The West Wing: Align Sales and Marketing with Case Studies

Listening to a company’s sales calls is one of the most valuable ongoing activities for aligning Sales, Marketing, and Product/Services. When I listen, what I want most is the “point of pivot”. In every successful sale, there’s a moment the decision is made BEFORE it is communicated explicitly. There’s an emotional pivot, a point where the prospect is onboard the train. Of course, any senior salesperson watches for that signal to gently escort the passenger to the “close”. The fact that it’s an emotional reality, means we have to keep our ears open for nuance and subtlety.

In a current project, we’re listening to two major sales calls per week, and the results are surprising. We’ve gotten a better bead on how what we’re selling (product), the commonalities of prospect pain points and hurdles, and–significantly–how aligned our sales are with our case studies.

The Need for Alignment

Most marketing teams operate in a silo. They speak a special language, have different reference points than the rest of the company, and the character of collaboration can leave the company’s primary concern of revenue generation out in the cold. That simply will not fly in the current market (if it ever did). The answer is finding the shared story where the rubber meets the runway–in the interactions between the sales force and prospective customers. That dialogue isn’t somehow separate–it’s essential.

The West Wing Example

For those not familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s now legendary bingeable series (available in its entirety on Netflix), the show is an epic chronicle of a fictional White House staff serving three presidents acted by Martin Sheen, John Goodman (as parenthetical executive during an invocation of the 25th amendment), and Jimmy Smits, the incoming successor as the series winds down. Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet is a razor-smart, highly educated virtuoso who repeatedly demonstrates virtuous leadership amid continual opposition.

Every White House needs to be aligned, of course, on mission and message. The West Wing is a running commentary on the trials and successes of a team rallying around shared aspirations and outcomes. As such, it’s a fictional case study for business. The episode “Game On” is a perfect example, with the team prepping the president for the ultimate sales conversation–a head to head debate with opponent/competitor candidate Robert Ritchie. The phrase “game on” is the Bartlet team’s battle cry as Bartlet wades into that storm to make his case to the American people. During the mock-debates leading up to ‘game time’, Bartlet’s staff analyze his responses and readiness to close the sale.

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The reason they can shout “eat ’em up” as their prize fighter enters the ring, is they have prepared. They know which key points they want to nail and are ready for the objections that will arise. But it isn’t just the President, alone, who does the work. The Press Secretary (the ultimate White House marketer) and the staff (doing market research in the form of polls, and crafting language that’s close to the bone) are key allies. Without “marketing” and “sales” in perfect alignment, the race will fail.

This is a theme running throughout the entire saga, presaged in episodes like “Let Barlet Be Bartlet” (Season 1), emphasizing the need to own one’s brand-identity unapologetically, and reprised in “The Debate” (Season 7) which features an hour-long debate between the incoming candidate and a persuasive opponent, hinging on ‘flipping the script’ of competitor criticism into brand advantage. Perhaps the single most impressive takeaway of The West Wing is the need to listen to everyone–competitors, clients, and each other to refine the narrative and produce a story in which everyone participates. Alignment is the sine qua non of successful politics, just as it is for successful marketing and sales.

The Emotional Realities

It’s easy to be suspicious of comparisons of a brand narrative with fictional storytelling in general and political messaging in particular, especially in a climate as divisive as the real-world one we experience daily. We shy away from the emotional side of the conversation as too fraught, and yet that’s where the pivot takes place. Before anyone says “yes” aloud, they have to emotionally board the train. Merely being intellectually convinced doesn’t close a deal, and it doesn’t make marketing effective. We are more emotion than thought, more soul in our decision making than mind–and companies kicking the snot out of competitors today are doing so, often, because they get that. Modern brands include the full person in the corporate story. The era of appealing to just the mind (“four out of five dentists surveyed chew this gum”) is over.

Aligning Selling With Case Studies

Most of us are familiar with at least some format for sales conversations (e.g. establish relationship, identify need, offer solution, overcome objections, close sale). That process sounds only vaguely like what traditional marketers do (analyze a target audience, drive awareness with related content, measure+refine+repeat continually to stay top of mind). The alignment is sparse for two reasons. 1) they don’t capture the emotional reality of how human beings are moved to take action. 2) They tend to be represented as linear processes which don’t accurately reflect how prospective clients make decisions.

Every playwright and storyteller learns about “Freytag’s pyramid“, created by 19th century German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag. Freytag argued that any story can be represented by a linear graph that looks bit like a heartbeat on a monitor and represents how the parts of any story proceed from start to finish. One of the most useful things I picked up in my profession as corporate storyteller is a challenge to that meme by the creator of NBC’s Community, Dan Harmon. Harmon argued that every story is really a circle.

When you listen to successful sales calls carefully, they follow a pattern that, ideally mirrors the company’s success stories on behalf of its clients. Case studies and sales calls are the core acts of company storytelling. Every prospect in a sales call takes a journey with the salesperson, from a visionary goal in the prospect’s mind (what Blake Snyder calls “the promise of the premise”) to a reflection of that goal in a new reality (a final image of a change that has taken place for the client). The marketer’s case studies or client success stories (for example) and the salesperson’s process are both at their height of effectiveness when making the same journey. For MadPipe, I developed these charts to show the relationship:

The Beats of Effective Sales AND Marketing

A beat (term attributed to Robert McKee in the way we’re using it here) is the smallest element of any story. A “beat sheet” is a list of beats that are universal or always present. Stories might have additional features that are unique to a particular story, but a beat sheet attempts to nail down what MUST be present for a story to be complete or fulfilling–i.e. successful. From the charts above, here is:

– THE MADPIPE BEAT SHEET FOR SALES AND MARKETING –

Greet & Relate (or Who They Are): The emotional connection is non-negotiable. A prospect WILL NOT become a client, or at least will hold back full commitment, if they don’t feel connected. Most sales conversations will start with the ‘small talk’ (“So, what’s shaking at Acme Typewriters?”). In the same way, a reader of a case study won’t feel connected to the case unless that personal reality is reflected in a way to which they can vicariously relate (“Acme Typewriters occupies a highly competitive place in the market…”).

The Visionary Goal: Every prospect has some ultimate outcome they want to achieve. It’s never just “write me a white paper” or “take over my logistics”. There’s a broader objective like “give my company a clear, compelling voice as the industry leader” or “let me scale rapidly and take on new markets”. An effective sales conversation and case study each hit that very early.

The Pain Points: A positive goal is always accompanied by a negative pin-prick of pain (e.g. “We don’t have the in-house talent to tackle this at scale.” or “We don’t have visibility on the data we need to make effective decisions.”). A pain point is what the prospect is suffering with. The salesperson uncovers that pain early on and acknowledges it. The marketer reflects it in the case study because, when a client is fairly representative, lots of other people feel the same pain.

The Basic Hurdle(s): The hurdles are distinct from pain points. A hurdle is a roadblock–they’ve tried something, or considered trying it, and run into a wall. Hurdles are the barriers to the prospect taking the most obvious or expeditious course of action to resolve–e.g. just hire someone or do it yourself. It often comes out as things they’ve already tried (“We outsourced this to freelancers, but that left us with the need to manage them.” or “We hired an exec to build an in-house department, but the overhead ate our lunch.”) Hearing the hurdles gives the salesperson tools to pitch and the marketer the weaknesses in alternatives to the company’s offering.

What We Will Do (or Did): At some point, the salesperson proposes a solution. A marketer, writing a case study describes that solution, in the past tense. The solution is not only the particulars of how the company will delivery the visionary goal, mitigating pain points and leaping over hurdles, but the unique particulars of how it gets/got customized to this particular client. When really sophisticated, it will include the emotional “pivot point”–the deep seated reason for the client choosing us versus someone else (e.g. “a felt connection with a highly personal, down to earth support team” or “the comforting sense that someone gets them and understands their ultimate desired outcome”).

Information & Concerns (or the New Immediate Reality): Once the prospect hears a solution, there are usually questions–if anxiety is low, they’re often just requests for information (“Would projects be by the page, the word, or what?”); when it’s high, they might be direct challenges (“I think you’re fairly new in the technical side of this field, right?”) A salesperson will answer those questions and quell those objections. A marketer will reflect, in a case study, the immediate new reality (“they got a finished white paper”) in a way that implies confidence toward the underlying concerns (“the technical language was crisp and accurate, but accessible”).

The New Ultimate Reality: When a novel or movie has a premise at the beginning (lonely man without love paralyzed by an event in his past), that promise must be fulfilled. The narrative can be a tragedy (he resigns himself to an unproductive life alone) or comedy (he finds love and breaks out of his funk). But never coming back to it or addressing the premise put forth at the start (in a sales call, case study, or any story) is unacceptable–the audience will revolt. The salesperson doesn’t get off the call without returning in this way to the “visionary goal” (“You’re going to scale a lot easier from now on.” or “Your audience is going to see the incredible leadership your company represents in the market.”) Same with the marketer’s case study–it’s not enough to say “Now, we manage their logistics.” or “And we wrote their white paper.” We go beyond “got what they asked for” to “we delivered on their visionary goal” in whatever words it takes to reflect that.

Corporate Storytelling Wheel

Regardless of the context, a sales presentation, case study draft, a web page or product brochure, the beats are essentially the same. This is MadPipe’s corporate storytelling wheel, simplified for applicability.

Corporate Storytelling Format

Kaizen–Always Get Better

Two companies have equal revenue goals–one is moving continually toward alignment between sales, marketing, and product; the other isn’t. One will always feel the drag as it climbs uphill. The other will feel the wind as it soars downhill, picking up speed. It’s not enough to “get aligned” once in a company meeting, or listen to sales calls together a few times. That’s a start, but the momentum must be maintained. The alignment is emotional, too, just as the decision-making process is emotional for the end-user. A superficial connection, without feeling it, won’t be as resilient. Listen to sales calls together, but also start to cultivate a shared language, shared reference points, and shared premises or assumptions. That’s the true power of corporate story–it gets salespeople, marketing people, prospects, and customers into a dialogue that mutually informs and fulfills the needs of all.

Two Fun Post-West Wing Videos (for fans)

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides leadership in marketing, educational programs, and organizational transformation for brands that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, writes a Forbes column, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, and Success Magazine.

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About once/month, Corporate Storyteller and Digital Ecologist® Daniel DiGriz weaves together interesting stories around organizational transformation, education, and marketing.

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