Storytelling – A Secret Weapon In Your Effort To Create A Sales Culture

by Kenny Pratt

Do you remember being lectured by a parent when you were a teenager.  Maybe it was after you broke curfew or brought home a poor grade.  Would you say your parent’s lectures were effective?  Did their admonishments inspire you to change your attitudes or behaviors?

While lecturing almost always fails, personal experience is almost always effective at re-writing mental maps.   Like I discussed in my previous post about small wins, one of the reasons for starting small is to break down resistance to trying.

But, alas, even when you start small, not everyone will try.

The Next Best Way To Learn

The next best way to learn, after personal experience, is through stories.  They draw you in and provide a wonderful proxy for our own personal experience.  Stories are memorable and concrete and full of emotion.  Stories show us which behaviors lead to which outcomes.  They have the power to move us into the narrative and we begin to simulate the experience. As we begin to mentally engage with the story we move into the role of participant and at the same time we move away from the role of critic.

What Stories Do You Share?

Let’s say that you want your self storage managers to adopt an effective sales behavior, like asking questions to find out what is important to the prospective customer.  In almost every case some property managers naturally give it a try and others are more reluctant, sitting back to see if it is worth their effort.

In this case you are in a position to leverage the power of stories by identifying those who are successful and finding a way for them to share their experience.  Let everyone see that one or more of their peers is embracing the new behaviors and is beginning to see success.   When they start to see themselves in the place of the protagonist storyteller, they will be motivated to try for themselves.  There will be no need for lectures or threats because the laggards will begin to re-write their own mental maps.

A quick tip:  There is a temptation to jump straight to the conclusion.  To reduce a story to bullet points and to forget to build up to the punchline. When you do this you sap all of the emotion and drama and interest out of the story.  Instead of transporting a listener to a new place you invite their inner critic back into the room.

There is a reason Aesop’s fables were told as stories instead of one-line admonishments.

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Just remember this, it’s hard to have a moral to the story when there is no story.

A Real Life Example

In my company we strive to get our customers to have their rent automatically billed to their credit card because we want to maximize the number of accounts that stay current and minimize the time we have to spend collecting from delinquent customers.

In one of our weekly staff meetings I was talking to a group of property managers and asking them what they could do to push the adoption of what we call “auto-billing”.  One of my managers began to share what was working for her with the group.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing here because I didn’t record the conversation),

“So when I have a customer come sit down to fill out the rental paper work, here’s what I do.  I don’t just ask them for their drivers license so that I can make a copy, instead I ask them for their driver’s license and for a credit card.  This way I know right away if they have a credit card or not.  Then, while they are filling the rental agreement I take a copy of their driver’s license and I fill the auto-billing form with their credit card information.  After we review the rental agreement together and I make sure the agreement is signed then I hand them the completed auto-billing form and tell them ‘We do our monthly payments via credit card.  I just need you to sign right here and authorize us to charge your card for each month’s rent as it comes due.’ And you know what, they almost always sign it.”

The others were intrigued.  They asked her what she did when people protested or expressed a desire to pay with cash or check and she continued to tell them how she worked around that dilemma. (If you’re interested ask me in the comments and  I’ll share that little nugget in a future blog post).

What Really Happened Here

We had goal of increasing the percentage of our new rentals who enrolled in the auto-billing program.  One of my store managers came up with a better way of reaching that goal.  She had an opportunity and a platform for sharing her learning with her co-workers who were also store managers.  As she told the story of how she did it, the others listened and imagined themselves going through a transaction with a new customer and mentally tried on the new behaviors of asking for a credit card right away with the driver’s license and filling in the auto-billing paperwork for the new customer.  They could imagine what it would be like to hand the completed form back to the prospective customer.  They realized that some questions might come up in that moment and they pushed my store manager for more information and more guidance on how she dealt with the eventual customer who didn’t just sign the form and move on.

They weren’t standing back with their arms crossed wondering if it was a good idea.

They were leaning forward waiting to hear what happened and whether it worked.  Once the story was finished they knew what it would take to get the same results and they could see themselves doing the same thing.  They were inspired to try, and try they did.

One More Real Life Example

Lately we have been making a concerted effort to build relationships between our store managers and the individuals, businesses, and organizations in our local markets that would be likely sources of referrals.  One stumbling block with this strategy is that not all of my property managers are naturally comfortable heading out of the office to call on potential referral partners.  These managers have a personality that excels at serving the people that come to them, but they are intimidated by the idea of reaching out and being the initiator of a new relationship.

Do you have any managers like that?

In one of our staff meetings I recommended that the less outgoing property managers focus on contacting mortgage brokers.  I pointed out that the local brokers probably do a fair amount of local loans with people who may be relocating or remodeling and that they would be easy to find because many will be listed in the phone directory.  I suggested that instead of trying to stop by their office or arrange an in-person meeting that they could pursue these relationships over the phone.  I took a couple of minutes and coached them about how they might approach the call and how they could show the mortgage broker that a relationship with us would be beneficial to them.

It Only Takes One

One of my part-time property managers took the guidance to heart and decided to give it a real try. In a staff meeting the following week I asked her to tell her story and this is a paraphrase of what she recounted…

“I decided to do what Kenny suggested and I pulled the yellow pages book out of the drawer and looked up the mortgage brokers.  I was worried about what I was going to say, but I remembered how much writing out my own version of a phone sales script helped me get comfortable talking to callers, so I worked with Shelley (her co-worker) and we came up with a script that I would use to start with.  Then I just started calling.  Even though I was nervous, it went really well. I was really surprised.  I was worried that I would be pushing something on these people that they wouldn’t want, but instead a lot of them were very excited about the gift certificates.”

About this point her co-worker, chimes in and says, “Yeah, I could tell she was getting more comfortable with each call.  They started out a little choppy, but she got more and more fluid as time went on.”

Then What?

In the first week I introduced the tactic to the managers of 6 locations.  It was enough to get one to act.  By finding that one manager who took action and letting her tell her story my other store managers came away feeling inspired by her, rather than scolded by me.

Are you surprised that when I asked the others if they thought they could do what Jenee had just done, they were all in enthusiastic agreement that they could?

How To Leverage Your Stories

  1. The first thing you want to do is to create a place for stories to be shared.  I run a portfolio of 14 properties and we have weekly staff meetings over the phone with the property managers.  For me, this is the critical time that I share stories and ask for stories to be shared.  If you only operate one storage facility, one possibility is to collaborate with another self storage facility that is sufficiently far enough away that you aren’t competitors.  Instead of calling them staff meetings you can call it sharing best practices.

    Of course stories are shared informally both in person and over the phone or email, but if you want to get the most out of this tool for creating a sales culture then I would recommend that you put a little more structure around sharing stories to encourage the right stories to be told at the right time. This is especially helpful when you have employees from more than one location collaborating and they won’t be in the same physical space.  The fact that they are physically distant makes regular communication and storytelling that much harder to accomplish and makes having a structure even more important.

  2. Find the successes and ask the people involved to talk about them.   When speaking with your property managers or reviewing their results, keep your ear tuned to hear about successes that can be shared. Not everyone on your staff is going to be outspoken, but if you are the boss and you ask them to tell the rest of the assembled group how they solved a particular problem or achieved a success, they are likely to do it.
  3. .
  4. Help your managers tell a story and not just a punchline.  If you find that your store managers are skipping right to the conclusion, then fill in the gaps by asking for details. Some things you could ask:
    1. How did you get started?
    2. What were the hardest parts?
    3. Where did you have problems?  What did you do to overcome?
    4. How did you feel when you were doing that?
    5. What would you do differently next time?

Lengthen The Shelf Life of Your Stories

  1. Capture it.  When you hear a good story you can capture it with a video camera or by recording the phone call.  You might not be ready to capture the story in the moment.  That’s Ok.  The really helpful ones are worth retelling and capturing.
  2. .
  3. Ask your managers to put it in writing.  These written stories can be shared on internal company website or wiki or shared via email.  If it is an example of exceptional customer service you might choose to share it publicly on your company blog or in other communications with your customers or investors.

    For example, we use an internal company wiki that allows anyone in our company to post information, pictures, etc. and to comment or edit the stuff that has already been posted.  When we were creating guidelines for how our stores were going to rent and maintain the three moving trucks that we own, the lead managers got together and talked about what they were doing that was working and not working and captured all of their best practices and published them on an internal web page.  Now future managers will benefit from their collective wisdom.

In Summary

  • Stories are the next best thing to actual experience for re-writing mental maps and inspiring action.
  • Stories inspire because they help people to see that something is possible and that it will be worth the effort in a deeply personal way that a stern lecture or admonishment will never accomplish.
  • If you are trying to move your organization in a particular direction, like adopting effective sales behaviors, find the few early adopters and give them a platform for telling about their first-hand experiences.
  • Build structure into the way you operate and manage that will allow stories to be shared.
  • Use technology to capture the best stories and lengthen their shelf life.

For Discussion In The Comments:

Have you ever been moved or inspired by a story?  Please share in the comments.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might want to see some of the others in the Creating Self Storage Sales Culture series.  Here are some of the posts in the series:

Focus On Behavior To Improve A Property Manager’s Selling Strength

Small Wins Lead To Selling Success

Storytelling – A Secret Weapon In Your Effort To Create A Sales Culture

6 Ways To Make Selling Practice Easy

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC

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