Hindsight Isn’t Perfect When Selling Professional Services

The Story Behind the Story: Are you trying to learn from the rainmakers in your company? Or from gurus outside your company? The stories they tell about how they achieved their successes can provide valuable insights, but usually leave out a lot of pertinent facts. Here’s why you need to get the story behind the story.

I collect rainmaking stories. There is something visceral in our fascination with a story, especially when we believe it relates to us. It’s what primitive man must have felt when sitting around the campfire listening to the clan’s best hunter tell how he brought down a mammoth.

The value of stories to emergency workers has been documented by Gary Klein in his book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, (MIT Press, 1998). Again and again, I hear that it is the stories I tell that really show how rain is made. But you have to be careful with stories.

Contrary to the popular dictum, hindsight isn’t perfect. Even if the storyteller has a good memory and is impeccably honest, she will give you a distorted version of the truth. She cannot reduce what took hours, days or months to a story without distorting what really happened. This is common in rainmaking stories, which often suffer from a false appearance of linearity.

A friend and client, John is a strategy consultant who has proved his rainmaking prowess at three firms. He participated in a class I taught at one of these firms to add local color and an insider’s perspective. On request he told the story of how he brought in (or as he said with great modesty, helped bring in) a large engagement from a prestigious client. Justifiably, the audience found this story more interesting than mine, which were about people at different times and in different places.

One participant then commented that this story told them what they really needed to do, pick a company and go after it with a singular focus, because the demands of client work would not admit the broader effort that I had proposed.

Of course, John had meant no such thing, but in looking back at the pursuit, he had mentioned only those things that related to the company in question. He left out the fifteen other companies he had identified as targets when he joined the firm. Over a year later, he had given up on some of them and was still pursuing others. His story skipped all that, creating an appearance of linearity, as if he had known from the start that the company in question would hire him.

In reality, his pursuit had been more like going through a maze, backtracking from many dead ends before finding the true path. That story would have been a good one, too, but if John had told it he would have had to leave out pieces of the story he did tell. Stories always simplify.

I encourage you to collect stories from rainmakers in your firm. They will be interesting and educational, but they always leave something out. If you remember that you are less likely to take a lesson away from a story that the teller never meant to give.

© 2008 Ford Harding

Ford Harding is the president of Harding & Company, which trains professionals to win new clients. Rain Making: Attract New Clients No Matter What Your Field, a revised and updated edition of his bestselling book, was published in February 2008. His books are required reading for certification by the Society for Marketing Professional Services. His articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Contact Ford and read his blog at www.hardingco.com

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