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Stories connect peopleJerrold (not his real name) runs a technical consulting firm that delivers creative solutions at a great value. Problem was that when I first met him, his competitors also boasted they delivered creative solutions at a great value. Most didn’t, but potential clients got so confused – or lulled – that many viewed his firm’s highly technical services as a commodity, making price the driving factor. While his firm maintained a stable of loyal, existing clients, even these clients noticed the drop in market prices and became increasingly balky at the fees they traditionally paid Jerrold’s firm. Ouch.

One of Jerrold’s partners lobbied to hire a consultant that would push them to concentrate on a niche they could dominate. Jerrold resisted, sensing that other competitors would simply copy their pitch, restricting their firm to a smaller pond, but at the same level of competition. Jerrold also felt uneasy as their firm ably serves a broader market. He didn’t see how thinking smaller generated greater value for their clients. With declining profits and ever greater effort required to land new business, the passion that drove Jerrold’s firm was dangerously leaking away.

While not textbook perfect, the leadership team used positioning that was clear and, in theory, differentiated. A couple of upstart competitors, however, mimicked whatever worked, sowing confusion in the eyes of potential clients and driving down prices. In terms of degrees, certifications and previous work experience, Jerrold admitted these firms look pretty good on paper. Jerrold and his partners still often prevailed, but only by eroding their desired pricing. Sadly, the 122 years worth of cumulative experience Jerrold and his peers brought to client engagements factored pretty low when it came time for clients to make a decision.

Storytelling Creates Credibility

The root of the problem wasn’t that Jerrold’s clients didn’t care about experience. They did. They cared a great deal about getting their project done right because the impact on their business was often large, if difficult to quantify. A confusing cacophony of capabilities and experiences left clients with so many facts and figures they simply didn’t know what to trust. So they discounted it all. Responding with even more facts to “make capabilities clear” only made it worse. It was like trying to extinguish a fire by piling on ever more fuel. They made the situation worse.

The real problem was potential clients weren’t comfortable that Jerrold’s firm would deliver on it’s promises. Although they took pains to provide veritable mountains of information, what they provided failed to persuade or motivate the clients to act. Jerrold and company were certain they were doing the right thing in piling on the data, so helping them see a better approach took some doing.

Existing clients understood something Jerrold and his partners didn’t. Jerrold’s firm indeed delivers superior value, especially in terms of credible and timely recommendations generating a significant impact on the client’s organization. In talking to their clients, I heard this over and over. Where they fell flat was in failing to credibly convey this value to potential clients who didn’t already know them. So the prescription was credibility rather than more facts.

Focus on Value Creation with Storytelling

When pressed–and believe me it took a bit of pressing initially – all four members of the leadership team had multiple examples of creative and cost-effective solutions that generated more value than the client expected. Matched to the appropriate sales situation, these examples told elegant and compelling stories of how their firm added value for real clients. They had home run power, but had never taken a swing.

The snap-to-attention success of the initial set of stories quickly sparked memories with additional examples. At this point, we worked together to ensure a story library addressing the five critical needs of any professional service firm.

  1. Build rapport and trust. Service professionals live and die by the relationships they build. Rapport and trust are the foundation upon which long-term relationships blossom. I know a consultant that swears “trust is everything.” In reality, trust is necessary, but not sufficient.
  2. Make information interesting and relevant. Clients won’t absorb information they don’t think applies to their situation. Jerrold and his colleagues find success using stories tying their firm’s capabilities to client value. Good stories make connections come alive.
  3. Make information memorable. The days of a single decision maker live mostly in the rear view mirror, so compelling and trust-building stories must be remembered and retold after you leave. Equally important, memorable stories are the fodder of an active referral network.
  4. Persuade by transforming beliefs and changing minds. In Jerrold’s case, his marketing must overcome two hurdles: (a) the market belief that all firms are largely the same, and (b) communicate why they are the better than all the other options.
  5. Motivate the audience to take action. Stories are a superb vehicle for moving people to action by laying out alternatives. Most of us in the consulting business tell stories of clients who didn’t listen to us, or took too long to act. Most people recognize the inherent risk in taking action, but somehow overlook the sometimes greater risk in failing to act. Stories of success – or failure – by those in similar situations is a powerful motivator.

Storytelling Revitalizes Your Marketing and Sales

In documenting their successes – and a few failures – internally, Jerrold and his colleagues created a pool of credible, memorable and persuasive stories to build trust and motivate action in nearly any client situation. The marketing and sales message rests less on abstract capabilities then on relevant experiences – things they’ve actually done for clients. Their marketing and sales conversations now operate in a place the upstart competitors simply can’t follow.

There is skill in telling attention-grabbing stories that shouldn’t be overlooked. The best guides for storytelling used to be for building formal presentations. Books like Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte and Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principals of Screenwriting focus on powerful presentations. Stories That Move Mountains, a new book by Martin Sykes, Nicklas Malik and Mark West, and even this SlideShare presentation aim to reach a broader audience.

What more could you accomplish if potential clients, alliance partners and those you meet in the daily course of your business found your ability to create value instantly credible, and then had an easy and enjoyable to tell others who might be interested in your services?

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