According to Ari Hoffman, customer success is kind of like being a professional sports coach. The coach's number 1 priority isn't to fill the stands with fans, help the team get new sponsors, or worry about the price of food at the concession stands — it's to help the players win games. Help the players succeed on the field (or court, or wherever they play). It's just one of the reasons why Hoffman, Customer Fanatic at MindTouch, spends his days listening to and sharing stories with customers, colleagues, other people in the tech industry, and even his friends and family. He wants to hear it all because he's curious about the stories that "engage people and raise the bar for everyone."
Hoffman joined Bill on the latest Helping Sells Radio to talk about the power of stories to create communities in business, why companies need to stop using customer stories to their own advantage, and the secret to stories that resonate with people.
It starts with a story
Just like the pro sports coach, the goal of any customer success team (the company as a whole, really) is to make the customer successful. Hoffman does that by listening to and sharing stories with his customers. He describes it as "facilitating stories from anywhere and anybody that demonstrates success."
A relevant story about someone overcoming a similar obstacle as a customer helps in a few ways. It helps that customer remove the blocks to their own success by showing someone just like them overcoming similar blocks. It doesn't matter that the protagonist in the story is from a different market than the customer. What matters is that they have similar characteristics to the customer that makes it easy to relate to. Easy to resonate with.
The story resonates with you
That's the critical part of using stories for success: resonance. When a story resonates with you, it's because the story developed tension during the narrative, which sustains your attention in the story. As we know today, it's hard to keep someone's attention, yet stories do it so well. So tension leads to attention, and attention leads to us sharing the emotions of the characters in the story. At this point our brains then produce more oxytocin, which is a key to what scientists call the "safe to approach others" signal. In listening to a story that resonates with us, we get "close" to the characters in the story, leading us to mimic the feelings and behaviors of the characters in it. (For more of a scientific explanation of all this, read this article.)
Hoffman calls this our "lizard" brain and how listening to stories triggers all of that brain chemistry to create resonance with the story for us. It's the reaction of, "Hey, that sys admin's just like me!" or "I totally get where she's coming from. I deal with that every day too." you have when you hear a story.
The resonance creates trust and community
When companies try to embrace storytelling, Hoffman said, they tend to do it only with testimonials. They talk to the VP of some department, and film them telling their "story" of using the company's products.
This is a mistake, according to Hoffman, because these stories rarely resonate with people. The story might be about the customer using your products, he explained, but you end up reframing the story to fit your brand narrative, theme, or tone. "You shave a bit off here, a bit off there, and the story's no longer about the customer's success, but about you," he said.
Anyone watching the video will likely feel so far removed from that VP's experience that they don't relate to it, or "resonate with it" as Hoffman likes to say. The video loses any impact and doesn't drive any value for the prospect. The prospect likely feels very isolated and no longer part of the product/company community.
How can you turn your stories into ones that resonate?
The first step into creating stories that resonate with your customers, regardless of how you're using them at your company, is to humanize the story. To do that, just borrow the classic strategy from literature that's been used since Ancient Greece: the hero's journey.
To illustrate this for the modern marketer, sales pro, or customer success manager, Hoffman used an example from a movie we're all familiar with The Empire Strikes Back (or Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, if you're from the new school)
A modern story example using classic storytelling techniques
Luke is the hero in the story, and we see him in one place in his life, he undergoes a number of significant trials throughout the movie, has an epiphany, and emerges, most importantly, changed from the person he was at the start of the journey (and film). That's the classic literature arc most good stories follow.
Now remember the part where Luke was training with Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah? There's the scene where Yoda's on Luke's back as he goes through a training exercise.
Most companies think they're Luke in this scene, "but that's wrong!" Hoffman exclaimed. "Luke is the CUSTOMER, and YOU'RE Yoda." It's the company that's guiding customers to use their products, to help them be successful with them, to answer their questions, and so on. "You're only the person who's gone along with them in the story," Hoffman says.
Be the guide for your customers, always
When a story is good, it takes the listener along for the ride, showing them how they overcame the obstacles they faced and came out the other side. Good stories help customers do the same thing, removing any blockers they may have about their situation and showing them that there is life on the other side of that block.
Think back to Luke and Yoda. The audience is Luke, the story is Yoda. He's guiding us through the training session, helping Luke when he thinks it's too hard to continue (and who hasn't had one of those moments when learning something new?) We know precisely how Luke feels because we've been there before. This story is resonating with us because even though we're not training to be Jedis, we've trained to be something before, and have probably failed at it too.
A business story should function in the same way, making the customer feel like they're Luke in in the story, and you're their Yoda. They're the protagonist in the story and can relate to something in it that draws them in, makes them feel the emotions, and starts to trust you. Makes them feel like they're part of your community.
Salesforce has done this very well by speaking directly to systems administrators and other techy people. All of their content has resonated so well with their audience that they're clamoring to be a part of the Salesforce community. So much so that they even create apps and other tools for the rest of the community for free.
Stories help customers "see how they SHOULD do something, not that they CAN'T do it.," Hoffman says.
To listen to the entire conversation Bill had with Ari, check out the latest episode of Helping Sells here, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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