Sales Lessons From IBM: Tell the Customer's Story

Originally published
Originally published: 3/1/2011

It's better to be a supporting character than a protagonist.

Does the message you’re telling your customers tell the wrong story? If your message is all about your company and the wonderful things that you can do, you’re probably alienating your customers. Dean Schantz, a management consultant at Corporate Visions, suggests that companies emulate IBM, and tell the customer’s story instead. As any novelist could explain, every story has four essential elements: a protagonist who takes action; a plot objective that the protagonist is trying to achieve; an antagonist who (temporarily) prevents the protagonist achieving that objective; and supporting characters who help or hinder the protagonist.

The typical corporate message has the seller as the protagonist, making a sale as the objective; the seller’s competition as the antagonist; and the customers as the supporting characters who help the protagonist (the seller) to achieve greatness. Is it any wonder customers often feel that they’re not that important? 

Consider changing this around. When you tell your story, make the customer the protagonist; the antagonist is the challenge that the customer faces; the plot objective is to overcome that challenge (i.e., solve a problem or achieve a goal); and cast you and your firm in the supporting role.

Think of it this way: When you’re selling to the customer, don’t try to be the hero who conquers the dragon. Instead, you want to be the wizard who gives the hero a magic sword. For example, IBM has an extremely strong brand message, forged through over a century of success. It’s the largest IT employer in the world, generates more profit than any other technology company, holds more patents than any other U.S. company, etc. But that story, as impressive as it is, doesn’t resonate all that well outside of IBM, which is why IBM’s sales reps almost never recite it. 

Instead, they’ve tended to use a very simple message for the past 50 years: “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.” Any sales professional that has tried to sell against IBM knows that IBM’s account managers are experts at creating solutions that play into a customer’s story line. And they’ve been able to do that even when IBM’s brand story (like when it sold its PC business) was less than lustrous. 

How, then, do you write a great sales message? Essentially, you have to figure out the customer’s story and then insert yourself into it as a key supporting character. For example, your customer lost heat in the middle of hosting company over a holiday weekend. They called your company early Saturday morning, and by lunchtime, your crew had the heat back on and everyone was sitting down to homemade chicken soup.

Your company made good on its “24-hour service” promise, but the customer’s story would be much more memorable the next time someone else loses heat and needs immediate response!

Geoffrey James is the author of several books, hundreds of business articles, and currently writes the popular Sales Machine blog on CBS Interactive’s BNET website.

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