At the 2023 Jeff Shore Sales and Marketing Summit, which Custom Builder was fortunate to attend, Ryan Taft (pictured, right) and his talk on the power of storytelling—a subject he’s literally written the book on—was a stand out amongst an already impressive roster of expert-level sales trainers, sales people, and marketers. A former Realtor and national sales trainer for KB Home, one of the biggest builders in the nation, as well as the recipient of a Certified Speaking Professional designation from the National Speakers Association, Taft, even apart from his current role as trainer for Shore Consulting, has a wealth of experience from which he expertly draws actionable insights useful not only for his production-level home builder clientele, but for sales people involved in any variety or level of home sales, including custom.
During the Summit, Custom Builder had the chance to sit down with Taft to dig a little deeper into his thoughts on storytelling, including how it can play a vital role in successful sales and relationship building.
Custom Builder (CB): Do people buy emotionally?
Ryan Taft (RT): Every training I've ever been in—and I don't care whether it was when I was in telemarketing, network marketing, retail sales, resale, new home sales, every and anything I've ever done—every single one of those ventures, a trainer or a manager has said, “people buy emotionally.” And I believe that. I believe that because I've experienced that. If we didn't buy emotionally, we'd buy the cheapest. No one would have a Louis Vuitton. No one would own anything nice.
The problem with most trainings is that they say that and then don't teach you how to actually uncover emotion. They teach you to try and create emotion, manipulate emotion at best—which is why people hate salespeople. My experience is that when people are emotional, they don't explain it.
CB: Can you elaborate?
RT: I'll give you an example. If you're driving down the road and someone cuts you off, do you explain your emotions to them; or do you show them emotion? If you live in LA, where I’m from, you show emotion. ‘Motion’ is the root word for emotion. We do emotion, we don't explain it.
CB: So, as a salesperson, how do you access that emotion?
RT: I’ll tell you a story. I’m at the airport with Jeff Shore, and we’re exhausted after our 2015 Sales Leadership Summit. Behind us were a group of army veterans chatting, joking around, giving each other a hard time. They were hilarious. And all of a sudden, one of them started talking about one of their buddies, who didn't make it home from Iraq in Desert Storm. And they started sharing stories about this guy. They went from fun, jabbing each other, to crying right there in the airport.
As salespeople, we should not be trying to give people emotion. We should be trying to uncover emotion. And that's done by being curious and finding out their story. If they tell their story, they relive their story. And if they relive their story, they re-feel their emotions.
CB: In your conversations with clients, when do you start digging for that story? Is it right off the bat?
RT: Not right off the bat. People are super resistant to salespeople because of preconceived notions. The first thing is to show them you're not that sales weirdo that they think you're going to be. You achieve that by just being genuinely interested, finding commonality, being service oriented, and being grateful. You should be slow to dive into that discovery. Wait until you have some form of connection.
CB: When you say slow, do you think first meeting or second meeting?
RT: First meeting, for sure you can do it. It’s a question of efficiency.
CB: Do you have any go-to icebreaker questions to lead into that kind of sharing?
RT: Yeah. And I think you should have a whole bunch of these, by the way. And it shouldn't be about the weather, unless you're really into weather. Maybe that's your jam and you have a lot to say. What I suggest is more like the game Six Degrees of Separation. But instead of linking Kevin Bacon to a movie, I’m trying to find a commonality between them and myself.
I’ll usually start with, “where are you from originally?” That's usually good conversation to get into, because they'll have been somewhere I've been. I'll give you a great example. I was actually here in Nashville doing a training, and I had this one salesperson Allison giving me the stink eye in the session. It was sort of like, “what you got, trainer boy?” And so on the break, I go up and ask her where she’s originally from. She says, “I'm from California.” I’m from California, so I ask, “Okay, what part?” She says, “Southern.” I keep going and learn she’s from the San Fernando Valley. She’d grown up there. So I ask, “Where’d you go to school?” And she says, “Dixie Canyon.” To which I asked, “Did you have Mr. Anastasi for social studies?” To which she answers, “Shut up. You went to Dixie?” To this day, 11 years later, every time I see Allison, because I still train that team, when she walks in, she goes, “What’s up, schoolmate?”
It takes a series of questions to find that commonality. And if you can't find commonality, try to learn something about them or from them.
CB: Most people aren’t trained storytellers, even with their own stories. What should a salesperson do if they’re stuck in a conversation with a person who talks too much or too little, or who provides too much detail or not enough?
RT: I find that human nature is for us to blame the other person for bad communication. Right? Oh, they just didn't know how to talk; they didn't know how to answer the question, or whatever it was. I've studied communication my whole life, and have had the opportunity to work and study with great communicators, as well. And every one of them agrees on one thing: If you're gonna be a great communicator, you have to take responsibility for both sides of the communication. If someone isn’t communicating the way I want, I look at the questions I'm asking. It's usually if I'm getting a bad answer, it's because I've asked a bad question. The solution is to usually ask more specific questions.
For home buyers, a good question to get me on the right track is usually, “What’s changed in your life in the last six months that you want to move?”
CB: When you’re looking for that story thread that unravels emotion, are you always trying to tie it back to the home building/buying process? Or do you let the conversation go to places organically?
RT: I kind of go where they take me. But I know this: In the 2010 US Census they asked, “if you moved in the last 10 years, why did you move?” And it was split right down the middle: 50% moved because something changed in their life; 50% moved because they didn't like their home. If you're here considering a new construction home, there's a reason why. But I don't try to lead, I just try to uncover. I might ask, “If we could change anything about your home right now, what would you change?” Rather than something like, “What didn’t you like about your kitchen?”
Also, when you’re drawing a story out of someone, look for characters, look for emotional ups and downs. There are specific moments that make a story great. There are some good details I’ll need to pull out.
CB: Long-term relationships with clients can be a key part of generating future business. Do you have a process for maintaining relationships and continually getting to know the people you’ve worked with and will maybe work with again?
RT: Absolutely. It's kinda like when you meet somebody that you become friends with. If you go to coffee with somebody, you're curious about them; they're curious about you. You learn a little bit and you think, we should hang out again. And you go to lunch next time and you kind of pick up where you left off. Like, “Hey, last time we were together, you said that your daughter was doing a gymnastics thing. How'd that go?” It's the same exact process as when you're dealing with a client.
The problem is that most sales professionals leave notes in their contact management system that don't reflect that information. So during that next visit they have to either start over or go back to asking “what” questions instead of “why” questions, and it becomes about the sale instead of about their life. If you approach these relationships as though they're actual relationships and rather than something more transactional, then that becomes a much easier follow-up process. And frankly, people would follow up, too.
CB: You bring up a good point about good note taking. It can be tough to take in a person’s story, pick out the important parts, and convey that on paper. What is your approach to taking in a person’s story and then articulating it in a way that is useful to both yourself in the future and your team?
RT: I have a team I work with, Esperanza Homes, who uses HubSpot for their CRM. In their contact notes they will literally write a client’s moving story. They'll write, “renting landlord raised rent” or “got a job promotion.” They'll put the highlights of that story. It's not like write a whole book, but they’ll note all those highlight moments. To see if the notes are effective, I’ll ask them, “Can you identify in those notes who the hero is? Who's the villain? Who are the background characters? What was the dramatic standout moment that caused them to be here?” You want to have those big questions answered.
I get a lot of salespeople that say, “Well, gosh, that sounds like a lot of work.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, relationships take work.” There's no doubt about that. Be married. You can't be married without a lot of work.
CB: Stories can be long and complicated. How do you help yourself remember the story once you’ve heard it?
RT: Right now you're recording this on a voice recorder. I tell them to do the exact same thing after a customer leaves. Get your voice recorder out and tell yourself what you learned. Like, “That was John and Gina. He's a mechanic. She's a hairdresser. They're coming from Chicago.” And so on. I will record that and then put it to paper.
CB: When you’re noting things down, is it important to note, as you get to know clients, what the sore or off-limit subjects of conversation are?
RT: There are boundaries, for sure. I find that most salespeople don’t tend to get to the boundaries. Their issues are that they don't go far enough.So yes, there are boundaries. Like I wouldn't get into a political debate. I wouldn’t bring up things that are hot topics. But what I would do is let them share their stories, and if someone wants to go there and they want to talk about that, and that's their jam. Okay. That's cool. Being curious means—and I say this in my seminars quite a bit—it's not about you. So whatever their story is, it's their story. I’m not there to judge, because it’s not about me. I’m just there to uncover what there story is and figure out how I can serve it.
CB: I imagine that being curious and being able to get to know someone is a hard thing to train a salesperson if that isn’t already something they’re good at. So what does the training for that look like?
RT: We have a saying at Shore Consulting, “The destination called mastery is found on a road called repetition.” And so the more you do something, the better and more comfortable you get. The side benefit of that, and I think this is one of the reasons people like our training, is in that process, we help people find their authentic voice. Nothing would be worse to me than having to put on a fake persona all day. It's exhausting. And so you should be as authentic as possible in the sales process—which means you're having conversations, not presentations. And people may feel awkward forcing themselves to be more social than they may be otherwise, and they’ll say that it doesn’t feel authentic. I tell them to stick with it. The more you do it, the more you’ll get there.
CB: Can you give me an example of how that conversation with a trainee goes?
RT: We teach something called permission to question. And it sounds like this, “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions so I can point you in the right direction?” I have so many people that tell me, “That just doesn't sound like me.” Well yeah, I don't say that either. I tell them that what we’re aiming for is a version of that prompt. I personally say something more like, “Listen, you guys look like you're on a mission. I got a couple real quick questions and we can just speed this sucker up. Cool with you?” But that's how I talk. I didn't write that down. And then that's how I practiced it. So we get them on their voice recorders, practicing, practicing, doing it over and over. I tell them to ask as if they’re asking a best friend.
CB: Do you suggest any “out in the wild” training?
RT: Absolutely. We encourage striking up conversations with strangers out in the real world. Just practice. I think curiosity is not a sales skill but a life skill. Dale Carnegie, I believe, once said that “in order to be interesting, you first have to be interested.”Curiosity is really something you should be doing in your life. Everywhere you go, you should practice it.
CB: I don't wanna take all your time, so I have one final question. I know that you worked as a real estate agent previously. I've always thought that there are a lot of things that builders and remodelers could learn from real estate. What did you learn in that role that has helped in your training of home builder salespeople?
RT: So, there's two big things that came out of that. One is the ability to prospect. When you start selling on the builder’s side, at least at first, you’re spoonfed leads. You have a marketing department, and they do everything. You sit there and basically just wait for people to come in. The challenge with that is when the market becomes a difficult market, you’re a bit stuck. In 2008, we had people sitting in sales offices for three months with no traffic. As a Realtor, it’s you against the world. You've got to figure out how to generate your own leads. If new home sales folks could learn how to adopt that mindset and those types of activities and look at marketing-generated leads as gravy, down times would be less daunting and impactful.
The other side of that is how to differentiate your personal brand. As a Realtor, you could be a part of a team and so forth, but you've really gotta set yourself apart. You really do have to differentiate yourself. I think a lot of times we depend on the brand of the company, not so much our personal brand. But it’s possible to stand out as a salesperson in new construction sales.