Storytelling 101: The Underdog

kid boxing – The Fundamental Group

We’ve been discussing the importance of articulating the problem before you sell a solution in B2B storytelling. It relies on having a challenge to overcome in order for the audience to appreciate the solution.  So – how do you communicate to a customer who’s unaware that they have a problem?  How do you get them to recognize the problem?

Here’s how NOT to do it:

Our product helps you improve (insert metric) by xx %.

This is not a conversation starter.  This is you talking about your product to someone who couldn’t care less.  Remember, this is a person who probably has no idea of the problem you’re trying to solve.  Citing success metrics at this point is like having a doctor start to tell you about how much a prescription drug will reduce your blood pressure without first providing the hypertension diagnosis.  “Why do I even need this medicine?” you wonder.  Or worse, “I’m not sick.  I feel fine.”  That solution-without-context communication strategy does not entice prospects to listen.  It might even make them less likely.  Goodbye opportunity.

So here are two methods we can recommend that can open a prospect’s mind to your new solution:

Option 1 – Hearing Peers’ Stories.

Sometimes, directly confronting a prospect with problems can be alienating.  They feel defensive and resistant to discussing a problem, even if they are aware of it.  In these cases, you want a prospect to see herself through someone else’s eyes.  Videos and/or case studies of your existing customers articulating their stories can help prospects understand they, too, have an issue.  That might seem like an obvious solution, but doing the story correctly is the issue.  We typically find that most case studies aren’t structured for maximum effect.  They tend to be written from the company’s standpoint instead of the customer’s: “Here’s how we made a big impact on our customer” is the jist of the message.  Case studies that start with everything rainbows and unicorns won’t do the trick.  They are devoid of drama, and prospects won’t relate.

When the stories are well done, they can be extremely powerful.  In interviews with our clients’ customers, we’ve heard that well-done video stories were THE MAIN REASON that they reached out and engaged with the client.  As one person said about their customer story, “I saw it and realized that’s me – that’s what I need to get to.”

Instead, great B2B storytelling puts your customer at the center of the universe.  What did it feel like to experience the problem?   The bigger the problem, the more detailed the symptoms and issues your existing customers faced, the more likely a potential prospect will identify with it.  The story must must detail how the decision maker’s personal role was impacted by the issue they faced.  When you really delve into the human side of things, prospects sit up and take notice, and open themselves to the possibility that they have the same issue.  Then, when the customer discusses how their world changed after working with your solution, the prospect gets a glimpse of what the change does for them.  It’s better to highlight the emotions of the change – the difference in their state of mind, and how it’s impacted their outlook on work, their ability to perform, the morale of their team, etc, in these pieces.  The results and metrics can then follow to offer support and confirm their human experience.  This is when you can then get into how things changed at the customer’s organization, and talk about performance.  A prospect has gone on the journey with your customer, and they are ready to listen to and understand the metrics, and how they apply to the prospect’s situation.  And since the corroboration comes from a third party, it carries great credibility with the prospect – much more so than from your sales team or email campaign. 

Option 2 – Underdogging

It’s possible that your prospect might not respond to the case study.  Maybe they’re too busy to watch or read it.  Maybe they don’t clue in or recognize themselves in that story.  For these prospects, there is another more direct route that can work.  It’s based on the idea of our last post, how great stories rely on big problems.  If you think about great stories in terms of characters, you quickly discover that they revolve around the character or characters who must overcome the big problem.  In other words, they are UNDERDOGS.  Hollywood loves an underdog.  It’s the formula for virtually every SuperHero movie.  The Harry Potter series.  Star Wars films.  Avatar.  The longer the odds, the better the story.  If Voldemort, the most powerful evil wizard in the universe, defeats little Harry Potter, that’s not much of a story.  But if the little boy, orphaned by his parents, forced to live under the stairs with his cruel and disapproving relatives, must learn the ways of wizarding, then watch his 2 closest mentors die, watch the bad wizards take over, watch his only home and school be destroyed – and THEN he defeats the evil wizard – we are hooked.

We are wired to root for the underdog. Have a look at this map:

Was anyone outside of New England rooting for the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII? Barely. Yet another Patriots win was not a compelling story. People want the surprise and excitement of something they don’t expect.
We relate to the underdogs.  We suffer with them.  And when they overcome their long odds, we cheer and we weep. 

The inclination to identify with underdogs can work for you as you try to get prospects to consider your solution.  The key is to make the prospects see themselves as underdogs.  Every prospect has a multi-faceted job, and they are so accustomed to the status quo that they sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees.  They might have a problem, but they don’t see it in all its complexity.  They don’t piece together all of the symptoms they are experiencing to recognize the disease.  Your job is to tease this out with questions.  You ask them a series of questions that helps them see the small annoyances as a much larger, interrelated problem.  For example, one of our clients in the global payments space asks these questions:

  • Is the volume of your monthly supplier payments increasing?
  • Is a large percentage of your payments going to foreign countries?
  • Are you spending a lot of staff time reconciling payments?
  • Are you finding and fixing an increasing number of payment errors?
  • Are you spending time onboarding and managing payees?
  • Do you have staff that’s knowledgeable enough to ensure global tax reporting compliance for your expanding base of payees?
  • Do you need to hire more staff to meet the increasing demands?
  • Are you concerned that you could inadvertently make a payment that’s not OFAC or AML compliant?

Then you make the big turn to summarize their underdog status:

So if I understand this, you are seeing a growing volume of monthly payments, many of which are global, which is resulting in an increase in payment errors, and administration of payee issues.  You would like to have better expertise in global tax reporting, and you’re getting uncomfortable with the OFAC and AML compliance risk your company is carrying.  And you don’t have the budget to hire enough qualified people to continue operating this way?  That’s a very tough position to be in, isn’t it?

The goal is to get them to tie together what previously was a set of disconnected issues.  In doing so, you are helping them to recognize and understand a problem that’s much bigger than they may have realized.  By stacking these issues one upon the other, you are holding up the mirror and asking them to see the underdog staring back at them.  At that point, the enormity of the challenge they face dawns on them.  Until then, they have been able to compartmentalize issues as minor irritations, but now they are faced with a full-blown disaster-in-the-making.  Because you have cast them as the underdog in their own story, they are ready to listen to how you can make them a hero.

Underdogging is, by its nature, a bit more confrontational in its approach than simply hearing other customers’ stories.  The former method asks prospects to close the loop themselves – it’s triggering a process of self-examination.  Underdogging forces the issue by directly asking them to do the self-examination.  It often requires an actual conversation and access that’s hard to obtain at the top of the funnel, but it can also be done through an interactive assessment tool or quiz.  Some prospects may not need a more direct reckoning – they may immediately see themselves in the stories that their peers tell.  Other prospects might need more prodding.  In some cases, prospects might be too much in denial to accept they have a problem, so no amount of prodding/stories can get them to engage, but using these two techniques will often provide the opening for a legitimate sales opportunity.

Does your organization use either of these techniques?  What works best, and at which stage of the sales cycle does each succeed most?  Let us know in the comments.

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