeah, it’s 2:30 in the morning in Melbourne, but I’m very happy to be with you. I guess what’s special about my sales career, which goes back a few decades now, is I moved from industry to industry. I don’t recommend that necessarily unless you’re a thrill seeker, but because I had to, because I was moving around the world and I got to locations where I couldn’t work in the same industry that I’d worked in before necessarily, I moved from oil and gas selling software, to selling telecommunications in Australia. I’ve worked all over the world. When I landed selling telecommunications, I was trying to sell 3G network equipment here in Australia, I didn’t understand anything about the language. There’s a whole language I couldn’t really understand.

I couldn’t understand what my clients were saying, I couldn’t understand what my company was saying. I had to learn all of that stuff. But I had worked out that certain types of stories really work. I went looking for stories in my conversations with the clients, and I was successful really quickly. I think that was the first noticing. I was noticing that you can be deliberate about stories. I changed industry again a few more times and I was a sales leader. I was running large sales teams for mostly technology companies and in 2015 I decided to go out on my own and see if I could solve just one problem that I had across many industries with salespeople, which was how to get sales people saying the right thing. How to help with that conversation side of sales. We know it when we see it. We notice really good sales people, and we’re kind of like, “How do I put my finger on what they do that most of my sales guys really can’t do, or are very slow to get to?”

One of the important realizations is noticing the stories they tell. Well, firstly, you have to know what a story is to notice one, and people talk of story a lot these days. It’s sort of a bit of a faddish thing, it’s popular, but if you don’t know what one is, no point talking about them.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in from Geoffrey. Geoffrey says, “Can Mike define what a story is?” You actually just teed that up here. Is a story about a customer example? Is a story about how your product has solved a problem? Is it about the history of your company? Let’s get a little bit deep into what a story is.

Mike Adams: Well, most fundamentally, a story is a sequence of related events. It’s about something that happened, and because of that, this next thing happened, and because of that, this next thing happened. The stories that we like, that we listen to, always have some kind of surprise in them. There’s something that could have been otherwise. There’s some kind of counterfactual. We use stories to pass very rich information. It’s what humans use as our communication method.

I remember receiving a white paper from an esteemed global consulting company, Fred, and it was entitled The Critical Importance of Storytelling in Tech Sales, and this white paper didn’t have a single story in it. Which kind of shows you that we can think we know what stories are, but you’re not really telling them. It’s just something that happened, and if we tell a story about something that happened to us, I call that a personal connection story. Something significant that happened to us that shows our buyer that we’re credible, we know what we’re talking about. We say to them, “Enough about me. What about you?” They tell us a story back, we get into this beautiful mode of conversation where we’re exchanging stories. I’ve just shared a little bit about me. The client shared a bit about themselves.

Then I might share a bit about one of my other clients, safely anonymized of course. I might say, “Look, you’re a CFO in manufacturing. Could I tell you about another CFO that we’ve been working with?” They’ll say, “Yes,” because I’m talking about a problem that they have, and I’ll tell what we call a success story. Now, a success story is a story about one of our clients who succeeded, told from the perspective of that person. Salespeople, when they talk about their clients have a terrible habit of making themselves the dramatic hero of their problem, solving their client’s problem. But of course, your buyer doesn’t care about your success, since they care about people like them solving their own problems.

If we learn how to tell a story about our other client, tell it from their perspective, what was their problem? What were their alternatives? What were they struggling with? How did they meet you maybe? That’s interesting. How did they meet you as the guide? Then what was the plan they put together to fix that problem? What were the things that could have gone wrong or did go wrong? How did they avoid failure? Then how did they achieve personal, as well as business success?

Fred Diamond: There’s two things you said there. One is, you want the customer to start telling you stories. It’s interesting because one thing we talk about a lot, Mike, is that a great sales call is the customer talking 90% of the time. With the exception of maybe a demo, when you have to go through things. But for the most part, we want the customer to be talking because as the customer realizes things, they then begin to – I think it’s called degree one thinking, that when they understand something, it’s more valuable than you telling them something.

We have a whole bunch of people who are chiming in here and saying, “Can Mike please get to a story?” Actually, Lauren says, “I want to hear something from Mike. I want to hear an example.” Why don’t you give us an example? Give us a couple of them going here so people can get their juices going. Get us started here, Mike. Give us a story.

Mike Adams: Let me give you an example of a success story from our company, from Anecdote. I’ll start with the client, I’ll start by talking about the client. One of the world’s largest IT consulting companies, they have an annual leadership development program. They train about 500 to 800 of their director level consultants who might become partners. Kathy’s the head of HID based in the US, a US-based company. At the end of this leadership development program, they learn all sorts of things, but they come to the headquarters and they have to do a presentation, a group presentation of a technology area. Kathy is sitting in the theater next to the senior manager partner.

At the end of this presentation, he’s shaken his head, turns to her and said, “That was just awful. Is that how our people present to our clients? That was painful. It was so boring. All PowerPoints.” Kathy knew that she needed to fix this aspect of the program. Now Anecdote, I’ve been working with some of their senior partners in various locations around the world. She reached out to our managing director, Mark Schenk, and Mark happened to be in the US and really wanted to meet. He said, “Look, I’ll fly. I’ll come to meet you.” She said, “Well, you can meet me, but you’ve only got 30 minutes.” Mark was in the West Coast, so he flew to New York, and 90 minutes later, they had a plan. It was 90 minutes because when you start sharing stories, your meetings always go overtime.

Mark proposed a series of webinars around the clock. This back in 2019, pre-COVID. Followed by group coaching using our global partner networks. We have partners all around the world. They came in and coached each of these teams. The next time Kathy sat in the theater next to the senior manager partner, all of those teams of five to eight people in each group, 500 people, presented without PowerPoint using stories. It was so exciting and so energizing and the managing partner said, “Yes, this is how we’re going to do it from now on.” You see, Kathy solved her problem with her boss and she was obviously delighted by that. She still has that role. She still does that role.

Fred Diamond: If you think about it, the critical thing is that the customers can get information on the internet. If they need to know specs, and actually, if you’re talking to a senior person, they don’t really want to know bits and bytes, and features, and benefits, and all those things. They want to know, “Is this a good investment?” Why this was a good investment. “How’s it going to help us achieve our goals?” The goal isn’t to deploy the technology. The goal is to grow, or to save costs. We’re doing today’s interview in the middle of December 2021, if you’re listening in the future. There’s still a lot of the effects of the pandemic and everyone in 2022 and beyond is still going to be responding at some level to what happened there.

I love the way you just said it was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting and it wound up being 90, because people want to hear these interesting things. Tell us another example, you talk about the book, you take them through the four stages of the sales process, and you use a fishing analogy, lure, hook, fight, land, and the seven fit in there at various places. Let’s talk about a sales story that might be appropriate in the hooking stage, as you’re dealing with a prospect and trying to get them engaged.

Mike Adams: I say that the first problem a salesperson has is, “How do we even get started?” How to get to a level of depth in conversation that the buyer is willing to open up and tell you what’s going on. Because we tell stories about our business so that a client will understand us and so that we can hear their stories. When they start telling stories about what’s going on, we have a chance to diagnose and a chance to understand. I talk about three types of stories that connect and build trust.

The first is a personal connection story. I told you about me wanting to leave corporations and solve the problem of how do I get sales people to say the right thing, and hitting on storytelling. But it’s also huge value if you can tell the story of someone else in your company. If I’m going to meet someone and I need to introduce other people from my company, if I can tell a story about what they’ve done, I can get my buyer to trust them before they even meet them. This has happened to me several times, that you need to position technical experts or implementation people. The third type of connecting story is your company story. How did your company start? How does it serve? Why didn’t it go out of business? Because most companies do.

Salespeople like to make claims about their company. “We are the number one at this. We’re the best at that.” But a simple story about how you came to be, depending on the type of company you are, that can be very interesting for your buyer and it’s unique. It’s totally different from your competitors. It sticks in their mind as something that marks you out as different. That’s the first problem, connecting. Then I told you a success story. It’s about putting change out there. “I need to influence my buyer to change. Otherwise, I don’t have anything to sell.” In this case, if I was telling that story of Kathy to another potential buyer, I would tell that little story and I would say, “What about you? What’s going on around here?” My story would prompt them to talk about how their people present and how they interact and how they engage. I would be hearing now stories from my buyer about what it’s like for them.

Fred Diamond: We got a question here from Nelson. He says, “Should my company supply me with stories or do I need to create them on my own?” That’s an interesting question. We have a lot of junior people who are listening right now who read our transcripts. A lot of them say, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t have any stories.” The company may not even spend time developing them. What’s your advice? Storytelling, is that something that anybody can do? Is that something that you need 10 years of experience so that you’re comfortable? What’s your advice, Mike, on getting people past maybe their fears of telling stories?

Mike Adams: Storytelling is something that we all do naturally and normally socially, but in business, we have this business tradition of talking abstractly and not really telling stories. It’s a little bit of a surprise in business when we tell stories. The direct answer to your listener’s question is your company should provide you with stories, but almost all of them don’t. That was my experience. That’s why I developed and wrote the book, because I went from industry to industry and there were no stories. I had to find them for myself.

But now I work with large corporations. One of the things we do is collect the stories that we find when we’re training their salespeople, because salespeople are great at telling stories, and put them in a story bank for our clients so that new salespeople don’t have that problem. But if you’re in a company that doesn’t have a collection of stories, and that will be most companies, you’ll need to learn how to find them yourself and collect them yourself and share them with your colleagues. That’s an enjoyable skill to learn. You could read my book for a start.

Fred Diamond: We have another question here that comes in from Maryanne. Maryanne says, “How do I get my customers to feel comfortable telling me their stories like Mike suggested?” One thing we talk a lot about, Mike, is questioning skills, and listening skills. Obviously, you have to be a great listener to be a great sales professional, and you want to be listening for clues, and you don’t want to be listening to respond. You want to be listening to understand. For Maryanne’s question, how do I get my customer to feel comfortable telling me something that I can then come back with and respond with?

Mike Adams: Questioning and listening skills are important, but we mostly teach the wrong questions and we don’t teach how to properly listen. The first thing is what I’ve already said, which is we tell a story to get a story. If I tell a story and ask, “What about you?” Or, “What’s going on around here?” Because I’ve just told a story, the listener is likely to respond with a story, because that’s human nature. When people start telling stories, other people want to tell stories. But you mentioned questions and most questions don’t get a story. If I ask you how many of these, or what is this, or why, you don’t get a story. I need to ask you a question that takes you to a moment in time. “Where were you when you saw that problem? What happened? Tell me what happened.”

That question, “What happened?” Or, “Could you give me an example of sustainable development, because I have no idea what that means? What happens when you do sustainable development?” These are examples of story-seeking questions because they take you to a moment in time. Whenever you can get your buyer telling you about something that really happened in their business at a time and place, because stories happen in a time and place, then you’ll start hearing stories. Once you’re starting to hear a story, your job is to encourage the client to keep going. “Then what happened? Who was there? Where was that exactly?” You’re trying to channel your best journalist to get the details of this story so that you’ll remember it, so that you’ve got the sequence, because stories are sequence of events.

Fred Diamond: It’s a fascinating point, the shift here about getting your customers to tell a story. Yesterday we did a Optimal Sales Mindset show with Dr. Alison Horstmeyer, who is the world’s renowned expert on curiosity in business. We hear this a lot, I’ll say to a sales leader on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, “What’s something that you think you need to do to be successful?” Not infrequently, curiosity, you got to be curious. I like the way you just answered that question, which is, follow-up questions. “How’d that make you feel? Who else was involved?” For the sales professionals listening, you got to show your customer that you care. You got to show your customer that you’re not just there to sell them something because you think it’s going to help. You got to show them that you’re interested and It’s not just a one-way transaction. There’s so many nuance that’s involved. Give us another example, Mike.

Mike Adams: On that story listening, I had one of our top sales trainers on my training course that finished this week, because I do that. I like to share the knowledge of storytelling, even to supposed competitors. He told me that he used the story listening question, “What’s happened?” just that day. A prospect called him, and he specializes in win-loss analysis, and asked him, “Could you do a win-loss analysis?” He said, “Look, for my curiosity, what’s happened? What’s gone on to make you call?” So that question just opened up everything. You say being curious, but how should I be curious? I should be curious to try to get my client to tell me stories.

Once we get to sharing, we start talking about other clients that have been successful. We also need to overcome objections, possible wrong ideas. We call those anti-stories actually in Anecdote. The client has an anti-story that is really stopping you from doing business. One of the things I’ve been doing is trying to see if I can sell to some of the companies that I worked with when I was younger in sales, in particular, my first company, which is Schlumberger. It’s a giant technology company. I reached out to the head of sales training, and it was a pleasant conversation, and he said, “Look, Mike, our sales training program has been developed over 40 years. We love it. It’s got everything in it that we need. We have no budget to put anything new into our sales training program. I’m happy to send my head of sales training along to experience your course, but don’t have any expectations.” I call that an anti-story. That’s an objection.

Anyway, he sent this guy along, Pedro is his name, and we got to the point in our course where we were teaching them about, “How do we use stories to manage objections when the client has the wrong idea in their mind?” Pedro said to me, “Mike, I’m going to build what we call an influence story. I’m going to build an influence story around Schlumberger’s objection to putting storytelling into their sales training program.” I said, “Okay, good. This is good.” He used our model and the model is we acknowledge our client’s anti-story. We don’t argue. We acknowledge what they think. Then we give them a story, experience of why what they think may not always be true, or you could look at it from a different direction, and then we reframe.

This is what he told in the training course, imagining that it’s to his own boss. He goes, “Look, I acknowledge we’ve built our sales training program over many years. We love it. We’ve actually got less money for this year than we had last year. There’s no room for anything else.” He said, “But you know, I like to go mountain biking with my wife in the hill country out of Houston,” he’s based in Houston. “I’ve always wanted my wife to upgrade her bicycle. Then she’s like, ‘I love my bike, because it’s like part of my personality. I’m not changing it.’ But last weekend, her bike broke way out in the hills. I said to her, ‘Look, you use my bike. I’ll push yours back to the car.’ When I got back to the car, she was there and she said, ‘Oh my God. Your bike is so much better than my bike. Why have I persevered for all these years with my old bike?'” Now the reframe, “You see? We can be very happy with how things are going, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t something much better.”

Fred Diamond: That’s a great example there. It raises a couple of interesting points. As great sales professionals, we know that our customer may be safe and sound, and one of the biggest challenges in sales is getting past the customer status quo. It’s usually the biggest competitor is, “No, we’re good. We’re fine.” The reality is, everybody can improve everything. If you’re a professional basketball player, you could add two points to your average. We all know that. It’s our job to be able to demonstrate that. That’s a great example.

Mike Adams: There’s an epilogue to that story, Fred. This week I’ve been training the Global Account Directors of Schlumberger. I’m doing North America and Europe, so we are in [laughs].

Fred Diamond: Good for you, man. We got a question here from Mike. Mike says, “Can we be emotional and funny in our storytelling?” Talk about that for a second, Mike Adams.

Mike Adams: I really like that question. It turns out that stories are usually about important decisions, and humans cannot make a decision without reference to our emotional memory. You can actually think of a decision as a decision to feel good or better in the future than I feel now. That’s what a decision actually is. Stories have this unique ability that we can talk about things that happened, people making decisions, and in that process, without deliberately talking about emotions, the emotions are passed. You get a feeling from the story, because we imagine ourselves as the character in the story, and we imagine how we would feel as that character. Stories uniquely are a way to pass emotional content. We’re still putting all the facts in the story, we can be very technical in our stories, but because we’re talking about people making decisions, we also pass emotions, and that happens automatically. What was the second part of the question, it was emotions and?

Fred Diamond: Can I be funny in my stories?

Mike Adams: Yeah, absolutely. We run story competitions. At the end of our training, we run team competitions where they have to tell stories to a scenario that’s relevant. The winners are always the ones that find ways to get humor into that, and to enjoy themselves and have fun.

Fred Diamond: Hey, Mike, before I ask you for your final action step, you’re the author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. We’re getting requests from people saying, “Can Mike tell us one more really good story?” Before we get to your final action step here, why don’t you give us one of your most impactful stories to bring it home before we get your final action step?

Mike Adams: My favorite type of story is what we call value story, which is how does your company behave after you’ve signed the contract? This is a story that can really add margin, because I will prefer to work with the company that I trust. I heard a really good example of a value story. These are stories about leaders, it doesn’t have to be the CEO, but leaders demonstrating the right values. A sales guy told me this.

He was taking a contract to his CEO for signing. It was a systems integration company, and it was a reseller agreement. The CEO is reading the contract, and he comes to a clause that says his company will get a 10% commission for any products and services that they on-sell as part of their systems integration. The CEO gets his pen out, crosses that clause out and says to sales guy, “Look, we don’t accept commissions from our suppliers because that could put us in conflict with our client. We want our clients to know that we only get paid from them.”

That simple story is a demonstration of honesty and ethical business and the right behavior. That story’s now traveled all over because I tell it in my training courses. Good value stories get told within the buyer organization. They travel. I like that kind of story. How do you behave? Because that kind of story motivates not only your buyer, but your own staff and your partners, and even your family. It just shows, “This is how we behave.”

Fred Diamond: That’s actually a great way to wind down here. The sale isn’t a transaction. It’s not that you make a phone call, you get a sale, and you’re done. Some of the companies you mentioned before, and some of the companies you’ve worked with, they’ve been around for 30, 40, 50, 100 years. A lot of the people who have reached the pinnacle, we’ve had something called Premier Sales Leader, Mike, at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, and every Wednesday we interview a couple of them and we talk about their career journey. They have been with companies serving an industry for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. If you don’t have that ethics, that integrity, that commitment to the customer, you are not going to succeed more than a year. Keep thinking about who do you want to be after the sale? Who do you want to be during the sale? Because if you’re not ethical and don’t have integrity, you will be caught up.

Fred Diamond: Mike, thanks again for getting up in the middle of the night, we appreciate it. Give us a final action step. First of all, I just want to acknowledge you for not just writing a book, for writing a book that really has meaning. I read everything that people send to me and sometimes I don’t get past the first chapter. I read this book, actually read it again in preparation for today’s call, and it’s really well done and it feeds into one of the big chunks of advice that we give at the Institute, which is listening to the customer. I love the angle there. Also, you’re not there just to spew off facts and figures, because the customer can get them. You need to make the customer feel something, and you give a great approach on how to do that. Give us your final action step. You’ve given us 15, 20 great ideas. Give us one more specific idea on what sales professionals should do to take their sales career to the next level.

Mike Adams: Well, I’m a big fan of reading. Read books. All the best sales books are full of stories that you’ll learn from, because that’s how humans learn. I’m a great fan of that. If you don’t like to read, then listen, and you are providing a wonderful service here, Fred. It’s easy to listen. You’re in your car, you’re commuting, or you’re doing other work. You can listen to a podcast. I listen to podcasts every day, all day. I love them. That’s how I learn. The best podcasts are full of stories as well.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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