In my book “Creating Signature Stories,” the power of storytelling is applied to strategic messaging to energize, persuade and inspire. The use of signature stories is particularly relevant to B2B firms because their customers are buying a relationship with an organization, and communicating organizational values and a brand vision with authenticity is critical.
However, the nature of signature stories and the process of developing and using them is different for B2B firms. Which raises the question: What are the challenges of using signature stories in B2B firms and how can they be addressed?
Creating Great B2B Signature Stories
In B2B, especially when external commination is involved, customer success stories are often the best vehicles for signature stories. This leads to three specific challenges. The first is to find or create signature stories that are truly intriguing, authentic and engaging. The second involves story overload. It’s important to make sure you don’t have too many stories and overwhelm your audience. Third is to create an organizational structure and process to find and use signature stories.
Make them intriguing
In a B2C context it is easier to find stories with emotion, tension and connection with characters. In contrast, B2B customer success signature stories tend to be more oriented to functional benefits and processes. To become intriguing, look for ways to dramatize the problem description, the solution or the outcome.
- Problem. The context might be so dire that it intrigues. Lou Gerstner’s turn-around story started with a failing IBM that was going to be split into seven firms. There was a “how can this be fixed?” feel that intrigued me.
- Solution. A solution that is dramatically creative grabs your attention. One of Prophet’s customer stories showcases how T-Mobile redefined the industry with its Un-carrier strategy. In an industry with little differentiation and disliked policies, the new strategy shocked the entire category.
- Outcome. An outcome that is quantified and eye-opening can intrigue. In 2012, Barclays was one of the least trusted brands in one of the least trusted industries. The company used stories to improve its image. By showing improvement in trust and other relevant measures of 35% and more in comparison to prior fact-based efforts that made zero impact, they created a macro story that attracted attention.
The audience should not feel like they are being sold to when reading or hearing your story to the point where they say, “I understand why you want me to learn about this case because it showcases what you do, but it provides no information that would help or interest me.” The story needs to be strong enough to divert your thoughts away from feeling that this is another selling effort.
The authenticity and “being intriguing” challenges become greater when the customer resists allowing you to dramatize or at least tell the complete problem story, the process behind the solution, or the numbers behind the outcome. They might be embarrassed about the problem or feel there are trade secrets at risk. The result can be a shallow story with the punch removed. A watered-down story is not going to have impact.
People’s ears perk up if the story is similar to or resonates with their problem, their industry, or a firm like theirs. Having many stories available will increase the chances of having one – or several – that are relevant to your audience. Just be careful not to get to the point of story overload.
Signature Story Overload
Having many signature stories can provide freshness, energy, visibility, depth, breadth and texture. But there is a tipping point after which there are too many stories for employees to manage or for customers to grasp.
What can be done about overload?
- Screening. Put simply, some stories don’t qualify as great or useful. Those should not make the list or are candidates for removal.
- Prioritize. For Prophet, a few signature stories rise to top because of their content, which intrigues and reinforces their strategic message.
- A composite story. Sometimes a composite story that incorporates some of the experiences of several customers can work.
- Synergy. Together, a group of overlapping stories should provide more depth and impact than any single story can do on its own. That means thinking of a story’s role in a signature story cluster.
- A story bank. A story bank that is easily accessible with stories coded so that those needing a story can find the one most relevant can help make the multiple stories an asset.
Signature stories do not just appear, especially in B2B firms. They are born through a process that needs to involve both motivation and organizational support.
Motivation comes from expectations driven by the culture, with recognition programs and performance evaluations. It can involve contests. Mobil, before its merger with Exxon, had a contest to find the best stories around three values: leadership, partnership and trust. The winners got to be on the infield in the Indy 500. There were over 300 entrants and a host of great signature stories emerged.
A signature story organizational unit
An organizational team or person charged with curating, evaluating and refining signature stories can be the place an employee turns to when a potential signature story surfaces. They can also take on the roles of “reporter” and seek out signature stories. With designers, videographers and editors this person can refine stories, provide and execute presentation options and find outlets such as podcasts, trade press, video media outlets as well as internal communication opportunities.
B2B firms have their own unique characteristics for creating an organization where signature stories can thrive, it’s all about identifying and utilizing them.
For more information, look to my book “Creating Signature Stories.”