2008 was both extremely difficult and exhilarating. After more than 30 years, and tens of thousands of salespeople trained in both my Solution Selling and CustomerCentric Selling sales methodologies, I was punched in the stomach.
Industry Research suggested that I didn’t accomplish my mission as a trainer. When I first got into training in the late 70’s, my mission was to help the people that struggled the most, the bottom 80 percent. In 2008, Sales Benchmark Index reported that, after all these years, and despite the efforts of all the sales methodology companies, the 80/20 rule had gotten worse. It was now 87/13!
At first, I didn’t connect the dots — why did 80/20 go to 87/13? But I quickly began to realize that maybe this was our doing as an industry. We thought we cracked the code on what the very best did, but had we really? If we had, you’d expect a shift away from 80/20. In fact, it was getting worse, not better, so what did that say about all the sales methodologies — including my own — the one I believed in so dearly?
I started cycling through the seven stages of grief — shock and denial, pain and guilt, depression and reflection, etc. I was actually numb! The model I’d created, the thing I believed so passionately about, didn’t help the bottom 80 percent get better. I hadn’t helped the people that I wanted to help when I started my business.
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To make things worse, after some reflection, I further realized that I had never actually consciously taken a buyer through my own diagnose/prescribe framework. On top of all that, the 80/20 rule was alive and well inside of both sales productivity companies I had founded. A small percentage of people in both SolutionSelling® and CustomerCentric Selling™ had carried the load. I wanted to believe my own affiliates were using the methodologies that we sold, yet I had to ask myself — why was it so disproportionate if we were all using the same sales process?
In that same year, one of my longtime collaborators, CustomerCentricSelling affiliate Ben Zoldan, found himself on a very similar path. We shared the pain of learning that we hadn’t yet cracked the code on what the very best were actually doing. We both walked away from our sales process business; we left everything we had, because neither of us could stomach not doing anything about this.
That’s when Story Leaders was born.
We began our research project. If the best were doing something so different from everyone else, what was it? Why are some people so much more influential than others? How are they communicating?
This began a domino effect, which led to studying what forms of communication work and learning more about human behavior, decision-making, and motivation to change. We knew the very best communicated in a way that inspired people, but we never knew how to bottle that. All we knew was top sellers created an emotional connection with their buyers. They were authentic, passionate, emotional, connected, trusted — they shared vulnerability and told their stories from the heart. When we looked for these attributes in the business section of the bookstore, we came up empty. We found these qualities, however, in the forbidden section — “self help.” (The section where you will rarely find an enterprise salesperson.)
So we read, and read, and read. And our research became more intense. We didn’t know why at the time, but STORY kept popping up. It was like all roads started and ended with story. This led us to study biology and neuroscience. We began to learn why stories have such a profound effect on human beings. We thought, “We are trainers, we’re experts — we know how to codify skills — we can teach people to sell through storytelling.”
Boy, did we underestimate this little project of ours!
We began by inviting our professional and personal friends to spend time with us in 2008 so we could share what we were learning. Over the next year and a half, we knew we were on to something, but we couldn’t yell loud enough, and not many people were listening. “Storytelling, I get it, but … ”
By the summer of 2010, we finally had a course offering we could charge money for, and we were teaching enterprise B2B salespeople to build and tell stories. We were teaching empathic listening skills. Still, both Ben and I felt something was missing. We knew we hadn’t yet cracked the code on this.
Two events helped us to finally “get it.”
The first was a SVP of a major software company who went through our workshop but still wasn’t convinced. My partner got him to commit to “try it on a sales call.” He did the following week and turned a scheduled 45-minute call with a hostile customer into a three-hour call where the customer opened up with his story. The ‘a-ha’ moment was how his story got the customer to tell his story.
The second event was a workshop where we decided to teach story tending around attendees’ “who am I” stories. When I saw the tears in the eyes of people who just had their personal stories tended, we finally got it.
Story is not a technique; story is a way of thinking. Story can inspire change from the inside out. Change is driven first by emotion. Then the cerebral cortex can help message the logical reasons so other logic people will not think us crazy.
Storytelling is not the end; it is a means by which we can all connect to each other. By tending to another person’s story, we can help another feel safe and connected with us enough to consider changing — “I am here and I am ready to move there.” Today, Ben and I are excited to share this new understanding with the world.
It was extraordinarily difficult for me to let go of my old paradigm of selling, but I knew I had to. It is exhilarating that, after 30 years, we’ve finally discovered what’s been the greatest mystery in the sales profession: how the very best, most influential people inspire others to step away from the status quo into something new. And it is teachable!
Mike Bosworth is founder and co-founder of multiple sales management organizations, including SolutionSelling, CustomerCentricSelling, and Story Leaders, which provides workshops and executive coaching to help people learn how to use the powers of story and empathic listening to connect with, inspire, and influence change in others. His current focus is helping innovators brainstorm internet business ideas at a conceptual level and in many cases, participating in launching virtual businesses as an equity advisor.