Why marketing and sales need to embrace the art of storytelling

Posted by  Raf Stevens —July 2, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

Storytelling caused an increase in productivity of 10% at ROCHE and an increase in employee satisfaction of 20%.

Marketing and sales are far from dead and buried. In fact, these essential business facets are needed now more than ever. Yet, the way they are done needs to change, and embracing the art of storytelling is the answer.

Art of storytelling

Are you a storytelling skeptic?

Last week, I attended the convention of Kreasales CPM. At the reception afterward, a lady with spirit came up to me, who is also account manager at a large food company.

“You know,” she said very firmly, “I honestly was very skeptical when I heard that Kreasales CPM invited someone who would talk about storytelling. It really is a bit of a buzz word, but so far no one could convince me that it can actually provide added value. Still, I’m very glad I came because your speech surprised me, and I’ve certainly learned one concrete thing today. It is not the task of marketing to create and tell stories. It is also up to me to tell stories.

And she continued: our marketing department told me on several occasions that I have to tell the stories of the brand, but in all honesty, I never quite knew how to. It all feels so pushy. Today, I’ve learned that I must bring the stories of the brand to life with a personal story, and should better listen to the stories of my clients, and how they are connected to these stories.”

The art of storytelling in business

Marketing and sales remain important engines for businesses, storytelling is perhaps the oil needed to make them run smoothly.

Economically, it may be going better with the euro zone lately, but the activity is still just as high as at the beginning of the crisis in 2008. We’ve actually stood still for the past seven years. And as everyone knows, this basically means a decline.

Companies are frantically looking for ways to reinvent themselves and to innovate, to resist the disruption and to be self-disruptive. No wonder that specialized blogging sites such as Innovation Excellence enjoy a high degree of popularity. On that site, Sheila Babnis, head of strategic innovation around product development at pharmaceutical company Roche, recently announced that storytelling could increase the productivity of its innovation team by 10% and employee satisfaction by 20%.

“Storytelling in business works. Moreover, I am convinced that it is more than ever an engine for the “new sales and marketing.”

The reality of continuous and accelerated change

Daily, we see many examples that the ancient Greek wisdom “Panta rhei” – everything is in constant motion and change, nothing is permanent – is still true to this day.

Although some organizations are frantically clinging to outdated structures and ideas, we now face the reality of continuous and accelerated change.

Since the beginning of this year, an average of three hotels in Paris filed for bankruptcy because they have to fight their competitor airbnb. In the Nevada desert, the first tests with self-propelled vehicles are being performed, which may destroy 400,000 jobs at UPS together with robotic drones, and the Internet of Things is much closer to us and has much greater consequences than we all suspect.

In other words, because of all these changes we arrived in a completely new era where we work differently, think differently and live differently. The efforts of all those who are still trying to stop the change, will go unnoticed.

Are marketers and salespeople in a profession without future?

Does this mean that we, as many predict, will also have to get rid of the concepts of “sales” and “marketing”? Are marketers and salespeople in a profession without future, just like drivers and driving instructors?

I’m convinced that’s not the case. But they must fullfil their function very differently than they used to in the last three decades. And storytelling can help them do just that.

Yuri Van Geest, a brilliant Dutch thinker who is involved with the Singularity University and also co-authored the book “Exponential Organisations“, stressed during the event “Webtomorrow”, organized by Bloovi, that marketing may be broader than it has ever been in the coming years. According to him, marketers will need to cooperate with specialists extensively. The marketing department will therefore become an ecosystem consisting of internal employees and freelancers. Traditional marketing budgets are saved and replaced by “hackathons” that ensure “growth hacking”. Thus, efficient communication is a must.

In my book “On Storytelling, leadership and the power of connection,” I explain that stories are the ideal binder to achieve such an effective two-way communication. Furthermore, according to Van Geest, marketers who have to uphold the reputation of a trade mark will no longer use push communication, but must observe their customers in order to respond proactively and flexibly. They will therefore have to listen to stories. That aspect is discussed in “On Storytelling, leadership and the power of connection.”

Why marketing and innovation need to work together

More than ever, marketing and innovation will have to come out of their ivory towers to work together. They will be a single section, rather than two separate ones. The knowledge that marketing gathers in ”big data”, thanks to a much closer cooperation with IT, will have to be shared with the innovation department.

The better organizations succeed in achieving such cooperation, the better they will be able to make a difference. And they will understand each other better when they share their knowledge with each other through stories.

Yuri Van Geest predicted changes in marketing which all boiled down to the fact that these changes can only be successful with a strong foundation based on storytelling. For sales, the same applies. Many believed that online sales, e-commerce and “referrals” on social media would cause salesmen to go extinct, but the opposite is true.

How important is social media for businesses?

Of course, it is important for organizations and their vendors to have a presence on social media, but even though the economy has become digital, according to a recent study by Frank Cespedes, a professor at Harvard University, more than 90% of the businesses do not really participate in the digital domain.

They cannot formulate precise targets in the digital economy and do not know how to calculate the ROI of digital investments. Cespedes warns of the following: “If you believe the business press, it seems as if businesses can only be successful if they are present on social media and if they know the ins and outs of analyzing “big data”.

But a study by Gallup showed that 62% of American adults say that social media has absolutely no influence on their purchasing decisions. 30% of respondents spoke of “some” influence and only 5% mentioned a great influence. Even the leading companies in the digital economy such as Facebook, Google and Groupon, as Cespedes claims, there are more employees who work in sales than in data mining and technology.

The amount that US companies spend on marketing efforts is still three times higher than the overall costs of advertising, 20 times higher than the investment in all online media and 100 times higher than what they spend on communication on social media.

Sales remains a basic facet of business today. But that obviously does not mean that salesmanship will remain the same as before. The time of salesmen who are wandering nomads knocking on the customer’s door with a briefcase in their hands is long gone.

Generating real confidence with a good story

The current salespeople are ‘sales reps’ and knowledge brokers, who help their organization because they are the only ones with whom consumers still have a connection. Good salespeople are no longer the “smooth guys,” but people who can generate real confidence with a good story. Together with the customers, they are trying to reach the same goal.

It is no longer the smooth guy in the chic suit who enters the parking lot in a big car with some pretty ladies, but have no answers when a potential customer asks a serious question. It’s the partners of the customers who create a real connection by telling a good and authentic story.

The stage of consultative selling, where sellers identify customer problems and then offer a solution, is already over. Sellers must now contribute to the development of the customers of the company. They have to take on a leadership role to drive the customer forward. How?

By creating an emotional connection, by being authentic and by telling stories that provide additional support to numbers – because information and numbers alone will not get you there as a seller. Google provides plenty of information to customers for that.

About  Raf Stevens

Raf Stevens is the author of Leadership, Storytelling and the Power of Connection and has over twenty years experience in communications. Ten years ago he decided to follow his passion: storytelling. Since then Raf has helped dozens of organizations and their leaders in the search for stories to create a stronger connection. He is a partner of Anecdote and a licensed Storytelling for Leaders® trainer.

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