Stories Aren’t Just for Children

Published by Timothy Reed on

Stories Aren’t Just for Children

By Tim Rethlake

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“Hi, what’s your story?” 

These words greeted my wife and me as we entered a small furniture store in Minneapolis.

“Excuse me?” I replied.

“Well, you look like you walked in here on purpose, and we’re a furniture store, so I figure you must have a story that involves furniture, so what’s your story?”

I remember thinking, This is going to be different—and possibly expensive. I was right. On both counts.

My wife, Justine, was the actual customer, as we were shopping for a chair for her. As soon as we explained this, Lisa, the “storycatcher” (my title for her), moved her focus exclusively to Justine. Lisa engaged Justine in a discussion that covered family, lifestyle, home décor, hobbies, interests, favorite restaurants, TV shows, and, eventually, the specifics of the furniture Justine wanted.

Over the course of an hour, I took note of Lisa’s very effective selling skills: her thoughtful questions, her patient listening (Justine can talk!), her confirming comments, her physical touching (powerful when done right, creepy when done wrong), her use of props (wine in this case), her ability to paint a picture, and her confidence when asking for a sale.

Now, throw in how Lisa expertly tossed aside my objection to the company’s delivery charges like she had a black belt in sales Jujitsu, and you might be assuming we bought a chair that day. And you’d be absolutely correct.

The full story of “The Chair” takes 15 minutes to tell. My Editor here at The Fire Time Magazine tells me I have a 1,500 word limit, so if you want to hear all the details, you’ll have to catch my workshop at the South Central or Pacific HPBA Affiliate meetings this summer.

That said, my main point in bringing up this story is that when Justine and I walked into that furniture store, we were like 99% of the people who ding your door. You’re not a Walgreens where people walk in for a prescription, a protein bar, a photo print, or a prophylactic. You’re a destination location. People come to your store on purpose, which means they have a story to tell. That story may involve fire, grilling, or furniture. But no matter what, they have a story to tell—and if you’re smart and patient enough to listen to it, you may win their trust and subsequent business.

People come to your store on purpose, which means they have a story to tell.

I say “may” win their trust and business because there’s a pivotal point in the communication between you and the people who walk into your store for you to connect in a way that they feel heard, understood, and safe to the point where they’ll give you money and trust you to come into their homes.

Here’s where that pivotal point falls apart for many dealers. Because you are a destination location and an expert on what customers come to you for, you (and your team) feel pressured to live up to that “expert expectation.”

And how do you do that? By talking smart and impressing your prospects with how much you know. And when you do this, you’re unintentionally reinforcing (in their minds) how much they don’t know. They bring their personal story full of emotion and feelings. And you respond with your business story of BTUs, AFUEs, square inches of grilling, and all the data and facts

And they leave. Feeling unheard and unseen because they shared their personal story with you, and you responded with statistics and technical data about why your mouse trap is the very best on the market.

And your team leaves when your store closes feeling like they had a great day of telling “your story.”

I can feel you rolling your eyes because here’s another trade article telling you to be “customer-centric” and encouraging you to “listen to understand, not to respond.” And you’re mentally screaming, “We do that!”

But do you?

Imagine this interaction between a prospect in your store and a member of your sales team:

Her: “I really love our wood fireplace. We build a fire almost every weekend and I just kinda get lost staring at it, and before I know it, it’s bedtime. But the next morning when I come downstairs, the house smells really smoky, and sometimes there are ashes out on the floor. So I’m thinking we must need our chimney cleaned. Do you guys do that?”

You: “No, it’s not a chimney cleaning issue. Here’s what’s happening. As your fire dies down overnight, it loses draw up the chimney and because your wood-burning fireplace has created negative pressure in your home, air gets sucked back down the chimney, and that causes smoke and ashes to come back into the room. The best way to fix that is with a direct-vent gas insert because it has sealed combustion and a fixed glass front. We have a bunch of different models right over here.”

Everything you just said was 100% accurate. It’s also 100% confusing to her. She believes she needs a chimney cleaning, which she’s guessing should cost a few hundred dollars. You have “helped her” by responding with something about why she’s wrong, along with some gibberish she’s never heard before—and now you’re showing her something completely different that costs several thousand dollars. Is it any wonder she starts backing out of the store while saying,  “Thanks for the info, I’ll need to think about it.”  

What if you said this instead:

You: “You’re so right: Staring at a fire is really relaxing. It’s one of the perks I enjoy about working here! But as you said, it’s certainly not enjoyable if your house smells like a Boy Scout troop camped out there. What if you were able to enjoy a beautiful fire every day, not just on weekends? And what if the only thing you smell in the morning is the fresh cup of coffee you just made? And what if you could enjoy that morning cup of coffee beside a beautiful fire that you ‘built’ by simply touching a button? Would you be interested in looking at something that would let you do all that?”

I know, I know—you’re thinking, Why would I say that, I don’t even know if there’s gas service to her home! I get it. You have to get to the “technical stuff” to qualify the customer. I’m just suggesting you do that after you’ve told a story and painted a picture that solves the specific problem she described in a way that connects with her on a personal basis. You lead with a compelling story, not a specific solution. Whether it ends up having to be a wood or electric insert instead can be sorted out soon enough.

You lead with a compelling story, not a specific solution.

This article is brought to you by:

Classic story structure has several components. The protagonist (hero) is the customer. The antagonist (villain) is the smoky smell in the house. The guide (you) leads the hero on a path of discovery. The plot is how the hero overcomes the villain and lives happily ever after. It’s the same story structure that you read to your kids every night at bedtime. It’s a structure that every human brain understands and connects with, which is why it’s so powerful in a sales conversation.

So how can you get your sales team in a “story first, solution second” mindset? Here are three simple ways:

  1. Stop doing sales onboarding and training that focuses only on the technical aspects of the products you sell. If that’s all you put in their ears, that’s all that will come out of their mouths. Yes, your salespeople need to be technically competent. But they also need to be master “storycatchers” and storytellers.
  2. Create different customer “stories” like the one above and have your sales team practice a response that paints a picture and does not include one single word of jargon that only industry experts would understand.
  3. Have your team practice “you phrasing” in their stories. In the example above, there are four different “What if you could . . .” questions embedded in the story response. “You phrasing” ensures that you keep the customer in the hero role. As soon as you hear your team say, “we could do this for you,” “here’s what I recommend,” or something similar, they have now shifted from guide to hero, and the story is about them and not the customer.

And one bonus tip. Encourage your team to greet customers with the same phrase Lisa used: “Hi, what’s your story?” Will it work? You won’t know until you try it. I know that I have a credit card receipt to prove that it certainly works for Lisa.

Be well. Do good. And happy “storycatching”!

Tim Rethlake

Tim Rethlake

Tim Rethlake is the owner of TRaction Coaching where he helps leaders focus on the important rather than the urgent.

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