Anecdotes are used for many purposes in selling professional services. We have already seen the Sadder-But-Wiser anecdote (see April 17, 2007 posting, Sadder But Wiser), which is used to show a prospective client that long ago you learned a lesson through hard experience that will serve her well today.
Rainmakers also use anecdotes to tell a prospective client in a polite compelling way that she might be wrong or to get her to look at her problem from a different perspective. We call these Watch-Your-Step anecdotes.
The late Peter Sarasohn, an attorney and a rainmaker, would use such an anecdote when asked by small business owners nearing retirement to do the legal work required to turn over the business to their children. Typically, the children would issue stock in the company and give a portion to their parents to support them in their retirement. When such a plan was proposed, Peter would tell this story:
Not long ago I met with a couple who faced a problem that I see from time to time. Much like yourselves, they had worked hard for many years to build a solid business and had turned it over to their children on terms similar to the ones you are suggesting. It started out well; the couple moved to Boca Raton and enjoyed life. But then the business took a hard turn, and the children had to close and liquidate it. The couple had no other retirement income. There wasn’t much I could do for them. That it wasn’t the children’s fault didn’t make any difference.
Note how this story was told in a way to make the listeners identify with couple in it, giving them a chance to feel first the pleasure of retirement and then the desperation of losing everything they had worked to build, including their financial security. It allowed Peter to raise a point tactfully when a more direct “I think we should consider the risks before we . . .,” might sound argumentative or patronizing. He avoids saying “I think . . .” or “I suggest . . .,” which would focus attention on himself and his brilliance. Rather, he reports what he has seen and heard of the couple’s experience and lets the story and its obvious implication for his audience stand in place of a recommendation.
During my days as a location consultant, I competed for a project to pick a low-cost location for a plant to manufacture meat slicers. Our competition was the consulting arm of a construction company which would give the location consulting work away for free, if the prospective client would also give them the construction project for the new building. The company’s sales were plummeting, as more and more customers chose cheaper foreign imports. Management planned to relocate, so that they could cut costs and drop their prices.
At my meeting with the management team, I asked, “What if relocating your plant doesn’t get your prices far enough down to allow you to compete?” I asked this question because I knew it would puzzle my audience. After all, I was the location consultant, and I was questioning the value of moving. “What do you mean?” asked the CEO and I got what I had wanted, an invitation to tell this story, rather than volunteer it:
A few years ago, Plumbing Fixtures, Inc. (name changed) was struggling to hold its own against Brazilian competitors who were undercutting their prices by fifteen percent. The head of the business unit decided to move aggressively and shifted all his manufacturing to a low cost area in Louisiana and dropped prices by twenty percent. He was a hero for about a week. By then the Brazilians had figured out what was happening and cut their prices by thirty percent. Plumbing Fixtures had created such a price umbrella that the Brazilians could drop their prices by that much money and still make a profit on the sale. Plumbing Fixtures went out of business.
On the basis of this story, instead of being hired to only look for a new location, we were hired to make two additional analyses. First, we calculated how much money could be saved by upgrading the company’s manufacturing processes. Second, we reverse engineered the competitors’ product to see how much we could save through a redesign. We found that both a new location and afresh product design were necessary to cut sufficient cost out of the business to compete with the Europeans.
Once again, in just a few sentences the weakness of the prospective client’s plan is made clear. Redefining the problem this way made the free site search offered by our competitor look hasty and without consideration about what the prospective client’s real needs were.
So, if you think a client’s solution to a problem is wrong or needlessly risky, you must tell her to watch her step. An anecdote is a good way to do that.