Best Practice Customer Stories

Posted by | November 05, 2010 | best practices, customer stories | One Comment

We’ve been busy delivering sales playbooks and haven’t posted in over a year. We’ve learned a lot from the 12 projects we’ve delivered since the last article and would like to share some of these insights here. This post is about the best way to frame and deliver an important sales tool, the customer story.

Customer Stories Are Key to Establishing Credibility

For the sales rep, credibility is king. The more credibility a sales rep has with a prospect, the more likley a win. But how do you establish credibility? Knowing your product and features is a good start, but it won't be enough in most sales cycles.

Heath and Heath’s book ‘Made to Stick does a nice job outlining three categories that create credibility. It talks about leveraging authorities like experts and celebrities to get ‘external’ credibility, using vivid detail, humanized statistics and examples of high-level achievement to give your stories ‘internal’ credibility and using testable credentials – tests prospects can perform on their own to substantiate a claim – as a third way to establish credibility.

Relevant, timely, succinct, well-told customer stories are one of the best ways for a rep to establish internal credibility. And, if the story is about a respected company and is offered up with a chance to speak with the customer (when the time is right!), it spans all three credibility categories.

Why, then, are most sales forces lousy at telling compelling customer stories?

It turns out there are lots of reasons. Here are five.

Telling a Good Customer Story is Tricky

The first problem is exposure. Most reps can tell a pretty good customer story about customers they have sold but not about customers they haven’t sold. This is a problem if the right story is about an account they haven’t sold or for new reps, who haven’t yet sold any accounts.

So marketing steps up and takes on writing customer case studies. Case studies can be very powerful. However, and this is the second problem, marketing-developed case studies are typically aimed at prospects, not sales reps.

Their purpose is to be read by a prospect in a quiet moment, not told by a rep in the heat of a presentation or discussion. They are usually long and, because they need to be approved by the customer (and often the customer’s legal department), take a long time to produce and cover only a fraction of the customer base.

On day 1, sales reps need to know lots (20?) of compelling, 60-second customer stories across multiple markets sprinkled with ‘vivid detail’ that they can deal out like playing cards. These stories need to quickly cover the business issue and problem the customer faced, why their company won, what results have been delivered and how the relationship is expanding based on this success. Prospect-focused customer stories don’t fit this bill because they are too long, too few and not in a rep-friendly story format.

The third problem with getting reps to tell compelling customer stories is visibility -the seeds of a good customer story span multiple departments and time frames. The rep that sold the account has a good grasp of what problem the customer was trying to solve and why they won, but the services group usually is closest to the success metrics of the customer. And customer success lags the sale anywhere from one day to one year or more, depending on what you’re selling. So you need to poll multiple groups – and poll the customer directly if services isn’t doing a good job of tracking success metrics - to get even a one-minute customer story.

So, if we navigate these three hurdles and write tight stories aimed at reps and make them easily accessible, we’re home free?

Unfortunately not. We’ve still got two hurdles to go!

Systematic Practice is Unusual

To make these customer stories second nature, the reps need to practice them. And that is the fourth problem - most sales forces do not place an emphasis onpractice, the most obvious form of practice being role-playing.

This is surprising. To make just one analogy, professional football players, who are typically already highly expert, still practice all the time. With training camp, pre-season practice, in-season practice and film sessions, football players' practice 20+ hours for every hour of playing time. Are sales calls simpler than football plays? Some are, many are not. In my experience, though, sales reps practice a whole lot less than football players.

Reps need an easy way to read , hear or see how the rep that sold the account is telling the story and practice on their own, over and over. As Ericsson told us and Gladwell reminded us in Outliers, deliberate practice is the way to develop expertise.

The fifth and final problem is systematically delivering feedback to the rep to improve how they are telling their stories. Sales rep coaching is usually delivered on the fly after sales calls, during pipeline reviews or at quarterly sales training sessions or kickoffs. Sales forces are usually not seeing the benefits of systematic coaching, which are substantial. Oliveros shows us that follow-up, one-on-one coaching increases productivity 4x.

Consistently Telling Great Customer Stories

The first thing needed are lots of rep-focused customer stories spanning selling and customer success information delivered in an easy-to-use format. We’ve had success delivering customer stories in a powerpoint format using a logo slide as a clickable index to the different customer stories.

Each story is 5 bullets, fits in a single slide and is designed to be told in 60 seconds. The bullets are:

  • what does the customer do?
  • what was their business issue and problem?
  • why did they choose to do business with your company?
  • what success metrics have they had?
  • how are they extending or expanding usage based on this success?

You can click back to the index from any story slide to facilitate self-guided practice. Grouping the logos by vertical market and having an introductory slide by market is also a good idea. Use 3 bullets to tell the vertical story - what the vertical means to your company (largest, fast growing etc.), what's unique about tte vertical that makes it select your solution and a list of customers in that vertical.

This is designed to be a 30-second prelude that further enhances the credibility of your customer story. Establish expertise by showing that you know the specific things that their market generally values and demonstrating your company already has momentum in their vertical is a great intro to the customer story.

Practicing as a team

Getting a field sales forcetogether at least once a week for one hour to role play your differentiated selling stories (including customer stories) is recommended. Friday morning 8 – 9 might be a slot that works for a national salesforce. Have all the reps in the room or on a GoToMeeting, display the story on the screen and have the rep that sold the account spend 10 minutes fleshing out the details of the customer story. You might even update the story on the fly during this process as the reps watch.

Then that rep that sold (Intel) turns to the rep on their right and says, “Joe, how is your company helping (Intel)?” Joe tells the 60 second version of the story and turn to the person on his right and says, “Jill, what are you doing at (Intel)?” etc. The sales manager and team may throw in a bit of coaching after each story.

At the end of this session, every rep has heard the story 10 or so times and they all vote on who told the best version. The combination of hearing the rep that sold the account tell the story, hearing the story told 10 times, getting some personal coaching and the pressure of competing in front of your peers makes for an intense and effective weekly learning experience.

However, it is sometimes difficult to get your entire sales team together every week due to distributed sales teams, multiple time zones, scheduling conflicts etc. Also, many reps would prefer to practice the customer stories on their own before being subjected to the peer pressure-cooker.

What is the best approach here?

Practicing Individually

The clickable powerpoint format outlined above is a good baseline for individual rep practice. However, it doesn’t give the practicing rep the benefit of hearing or seeing the best practice customer story being told and it doesn’t allow the rep to watch themselves delivering the story.

I’ve found a video coaching system that nicely addresses both of these issues. It is created by Dasko Communications and is targeted at sales forces. The Dasko Response Coach is an easy-to-use, cloud-based video coaching system that lets reps watch videos of top reps in action, practice the sales stories with their webcams and get coaching and feedback from their managers and trainers – all when it is convenient for the rep. Here is a Prezi outlining the sales coaching challenge.


Telling selling stories well – including customer stories – is an important way for reps to establish credibility with prospects. Packaging the stories up for the sales reps and making it easy for them to practice and get feedback is the secret sauce to systematically getting your sales force to tell great customer stories. Good luck!

Ericsson GladwellOliveroscustomer stories

One Comment

  • David Shedd says:

    Paul, excellent article. You hit the nail on the head with the importance of telling stories to help sales sell to customers. Well Done! As an addition, I think that you can use social media, such as blogs, to collate some of these customer stories and additional vignettes. That puts the story easily at hand for the sales people, tells the company successes and stories in a unique voice (much better than the typical “voiceless” web site), and allows for a great follow-up as a way to tell a confirming story after the meeting (send a link to the blog or paste into the follow-up E-mail).

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