Four Stories You Must Tell: How service leaders use storytelling to win

I’ve noticed a trend. Some of the best service leaders, the ones who win the most profitable deals, are great storytellers. They tell all sorts of stories in all sorts of situations. And these stories share a few common characteristics. Previously, I’ve written about how storytelling has replaced features and benefits as the primary means by which service companies persuade prospects. But you may not be sure what stories to tell or when to tell them.

Four questions that lead to the four stories you must tell

These four types of stories are essential for services leaders and those in marketing, sales or business development:

  1. Why do you do what you do?
  2. Why does your company do what it does?
  3. How do your clients benefit from your services?
  4. What can happen if people choose to follow or reject your counsel?

Why do you do what you do?

This is your moment to shine. The professional services industry is unique in that people are the product. Online, I can look up a features and benefits comparison chart about virtually any product I might want to buy. I can compare it by class, price and specifications to a dozen others. No such taxonomy exists for the professional services world.

This is why it’s so important to talk about why you do what you do — not just what you do. For instance, in the financial services market there are more than 400,000 financial advisers who serve private clients in the U.S. Why should someone pick this adviser over that adviser? What will make the difference in their choice?

I have coached dozens of top financial advisors to help them improve their personal story. I help them uncover the distinctive details from their lives that unveil their motivations. This makes a huge difference for prospects to get to know and trust these advisers quickly.

When you tell people why you do what you do, they see how your life events have shaped your character, goals and motives. If you are honest, human and real, people will feel a connection with you. This can be very powerful, and not just for financial advisors.

An engineer friend tells a story of how he felt dumb in third grade when it came to language arts, but felt brilliant when it came to math and numbers. He knew then that his future was in math.  When he tells this story I see him as a little boy in his classroom, frustrated and fidgety during grammar lesson but whizzing through the math lessons with a laser focus.

I encourage you to think back over your life and the events that have shaped your choices for the work you do today. What are those specific events? How did they shape you? How did they make you feel?

When do you tell this story? Usually the best time is in the later stages of the sales cycle, when someone is seriously evaluating you or your company. Your story could be the difference between winning the deal or being perceived as just another option.

Why does your company do what it does?

Companies, like people, have stories. In helping service firms draft their company story, I’ve witnessed how this makes a difference in winning deals and how it impacts the confidence of sales people.

Often, a company story is tied to a founder. The best company stories reveal why a firm does what it does. Here are a few examples.

  • An engineering firm builds structures because its founder lost a loved one in a weak and poorly built structure.
  • The founder of a coaching firm left an industry after burnout. He made it his mission to transform that industry so no one experiences what he went through.
  • The founder of a medical practice chose to focus on preventive medicine after spending years in the emergency room helping patients deal with preventable diseases.
  • An IT consulting firm focuses on enterprise architecture because the founders spent years trying to help their former employers spend money wisely on technology initiatives that underperformed, failed or missed expectations.

So when you think about your firm, how do your stories compare? Are you using these stories?

When do you tell this story? It’s best early in the sales funnel, when someone is getting to know your company. This story could be the difference between a prospect moving to the next step or opting out of dialogue.

How do your clients benefit from your services?

Everyone knows about client testimonials and case studies. These can be the background of your client benefit stories. However, testimonials and case studies don’t always reveal the real reasons you were hired.

Usually a testimonial or case study says something to the effect of: “We worked with ABC Company on this project and we couldn’t be happier. They helped us reduce or improve our numbers by 35 percent.” That’s all well and good.

A client benefit story reveals details — usually not identifiable to an existing client — that are of a different nature. These details are usually the actual reasons the client funded the project and selected your organization in the first place.

Here are some very condensed examples of this kind of story:

  • An IT director received calls at all hours of the night because of data center outages. He hit his breaking point when he missed his seven-year-old daughter’s birthday party. After hiring my firm, he no longer misses birthday parties.
  • The VPs of finance and marketing had a frosty relationship. After a certain email that was supposed to be internal-only ended up in a client’s hands, the CEO hired my coaching firm for teambuilding. Now, the two VPs get along very well.
  • A retired gentleman had four investment accounts, two trusts, three rental properties and equity shares in three private companies. After his heart attack, he knew his wife couldn’t manage or even understand their assets if he had passed away. That compelled him to work with my company. His wife now understands everything and receives monthly reports. Now this gentleman has greater peace of mind.

Client benefit stories often reveal the real reasons — the ones you cannot put in writing — about why clients chose you and how you helped them.

So when do you tell these stories? They work best after you’ve discovered a similar pain point with a prospective client. If you can show how your client with a similar issue benefitted from your solution, you have an advantage.

What can happen if people choose to follow or reject your counsel?

These incredibly effective types of stories are dangerous and you have to be careful with them. The positive stories about what can happen if people follow your counsel can seem over promissory and therefore incredulous.  The negative stories about what can happen if people reject your counsel can sound as if you are trying to scare them.  Both outcomes are poor.  So be careful how you use these.

The positive story paints the picture of a golden future. Most people hire a service provider because they have a goal, opportunity or challenge. Once you understand which goal, opportunity or challenge is giving rise to the need for your services, you can tell a story about where a client could be in the near future if they work with you.

Many successful sales people say, “This is where I think we’ll be a year from now if we work together.” This visionary narrative can be very enticing to prospects who desire that future.

These stories work best when someone is carefully considering your proposal and trying to understand the impact you’ll have on them.

The negative narrative can be equally effective although it has to be told very carefully. It says, “This is where I think you’ll be in a year if we don’t work together.” You don’t have to be heavy-handed with this. A simple “You’ll fall short of your goals” or “You’ll spend money but not get the results you’re looking for” or even “You’ll be right where you are today” will suffice.

These stories work best when someone is seriously considering your proposal and leaning away from you. It isn’t beneficial to tell this type of story until it becomes clear that it is needed.

About the author

Randy Shattuck is a senior marketing executive and founder of The Shattuck Group, a full-service marketing firm that specializes in growing professional services firms. You can reach him at

One Response to Four Stories You Must Tell: How service leaders use storytelling to win

  1. Peter Curtis November 23, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    This is excellent advice for people like myself who sell home improvements. I’ve had a few people ask about the composition of the materials in a roofing or siding product – a very few. I ask questions to discover the concerns and desires of my prospect. With that info I can share stories to address these key areas. The key is to relate to the homeowner and establish in the mind of the homeowner that I understand their needs and wants, and am able to serve them in those areas. Empathy combined with solutions equals sales.