Let’s start by providing Oxford Dictionary’s definition of context: “The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”

Inherently the definition tells us that context absolutely matters in sales.  Sales is all about understanding and assessing the customer’s situation, needs/pain/business problem, the competitive landscape, the evaluation and decision making process, the key stakeholders, etc.  If any of these key variables are not fully understood or taken out of context, you will almost assuredly experience sales failure.

What’s fascinating is how commonly the customer’s version of their story varies from the seller’s version of that customer’s story, and by how much the versions differ.  Admittedly all great storytellers tend to have a flair for the dramatic and have been known to embellish a detail here or there when telling a story to engage and entertain their audience.  But I’m not referring to small embellishments; rather I’m referring to wholesale differences that don’t resemble one another.

Our company provides strategic sales enablement services for B2B technology sales.  As such, we start every engagement by conducting extensive discovery with top performing sales teams, sales execs, product managers, and their related real customer execs that were involved in making the decision and/or are using their technology solution.  We were working with one hot start-up that recently had closed a huge round of funding and wanted to scale their sales organization and revenues rapidly (7X Year Over Year Revenue Growth).  Their CEO was a classic evangelist and told a compelling story.  The challenge was that the rest of their small and growing sales team really struggled with telling the story in an engaging way.

To be fair, they really only had a small handful of customers using their product in a meaningful way at the time, so it was challenging.  Having said that, the CEO told a great customer case story about their biggest customer, the business challenge they were facing, and how they jointly created a vision that addressed their needs/pain, and the resulting success.  There was a lot of reluctance on my customer’s end to provide me with the C-level contact at their customer account so I could learn their story (aka-version of events).

The C-level exec in a F500 Financial Services company is in high demand and extremely busy.  I was granted 45 minutes very early on a Saturday morning to conduct the discovery call with him. He was guarded at first and wasn’t providing much insight or context into what transpired and how he felt about the process, the way that they were sold, what alternatives they considered, was it successful or not, the value derived, etc.  Then I provided some deeper context around why his unvarnished version of the story was important and how the information gleaned from him would be used.   The floodgates opened as I furiously scribbled notes determined not to miss out on capturing any of the golden, insightful nuggets in his version of the story.  We ended up being on the phone for a full 1.5 hours and I captured his version of their customer case story.

The irony is that while the CEO’s story was compelling, it wasn’t close to the real customer case story and was missing some critical facts that made it even more compelling.  We updated the story to be more reflective of what the actual customer C-level exec was focused on and taught the new and fast growing sales team how to tell that story to other C-level execs.  This resulted in more consistency and effectiveness in telling their story, and most importantly, resonated much more frequently with prospective customer execs because it spoke to their business pain in context.   All of which resulted in their sales team being able to establish that all-important credibility early in their sales process and their buyer’s journey, while allowing them to express a point of view and take control of the opportunity.