The Power of Social Selling (+ 7 Rules for Storytelling in Sales)

social selling
Sales Engagement

Prospects are dodging sales communications at greater and greater rates. 

Armed with better filters on their email inboxes and cell phones, they can block just about any sales message. Which means email open rates and call connect rates are dropping.

This should make every sales leader nervous. It makes me nervous, too. 

The question is, What should we do about it?

I believe that answer can be found by looking at what’s driving the incremental declines in “top line” conversation rates across the Sales Development profession: automation and saturation. 

You see, it’s easier than ever to automate email blasts and spoof local area codes with your power-dialer software. 

The problem is, buyers know that, and they’ve upped their game in response. We need to up ours as well. 

Robots can now do what used to need to be done only by people. Now we need to ask, What can’t automation do yet?

This is the next frontier of the human-powered Sales Development team — sales skills that go beyond automation, sales tactics that engage on a human level.

In this article, we’re going to dive into why this is so important, and how social selling and storytelling in sales can help you make that human touch.

You’ll also learn how I see this playing out — the future of Sales Development, if you will. And along the way, I’ll share some actionable tips for making sure you stay ahead of this trend.

Here’s what we’re going to cover:

Social Selling & Brand

The answer to the difficulties we’re experiencing is: brand. 

What do I mean by “brand”? I mean content. Perspective. Interpretation. Education. Social Selling

Whatever you want to call it, it’s all pointing toward the same thing — and that’s to build a powerful, trustworthy brand.

Let’s get one thing straight: interruption-based prospecting still works just fine. 

I’ve been running teams for years now that set 1000+ appointments per year for AE teams. It works. Cold calling is NOT dead. Nor is cold email. Nothing is “dead.” I’m just talking about improvements and net-new strategies.

This is a way to add 15-30% to your monthly numbers, and hedge your skillset against future defenses put up by prospects, who are trying their best to prevent you from getting into their inbox or phone.

You can programmatically display ads offering a white paper, but you can’t automate the interpretation of that white paper’s advice, put it in the context of one particular buyer’s role at their company, help them understand when the right time is to read it, or help them have confidence in who it is on their team that should be spearheading that effort.

That requires a human touch.

The Perspective Shift

It means that SDRs should think of themselves as the “last-mile branding team.”

Instead of an appointment-setter, a high-power SDR is, among other things, a skilled marketer who happens to have a quota of SQLs instead of MQLs.

To take a page out of the Challenger Sale playbook: it’s the SDR’s job to take the Commercial Teaching proposition of the company — NOT the features list! — and make that relevant to their individual prospects in a way that simply can’t be done at scale by automation or by a centralized marketing team.

One way to think of it is this… 

SDRs should be: 

  • Defining their personal brand
  • Understanding the company brand
  • Integrating the two
  • And building their sales process based on that combination

If you’re a sophisticated sales leader, you’re probably already doing this and thinking, “So far, this guy hasn’t said anything new!” 

First, congrats, because 95% of sales teams aren’t doing this. You’re on the right track. 

Second, keep reading, because we could all use help in amplifying the core value proposition of the brand-led SDR across their organization.

How Do We Get There?

To start, we need to rebuild the bridge that we’ve been burning with Marketing all these years.

Case in point: I worked with one sales team whose relationship with Marketing was so poor, they advised me to disguise a marketing services proposal as an outsourced sales proposal, so that they could get it approved without going through Marketing.

Yikes. We should all be working TOGETHER, not fighting like this.

I see SDRs of the future being trained by marketing as well as by sales, regardless of who they report to. 

And hey, let’s face it, marketers (bless them) are usually pretty poor at sales work, just as salespeople make terrible marketers. But they have a lot to offer to the SDR role — because Sales Development combines elements of what marketing and sales are both good at.

Next, SDRs need new to start developing two new skills that are very familiar to creative, brand, and marketing folks: storytelling and copywriting.

Let me put this in perspective. I’m not talking about being able to write film scripts (though that wouldn’t hurt!). 

I’m talking about replacing features-based cold call language (“Our product does X Y and Z”) with stories that start with, “One customer I helped this past Summer….”

I’m talking about telling stories on social media, especially LinkedIn. 

I’m talking about innovating on the email templates you were given by your manager, to make them your own so they sound authentic.

How Can We Move to Story-led Sales Development?

Humans are wired for stories, not spreadsheets. And that hurts me to say because I personally LOVE spreadsheets. But I love stories more: it’s biology.

Educating prospects like this helps them picture themselves as the hero of their own journey. THEY are the hero, NOT you and your product. 

Storytelling for sales is an enormously helpful skill to build, and while I can’t capture it all here and whole books have been written about it, here are some basic rules to live by, based on the work of today’s top storytellers. 

7 Rules for Storytelling in Sales

These rules are pulled from Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. As you read them, think about the Pixar movies you’ve seen, and make the connection to what you do every day as a salesperson.

1. You admire a character for TRYING more than for their SUCCESS

Real talk: when you only talk about how your case study customers breezed to a 2000% ROI when they adopted your product, you’re not convincing anybody. You’re causing the prospect to be skeptical, and you’re making their eyes glaze over while you’re at it. 

Don’t gloss over the struggle your customers experienced. Make your product a supporting character in that story — not the protagonist.

2. What’s FUN to write might differ from what’s INTERESTING to your AUDIENCE

Please stop spitting out the same templated promotional content without thinking about it. Stop talking about how much of a quota-crusher you are, and how you’re a top AE who always makes it to the president’s club. 

That may be fun for you, but unless your audience is “other salespeople,” they won’t identify with it, and they certainly don’t care or find it interesting.

3. What is your character GOOD at and comfortable with? Throw them the opposite!

Here are some examples of taking a “character” (your prospect) out of their comfort zone in a positive way:

Example #1: You sell martech allowing VPs of Marketing & Social Media Directors to attribute Google Maps search data to in-store purchases. 

They haven’t done this before, so you use stories to talk about how specific marketers have improved their skillsets as professionals, and didn’t just “wing it,” and succeeded immediately. 

In this example, you don’t act like everyone is falling over themselves to adopt your product. That’s likely not true, and prospects won’t believe you.

Example #2: You sell retail packaging IoT SaaS to enterprise CPG Marketing & Supply Chain executives. 

How did the supply chain leaders start to see themselves as marketers? How did the marketers start thinking more deeply about personalization, transparency, and corporate sustainability than before? Why did that benefit both them and their whole company?

Tell these stories. Help your market understand how others like them have grown out of their comfort zone, and why they should too. And by the way, how you can help them do that.

4. Look at the stories you love. Pull them apart. Figure out why you like them.

Look at the call scripts and templates you’ve been working with. Do you secretly hate them? Great, start looking elsewhere. 

What ads, brands, salespeople do you absolutely love? Write down why you love them. I’ll bet they’re following a lot of these rules, and not just going around spitting out features and talking about themselves.

5. Give your characters OPINIONS. Passive and malleable is boring. Polarize!

This is HUGE, in my opinion. If you’re just a corporate shill, I can probably use clever technology and low-paid admin folks to automate your job. If you’re a thoughtful salesperson with business acumen, and you have opinions that polarize others — if you take a STAND, and you’re bold — then you’re worth your weight in gold.

It’s not just okay to foster disagreement, it’s encouraged. 

Don’t be a clickbaiter, but I hereby give you permission to get your prospects’ tempers up a notch. They should feel something!

6. What are the STAKES? Give the audience a reason to ROOT FOR the character.

This is a classic Challenger Sale technique. Your product solves a big problem, and people don’t often realize how big of a problem that is. 

Hopefully, when you started reading this article, I made you a little more nervous than you’ve been up to now about your long-term job success as a leader or an individual contributor. I did that by reminding you of Gmail filtering and iOS cell phone call auto-blocking technology. That was my way of deepening your perspective on how big of a problem this is.

Do the same for your prospects. Use your stories to communicate how important the problem is.

Talk about other customers who were up against serious challenges — losing budget, losing their job, their company declining, whatever it is — yet ended up looking like an absolute BADASS, a HERO, because of the journey you helped them go through. 

In this story, your product is merely the sword in the stone — not King Arthur.

7. If you were this character, how would YOU FEEL? Honesty brings credibility.

This one is simple but difficult. If you hate your sales outreach cadence, prospects hate it even more. If you genuinely don’t understand what you’re selling, the impact of it, or the ways you’ve truly changed lives and helped people as a result — if you don’t FEEL it — then you can’t really communicate that feeling to others. 

Make your prospects feel what it will be like for them to go through the struggles (as well as the successes) when they adopt your solution. 

If you guess at these parts of the story instead of getting them authentically right, then your story won’t be believable and your prospects won’t trust you.

How Do We Implement This On My Sales Team, Right Away?

Here are some tangible techniques you can run with right away:

1. Integrate storytelling into your call scripts.

Collaborate with marketing to go deeper into your customer stories than you did before, digging out the emotional data: 

  • What did the struggles feel like? 
  • How did the nervousness during onboarding make way for relief? 
  • What was the joyful impact of their success as a customer of yours? 

The next time you get an objection during your demo or your cold call, instead of talking about percentage-increases in particular KPIs, tell 20- to 30-second stories in the format I gave you above. You’ll create real emotional impact.

2. Post valuable content on LinkedIn.

This is one of RevenueZen’s most powerful secret weapons. If you get a whole team — AEs, SDRs, Marketers, VPs of Sales & Marketing — aligned with this brand-led social selling strategy based on storytelling, and you’re all speaking your authentic, knowledgeable truth within the circles that your prospects live and work, then you’ll create: 

  • Buzz
  • Additional inbound lead flow
  • Increased opportunity win rates

And you’ll have more fun, too.

If you don’t believe me, look at what Drift has done with LinkedIn content, or send me an email and I’ll show you examples of leaders and salespeople that are excelling with this strategy with our help (shout-out to people like Justin and Kevin at PatientPop, Amy Volas who runs Avenue Talent Partners, and Dale Dupree “The Copier Warrior,” who all excel at this!). 

Think about what thousands of additional connections, hundreds of thousands of engagements and post views, and all those new leads, could do for your quota.

3. Whatever you do, make sure you stand out.

As an individual salesperson, your North Star throughout all of this should be to be different

If you’re just one of the crowd and your messaging and techniques look very similar to peers in other industries (or even your competitors), you’re more in danger than ever of an innovative tech company disrupting your job or allowing it to be offshored. 

And in the short term, you’re not going to be as successful with quota as you otherwise could be.

If you’re a sales or marketing leader, you should be thinking about how to empower your team members to stand out too. Since you can’t really do it for them, you can just lead by example.

If you’re a founder or executive, you already know how beneficial it is to stand out: You competed aggressively for your investment funding and initial customers, and you understand the power of having a brand (or the struggle of not having a strong brand!).

Closing Thoughts

Now you have another strategy in your toolbox, and hopefully, you’ll go back to your sales playbook with fresh eyes, trying to integrate these principles of social selling and storytelling into your process. 

Keep your focus squarely on communicating authentic, rich stories to your prospects about what they should consider, and what they can accomplish, and you’ll do well.

Alex is the Founder & CEO of RevenueZen, a high-growth lead generation, sales, and marketing agency focusing on helping innovative startups reach their target audience in a powerful way. Having first cut his teeth for several years in financial sales and SaaS sales leadership, Alex has worked with over 70 startups to design, refine, and launch marketing strategies that bring home the bacon. A San Francisco native, Alex currently lives in Portland OR where he leads RevenueZen's distributed team of 15 growth professionals across the country.