My very first job out of college was sales on training wheels. I wasn’t thinking about telling stories, let alone telling better stories. It required me to handle inbound calls at an online sporting goods store. When someone called looking for a basketball hoop, which happened constantly thanks to our online marketing team, it was my responsibility to convince them to upgrade to a fancier, more expensive, but much sturdier basketball system. Usually, I spoke to dads who wanted a hoop at their home to have fun with their family and help their son or daughter get better at the sport. I didn’t have to prospect. And all the leads were already warm.
Easy, right? Any sales pro worth their salt can crush that.
But despite the fact that I only had to upsell, for months my success rate was dismal. The objections to the big ticket hoops were common, and seemingly insurmountable.
“I don’t think my six year old needs all that”
“We’re just looking for something to shoot around on”
“That seems like it will be a lot of work to put together”
And of course, there were the common objections about price.
I was sure I was put to a fool’s errand. Who on Earth would spend around a thousand dollars on a high end basketball hoop for their driveway when you can get a good-enough system for less than half that?
Usually when I directed people toward towards the better hoops, I emphasized the more durable pole. The wider backboard. The more comprehensive warranty. All the benefits that I learned from the manufacturer. And in response, I just got an indifferent shrug most of the time. I would like to say it didn’t get to me, but my morale did take a serious beating.
Since I wasn’t interested in falling on my face in my first foray into the real word, I sought the advice of an old life insurance sales pro I knew. After I explained my dilemma to him, he asked me a question that changed how I saw the role of the salesperson.
He said “Have you tried explaining how their life will be different if they don’t buy the better hoop?”
I was a little dumbfounded by the question at the time. My answer was, obviously no. When I was selling, I simply explained why the pricer hoop was better. I was working on the assumption that the cheap hoop was, more or less, the base model. The expensive one was an upgrade.
He told me that I was thinking about it all wrong. When the leads called me determined to leave with a hoop, it was a fork in the road in their lives. Are they going to go with the cheaper hoop, and live with the consequences of that decision? Or are they going to upgrade to something better, and live with the consequences of that decision? There was no in between.
I took his advice. And things changed once I started using variations of this script. The concept behind it has served me well ever since.
“This is a fine basketball hoop. But let’s say it’s two years from now, your kid is a lot better at basketball, because they’ve been practicing. But they can’t make bank shots like they can do at their school, because the backboard is too narrow. Maybe they even lower the hoop and try to dunk and wind up breaking the backboard. Unfortunately, you’ll have to get a whole new one because dunking isn’t covered under its warranty.
But what if you get [Model B] and it’s two years from now? They’ll still be able to practice at home, because it’s much closer to the pro systems that they use at the school games. And if they lower the hoop, dunk and shatter the whole thing? The manufacturer will ship you a replacement. If you plan on living at your house for a long time, and want a hoop that will last you, this is what I recommend.”
Even if they were totally set on a cheaper system, all customers paused for a few beats after hearing that. And it usually started a conversation that lead them to buying the more NBA-like system.
And consequently, my conversion rate skyrocketed.
Will They Choose One Story Or The Other?
Really, I wasn’t telling the prospects anything different. I was still communicating the same, core benefits. But the difference was in how I explained them. They weren’t just bullet points on the manufacturer’s spec sheet. They represented real experiences. They told a better story.
“A wider backboard” suddenly became a kid practicing his bank shot at home so he does better during his games at school.
“A studier pole” suddenly became a durable system that can handle as much abuse as you’re willing to give it.
“A better warranty” suddenly became having a hoop to play on for years, instead of just doing without a basketball system because it broke.
And rejecting all those things told a different story entirely. A worse story. By telling these two stories, I forced my prospects to think about which story they want to live with. Telling better stories begins with putting the customer’s transformation at the core of the story you tell.
Every Decision Has Consequences
In that first job I realized something important about the minds of customers, and their relationship to salespeople. Customers think that they’re along a particular path in their life. That path is what’s normal and expected. When you try to sell them a product or service, they often mistakenly believe that you’re interrupting their path. They think that buying what you’re selling is a pivot, and rejecting you has real consequences.
But that’s not true at all.
All decisions, including refusing a product, have consequences. The really great salespeople stimulate their prospects’ imaginations to help them understand how those consequences will change their life story.
This is true whether you’re selling basketball hoops, insurance, or anything else. As a salesperson, you are the two roads diverged in the wood that Robert Frost wrote about. And it’s your job to encourage your leads to take the one that makes all the difference by telling better stories.