The concept seemed simple enough. You have a product and you know its features. All you have to do is go out and sell the product to make money. That is sales or, at least, how most people perceive sales. Why, then, do we see some experienced sales people embark on seemingly complicated processes and launch into very long pitches in order to sell their products and ideas?

That is because they look beneath the surface.

Sales 101: Sell Stories, Not Products

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This article will share light on 1) the lowdown on sales, 2) the sale of stories over products, 3) the iPad’s, and 4) the DeBeers’ stories.

THE LOWDOWN ON SALES

Sales encompass the sets of activities that involve the exchange of products, commodities, and services for money of equitable or equivalent value. Some look at it as a process or a business in itself, while others treat it more as a profession or line of work.

So, really, it’s not as simple as we all thought.

In sales, there are two primary parties involved: the seller and the buyer or purchaser. The seller is the original owner of the product or service, and he offers it to the purchaser for a price. Once the purchaser agrees to the price and pays the amount agreed upon, the sale is executed and completed, and the ownership of the product or item is passed on to the purchaser. In many cases, there is a third party involved, the salesperson, who is tasked to sell the commodity or service on behalf of the original owner.

Of course, if we look into more complex sales processes and relationships, there are more parties or people involved. But the main concept remains the same: there is a seller and a buyer, and a product or service that will be sold for a specific price.

There have been many misconceptions regarding sales, and let us try to clear them up a bit.

Sales is not marketing, and vice versa.

These two are often interchanged, with many thinking they are one and the same. While it is true that both have the same goal – revenue generation – they go about it differently.

Marketing is broader than sales, since it also covers areas such as establishing relationships with customers, suppliers, distributors and competitors; identifying opportunities in the market; and formulation of strategies to establish and maintain relationships, to name a few. It often involves activities like conducting market researches, advertising, public relations, customer service, and sales. Yes, it is safe to say that Sales can be thought of as a part of Marketing. In fact, selling is the ultimate result of marketing, seeing as all the activities performed in marketing a product is geared towards closing its sale.

Great products do not really sell themselves.

There is this age-old adage that goes “great products sell themselves”, meaning that if you have an excellent product, you no longer have to lift a finger to sell it. This saying pretty much implies that salespersons are redundant and there is no use for them.

The best sales teams refuse to let this phrase make them lazy, however. Perhaps these “great products” will bring in sales, but they want huge sales and to do that, they will still have to get to work and flex their selling muscles, so to speak.

THE SALE OF STORIES OVER PRODUCTS

Salespersons are storytellers

Storytellers have a way of reeling in listeners. They start with a few words that will surely catch the attention of even someone just passing by. Those words have more than enough hook to make them stop and listen for a while. Then the storytellers start to reel them in by adding more details to the story. If it’s good enough, the audience will stick around to hear the rest of the story, and there will be more listeners than before.

It is the same with Sales. You introduce the product or service, tell more about it in order to attract more buyers or clients, and continue polishing or improving it until you have a loyal customer base. They will keep coming back to your product because they liked it, and they want more of it.

The Product is the star of the story

In any story, there is a main character or protagonist. In this context, the star of the sales story is the product. What you will be selling is the story as a whole, not just the main character.

Imagine yourself sitting through a marathon of product commercials on TV. If all you see is a video of a detergent with voiceover and text speaking about its content and capabilities, chances are you will not even be able to remember its name ten minutes later. But if, in the video, you see a housewife having problems taking out stains on clothes, then presented with the detergent and successfully getting rid of the stains using the product, it will definitely make you take note of it.

Or, while browsing through YouTube, you spot a video of a new mobile app on making restaurant reservations. The features are enumerated systematically, and you see that it is quite similar to other existing apps. You may even close the video and move on to something else before it is finished. However, if the video focuses on how the app will make it easier for someone to make reservations – explaining why it is better than the other apps – it is likely that your next action will be to head to the website of the developer and download the app.

So you have a product and you absolutely love it. In fact, you think it is the best product to come out in recent years, and you honestly cannot imagine how the world will function without knowing about it or using it. Your objectivity has been clouded; there is absolutely no way that your product will not sell. …Right?

But you’re missing something here: you are not the one you are selling the product to so, in essence, your opinion does not really matter. Your customers’ do; they are the ones to decide whether your product is good or great, and they will also decide whether they should pay for it or not. It is, after all, in their nature to be self-centered. Which brings us to the next point: your customers.

Know your listeners: the customers

There is one thing that salespeople and sales teams, especially those that are just starting out, do not realize: customers or clients do not care about the products; they care how the products can help them solve their problems and make their lives easier.

You see many salespeople extolling the finer details and specific features of a product they are selling. They spend hours and hours talking about what the product is made of or how a component is made. They even go to great lengths to demonstrate what it can do. The result is impressive enough, but will this translate to Sales?

Perhaps. But it won’t be the numbers they were expecting.

When faced with the offer of a new product, especially one that they have not seen before, customers will hardly care about the product. They are more curious on what the product can do for them. Sure, they will be informed of the features of the product. They are shown its functionalities, and they are duly impressed by how well-made it is.

Before they decide to bring out their wallets and pay for it, however, they will go, “how can that product help me in my life?”

That is the make or break question that will impact greatly on Sales.

So what if you are offering a product with a revolutionary feature? The mother who is having headaches about lowering household expenses will not be impressed by it. Even the father who is more focused on how to have a more efficient way to finish a task will not pay any attention to it, for the simple reason that the product does not offer the solution he is looking for. In short, it is not the story he wants to hear.

In order to be able to weave a plausible and convincing story, you must first know your customer.

Make sure that you do your homework on your customers or clients before you approach them with an offer. What should you look into?

Studies on the market, especially the one that you are targeting, entail looking into their distinguishing characteristics and experiences. What are your customers’ needs? What are their preferences? Are they having personal problems that may be addressed by the product or service you are going to offer?

If the answer to the latter question is yes, then it is likened to finding a plot point that you can exploit when weaving your story. Look into how their problems or pains can be solved by the product, and make that the climax and resolution of your story.

As a storyteller, you now have the basic elements of the story. It’s just a matter of putting it all together in a coherent “narrative”.

Telling your story

The beauty of selling stories instead of products is its flexibility. You cannot change or tweak the products to suit your customers, but you can definitely customize your story so that it speaks to your customers, no matter how different they are.

Say, for example, that you are selling exercise equipment. Your sales team can devise an advertising campaign focusing on the group that makes use of the equipment for physical fitness and muscle-building purposes. Similarly, the team will also come up with another advertisement that speaks to the medical community, specifically those that make use of the same equipment for physical therapy and rehabilitation of injured individuals.

In that example, there is only one product – the exercise equipment. Instead of just talking about the features of the equipment, the sales team came up with scenarios where the equipment will provide a solution for the customers. They recognize the difference in the perspectives of the two groups, and carefully incorporated that in the advertising campaign that they drew up.

Now we come to another issue: how to deliver the story to the right listeners or customers.

Sales people in this day and age should consider themselves lucky. After all, there are now a lot of avenues available to them to deliver their stories. There are so many ways to deliver your story and introduce your products to the buying market.

Companies still make use of traditional forms of advertising to deliver their story. Advertising through print and media is still being practiced. Online advertising is definitely seen to be just as powerful – probably even more so – as it is able to reach a bigger market.

You have seen many companies do them before: their tweets tell a story that hooks millions of Twitter users to follow and see how the story goes. Email campaigns are launched, and even YouTube videos are used to a great extent.

Take note of other storytellers

When relaying your story, make sure that you make every effort to distinguish yourself from the competition. There are other businesses that will offer a product or service that is similar to yours. Your objective is to make sure yours stand out above all the rest, and the way to do that is to tell a better story.

There is nothing wrong with checking out the competition and how they market their product. You can probably learn a thing or two from them – what works, what doesn’t – when you are trying to sell your products.

This is where you, the storyteller, can present your “plot twist”, or your unique selling proposition. This clearly defines what makes your product unique from the sea of similar products that offer pretty much the same benefits. What will make the customer choose your product over the others?

Most sales pitches revolve around the unique selling proposition. It is not enough to just present the unique feature as is; you have to expound on it in such a way that it makes an impact. Much like how an unexpected twist in a story will make a listener stand at attention and be amazed.

THE iPAD’s STORY

The technology for tablets has already been in existence long before Apple introduced its iPad. In fact, several companies have already released their “mini-laptop” versions, to varying degrees of lukewarm reception and success. Their story? It is a convenient way to create content, combining functionality and portability in one device. Meaning, anyone who owns a tablet can write documents and other similar content even when they are on the go.

Apple came out with iPad, and they backed it up with a story which is similar to that of the previous tablet, but with a distinct modification.

Apple’s story is that the iPad also enables content creation even when you’re on the move. But there is a twist to their story and it is the unique selling proposition of Apple for this product: it is also for content consumption. Users may also download apps, music, media and other content directly on the tablet and store them for future consumption.

Clearly, this story resonated with more people, and it has further cemented Apple’s status as a pioneer in tablets and similar devices. At present, it has already produced several versions of the iPad, adding upgrades along the way, with each upgrade adding a layer to the story that they relay to the market.

In this example, it is clear that the customers did not focus on the product itself or even the technology. The customers are already familiar with the tablet, and they are also aware of the capabilities of a tablet, thanks to that technology. What convinced them to buy, however, was how the story was told. It was a time when people are looking for better and more convenient alternative to consuming content, aside from just using their laptops or desktops. And then Apple introduced this solution and the rest, as they say, is history.

Please have a look at Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPad and listen to how he frames the story that got the iPad started.

THE DEBEERS’ STORY

There are a lot of stories around, but there is no denying that some of the more enduring ones are those that talk of love and devotion.

DeBeers is one of the most recognizable names in the diamond industry, engaged in diamond exploration and mining to diamond trading and retail. At first, the diamond was nothing more than a “rock that shines”.

And then it happened in 1916 when it came up with what has been declared as the best advertising slogan of the 20th century: “A Diamond is forever”.

In this marketing strategy, DeBeers weaved a story that portrayed its diamonds as a symbol of love and commitment. Soon enough, women the world over would expect nothing less than a DeBeers diamond ring from their partners.

Diamonds are being sold by other companies, but it was DeBeers that created that plot twist that convinced the market to buy diamonds, even at a huge premium.

The two examples discussed above clearly demonstrate that Sales is not really about the product or service that you are selling, but the story that you are telling about that product.

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