Video: How to Learn a Customer’s Hot Buttons Using Stories

Shaping an RFP requires inspiring the customer with a better way to meet his objectives. But first you must understand what those objectives are, and the related challenges. It would be great if you could learn this by just asking, but if you have not yet established trust with the customer, asking will not produce the answers you want. Customers can be defensive about their challenges. And they do not like to be interrogated.

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Instead of asking questions, offer insight. Helpful insights inspire customers to become less guarded, and reveal some of their objectives and challenges. But don’t lecture the customer or talk down to him from your position of superior knowledge. That can make the customer more guarded. Instead, do what Michael Harris suggests in his book Insight Selling: Sell Value & Differentiate Your Product With Insight Scenarios. Offer a story. Stories engage and disarm people. They are non-threatening, and can encourage prospects to open up about their needs.

Let’s say you meet a prospect at a conference. If you pepper him with questions to learn his problems (“What keeps you up at night?”) he is likely to shut down. If you start rattling off your certifications and special qualifications, he might politely walk away.

But if you say, “May I tell you a story you might find interesting?” he’ll probably say “Okay.” If your story provides insight about solving a crisis your prospect can relate to, you will have a captive audience. And if the prospect says, “That’s just like a situation we have right now . . . ” then your conversation becomes an opportunity to solve the prospect’s problem. The best strategy is to develop a set of high-impact two-minute stories for connecting with prospects.

But wait a minute. Those past performance stories you already have are probably not going to do the job. If they are like most past performance stories, they are boring. To create stories that are really going to resonate with government executives you must fulfill three imperatives:

  • Choose the Right Hero
  • Choose the Right Problem
  • Choose the Right Results


Past performance stories typically have the wrong hero: the contractor. They describe all the smart things the contractor did. But as Michael Harris explains, to engage prospects where they really live, your stories should position your past customer as the hero, and you as the guide and enabler of that heroism. As Don Miller explains in his How to Tell a Story, this hero/guide interaction is widely used to create blockbuster movies, bestselling novels, and award-winning commercials. It works because this formula resonates with people. Although you are not creating movies, novels, or commercials, the same interaction dynamic can help you engage prospective customers.


To really resonate with government executives, the story needs to describe a real problem they could be facing. Many past performance stories do not reveal the true problem that gave birth to the project. For example a contractor’s story might say “The agency was challenged to continuously measure the value of funded projects.” Why was that important to do? What was going wrong that made this a priority? What programs were affected? How? Contractors often describe only the requirement they fulfilled, but neglect to describe the problem that gave rise to the requirement.

By neglecting to describe the real underlying problem they were solving for the customer, they are missing an opportunity to create a story that will resonate with government executives.

Instead, consider this set-up for a story about a process that helps government agencies prioritize projects for funding:

The year was 2012 and Joanne was the CIO of a federal agency.  She was faced with underfunded systems causing tremendous difficulty.  The agency was awash in rogue systems that program heads had developed without IRB approval.  And now they needed O&M funding that Joanne could not spare.  And she was not supposed to fund them anyway since they were not IRB-approved.  The IRB did not exactly disapprove of them.  They just never made a decision.  So after waiting for IRB approval and never getting an answer, agency program heads decided that they had to get on with their programs.  They scraped together the necessary funds and built the systems. But maintaining them was another matter.  That required money that the programs did not have.

Joanne knew she had to solve this problem.  But first she needed to figure out why it happened.  It looked like the root cause was the IRB failing to make the decisions they were tasked with making.  But why did the IRB do that?  As an IRB member herself she knew the answer:  The IRB did not feel that they had the information they needed to make sound decisions.  So they kept deferring the decisions.  They did not want to be blamed for making bad choices.

The problem was that in order to make sound investment decisions, the IRB needed a comprehensive understanding of the merits of ALL IT investments that required funding. That understanding would have enabled them to set priorities and make tradeoffs.  But they just did not have the data needed to do that.   The scope and complexity of the agency’s IT infrastructure seemed to put development of that comprehensive understanding out of reach.

A story like this draws the listener in, and begs the question “So what happened next?”


The story needs to present real results addressing the original problem. Past performance stories often don’t report any results. Just activities. Sometimes they present a result, but no indication of why it mattered. The result part of your story should ideally describe the resolution of the original problem, and perhaps the career impact of the solution on the hero.

XYZ Solutions developed a process that now gives the IRB the information they need to make sound IT investment decisions . . . and they are making them.  Rogue systems are being granted “amnesty” and are receiving the O&M funding they need.  The new CIO . . . Joanne has moved on to a more prominent position . . . feels that XYZ’s portfolio rationalization solution is giving her the visibility and insight she needs to lead the IT organization in the right direction.  And the agency leadership is very happy with the CIO’s success in delivering IT power to the agency’s most important programs.

Past performance stories often miss these points, and miss an opportunity to create customer engagement. They make the contractor the hero. They make the problem the technical problem that was in the RFP, rather than the underlying business problem that caused the RFP to be written. And if results are included they relate to unspecified problems.

Fortunately, behind many past performance stories is an engaging story about an executive with an urgent mission, his goals, the challenges he faced, his triumphs, and the lessons learned. The challenge for contractors is to uncover the real stories underlying their projects — stories that probably started before the contractor got involved — and develop narratives that will engage government executives, because they address real challenges that they face.

Developing these stories requires someone with strong narrative development capabilities, who can grasp your business, tease out problem/solution insights to offer your customers, and develop a compelling story about the value you deliver. These stories will facilitate your conversations with government executives, and cause them to reveal their true hot buttons more readily.

Developing stories like these is one strategy of the GovCon Rainmaker coaching program, which helps companies reach their full potential.  Participating companies become powerful revenue generating machines, whose offerings are highly sought by customers.


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