Once upon a time, a child was born into a loving, comfortable family. One terrible day, disaster struck and the child was left orphaned, alone in the world with evil lurking in the shadows.
Thus begins the storyline for many well-loved fairytales and superhero stories. Spiderman, Batman, Cinderella, Snow White – the classics stay firmly in our memories because of the universal struggles and triumph of good against evil that resonate deeply within us.
Like any good tale, a good sales process plays with our subconscious, demanding our attention and holding us rapt until the very end.
The greatest salesmen, says author of the book The Art of the Sale, Learning from the Masters about the Business of Life, Philip Delves Broughton, don’t need to sell the features of their products or services.
We just naturally want to buy from them. The key to this is the sublime art of storytelling, the compulsive need to win and hold the attention of others.
In the book, Broughton tracked down anyone who could help him understand the heart of achieving greatness in sales. From the master merchant in the depths of Morocco’s antiques markets, to Japan’s top insurance saleswoman and on to the maestro of American televised infomercial, Broughton found a wealth of insights, methods and principles to selling successfully.
But more than just a book for a sales practitioner, The Art of The Sale throws out deep truths of how we live out our entire lives as salespeople, persuading others to see us the way we wish them to, and getting our way in this world.
We take a look at the aspects of storytelling that could make or break a sale. Broughton describes the process of storytelling across three essential stages. From the ancient Greek plays to today’s blockbuster movies, these steps have withstood the hard test of time.
Step 1: An Inciting Incident
In the Spiderman universe, Peter Parker’s loving family environment is suddenly shattered when his uncle Ben is shot dead by a passing robber. In an instant, his comfortable life and everyday routine is thrown off balance, and he faces a problem much larger than getting a date for the prom.
Without a crisis, there would not be a need for a solution. A salesperson grabs the audience’s attention with an event that is out of the ordinary. The Inciting Incident isn’t a supernatural story, but a challenge in everyday life that needs to be overcome.
The kitchen floor is smothered with dirt, food bits and your kid’s vomit – how do you overcome? If your computer freezes from a malicious virus – what do you do?
Step 2: A Climatic Struggle
Batman vs Bane, Holmes vs Moriarty – all our favourite stories contain universal elements of the hero struggling to establish a positive difference, with the enemy trying to disrupt at every step of the way.
Anthony “Sully” Sullivan, the informercial pitchman on many of the US TV commercials, believes that good salesmen are able to sustain long-term success by being alert to the real stories running through their customers’ minds.
“I don’t want to sell ice to eskimos. I’d rather sell them an igloo, or a beach holiday in Florida,” says Sullivan.
When we as salespeople seek to understand our customers’ unique situations, we develop a greater sensitivity to every customer’s internal hero story. The resulting competitive advantage is the salesperson’s ability to identify with the customer’s struggles to solve their problem, be it emotional or practical.
Similarly, Moroccan merchant Abdel Majid Rais El Fenni, mentally categorises his sales leads and tailors his approach accordingly. Majid recognises that every customer who walks into his shop struggles with a specific need or to match up to different expectations.
Usually it is never as simple as buying an exotic carpet to liven up a room, but a precise hierarchy of decision-making triggers that allow good salespeople to establish an appropriate sales strategy.
Majid cites the example of the rich Texan who walked into his shop, looking to buy the “very best” rug for his home in Houston. After looking around, the customer was still not satisfied. Immediately perceiving that customer’s idea of “best” meant the “most expensive”, Majid took the Texan to another selection of rugs, and reluctantly, apologetically, explained that these were the most expensive and perhaps not what the customer was looking for.
Step 3: A Resolution
At the climatic struggle in almost every story, a lifeline is given, enabling the hero to triumph against trials and tribulations.
Intimately understanding the customer’s internal hero story allows the salesperson to accurately help the customer achieve what they want. Recognising that Ariel, the Little Mermaid, desperately wanted to be on land with her human prince, the sea witch Ursula close her deal.
As a result, Ariel willingly gave up the very thing that Prince Eric would recognise – her beautiful voice – in order to be with him for three days.
In Majid’s shop, the rich Texan instantly bought the most expensive rug – not because it was necessarily the most aesthetically beautiful, but because Majid correctly assessed the Texan’s inner hero story and put out an accurate call-to-action.
When we read a book or watch a movie, we often judge the work on how compelling the storyline was to us, and the skill of the director and production team.
Similarly in sales, a good story is ultimately a tool to establish a relationship between the salesperson and the would-be customer.
Through stories, the salesperson sells the product or service by bringing the customer through their own imaginary hero story of conquering their problems with the seller’s solutions.
Realistically however, most of us function in environments where many vendors and goods can satisfy the customer’s requirements.
Ultimately, the competitive advantage lies in the hands of salespeople who can tap into the power of stories to sell themselves on the value of their work.
And with great story power comes great responsibility.
The Art of the Sale, Learning from the Masters about the business of Life, by Philip Delves Broughton is published by Penguin Books. It is available at all leading bookstores. Click here for more articles like this.