How Oracle Uses Storytelling to Sell More

Last Updated Aug 27, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

I recently had an interesting conversation with John Burke, who is Oracle's group vice president for global sales support and new product introductions. He has about 125 people reporting to him, many of whom have been recently trained by Mike Bosworth and Ben Zoldan on using storytelling as a sales technique. Here are some highlights from that interview.
  • Geoffrey James: What challenges does a company like Oracle face in sales situations?
  • John Burke: Large companies are often very adept at explaining what their products do, but not as adept at explaining how and why their customers use their products. Most companies, Oracle included, have made a great effort to become more customer-focused, and there have been a lot of sales training programs put into place to accomplish that. However, I've observed over the years that many of those programs don't seem to help much, because salespeople don't often know the real stories behind why their customers bought and how their customers actually use their products.
  • GJ: And that's what led you to start working with Mike and Ben?
  • JB: When I first heard about [the storyselling concept], I was quite skeptical. Not because I didn't believe in story, but because I thought "more training?" However, because of my respect for Mike Bosworth, I took one of their public workshops along with one of my up-and-coming stars, who was also skeptical. After spending two and a half days at their StorySelling workshop and then using the model with customers, I realized the true affects of a good story..
  • GJ: What happened then?
  • JB: I sent all my direct reports to the workshop. The model resonated with a high percentage of those people and some of them have gone on to train their own employees, creating a larger pool within my organization. It's now began to expand as some other organizations within Oracle see that it's working for us.
  • GJ: How has it changed the way that you sell?
  • JB: I've always intuitively been a storyteller but I never really thought through what points I was trying to make - the "why" of the stories that I would tell. Using the framework, I now I start with the point of my story, and then build the story to make that point. For example, if I'm telling a story about what I've learned from an experience, I now make it clear to the listeners what I've learned. That allows me to more crisply articulate the message I'm trying to get across.
  • GJ: How has your storytelling improved?
  • JB: Probably the biggest change has been consciously interlacing some humility into my stories. Stories are the understanding of how and why things in life change. Our stories should share our own human experiences of change. Nobody is perfect and no company is perfect. It alienates customers when executives and salespeople try to pretend that they're like Superman and will fix all their problems. Now that I've taken a more humble approach that admits our limitation, customers are drawn in, and believe what I tell them, because they know I'm not posing as something or someone that knows it all.
  • GJ: Can you give me an example?
  • JB: Sure. I give a lot of keynote speeches and presentations of that sort. Before I was conscious about my storytelling, I would talk about facts and figures, This much faster, that much productivity improvement, etc. and after a typical speech I'd get one or two people who wanted to speak with me. Now that I'm telling real stories that exhibit real emotion and real humility, I have 20 or 30 people come up afterwards. Some of them say to me things like: "that's the first time Oracle ever admitted that they weren't perfect, that was cool can we talk more about how Oracle can help my company with...." Those type of responses have helped me gain confidence in the process and have added a humble dose of mojo into my presentations.
  • GJ: Doesn't that scare them away?
  • JB: No, because they knew all along that Oracle wasn't perfect. What company is? People react positively to real stories about real people. They can see themselves in the situation and are thus more likely to feel a connection to the speaker. We're actually using a technique that works in everything from great books, to top news articles, to popular televisions shows. In fact, I get emails from my staff telling me about using a story to get an audience to open up, about how laptops and blackberry's get set down, just by starting with the phase "Before I get started, may a tell a quick story?".
  • GJ: Do you have an example from an actual sales situation?
  • JB: Right after I went through the StorySelling workshop. I had a joint sales call with one of our Fortune 1000 customers. The goal was to share new potential use scenarios with them, based on new offerings we wanted to introduce. If there was an opportunity to use what I just learned, this was going to be it because these guys were the typical, cross-armed, skeptical, "what is Oracle trying to sell me next" customer. Prior to the meeting, I was prepping with the sales team, including another Oracle Vice President and I prepped them on the story I was going to tell - which contained the piece of "here's what we didn't know at the time" followed by: "our mistake then was..." followed by, "I didn't know at the time..." and "here's how we came out the other end of that...".
  • GJ: Was the sales team on board with that approach?
  • JB: When I walked my counterpart through this, he said, "there is no way you can tell that part of the story. We're Oracle, you can't air our dirty laundry like that." Well, that gave me more motivation to want to try it. The sales call started with the senior IT executive peppering questions at us, crossing his arms, closing up, the whole bit. I jumped in with: "Can I tell you a quick story?" His arms remained crossed for the first minute of my story, until I started to reveal our flaws. I could see the entire team of buyers loosen up, I could see their body language totally change.
  • GJ: What happened then?
  • JB: Three amazing things. First, when I was done with my story, the senior executive on the other side, began to open up and reveal his mistakes without me having to pepper him with questions. It was as if we jarred open a new set of problems, which by the way proved to be the basis for a new revenue opportunity for a new set of Oracle solutions. Second, the one hour meeting turned into a two hour meeting, and the stories then moved into personal stories, so we got to know each other at a much deeper level. Finally, the coolest part was what happened when I got into the car with my colleague - the guy who originally said: "you can't tell that part of the story". The minute we were alone, he said, "Tell me that story again. I'm using that from now on."
  • GJ: So revealing flaws has strategic value?
  • JB: Yes, it can be scary to reveal flaws, but trying it in real life, with real customers, gave me the boost to do it more often. In the workshop, they work through how to be vulnerable in your stories. I've found personally that this part of being vulnerable requires some courage, and its tough, but that's the real magical part of storytelling. In my world, everyone knows that Oracle isn't perfect. What company is? People react positively to real stories about real people and acknowledging and sharing our flaws seems to be the most powerful affect of story. Buyers react in a profound way: they see us as human and that is what creates an emotional connection.
  • GJ: And that's becoming part of Oracle's sales techniques?
  • JB: We're actually using a technique that works in everything from great books, to top news articles, to popular televisions shows. In fact, I get emails from my staff telling me about using a story to get an audience to open up, about how laptops and blackberry's get set down, just by starting with the phase "Before I get started, may a tell a quick story?". . A good story engages you from the minute it begins, and that's something that is really valuable when you're talking with customers. We're starting to build a culture around our stories.
NOTE: Enjoy this post? Then you'll probably enjoy my new book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.
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  • Geoffrey James

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