Adrian Davis — President & CEO of management consulting firm Whetstone Inc. — contains multitudes. He’s an inspirational, thought-provoking speaker, an author, and a trusted advisor to CEOs and sales leaders alike. As a longtime friend of SAMA and frequent presenter at our conferences, Davis’s true gift is his passion for storytelling. If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him speak, you’re in for a real treat.
On today’s blockbuster episode, host Denise Freier, President and CEO of SAMA, welcomes Davis to talk about his new book, “Heroes, Villains, and the Thrill of Professional Selling,” where he applies the hero’s journey to real-life examples, captivating stories, and templates to guide sales professionals like you. He also explains how it can be helpful to view different clients and sales environments through the lens of movie genres. So, grab a bowl of popcorn, settle in, and push play!
Listen to the podcast here
Heroes, Villains, And The Thrill Of Professional Selling With Adrian Davis
DF: Welcome to the show. We have an extra special guest with us, one of the most compelling and captivating voices in professional sales and strategic account management. As President and CEO of Whetstone, Inc., a management consulting firm, Adrian Davis is an internationally recognized thought-provoking speaker, author, and trusted advisor to CEOs and sales leaders. He’s a longtime friend of SAMA and a frequent speaker at our conferences. Adrian is often called upon to address executive teams in sales groups selling value and sales excellence. He’s a truly gifted storyteller.
Adrian leverages his deep insight into sales and the buying process to inspire salespeople to reach higher levels of performance. He did that in his previous book, Human to Human Selling. In his new book, Heroes, Villains, and the Thrill of Professional Selling, Adrian applies the hero’s journey to real-life examples, compelling stories, and templates to guide sales professionals like you. In the book, he also explains how it can be helpful to view different clients in sales environments through the lens of movie genres. It’s a fascinating read and I can’t recommend it enough.
DF: Adrian, we are delighted as always to have you here with us.
AD: Thank you so much. I’m grateful to be here. I love the SAMA community. Thank you so much for having me.
DF: We couldn’t be happier. I like the book’s underlying theme. It’s about improving your chances to win by having the best buying experience for your customers. There are so many factors in creating a good buying experience, external and internal factors, that this is critical in most sales situations. What prompted you to focus on the buying experience and compare that to the movie genres?
AD: I’m going to answer it in two parts because they happened separately. The first part is focusing on the buying experience. Late in my sales career, I was working for a software company out of Silicon Valley. They had invested significantly in a sales process. They tweaked the CRM to follow the process, and all of us salespeople were expected to follow this sales process in a detailed way.
My immediate manager went on vacation. Almost the day after he went on vacation, I got a lead that came in from a major telco in Canada. In talking with this person, I figured out very quickly that they were way down the line. They had done all their homework. They boiled it down to two firms. It was our firm and a major competitor. They were ready to pull the trigger as long as certain concerns that they had were addressed.
Because of the size of the opportunity, I pulled the fire alarm. I had all of our executives fly into Toronto where I was living at the time for this meeting. I orchestrated the whole thing. I figured out exactly who their executives were, who our executives needed to address, and what concerns they needed to address.
My manager comes back from vacation and he sees this meeting in his calendar. He sees the CEO, all of our VPs, and the executive vice president all attending this meeting. Before he left for vacation, it wasn’t even on the radar. He comes back and to say he was furious would be an understatement. He called me. He was panicked like, “What is going on here?” The exposure for him completely violated the sales process. That’s when I became sensitive to the buying process. They’re ready to go. They know who we are. There are a few concerns they have, and so we had the meeting.
That evening, they signed a pilot, which was a $1 million pilot. The project was probably $30 million. We didn’t get the project in the end, but we got the pilot. It was a big lesson to me that the sales process is important. It’s only important insofar as it organizes us and helps us to be organized in our work in order to support the customer in their buying process. That’s the first part answer to your question. It was towards the end of my sales career when I was holding a bag that I realized, “This is about the buyer and supporting their process.”The sales process is important only if it allows businesses to be organized in their work to support customers in their buying process. Click To Tweet
In terms of relating this to movies, that came later. What happened there is I figured out again through sales the importance of storytelling. It was powerful. I realized stories were more powerful than the demonstrations we would do. These sales that I was winning, I was winning on the strength of the story. When I started at Whetstone decades ago, I was attending a conference for professional speakers. One of the speakers addressed the subject of storytelling. I saw that as a breakout. I thought, “I’ve got to go to that because I know stories are compelling.”
He shared with me or shared with the audience the Hero’s Journey. He explained how he was this struggling journalist and nobody was taking any interest in his stories and articles. He discovered the Hero’s Journey as a framework for writing. He started to use that, and the trajectory of his career changed.
When he presented the Hero’s Journey, I sat in the audience and thought, “That’s exactly what I do.” I didn’t have words for it. I became sensitive to it in all story forms, like movies, plays, and novels. I became sensitive to that. I began tweaking the language that I use in my training to conform to the Hero’s Journey.
DF: Before I ask you more about the Hero’s Journey, I have to go back to your story. Would you do the big CEO call again? Knowing what you know now, would you have done that same thing?
AD: Absolutely. What happened was these guys flew up on their private jet. They made sure that I had a couple of other calls for them to go to as well, so that was great for me. I got to fly in this private jet to go to different parts of Canada. In a day, we did three calls, so it was a great use of their time. The first meeting was in Toronto and then we flew out to Nova Scotia. The CEO said on the flight to everybody there that this was the most organized sales call he had ever been on.
It was the right call. It threw my manager for a loop. He was so stuck on our sales process and was furious that all of a sudden, we were at the end of the process. Before he left, we hadn’t begun it. It was just a lucky break for me, but it was the exact right thing to do to make sure that we were conforming to the needs of the buyer rather than trying to get them to conform to our needs.
DF: That’s a great lesson for all of us. Let’s talk a little bit more about the Hero’s Journey. Could you summarize that quickly for the audience so they understand what that is?
AD: I would love to. First of all, in a nutshell, it is an archetype, which means that it’s a framework that’s embedded in the collective subconscious. All of us know this because from childhood, we get told these nursery rhymes, we go to great movies that are blockbusters, and we read novels. The great storytellers for thousands of years have been using this archetype to frame their stories because it’s the way that our minds naturally work. It’s the way that our minds tell us stories about ourselves and about our own experiences.
That’s the first thing I would want everybody to understand. It is that when we utilize the Hero’s Journey, we are utilizing something that is extremely familiar to everybody that we talk to. It’s something that they will quickly be able to translate what we are saying because their mind is set up to accommodate that framework and then simplify it.
Joseph Campbell goes into this in a lot of depth in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It can get very complex at a psychological level. I simplify it for a sales vehicle in five simple steps. First, we have to identify who is the hero. It’s not us. It’s our customer. That hero is motivated to achieve something. They have a goal. That’s where we start. Who’s the hero? What’s their goal?
The way life is, and we all know this, nothing is free. If we want something worthwhile, there’s opposition to it. There are obstacles to overcome. The hero encounters obstacles, first in the form of what we call a villain or an adversary. It’s an external force or an external pressure that is jeopardizing the ability to achieve this goal.
Because the force is external and the hero has no control over it, the hero loses control and falls into this pit of despair where they suffer. That’s a critical part of the plot line because suffering drives introspection. You notice, for example, that if an executive starts a new role in a new company, within a matter of months, they bring their suppliers with them. That is because they’re surrounded by a team of people that they can rely on and they have a way of succeeding. I call it their success formula. It gives them a sense of control over circumstances. They lose all of that in the pit of despair, and they lose that sense of control.
Because the villain is something they didn’t anticipate and something they can’t control, the suffering that they are enduring drives introspection. That’s where they have to turn to, “What can I change?” The answer is, “Me.” That focuses attention on the internal flaw or the hero’s flaw or weakness. That’s what has to change.
Often, to change it significantly or even permanently, they need outside help. That’s where the special resource appears, the mentor, to help them through this and help them out of the pit of despair. They’re then able to overcome these adverse circumstances, win, and be triumphant. Certainly, they’re transformed in the process and they enter the new world coming out of this pit of despair. They’re now successful, but most importantly, they’ve changed as a result.
That is the simplified plot line of the Hero’s Journey. It’s hard not to watch a movie, a play, or read a book and not see this. Often, my wife will turn to me and say, “How would you explain this with the Hero’s Journey?” We are constantly deciphering the movies or the shows we watch using this framework because great storytellers use it. It’s everywhere.
To me, this is why it’s so powerful to use it in our strategic accounts. It is so familiar. We can pull our team around us and say, “This is the hero. This is what they’re motivated by. This is what they’re trying to accomplish. Here’s how the world is changing around them in ways that are adversarial and in ways they can’t control. Here’s how they suffer as a result. Now, here’s the internal process or infrastructure that needs to change if they’re going to be successful. This is our contribution. This is our intervention. This is how we’re going to help them be successful. This is what the new world is going to look like for them.” It is a very simple language. It’s not technical language. Everybody gets it right away because it’s so familiar. We can now work as a unified team as that special resource to help the hero.
DF: The SAM or the Strategic Account Manager, in this very important role of special resource, how does the SAM get ready for that? Does he see it? What if there’s not a big despair? I didn’t know if there was some way to help that SAM get ready for that.
AD: I love this question because first of all, that is the role of the SAM. It’s not to be the hero. In the Hero’s Journey as an archetype, it’s a natural framework. The brain tells us stories in such a way that we are the center of the universe. We’re born with this mindset that we are at the center and everything happens around us. It’s hard to shake that. There’s a part of us that’s extremely self-centered.
If we’re going to be successful as leaders of strategic accounts, we’re going to be successful because of our ability to empathize and our ability to no longer occupy that central role. The stakeholder within the account is the hero. We then want to be the role of the special resource. The best way we can prepare for that role is to do our discovery and understand who the hero is and what their strategic goal is.
Many of these larger accounts have their annual reports. They will publish strategically what they’re trying to accomplish and what they’re putting themselves on the hook to accomplish over the next few years. We need to understand that. We then need to go further and understand how the world is changing and what’s going on.
We’re at the end of the summer of 2023. We’re dealing with these fires in Hawaii, this devastation. Constantly, there are things like this. There are wars, inflation, a shrinking labor pool, artificial intelligence, and automation. It’s not nonstop the way the world is changing. We need our SAMs to be able to take that and widen the aperture. We need them to look at that through that big picture lens of, “For this account, how is the world changing in adversarial ways to the strategic goal?”
We have to understand the strategic goal first, then how the world is changing in ways that are adversarial to that goal. That’s the starting point. Also then try to understand, if the world continues to change in these adversarial ways, what becomes obsolete for them? What are their internal processes that may have worked yesterday, but going into the future, it’s going to be a handicap for them? That’s our opportunity to help.
What might our intervention look like? How do we bring them into this new world where they are transformed? There’s the way they operated before we showed up, and then there’s the way they will operate in the future as a result of our intervention. It gets to the extent that the SAMs can be cognizant of this landscape and then show up, meeting with these executives, and talking at this higher or more strategic and more holistic level rather than showing up and trying to sell a product or a service.
DF: It does take a deep level of discovery to understand that strategic goal. They have to understand that entire buying experience. How can they get a little bit more aware of what that customer’s process is so that they can focus their time on that?
AD: SAMA is fantastic at this in terms of the 5 competencies and the 7-step process. We teach in Core 0 the fundamentals of strategic account management, and that discovery is the primary step. Of the seven steps, the most important step is discovery. Part of that discovery process or discovery step is understanding the buying process or the decision-making process of the customer.
Who are the stakeholders? For this type of decision, what does the process or the paperwork to make this sort of approval look like? What typically is the budget for these types of initiatives? Where would initiatives like this typically get blocked? When you’ve done so, have you encountered obstacles? It is about the account manager having the patience. You said it right that this discovery process must be thorough.
Many times, because of our impatience and maybe our motivation to achieve our goals, we tend to short-circuit or shortchange the discovery process. My advice to SAMS would be to slow down, do a quality job of that step of discovery, and be very thorough. You have to slow down in order to speed up. If you skip that step or shortchange it, you’ll find yourself having to come back to it later, and maybe not being able to have the impact ever again that you could have had you done a more thorough job of understanding the buyer.
DF: When I think through doing that thorough job, there is a concept in your book that intrigued me. It was this idea of needing an inside-outsider and an outside-insider that I think would help here. Would you describe that to us?
AD: I’m glad you zeroed in on that because that is perhaps the pivot point for us bringing these transformational changes to an organization. The bigger the transformation that we’re going to bring to an organization, the greater our value. The bigger the transformation, the greater the resistance there will be to that transformation, and the greater the difficulty there will be in implementing that transformation.The bigger the change and transformation we bring to an organization, the greater our value. However, there will also be great resistance and difficulty in implementing it. Click To Tweet
Change cannot be pushed onto an organization. It must be pulled into the organization from within. That comes from what I call the inside-outsider, somebody who is inside the organization, but they’re outside of the status quo. Before this call, I had a call with an inside-outsider. In this case, it was a team. They are part of a learning and development organization. They see the challenges that the SAMs are having. They see the need for the organization to embrace strategic accounts differently. They understand all of this.
I don’t want to jump ahead but I’m sure if I were to interview the strategic account managers, they would say, “I’m good. We’re good at what we do. We’ve been doing this for decades. We know what we’re doing.” They don’t see the need to change. They’re happy with the status quo. The status quo makes organizations efficient. Without the status quo, we’d have to be reinventing the wheel every day. The status quo is important, and people get comfortable with it.
To bring change to people who are comfortable with the status quo is impossible. We need to find somebody, at least one person, and initially, a community of people within the organization who’ve had it with the status quo. They see the external changes happening. They realize, “If the organization continues doing things the way that they’re doing it, we’re going to get into trouble.”
They’re inside but they’re outside of the status quo. They’re looking for help in showing the rest of the organization how to change. That’s who we’re looking for, a person who is motivated to help transform the organization. In order to do that, we have to be the counterpart to that person or that community, which is the outside-insider.
We’re outside of the organization, but we’ve become an insider. Because of our thorough discovery, we have learned how this organization functions. We’ve learned the personalities, the politics, the history, and the culture. We’ve learned why intelligent people will fight to keep the status quo. We can empathize with them. I understand why these strategic account managers think they don’t need to change.
Because I understand that and I’ve come to understand the politics of the organization and the personalities, I can be of that much more help as a guide to the inside-outsider. We can collaborate on how I could help you pull this transformation into the organization. It’s important for all salespeople, but for strategic account managers in particular, finding that inside-outsider and partnering with them as the outside-insider is perhaps the most critical piece of information in the book.
DF: I was thinking about how difficult it is to find that person. We all know it. All of our customers have that status quo. All of our internal teams have that status quo. It is difficult to find that person. Doing good stakeholder management and discovery helps us.
AD: Also, looking for the point of pain. What we’re looking for is how the world is changing. The world is constantly changing. There is no industry where we can sit back and say, “Everything is going to stay the same for the next decade.” Everything is constantly changing. We’re in this time of disruption. It’s being sensitive to the disruptive factors within an industry, and then being able to extrapolate from that where the pressure is most likely to be felt inside the organization. That pain point is our point of access.
Maybe it’s manufacturing. Maybe it’s nursing. Maybe it’s quality. Maybe it’s learning and development. With these external changes, what is the pressure point within the organization that is most likely going to experience difficulty in paying? That’s typically where we’ll find the inside-outsider. The rest of the organization isn’t feeling the pain yet, but it’s going to travel through the rest of the organization. It’s just that it is being felt here first.
DF: That’s good advice. As I’m thinking about this, one thing you mentioned earlier was the art of storytelling. I wonder how that could help express the value proposition around this pain point. Can you give some advice to us on how we can do better at that?
AD: First of all, do storytelling. Great salespeople do this naturally. They figure it out. When I ride along with top performers, they do this very naturally. Others, especially if they’re coming up through the technical side, tend to want to rely on data. It’s not compelling and it’s very forgettable. Stories frame data and frame content in a way that’s memorable. Number one is let’s tell stories. They don’t have to be perfect. It’s surprising how imperfect they can be and still be effective.
Secondly, in the book, I provide a very simple framework that begins with story listening. We’ve been talking about discovery. We never want to tell stories into a vacuum. We always want to tell stories into the motivation of the mind. We want to understand, “What does this person want?” We need to discover what they want and what’s impacting or jeopardizing what they want. When we understand that, that’s the ticket to pivot into storytelling.
We want to tell our stories using a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey. I provide in the book a template with some trigger words that do the heavy emotional lifting. For example, there are words like like you, unfortunately, and as a result. I explain in the book why these words carry so much emotional impact. If you use these words and plug in your content after these trigger words, they will do the emotional heavy lifting for you with your content. I call these training wheels. As you’ve ridden the bicycle a few times with the training wheels and you can keep your balance, you can take the training wheels off because now you understand what you’re saying and why.
DF: Let’s think that the templates and the guidance that you provide in the book are so important to SAMs to get moving forward on this. Describe some of these templates and how-tos. You have hundreds of questions to ask in there. Please say more about that.
AD: I’m glad you asked this because this is one of the reasons I’m so proud of this book. On the one hand, it provides theory in a familiar and fresh way at the same time. It’s like, “I know this, but I’ve never thought about this for sales or for account management.” There’s that. The other side of it is it’s practical. You’ll read a chapter in the book and begin applying it right away because I provide templates, tools, and some techniques that you can take and apply right away.
For some of the templates around story listening, I provide a discovery storyboard. What to listen for. When you’re doing your discovery, what are the key elements you need to uncover in the way that this stakeholder is telling a story to themselves? What is the story they’re telling to themselves that you want to intercept and make a better story? There is a discovery storyboard.
Once you understand the story they are telling to themselves, you want to participate in the conversation they’re having with themselves. I provide a storytelling template. How do you share a success story that shows in a similar situation how you’ve made someone else successful? Throughout my career, I didn’t know why. I just knew stories work, so I was telling stories. They were working, but I didn’t know why. I explain in the book the psychological reasons why stories work. We provide a template that gives you some trigger words that will do the emotional lifting for you. There’s the storytelling and the storyboard.
I then provide what I call the production storyboard. Now that I’ve accepted your value proposition and we’re going to go into project mode or initiative mode and do something together, you should still use the Hero’s Journey as a framework to guide the implementation of your intervention. I provide a movie storyboard to say, “Everybody on both teams should be clear about the story that we’re going to create together.”
You mentioned 100 questions. In the book, as a bonus, I provide 100 discovery questions. As we’ve said, discovery is the most important step in the SAM process. Sometimes, people ask the same questions over and over again or they don’t know what to ask. We provide a guide. I call it GPS Times Two, which tells you, on the journey, what are the key elements you need to uncover.
I then provide 100 questions that I’ve gathered over my years in sales and account management. It’s not that you should go and ask your customer 100 questions. It’s not an interrogation. Sometimes, you see 1 or 2 questions there and it’s a thought starter. It’s like, “I don’t know that. I need to find that out.” It’s a nice little stimulus to say, “Let’s be a bit creative in the conversation we’re going to have with our customer, and let’s make sure we’re uncovering the best information.”
DF: It is an end-to-end guide in looking at this book on how you can get through the discovery process, the actual getting the value down, and implementing that project. Are there any key things or what you have to get right? Is there anything you would like to share with the audience in making those key points come out?
AD: I would say a couple of things that I hope people take away from this book. Even though you said it is end-to-end, it’s not an encyclopedia. It’s an easy read, but you’re right. It is end-to-end. The most important takeaway is the fact that everybody wants something. When I started my sales career 35 years ago, I read a book from Zig Ziglar. People who’ve been around a long time will know Zig Ziglar. Some of the newer people might not have heard of him, but he’s the pioneer in terms of motivational speaking and sales training.
I read a simple quote from him that I never forgot. In fact, it’s truer now than it was 35 years ago when I read it. He said, “You can get everything you want in the world as long as you help enough other people get what they want.” That transformed my life. I was like, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to figure out what people want and I’m going to help them to get it. That’s how I’ll be rewarded.”You can get everything you want in the world as long as you help enough people get what they want. Click To Tweet
The whole notion of win-win means you win after your customer wins. Be obsessed with getting your customers to win. Be obsessed with making your customer the hero, and you’ll win as a result. Having said that, the fundamental is the key to your customer. Don’t show up in your customer’s story and try to be the hero in their story. That’s number one.
Number two, the hero is motivated. The hero wants something. The better you can figure out what the hero wants, the more they will see you as part of their team and as a real partner. Figure out what they want. That’s the linchpin. Once you understand that, how is the world changing in ways that are adversarial to that goal that they can’t control? It makes them vulnerable and gives them a sense of loss of control.
Once you help them understand how they will suffer if they don’t take action and if they stay with the status quo, your value is not to fix the villain or the external forces. Your value is to work with the hero as that special resource to address their flaw. Their flaw could have been a strength last year or last decade, but because of how the world has changed, they cannot carry that strength forward. It has become a weakness. Finding the weakness in the context of the Hero’s Journey is the key takeaway because that’s where you create value. You help them transform in a way that they are stronger, better, faster, wiser, and more capable as a result of your intervention. They are able to achieve their goal.
DF: It is so motivating to hear you share this story and to bring this to the SAMA community. We appreciate that so much. What’s the best way for people to get your book?
AD: It’s available on pre-order. It comes out on September 5th, 2023. Go to Amazon and search for my name or search for Heroes, Villains, and the Thrill of Professional Selling. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about our heroes. The world is changing in adversarial ways to their goal. It’s a thrill to work with people at this level to help them achieve what is strategically important to them and their organizations.
DF: Thank you again for being with us. Do you have any final words for the audience?
AD: Make sure you’re a member of the SAMA community. Make sure you’re taking advantage of the SAMA resources. I’m one of many resources within SAMA. In working with my customers, many times, they tell me privately that they didn’t realize how many resources SAMA has available to them. There’s that inside-outsider who says, “We need to change,” and then they start delving into what’s available within the SAMA portal, the SAMA resources, and the networks that you guys have. If you’re very serious about engaging your customers at a strategic level, I’m going to recommend you get the book. It’s a nice and easy read. Most importantly, optimize your utilization of the SAMA resources and the SAMA community.
DF: Thank you so much for that. SAMA is built on sharing stories and sharing best practices. We certainly align with that. Thank you again for joining us. Thanks to our audience for tuning in. Have a good day, everyone.
AD: Thanks so much.