What Alcoholics Anonymous Can Teach You About Messaging

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What’s the toughest sales challenge you can face?  Denial.

Specifically, your prospect denying that they have the problem your product/service/solution was built to fix.  All other challenges pale in comparison to this one.

The world’s best selling situation is the rare time when you solve a problem that a prospect already recognizes and wants solved.  That’s sweet living.  It’s also rare.

The more common situation is that you solve a problem that the customer feels some pain around,  though it’s still going to take some selling to get them to feel the pain vividly enough to want to fix it.

That brings you back to the worst situation – denial.

When a prospect is in denial, your normal approaches won’t work.  For example, you can question them to try to uncover their pain, but if they don’t believe they have that problem, your questions get you nowhere.  The same thing goes for your proof.  The prospect who is in denial doesn’t care that you can prove your claims.  So what?  They don’t believe they have a problem in the first place.

Getting past denial:  What you can learn from the AA model

In a great selling environment, you might be able to ignore those prospects that are in denial.  Today, you are not in a great selling environment.  You need to work every prospect from every angle.

So, how do you deal with the difficult problem of denial?  Sometimes, you need to look outside of the immediately obvious to find solutions to thorny problems.

For example, imagine the insights you could get from an organization that has spent its entire history selling to prospects who are in denial that they have the problem you solve.   Like studying creatures that have evolved specialized features to deal with their unique environments, an organization that only deals with people in denial might give you insights into how to deal with the problem in your world.

One place you might look to for solutions is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  AA solves a problem that almost no one is willing to admit to.  And they’ve done it successfully for decades.  What lesson can you learn from them?

AA teaches that when someone is in denial, you can’t win them over with facts.  You can’t convince them with data.  Every time you try, the walls go up.  The ‘prospect’ says, “that’s not me.  I don’t have that problem.”  It’s the same thing that happens to you when your prospect says, “I don’t have a security problem on my network.”  Or, ”We don’t need better processes.”  Or, “We’ve got good visibility into our situation/data/environment already.”

So, how does AA solve the denial problem?  Listen to some of these AA public service announcements.

“I know where I’m going.”
“The door is always open.”

What you hearing?  These are stories.  Stories told by their members.  Stories that don’t engage in argument – i.e. You’re an alcoholic, you match the profile.

Denial isn’t overcome by logical argument.  That’s because it’s an identity problem.

The stories AA uses are the before stories of their members.  What their lives were like.  How they came to learn they were alcoholics.

And through the telling of those stories, others who are in denial start to see themselves in a new light.  And that’s when they move from denial into admitting they have a problem.  Not before.

Use Stories with Contrast

Okay.  So, what does this mean to you when you’re selling to a customer who is in denial?  You need to use the stories of your customers to help them move to admitting they have a problem.  But you don’t do it the way most salespeople use customer stories.

Most people use customer stories as proof points.  Not to persuade or sell.  They may think they’re using them to persuade, but mostly they’re wrong.  The stories are proof points that their solution works, but don’t convince prospects they have a problem they are denying.

Again, look at the example of AA.  AA doesn’t lead with, “AA saved my life.”  “AA has helped me pull my life together.”  Instead, AA leads with, “I didn’t think I had a problem.  It started with just a couple of drinks on the weekend.  Then, it became just a couple of drinks every day.”  And the story continues from there describing what their life was like before they realized they had a problem.  Through the telling of the before story, those in denial see themselves.

You need to do the same thing with your customer stories.  You need to tell the story your customers lived in before they implemented your solution.  It’s through the before story that your prospect-in-denial will start to see their own company’s story.

It’s not the frontal assault of logic and data that overcomes denial.  It’s the power of a story that never triggers the ‘denial’ barriers in the first place.

And it’s not just enough to tell the before story.  You still need to tell the after story.  The contrast between the two creates a powerful perception of value.

Last point.  A customer story is only going to work in this situation if it’s told as a story.

Most salespeople don’t really tell customer stories at all.  Instead, they turn customer stories into data dumps.  Don’t do that.  Tell them as stories.

There is an easy test to see if you’re telling your customer story as a story.  Tell it to a peer, and then ask them to tell it back to you.  If you told it as a story, they will be able to repeat every important element with ease.  If they can’t, then you didn’t tell a story.  You dumped data.

By Erik Peterson
VP of Consulting
Corporate Visions Inc.