The perception of value and power of storytelling: Selling in uncertain times

Whetstone Inc.’s President & CEO, Adrian Davis, is one of the finest sales coaches and consultants working today, and he’s also an exceptional storyteller and communicator. He co-facilitates SAMA’s “SAM Playbook” training course (now available 100% virtually) and had been scheduled to keynote at SAMA’s Pan-European Conference before it was postponed due to the coronavirus. We spoke to Adrian recently to get his thoughts on what has (and hasn’t) changed for strategic salespeople in the time of coronavirus.

Harvey Dunham: Adrian, maybe the way to start this is that I’d love to give you a little perspective of why your article so captured our attention right away. You have a real gift for this, which is that ” perception of value is always in a state of flux.”  I think normally the timespan of flux, you know, you may be working with a customer for years, and things are kind of steady state and everything’s going well for them, and the economy’s not going crazy or whatever, and it’s just sort of business as usual. And it’s easy to get into that mindset. 

But now all of a sudden, here we are, all of us, every person on the planet, is confronted with this crisis and this…We are in flux. By definition, everyone is in flux. So given that, and given that the folks that we care about, which is our strategic account managers and people in sales, how do you advise all of us to take advantage of your observation that the value has changed, in all probability for all of their customers?

Adrian Davis: And I like how you’ve worded it there, that, you know, this is a shock that affects everybody on the planet. Like no industry is exempt, and business will no longer be the same, going through this shock and coming out of it. But I guess the key advice, Harvey, would be exactly where you started: the perception of value.

I think a lot of us, when we talk about our value proposition or our unique selling proposition, our differentiated value, we tend to think inside out. And that is to say, we think of the product, we think of the service, we think of our solution. And then we assign value to it. And then we think we can take our sales folks, our account managers to go out and articulate for us and educate the customer on our behalf of how this can help them.

But the underlying assumption in all of that is that we define the value, and that has actually never been true. What has always been true is that the customer defines the value. And I guess for me, Harvey, I learned this very early because my career in sales was in software, and I learned very early that software is an application. It’s something that you apply to solve problems. And the people that were successful selling enterprise software were the ones that understood very thoroughly what it could do, but never led with that. They always led with, or we always led with, “What does the customer need, what will the customer value?”

And we hear from them first their perception of value. Then we basically bend the application of the software creatively to solve that problem. So through selling software, and the malleability of software, it was always clear to me that the value was in the perception of the  buyer. 

So the advice that I would give to all of us right now is to look not at the value that we think we create, but at the value, at the point of use,  at the point of utilization. What does the customer do to create value for their customer? And how do they use our products, our services, our solutions to create that value? That’s what we need to look at. And as their customer’s perception of value changes, the applications that we provide to help them create value, we have to be able to pivot as well.

Harvey Dunham: Wow. That’s interesting. Great response. Great reminder to all of us. that it doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what they think [unitelligbile]. And the customer’s customer, and I was just thinking if I can follow on for a moment, about your software example, because your customer, they’re in…in a software sale, very often, as an inter—, the customer’s customer, let’s say you’re selling it to the CIO or somebody on the CIO staff, their customer is probably an internal customer.

Adrian Davis: That’s right. 

Harvey Dunham: But a different customer. So what you’re saying is that the value that they see is really going to be dependent on what’s their customer— 

Adrian Davis: Exactly. And I sold back in the day on-premise software, so we were selling multimillion dollar systems that were on premise. And then the whole cloud computing started to emerge. And I remember we were selling CRM, multimillion dollar CRM systems, and this small little company came on the radar with a tagline of “No software.” And it was salesforce.com. And we actually laughed. We laughed. We thought, “This is ridiculous. Nobody is going to put their customer information on the internet.”

And then people started to put their customer information on the internet. So we said, okay, “Well, small companies might do it, but the big companies that we sell to, they’ll never put such sensitive information on the internet.” Well, nobody’s ever heard of the companies that I worked for, a company called Vantive software. We were number two in the space. Siebel systems was number one. Most people I talk to today have never heard of them. And I myself am now a salesforce.com customer. So that’s an example of value migrating. And what the on-cloud software applications did is they shifted the focus from what’s called exchange value to value-in-use.

So exchange value is, we said this software is worth $5 million, and here is why. And people would pay us. And then a lot of times, Harvey, the software would sit on the shelf through the implementation process, and then sometimes it never came off the shelf. 

When Salesforce and the others like that came along, they basically said, “You don’t have to pay us for any software you don’t use. You only use…you only pay for the software that you use, and we’re were obligated to make you successful. Otherwise, you’ll end your subscription. And as you’re successful, you’ll buy more licenses.” So the whole notion of value shifted from an exchange for value to actually the use of value and  proof that there was value being delivered.

And I think that has cascaded out or magnified itself in other industries as well, where everybody’s now asking themselves,  “Am I actually getting value from the utilization of whatever the solution is? 

Harvey Dunham: Wow, that is a great example. 

Adrian Davis: And just to close that thought….And that’s really the focus now: if we’re going to be successful, we have to understand, especially in such a capidly changing marketplace or economy, and we really haven’t seen the extent of this yet. We have no idea what the fallout will be, but as things are changing rapidly, our success will be determined by value in use.

And we have to understand what is my customer actually doing with my solution to create value for their customers and to monitor that and to make sure that there’s an uptick. And if there is a downtick that, we’re pivoting quickly to make sure we’re helping our customer be successful in any industry and in every industry. 

Harvey Dunham: Right. And now, given the situation that we’re all in, and as I said before, all of us, everyone in the world, everyone of us situation. So it’s what you’re really, I think what I hear you saying is is that you advise every company and every SAM to rethink their business model. If I could capture it in a phrase. Is that the right way to articulate it? 

Adrian Davis: 100%. And don’t take anything for granted. And what’s really critical now, and part of the business model is to rethink which accounts really are strategic to us. Sometimes we use this term kind of loosely — “This is a strategic account” — and almost opportunistically. Now in part of this business design, if we choose the wrong customers, and invest in the wrong customers that really cannot optimize the value that we can bring, it could be catastrophic, not just for them, but for us as well. 

So we have to be very clear. While we might have many customers and they’re going to continue to buy from us hopefully, there are certain customers that will really benefit from what we can bring and will really value what we can bring.  And are working in an environment and in such a way that they can be very successful in this period of flux. We need to identify those customers, build very deep relationships, or continue to build deep relationships with them, and work creatively and innovatively with those customers. 

The worst thing I think that can happen to us right now is we get kind of desperate, we spread ourselves thin with customers that really don’t value us. As a result, we’re not able to really help the customers that could really value us, and our true value gets compromised.

Harvey Dunham: Great advice. Maybe just to expand just a little bit more in this area, picking the right customers, which is…You’re singing to the choir here. You know that we know this, but when you’re working with actual clients, what prevents them from having the courage to do this? Because it seems, it almost seems to me, maybe “courage” is not the right word, but it seems like they get caught up in a lot of…paralysis, I guess, analysis paralysis. I’m not sure what it is, and they keep people around that, honestly, I call them zombie strategic accounts.

They’re a “walking dead” customer in a way that that doesn’t really want to collaborate with you. They’re just big and important. Everybody gets that. But who are the…People kid themselves, don’t they, so what are you seeing? 

Adrian Davis: I think I would say it this way, you know. In a way, money is a drug, and as long as money’s coming in, then you get addicted to that cashflow, and it might not be particularly profitable. The relationship might not be healthy, but it’s money. And I think that’s where…and “courage” might be the right word in some circumstances, but I think that’s what it is. That’s what I’ve seen, where big account, either there’s a good amount of money flowing, or there’s the promise of a good amount of money to flow, and then all is forgiven, you know? As long as there’s a check coming with you, I’ll forgive everything else.

What I’m seeing now is this industry dynamic that’s forcing people to say,  “Is this a healthy customer? Will this customer even be around in a year? Um, and so are we going to be overinvesting and overextending ourselves with a customer that might not even be here?” So  the current situation of uncertainty, I think, has forced the conversation to say, all right, “Which customers are we going to get serious about? And which customers maybed o we need to begin distancing ourselves from or even maybe retiring the relationship?”

Harvey Dunham: So I think, Adrian, what you’re pointing to is something that I  know this from my experience, but I’ve never seen it really studied too much. But my observation is, is that when  there’s a market downturn, like we’re seeing right now. I mean, it’s not a market downturn, but the market’s turned off basically. 

Adrian Davis: Right. And  I’ve never seen this. I’ve never seen a market turn off. We’ve all seen downturns. But a shutdown is something else. 

Harvey Dunham: Yeah. But normally, coming out of a downturn, what I’ve observed is that companies that survive, that’s when market share is gained. Big chunks of market. And it’s  because those…So I think what you’re saying, if I’m hearing you right, you need to really think about who’s going to survive, and pick those. And not only will they survive, but they want to collaborate and co-create with you. And those are the customers you want to move all your chips on to their squares, so to speak. 

Adrian Davis: And I think it’s gonna be a combination of, are they able to pivot and adapt in their value delivery —  their value proposition and their value delivery? So as things change, are they able to pivot and create something and deliver something that is highly valued? So that’s one thing I’d be looking for. 

The other thing I’d be looking for is: are they well managed? Because it’s that ability to preserve cash. It’s that ability to have good cash flow that enables them to retain good talent and confidence and enables them to pivot. Whereas if a company is not well managed, and they’re feeling the pinch, when it’s time to pivot, they just can’t. Even though they’ve got great ideas, the best people have left them and they just don’t have the cashflow to pivot. So I’m looking for organizations that are very clear on their value proposition but are also agile and able to pivot based on how the customer’s perception of value changes. And then are they well run so that they have the ability to pivot? 

And the other thing we shouldn’t kid ourselves as well, especially now, and you actually used the term “market shutdown.” Like we’re closed for business, period. And then at some point, hopefully we’re open for business again. So this isn’t just a market downturn, it’s a market shutdown. In either case, whether it’s a significant downturn or a shutdown, when the lights come back on, there’s going to be this question, not just around organizations, but around whole industries. Whole industries can become irrelevant when the perception of value shifts significantly, a whole industry can become irrelevant.

So it’s not just the companies we’re looking at to say, which companies are going to survive this? We also have to be thinking, which industries will survive? Maybe whole new industries will be created or industries that were kind of on the periphery, they will become center stage.

Harvey Dunham: So it could even be, it’s likely, or it’s certainly very possible, that  a medium-size company or even a small company might come out of… my horse racing analogy…come from the back of the pack. 

Adrian Davis: Exactly. Exactly right. 

Harvey Dunham: And in a hurry. 

Adrian Davis: And so it’s that ability to sort of anticipate the future and say, “You know what?  I see where this organization is going. Let me work with them, let me help them.” 

The other side of it as well is there are companies that are at risk. And there are strategic accounts for us, but they’re at risk. There’s a view that we need to abandon them as quickly as possible because they’re not going to make it, and let’s find somebody else. But there’s also a view that this is a strategic account for us. We chose them for this reason. Let us really get in intimately with them and collaborate with them and help them figure out what is the strategic pivot that they have to make. That even though everybody else in their industry may fail, they have the resources, capabilities combined with the capabilities that we bring that they could make a pivot that makes them the star.

So just because the immediate news looks bleak…that’s the whole point of strategic account management — that we can get in collaboratively, creatively, work with them, innovate with them, and help them come out the other end.

Harvey Dunham: Wow. That’s great. That’s great. I really like that advice. It’s incredible. Well, I want to move onto the next point that you made in this, which is the power of the story. And you know, as you– I read the first paragraph, the first point, and you know,  basically advising us all to take this moment to look at the future. In fact, you should be looking at it all the time, but particularly now with this event that’s got all of our attention.

But then you know the power of the story. How do you link the power of the story to this first point that you make about the perception of value is always in a state of flufx? 

What 

Adrian Davis: A great question, Harvey. What a great question. So here’s how I link it. So value is always in a state of flux. And value is a perception, and it’s in the eye of the beholder. But the perception is in the story that we are always telling ourselves a story. And everything that we interpret around us, we interpret with story. Everything needs a narrative to be understood. 

I like to say we don’t see with our eyes, we see with our stories. So two people can look at the same thing, but see two totally different things because it’s interpreted differently. So we always need a story to interpret, and what we’re going through now with a global shutdown of business, it puts us in a quasi state of shock because there’s no story for this. We’ve never seen this before. How do we interpret this? When the whole world shuts down for business, where do we go next? If there is a global depression the likes of which we’ve never seen before, it’s unprecedented. How do we anticipate what happens after that? We have no idea. 

So we need our stories to perceive. Therefore, we need our stories to perceive value. And that’s how I link the two.

Harvey Dunham: So we really have to help the customer see their new story.

Adrian Davis:  Right on. 100%. We need to understand what is the story they are currently telling themselves? So if I’m in the restaurant business, which is like the first hit and the hardest hit, or the hotel or airline. But the smaller restaurants that time is of the essence. If they don’t get help, like next week, they’re closing their doors forever. So if I’m in the restaurant business, what is the story I’m telling myself? And if you’re a supplier to the restaurant business, you need to know that. 

Because if I’m telling myself all is lost, and I’m interpreting everything around me, including you, through the story that all is lost, I’m not going to spend a penny with anybody. I’m basically ready to close up. On the other hand, in the same industry, someone else is thinking, “How can I pivot? Maybe instead of selling to this type of customer, I could be selling to this type of customer. Maybe I need to focus more on delivery at home because in this particular situation, people are going to value home delivery more than going out to eat. So I’m going to take my capabilities. I’m going to pivot along.” 

You come along now as my account manager, and because of the story, I’m telling myself that there’s opportunity here. I can pivot. No, I’m open to him to speaking with you and exploring what might we do together?

So everything that we say, everything that we do, is going to be interpreted through the lens of the story that the customer is telling themselves. We need to know what that story is, and we need to help them tell themselves a strong story, a heroic story, where they’re then pulling us in as resources to help them achieve the possible.

Harvey Dunham: So  I’m thinking about this and you know what, what would I, sitting at home…I’d like to be out doing what I normally do, but I can’t. My compan’s prohibiting on the travel ban. The governor is telling us to stay at home, don’t go out, et cetera, et cetera.

Would it be good advice to all of those  salespeople to call their customer and ask them, how are they seeing things? 

Adrian Davis: Yeah. I think it’s. 

“What can,  

Harvey Dunham: can I do about it?” Ask the customer! 

Adrian Davis: I think the number one thing that we need to be doing is making sure the customer is okay. When you look at the contagion rate of this virus, the death rate is not as bad as we thought it was. But the contagion rate is crazy. It’s exponential. So it’s highly unlikely that any of our customers will be untouched by this. And and when they get touched by it, it’s going to be detrimental. It could be catastrophic.

So I think it’s off color to basically call customers with a motivation to say, “I’ve got to sell you something. You know, my business is in trouble. I gotta sell.” When they might be facing tragedy. So, so number one, we’ve got to be sensitive that these are tragic times. Everybody is at risk. And we really do care about our customers. 

So let’s connect with them in a way that demonstrates caring. Maybe they won’t take a phone call, but they’ll take a text or they’ll take an email that just demonstrates caring. “Are you okay? Is your family okay? Is the business okay?” And let’s just reinforce the fact that we have a friendship here. It’s a business friendship, but it’s a friendship and we care about each other. And let’s share with them what’s going on in our lives. I think it’s a great opportunity to just reinforce that human connection. That would be number one. 

And then number two would be seeking understanding. I don’t need to sell you anything right now. What I need to do is just understand your world. How are you coping? What are you seeing? What  are your top priorities? What are your top challenges right now? What are your top priorities right now? What are you saying to your people right now? And the more I can gather this type of understanding and insight, especially if I can do this over multiple accounts or multiple business units within an account. After a while and I start aggregating these insights, I’m going to get a better sense of what I can do to help.

They need to know that I’m here and if you need anything, you know, let me know. But also they need to know and they need to know that I care. And then also they need to know that I’m thinking about them. And it might be a week later, it might be two weeks later. But I’d like to sit down with you, share with you what I’ve heard from you, maybe what I’ve heard from some other players in the industry and some thoughts around what you might be able to do to improve your situation.

I think that kind of conversation will always be welcomed. Versus, ‘I know what my value is, orI think I know what my value is, and I just want to sell you stuff. Can you buy some stuff fomr me?” 

Harvey Dunham: Right. Wow. Tremendous advice. That’s tremendous advice. Well, this, this leads me to the last point in your article: putting things in perspective, right? And here you turn to the salesperson themselves and say, “You need to do some things differently. You’ve got an opportunity to do things differently.” And there was something in me that feels that there must be something that inspired you to think about the salesperson as an individual themselves. And I just wonder if you could expand upon that and share what you were thinking about when you wrote this. 

Adrian Davis: Yeah. I think what struck me there, Harvey, as I’ve seen through my years… So my particular background and story is I came from a dysfunctional family, and very early on I set a goal for myself that that wasn’t going to happen to me. That I was going to have a family, and it was going to be a healthy, functional, happy family. And so that’s a goal that I set for my life at a very early age. I was actually six years old when I set that goal, and it never left me. And this April, I’ll be 29 years happily married, raised two successful children, have just a very strong marriage that gets stronger. 

But through my career, I’ve seen so many sales guys that have also claimed that they’re all about family. And then I’ve just seen in the busy-ness of it all, and the traveling here and there, and being everywhere exotic and living the high life, they’ve gotten distracted and ended up in affairs and you know…Or they’ve just grown apart from their spouse.

And while they are on the one hand are saying, “I’m doing this for my family,” their behavior actually betrayed that. And the results actually betrayed that. So, to me, it just struck me that when everybody’s kind of forced to stay home, it’s a great opportunity just to really get grounded. And like, if we say we’re doing this for our families, are we really? And again, it goes back to like, what’s the story we’re telling ourselves and are we really living that story?

So that’s what struck me just through the kind of reflection on what I’ve seen through the years selling alongside salespeople, coaching salespeople and sales leaders, and just seeing more often than not the breakdown of family in the pursuit of “success.”  And what is success if you’re not bringing your family along?

Harvey Dunham: Wow. Well, I was wondering what the red thread was that tied these three points together because, when I first read it, I thought everything you wrote was struck me personally.  But I was trying to link the three, and I’m beginning to see the connection. When you wrote this, did you see a theme that you wanted to follow where you’re kind of sum this all up?

Adrian Davis: That’s a really interesting question, Harvey, and it really, I think, speaks to the way your mind works, which is really phenomenal. And, kind of, I feel a little bit embarrassed because when I wrote it, the article, it was more just top of mind, like: There’s so much going on, let me just sit down and put down my thoughts on paper, and I didn’t really think of it in terms of, you know, what is the connective tissue that brings all of this together?

But now that you’ve asked the question, I would say the connective…or the red thread is the power of story that…It all revolves  around that all of us have a story that we’re telling ourselves, all of us perceive the world around us through that story. And so we perceive value through that story.  As we engage other customers, or customers and prospects, we need to engage them through their perception of value through their story. And then ultimately, what is the story we’re telling ourselves? Why do we do what we do? What is the ultimate definition of success? That again, depends on story.

So I do a lot of training around storytelling and story making, and one of  the things when people first come, there are hoping for a kind of a sales technique, the story telling – because I guess so there’s other people out there doing storytelling, and it’s kind of this cool sales technique.

By the time they’ve done the training, they’re kind of taken aback. And they realize storytelling and story making is in no way superficial. It is extremely profound because it gets to the very root and heart of who we are as human beings and why we’re here and what we do. So that would be sort of the underlying thread, Harv that I would say is really the power of story. That’s, that’s the second point, but it really is what connects all three points.

Harvey Dunham: Amazing. Now it makes total sense to me. You know, I’m sitting here wondering, trying to quickly pull down what my story is and am I living  it? And am I being true to it and thinking about customers and conversations that I’ve had all day. Yeah, it is. You’re so right. 

Adrian Davis: And just as you said that, it just triggered the thought. There’s an authentic power that comes when you’re connected with your story and you’re not just sort of running around living other people’s story. But when you’re connecting me with your story and you’re living your story, you show up with this…gravitas. There’s an authenticity about you. There’s an energy about you. There’s a drive about you that people will connect with. They’re like, “I want that.” People yearn to connect with one another. And I think that yearning will be highlighted now in this time.

I was thinking about the term social distancing. And it’s kind of an oxymoron because we’re either being social or we’re being distant. But being socially distant is this kind of a strange term. And I think, you know, when you’re walking down the street and somebody crosses the road, it’s a form of rejection. There’s these sort of micro rejections; if, hey, there’s two people in the elevator, I’m not going to be the third. I’m going to back away. I’m not getting in. It’s a form of rejection.

Whereas before, when we were social and everybody gets in the elevator and talks to one another, it’s a form of acceptance. And I think human beings, we need to connect with one another. And when you’re connected with your story, it enables me to connect better with you authentically. And so I think this is a great time for reflection and for us to ask ourselves, “What is my story? Why am I here? What is the impact that I want to have? What is my legacy?” And then to be true to that purpose, so that when we do connect with others, there’s a real sense of true connection. I think that’s going to be powerful, and a lot of people will do business with you and with each other simply because of the fulfillment that comes from that true connection — when we’re connected to our true story.

Harvey Dunham: Wow. Well, I, that is amazing advice. For me personally, and I know it’s going to be for the SAMA community when we share this with them. So Adrian, I really thank you so much for your time and your generosity, your inspiration. And if I can steal your term, your authenticity. Because I felt it from the moment we met and…you’re just an  amazing member of our community and it’s a real honor for us to be able to speak with you today. So thank you for your time. 

Adrian Davis: Harvey, the honor is mine to talk with you and also to be a part of the SAMA community. It’s wonderful.