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Turning the 80/20 Rule Upside Down

Michael_BosworthToday's guest blog post is by Mike Bosworth, founder of Solution Selling and CustomerCentric Selling, and cofounder of Story Leaders, which helps people harness the power of story to connect with, inspire, and influence others.


When I first got into training in the late 70’s, my mission was to help the salespeople who struggled the most: the bottom 80%.

In 2008, however, I got some very disappointing news: the Sales Benchmark Index reported that after all these years, despite the efforts of all the sales methodology companies, (including my own Solution Selling and CustomerCentric Selling methodologies) the 80/20 rule had gotten worse. It was now 87/13!

On top of that, the 80/20 rule was alive and well inside of both sales productivity companies I had founded. A small percentage of people in both Solution Selling and CustomerCentric Selling had carried the load. I wanted to believe my own affiliates were using the methodologies that we sold, but I had to ask myself why was it so disproportionate if we were all using the same sales process?

What did all this evidence prove about the effectiveness of sales methodologies – including my own, which I dearly believed in?

That same year, one of my long time collaborators, Customer Centric Selling affiliate Ben Zoldan, found himself on very similar path. We shared our pain and ended up walking away from our sales-process business to begin a research project.

Our main questions were: If the best salespeople were doing something so different from everyone else, what was it? Why are some people so much more influential than others? How are they communicating?

We knew the very best sales professionals communicated in a way that inspired people, but we never knew how to bottle that. All we knew was top sellers created an emotional connection with their buyers. Each one of them could be described as displaying the following traits:

  • Authenticity and passion
  • Strong ability to connect
  • Strong ability to inspire trust
  • Willingness to be vulnerable, and
  • Tendency to tell stories from the heart.

When we looked for these attributes in the business section of the bookstore, we came up empty. We found these qualities, however, in the Self Help section (where you will rarely find an enterprise salesperson).

As we did our research, the concept of “story” kept popping up. We studied biology and neuroscience to learn why stories have such a profound effect on human beings. We thought, “We are trainers, we’re experts – we know how to codify skills – we can teach people to sell through storytelling.”

We began inviting our professional and personal friends to spend time with us in 2008 so we could share what we were learning. By the summer of 2010 we were teaching enterprise B2B salespeople to build and tell stories. We were teaching empathic listening skills. Still, both Ben and I felt something was missing. We knew we still hadn’t cracked the code on this.

Two events helped us finally get it.

The first was a SVP of a major software company who went through our workshop but was still not convinced. My partner got him to commit to “try it on a sales call.” He did the following week and turned a scheduled 45-minute call with a hostile customer into a 3-hour call where the customer opened up with his story. The ‘aha’ moment was how his story got the customer to tell his story.

The second event was a workshop where we decided to teach story tending around attendees’ “Who Am I” stories. When I saw the tears in the eyes of people who just had their personal stories tended, we finally got it.

Story is not a technique; story is a way of thinking. Story can inspire change from the inside out. Change is driven first by emotion. Then the cerebral cortex can help message the logical reasons so other logic people will not think us crazy.

Storytelling is not the end; it is a means by which we can all connect to each other. By tending to another person’s story, we can help another feel safe and connected with us enough to consider changing – “I am here and I am ready to move there.” Today, Ben and I are excited to share this new understanding with the world.

It was extraordinarily difficult for me to let go of my old paradigm of selling, but I knew I had to. It is exhilarating that after 30 years, we’ve finally discovered what’s been the greatest mystery in the sales profession: how the very best, most influential people inspire others to step away from the status quo into something new. 

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Christian Weiss ♥ pareto principle

When I was starting to read this post I was wondering what the pareto principle has to do with it. But I soon got it.

You are absolutely right. Telling a story is a very powerful way to engage with your prospects. Since email marketing is one of the most important tools in my marketing, I know how powerful story-telling can be. And it really can turn the pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule) upside down.

When I am creating a follow-up campaign for my sales funnels I usually use what is called the Soap Opera Series. This concept basically helps weaving a story around a complete follow-up email series.

An email series like this basically is lake a soap opera in the way that it piques curiosity, opens storylines, and references previous or upcoming emails.

Rob Stenberg

I have read Mike and Ben's book, "What Great Salespeople Do" and highly recommend it! What a great book. Being a sales professional, my definition of sales is "positively influence someone to do something that will be of benefit to them." Story telling fits the communication method to best influence people in a positive manner. Great stuff!

john Geraci

My name is John geraci. I have been in Enterprise sales since 1982 from sales, sales management, reg mgt to the President of 3 companies. I also was a Partner at The Complex Sale and have trained some 3000 sales teams.

We always taught that Bonding was key. The best salespeople could do it, but we never really knew or discussed how. We taught that customers had to come to their own conclusions, but used all kinds of Control tactics to manipulate them. I had a conflict about this disconnect simmering somewhere under the surface and so was open to what Mike and Ben were saying when I found them on the web.

I have now attended two workshops. This stuff is really different and having a profound affect on both what I thought I knew about selling and how I act in my personal life. I believe that Story is the WAY and am actively introducing it into TraderTools. I encourage you to take a leap of faith and learn to tell your Story.

Byron Druss

Always admired your work to understand the buying/selling process. Inherently, its always been about sincerity in the prospect's situation, your ability to help them & building their vision. It seems story telling is a better way of accomplishing some of the same principles and needs in a cycle, so, wouldn't say you threw it all away & started over. Just a better way to communicate to accomplish what you've always told us we need to do to help them succeed. Thanks Mike.

Jackie B

Great revelation! I sell medical devices and as a non-clinical person it can be tough to put yourself in their shoes.

I always ask if they've used our device and why. I listen to them... and I repeat (without names or facility names) the stories they tell me of why they used it and the difference it made to patient care. As one of the top reps in the country for this product in new accounts, using the storytelling method, I quickly get past the "non-clinician" idea and take them to where they've had issues or would have used our device. It's mind blowing when you do it!

Thank you, I can't wait to hear more about your research.

Brett Clay

Great article, Mike and Gerhard! I'm getting great comments from my Twitter followers.

One of the most important requirements for leading change is to paint a clear vision of a better state.

For example, “The Formula for Change,” developed by Richard Beckhard and David Gleicher says that people will change when they are 1) dissatisfied with the current situation, 2) have a clear vision of the positive outcome a change will bring and 3) clearly understand the first steps toward making the change.

Storytelling is critical and fundamental to creating vision and emotion for those three items.

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