In my first “proper job” after university, I reported to a sales manager who had particular ideas about how to engage a customer. “No matter what they say, tell them your brother, your mother, your best mate or your granny has done the same thing”, Bill would tell me. When I pointed out that it wasn’t true, Bill would wag his finger and say, “Look, if they have just come back from a holiday in Spain, and you tell them, my sister just came back from holiday there too, you’ve made a connection, and they’ll buy from you.” I was a shocking salesman, especially because I was not very good at concealing the product flaws from the customer, but Bill’s advice has always stayed with me in some way. Instead of following his route to tell those “little white lies”, I instead would do my best to make a genuine connection.
When I worked in a department store and was trying to promote depilatory devices for women, I’d use it to tear off a strip of hairs off my arm, wincing, “see how painless that was?!” When I started working in call centres, I’d actively engage the customer in a real conversation and seek out some common ground to help the conversation flow. This was the start of my story-telling career, and at that point, I didn’t realise that through natural and human conversations, making a bond by sharing a snapshot of my life, I was creating engagement.
As a manager, I was responsible for recruiting and training people. Whilst training for a system is pretty formulaic (I show you, then you demonstrate you understood by showing me), training for those magical soft skills was tougher. I found that recounting past customer scenarios helped people understand what I was expecting. Some stories became almost legendary, and when I handed the training baton on to others, they continued to tell the stories. They did this because it worked – telling stories helped the new recruits to understand and absorb how we wanted them to work wth customers.
When I started working in start-up business, full of cracking ideas and crazy products, story telling helped them maintain a connection with the customer as they evolved their products. One of my most frequently used examples is, “when did you last go to the bank, stand in line, hand over your cheque to the cashier, then wait for the funds to clear in your account. Or perhaps, you logged onto your mobile banking app and moved cash from one account to another in seconds. Which is the better experience? Self service or high touch human interaction?” It is a real and tangible example, and told with a smile, people understand that fantastic experiences don’t always need people in them.
A recent example I’ve used is when asked to pick up a task that I was not qualified to deliver. To explain why I was not the right person to deliver the task, I used another anecdote. “You could put me in charge of a hospital, and I’d work really hard, but I’m afraid a lot of people would end up very ill!” Getting buy in to your desired outcome, or indeed getting buy in to NOT do something can be done with a smile and with a little tongue in cheek humour.
I’m often asked to tell stories from my days at Virgin, and if there is one story I always tell, it’s about leadership and humility. At the launch of Virgin Mobile in South Africa, Richard Branson organised a great staff party. He asked if every team member was there, and I confirmed, yes, all but two, who are doing the night shift. He seemed sad that they missed out, but I reassured him that I’d be surprising them with a big Virgin Mobile cake in the morning as they finished their shift. He offered to arrive at the crack of dawn, and deliver the cake himself, despite his very busy schedule the following day. The next morning, around 6am, as my team were readying to leave, Richard appeared with the cake and a huge grim (the look of shock on their faces was priceless!) He sat and had coffee with them, chatted, and then they headed home and Richard headed off for a day of business. It cost him nothing, meant the world to those two call centre folks, and has become one of my favourite stories that I witnessed and cherish telling.
In summary, stories have to have a meaning, they have to be true and they have to be told, not written down. If you are wondering how to engage your boss, a colleague or your team, why not try telling them a story?