Winning the Reluctant Prospect Through Story


Today’s customers are overworked, consumptively distracted, highly skeptical, and risk adverse. As any salesperson will tell you, this is the near-impenetrable fog that mists around our clients’ minds. 

Most prospects object as a defensive mechanism. When prospects are frenzied with demands on their time and reluctant to risk, objections are a temporary stay against confusion. 

Buyers, when considering a solution, particularly a long-term solution, experience a form of cognitive dissonance.  “Cognitive Dissonance is the mental turmoil that is evoked when the mind tries to hold two entirely incompatible views.” (Margaret Hefferman)

A prospect wants to resolve their problem, ideally with your solution. They seek with the intent to find. They want to believe, yet they distrust. Often, dissonance prevents progress. That fog constructs a barrier, and “mist,” the poet said, “divides the world into two parts.”  

The customer is trying to absolve two conflicts:

  1. Can I trust this company and their solution? 
  2. Will this product work for us

Trust and viability. 

Assuming you’ve done your diligence with referrals, it’s only a matter of time before conflict #1 is resolved; resolving conflict #2, demonstrating viability, requires a bit more imaginative work. 

Until the customer actualizes themselves using your solution, until they can see themselves having successfully deployed it within their company, they cannot reconcile their need with your product. 

Acclaimed Disney film producer Don Hahn wrote, we respond “to that which can be touched and seen and heard and smelled and tasted. Abstract thoughts lack real power until they can be somehow physicalized into a creation that occupies space in the universe.” 

Imagine a wide river. On one side stands you and your solution; on the other, the customer and their need. The gulf that exists between the two is the dissonance separating you and your customer. Dissonance is defined as “a conflict of people's opinions” but also as “sound that is a disagreeable auditory experience.”

Twenty years ago, as a newly minted sales rep, I encountered the same skeptical buyer, in-person, and often. Armed with my 20th-century features-and-benefits selling manual, I waltzed into Mr. Customer’s office, -textbook dazzling smile, friendly greeting at-the-ready- and I faced a living, breathing representation of cognitive dissonance. 

I heard the raging river in his mind because I could read it plainly on his face: Can I trust this person? Trust this company? This solution? Is it right for us? Will it work? How difficult will this be to implement?

The more I talked (pros/cons, features/benefits, logic/reason); the higher the river rose, the noise reaching a deafening pitch. My desperate, internal shouting (hidden behind gentle stock phrases) was lost in the rapids and encroaching fog. I regressed into the quagmire of salesmanship and lost the customer's interest.

But, if I were lucky, I slipped -accidentally and most times subconsciously, almost effortlessly- into a story as a way to rescue my pathetic selling effort. 

Buyers often cannot see themselves successfully deploying our solution because they are too busy defending themselves from the onslaught of salesmanship; they are unable to clearly see themselves in the center of the solution. 

To penetrate the cloudy confusion, you must practice what some of the most successful salespeople have always known: to win anyone’s affection, to break down the barrier of distrust and rise above the raucous din, you must tell them a story.

“Art [Story] is an annunciation that breaks into the small house of our cautionary being” - George Steiner 

In the business world, stories have been around in a synthetic form for years, in the construct of case histories. The problem with case histories is that they were factual but devoid of emotion. Reason prevailed over meaning. Even when the results were outstanding, case histories were a flat, inert block of information, lifeless without with the motion, momentum, and meaning conveyed through the arc of a story. Karen Armstrong writes, “A myth (story) is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.” 

Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at Wieden+Kenney once wrote:

Whatever Plato and Descartes might have told us – and whatever some marketers might tell themselves – we are at our core, driven not by reason and choice, but by far more ancient, intuitive, and often irrational emotions, impulses, and instincts. ... If you want to move people’s behaviors, you have to emotionally move them ... It is commonplace to make the distinction between artistic and commercial endeavors … the muse versus the market. Commerce versus art. Objectivity versus subjectivity. But these are false distinctions.  For as cultural participants – as meaning creators, and weavers of magic – both the artist and the salesman must seek to overcome the challenge of indifference.

Stories are windows. Customer stories allow the prospect to project themselves into the role of another buyer, personifying their decision. Personification means to “represent as a character on stage” or “invest … as with a body”. One of the most important aspects of storytelling is how the reader (listener, viewer) relates to the primary character, how the audience engages or connects, emotionally, with the protagonist. (Emotions being the connective tissue that holds a story together). Maria Popova wrote that “A powerful story transcends the shock value to help the reader reconcile the cognitive dissonance … and emerge closer to the truth, if only just a little bit.”

Personification in storytelling is ubiquitous, we encounter it often but it is a subtle craft. Even pharmaceutical and insurance companies use the vehicle of personification as a way for the buyer to relate. Jake at State Farm is not a brash, abrasive salesperson, he's actually an average Joe, from his mannerisms right down to his khaki pants and sport shirt. Jake is us; we are Jake. We get Jake. If he is not us, he is, at least, our neighbor, someone we know. The automotive market uses personification frequently, from mini-van mom to weekend-jeep warrior. 

Stories are “dramatized belief”, a testament that someone else, in the same circumstances, with similar needs, and common concerns, overcame the reluctance to buy. 

“A work of art is not a gem,” writes Wallace Stegner, “but a lens”. A story, quite simply, helps the customer see. 

Features-and-benefits selling are the natural offspring of industrial age pros-and-cons, but binary thinking kills the heart of story. Until a prospect can idealize themselves in the role of the protagonist: personifying themselves, identifying with the characters, envisioning success, the fog will not lift and the chasm remains.

Story is reconciliation. Story is clarity. Story is harmony. Story is the bridge that connects two separate worlds.

“Narrative itself is like a back door into a very deep place inside of us, a place where reason doesn’t necessarily hold sway.” - Ira Glass