How Sales Success Stories can fail your team

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of  communication. Since the earliest days of civilization, storytelling has been employed in politics, business, and community structures. It has been used by families to  recount episodes of survival and triumph, comedy or tragedy, as well as to awaken our curiosity, teach, entertain, and inspire us. Storytelling is a very powerful device, so it is no surprise business managers use it to motivate and train employees--this is especially true for sales divisions, where stories are ubiquitous in sales engagements and among management. This kind of story telling often takes the form of the “Sales Success Story.”

As the name indicates, these stories usually recount sales engagement which result in a closed deal, new relationship, higher margin, or any form of productive success. When employed correctly, the sales success story can have a powerful impact on motivation and performance. However, when abused, it can really put a damper on sales outcomes. 

Unfortunately, few managers effectively harness the power of success stories. This is because, to a large extent, such stories are anachronous, fabricated, or both. When these stories are told in the wrong setting or include mistruths, they will fail to teach and inspire. This in turn decreases team morale and taints their perception of management. 


The shortcomings of success stories are best illustrated with an example from my own experience: In 2009 I was working as an Investment Advisor within Morgan Stanley’s global wealth management division. The Dow was fighting back from its bottom and investors were experiencing wild bouts of market volatility. To make matters worse, bulge bracket investment banks like Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch suffered from media onslaughts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, many clients began to move their accounts to smaller regional firms. 

In an effort to augment new client acquisition and assets, senior business development leaders began conducting a series of marketing and sales campaigns in which sales success stories became rampant. Unfortunately, these stories did little to motivate. In one particular instance, our division VP told a story about a new broker who faced all of the same challenges. Through picking up the phone and working his contacts he was able to raise more than $60 million dollars in assets in the past month. This seemed too good to be true, so I researched the new broker and gave him a call. What I found, was a very different reality from the story that was told. This newbie, it turned out, was a portfolio manager with over 30 years of experience under his belt. He had just jumped ship from another investment firm to ours. The $60 million were, in fact, just clients, part of his existing book of business, who had transferred their accounts to our firm that month.The picture that was painted by management of a hard working, hustling peer turned out to be a complete fabrication.

Was this motivating? Not one bit. And I wasn’t the only person to uncover the distortion. When you tell a success story like this:

1. People find out that you’re not being honest. When your people discover you are twisting the truth, trust is undermined and employees will begin to seriously question their leadership.

2. It confuses correlations with causation. When telling a success story, make sure the success you are discussing accurately relates a causative action to its actual result.If someone gets lucky, a deal falls into their lap, or a call-in order is placed, these stories must not be highlighted, because they are not replicable. You must be careful to choose and tell stories that are a result of strategy, tactics, hard work, or process.

3. It sets unrealistic expectations. Telling stories that highlight big wins are attractive to recount, but be careful. If the story is told in a way that insinuates, or expects, others to follow suit, this can have adverse effects on motivation when the promised outcomes aren’t reached. 

If you want to tell effective sales success stories, take heed of the following: 

Always Avoid:

1.       Embellishment

2.       Confusing correlation and causation

3.       Setting unrealistic expectations


Always Do:

1.       Highlight activities not outcomes

2.       Discuss how it is replicable

3.       End with a call to action or ask, to employ the newly learned activity or tactic

Success stories can be used to motivate a team to realize there is a way when things get tough. When done wrong, sales stories will lose value as a currency to buy motivation and action. When telling a sales success stories avoid embellishing the truth of the situation or confusing causation and correlation. To tell a good success story, make sure that the recounting of events focuses on the productive activities, explains how they are replicable, and end the call with an ask or call to action on those activities.  


 Gregory Pontrelli is President/CEO & Chief Talent Strategist at Lausanne Business Solutions, a comprehensive talent management consultancy. Lausanne helps organizations recruit top talent, increase employee engagement, while optimizing performance, and develop individuals and teams. You can like Lausanne Business Solutions on facebook or follow us on twitter @lausanneconnect,  instagram@lausannesolutions, and also follow Greg on twitter@gregpontrelli.