Emergence Capital’s Doug Landis on telling stories that sell

Doug Landis often sees an unsuccessful sales pitch stumble straight out of the gate. Specifically at the very first slide in the pitch deck.

The problem, Doug says, is salespeople tend to focus too much on their company and the names on their client roster, rather than connecting with their audience. The easiest way to do that? Tell a compelling story.

Today, Doug is a Growth Partner at Emergence Capital. Previously, however, he ran sales productivity for teams at Google, Salesforce and Box. His time at the latter culminated in the title of Chief Storyteller, where he rewrote the script for how Box sales team talked to and about their customers.

In this episode of our podcast, Doug and I chat about what makes a compelling story, how to distill a founder’s high level vision into something more relatable to individual buyers, and much more. If you enjoy the it, check out more episodes. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. Short on time? Here are four quick takeaways:

  • Your job in sales is to build credibility, and you do that by being relatable and using the voice of your customers. You use their stories– where they were and where they are now – to help paint a picture of what’s possible.
  • Rewrite your first call deck. Your first three slides are likely all about you: “who we are, here are all our customers, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve.” But customers want to know about themselves.
  • To create stories that sell, utilize contrast, analogy, emotion and descriptive language over facts. Human beings naturally want to argue with facts and see proof. If you’ve done the first part well, however, facts can back up the story you told and create a great one-two punch.
  • There are three stories you should know cold: why your company exists, why you work there and what you’ve learned from customers your company has helped.

Adam Risman: Doug, welcome to Inside Intercom. Can you give us a quick introduction to what you’re doing today at Emergence Capital?

Doug Landis: I’m a Growth Partner at Emergence Capital, and my primary focus is the investment committee. I help source and complete deals, and I perform due diligence on deals. When we invest in a company, I step in, roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty and help them figure out how they’re going to grow from $1 or $2 million in ARR to $10, $50, or $100 million, culminating in an IPO or a significant exit.

I think of it as go-to-market consulting. My approach is super tactical. I’m not just going to sit in that ivory tower and say, “Oh, what’s your MQL conversion rate?” Instead I’m asking, “What is your MQL conversion rate, and why is it not higher?” And then, “What are our reps doing as soon as they actually get an MQL? What’s that first touch point? And how are they engaging with their customers? How are they running their meetings? How do we know who we’re targeting and their willingness to buy?” I get very in the weeds, and build sales playbooks, sales process and all that other fun stuff.

Adam: You’re looking mostly at Series A, Series B companies, right? How do you establish rapport with a new company once you invest?

Doug: Here’s a little background on Emergence: we are hyper-focused on B2B enterprise SAAS companies. It’s really interesting what I’ve learned; I’ve only been on this side of the table for about a year and a half, but we’re in the people business because we only do Series A and Series B stage investments. (If you have a company you want to talk about, shoot me a note at doug@emcap.com.) We fundamentally want to invest in people that are changing the future of work with a focus on SAAS being your vehicle and B2B being your focus. We’re not into B2C, we’re not into IoT, we’re not in health tech; we’re hyper-focused, and that’s also what allowed me to step into this role after being an operator for the last 20 years. I continue to do what I love doing, which is helping startups figure out how to build and grow.

Coining sales productivity

Adam: Speaking of your background as an operator, you were at Salesforce for a while, and you then went to Box and held a few different roles there. What was your progression like as you grew those companies?

Doug: At the end of the day, I’m a salesperson at heart. I have been my whole life. I literally eat, think, drink, breath, and sleep sales. And I’m constantly thinking about how do we help salespeople get smarter, better and faster. It’s not really a profession you can study in college. As my good buddy John Barrows and I talk about, there are 20 to 25 schools that actually have degrees in sales.

I worked at Oracle in the early days where you really learn discipline. We were making 100 calls a day and if we were below that, we were on the chopping block. We were building the foundational elements of what it takes to be a great salesperson.

After Oracle, I left and I started my own technology company, and it was eye opening to really understand what it takes to actually build a company. Building a company is about pattern recognition: Do you have the right market? Do you have the right go-to-market strategy? Do you have the right product? Do people want to pay for it? After I started my company in the first dotcom boom of the late ’90s, I had to do an assessment after we ran out of capital. We had raised three rounds of funding. I shut it down, and was thinking, “Now what am I going to do? I can go back into sales.” That’s one beautiful thing about sales: you can always go back into selling. And if you’re good, it doesn’t matter how old you are.

Adam: The mediums might change. You might be off the phone and onto messenger, but a lot of these skills translate.

Doug: That’s a really good analogy. I realized I get way more value out of helping other sales people figure out how to tap into their full potential. Then I went to go work for Google, running sales productivity, which was really sales training development. I went to Salesforce after that, and that’s where we coined the term “sales productivity.” It didn’t exist 15 years ago. When I left, there were about 80 people hyper-focused on how to make our sales people smarter, better and faster at what they do. After five years there, I went to Box.

Adam: What was it about Box at the time that made you make that jump from Salesforce, which must have been a pretty comfortable position I imagine? Did you feel like the engine was running so well you needed a new challenge?

Doug: It’s very difficult to leave the mother ship. There were two reasons: first, Aaron Levie is really impressive. After my first meeting with him I said, “I want to work for that guy.” His mind works in a special way. The second thing was that I got to build it from scratch. There were two former AEs on the team who needed some direction, so it was kind of like rinse, repeat, and build a playbook. It was so fun.

Distilling the 40,000-foot vision

Adam: Your last role at Box was particularly interesting – I believe you invented it out of thin air. What does “Chief Storyteller” mean in a sales environment?

When we get to work, we start speaking in bullets, phrases and jargon. It makes no sense.

Doug: There were three parts to it. First, the best salespeople in the world are incredible storytellers. At the end of the day it’s how we all talk to one another. We tell stories. I go home and tell my wife the story of my day. But when we get to work, we start speaking in bullets, phrases and jargon, and it makes no sense. Second, when you have a really prolific leader like an Aaron Levie or a Marc Benioff or a Larry Page and Sergey Brin, you’ve got people who are incredibly intelligent. They’re speaking at 40,000 feet about how to transform or disrupt an industry in a way that most people can’t really grasp. The idea is to take those ideas and turn them into something a bit more tangible. How do I take Aaron’s message and actually tell that to a customer that doesn’t really get it because they’re in Kansas?

Adam: I’m sure it’s difficult to do that confidently, because Aaron has a level of credibility that a front-line account manager frankly doesn’t have.

Doug: That’s the reality. Nobody in the company other than the founder or CEO actually has any level of credibility, unless they’ve been in the industry for 20-odd years and they’re a known entity. And if you’re in sales, unfortunately you’re at the bottom of the barrel – especially if you have “sales” in your title, which is terrible. Get rid of it is my first suggestion.

Your job is to build credibility, and how do you do that? You use the voice of your customers. You use what you’ve learned over time and the stories that you’ve heard about your customers – and the contrast between where they were and where are they now – to help paint a picture of what’s possible. That’s what people buy into.

Adam: So it’s not just how you talk to your customers, but how you talk about your customers as well.

Doug: Totally. The Chief Storyteller role came out of the fact we didn’t have a CMO at the time. We had a bunch of what I call “Frankenstein decks,” because we had multiple products. Head of Security was building one deck, Head of Platform was building another deck, Core was building another deck, Customer Success was building another deck, and then my job was to pull it all together and go present it to a customer. There was no cohesion, no consistency, and it was all about us. It was remarkably self-serving. I realized people didn’t have the tools to go turn it all upside down and change the voice we were using.

Crafting a customer-centric narrative

Adam: Take us back to your office the day you pitched Aaron on creating this position: you’ve just walked out of the room and he’s now on board, what do you do next? What are some of the tangible things you can do to actually change how Box told stories?

Doug: I asked myself that very same question. I didn’t want to go sit and write customer stories, although I ended up doing some of that. So many people write their customer stories as “Here’s the problem, here’s how we solved it, and here’s our ROI.” That doesn’t mean shit. All a salesperson is going to do is state a bunch of facts and bullets. I want to know the glue. I want to know who that person is. I want to know what they’re really struggling with. I want to know how their world could be different if they just opened their eyes or thought about it differently.

I did a couple of things: I met with everybody in customer success and tried to extrapolate the best stories possible. Then I tried to reorient them and give them back to marketing. I’d say, “If you’re the Head of Security and you’re building your security deck for our reps to use, we need to reorient it and make sure we’re using the voice of our customers in these tiny stories.” Our job is to help our customers identify problems they haven’t quite considered, and we’re going to pull those problems out of our existing customers. Then we’ll share them internally both with marketing and sales so that it reorients our conversation.

Our goal is to get customers to look at us and see something they hadn’t considered before

Lastly, and probably most importantly, we rewrote our whole first call deck. If you look your very first one, probably the first slide is “here’s who we are,” and then the second slide is “here are all our customers,” and then the third slide is “here’s the problem that we’re trying to solve.” That’s a problem, because the first three or four slides are all about you.

Customers want to know about themselves, and the only way they can compare themselves is if you give them insight into other people just like them. The first slide should say, “Listen, this is what we learned from our customers, who we feel are pretty similar to you. And the truth is, while you may think this is your fundamental problem the reality is that you might have problem 2, 3, 4 and 5. And if you don’t have those problems now, it’s quite possible you’re going to experience those down the road. If you think that’s possible, then let’s dig into what those problems could fundamentally mean to you and how to think about solving those.”

Adam: You mentioned finding ways to share these internally, particularly in marketing. I’m curious how that went and how you were able to develop some consistency there, because marketing typically is we’re speaking to the masses.

Doug: First, you have to create a template for marketing that reorients the way in which they build decks. This is no offense to anybody in marketing, but in product marketing your job is to translate from the product managers what the product is all about, the value that product delivers and the ROI that you can hopefully deliver by using this product. What’s missing in all of that is the customers. At the end of the day, your product is solving a particular problem, but you have to show how you validated that. Is your product solving more than one problem? Most likely it is, so how do you want to talk about it?

Our goal is to get our customers to look at us and see something they hadn’t considered before. Chris Voss, one of FBI’s best negotiators for 25 years, wrote a book called Never Split The Difference. One of the things he gets you to think about in the world of negotiation is not getting somebody to say “yes,” but to get them to say, “That’s right.” The moment they say that, you now have proof that you built enough empathy and demonstrated your level of understanding to them. The moment that happens, you’ve got them.

Building stories that sell with analogies and contrast

Adam: What do you see as the cornerstones of a really strong compelling story? And I don’t just mean beginning, middle and end, but what elements have to be there to get the person who’s receiving this to the end?

Doug: Contrast. Contrast is one of the most powerful vehicles for storytelling. It’s where are you today versus where could you be tomorrow. It’s what do you have now versus what could you have. Old way, new way – it’s all bout contrast. And it’s not contrast by me simply telling you about it, but it’s me using examples. Me telling you is not necessarily all that believable. If I got it right, then maybe it’s a little bit more believable, but in many cases we’re kind of guessing, because we don’t know exactly what’s going on with our customers. Contrast is a really, really important vehicle.

Analogies are another really important vehicle. We speak our own speak, drink our own champagne and eat our own dog food. Whatever it is, our customers don’t get it. So using analogies and metaphors is really an interesting way to actually help make complex things actually sound simple.

This goes deeper than saying you’re “the Airbnb of X” or “the Uber for Y.” That’s super surface level. Let’s use Box as an example: Box for many people is about syncing and sharing file storage. Okay, that’s true, but it’s so much more. So how do you get people to understand how much more it is, when they’re thinking, “No, it’s just storage and storage is cheap, so why the hell am I going to pay $35?” You have to reorient their thinking. An analogy is a really good way.

Contrast is one of the most powerful vehicles for storytelling

When it comes to thinking about analogies, sit in a room with your sales team and your marketing team, and write on a whiteboard your company’s name. Let’s use Intercom as an example: Intercom is like, dot, dot, dot, and leave it and let everybody just brain dump. Intercom is like your personal concierge or Intercom is like your favorite barista at a coffee shop. You walk in, they have exactly what you want, you don’t even have to blink to get your coffee. That’s a great exercise to come up with analogies for your company. Have everybody brainstorm and get creative. Just nothing is wrong or bad, and then you’re going to find a couple that really stick and that’s what’s going to help you use analogies to help explain who you are and what you do.

Of course, you got to have emotion, which is why we’re using more adverbs. We’re using descriptive language to talk about what’s really going on versus facts and statements. Facts, by the way, are the other thing that’s really important. When you state a fact, the first thing we do by default as human beings is argue against that fact. We don’t believe it. You tell me a fact, I’m like, “Where’s your proof?” Especially if you’re in sales. If you’re in sales I’m already defensive, and then you throw out a fact and I’m wondering, “How do I know that’s true?” Be really mindful about using more emotion versus facts. Facts you can use to back up the story that you just told. It’s a great little one-two punch.

Adam: What other brands use storytelling well in sales?

Doug: Salesforce is one of the best. Marc is a marketing genius, which is also why CMOs don’t necessarily last there very long. They’ve done a remarkable job telling the stories of their customers. At every Dreamforce, customers are the number-one thing that’s highlighted across the entire conference. They’re a customer-centric company. Take note of that. It’s a different way of approaching how to engage people.

Adam: A lot of our listeners are in a place where they are one of the very first sales hires at their company, and they’re being given that 40,000-foot high story from their founder. What’s the first step they can take to translate that into the more relatable, cohesive product that you’re talking about?

Doug: I don’t care if you’re a founder-seller, the first seller in the organization or if there’s three or four of you: you need to own three stories cold.

  1. Why your company exists – what problem it solves, the founder’s aha moment.
  2. Why you personally work there – 57% of buyer decisions have to do with a sales experience, and that means you have to have some level of empathy and understanding of whom you’re talking to. Part of that is sharing your own personal story and building a connection and relationship.
  3. A customer story.

Those are the tools you have. When you first join a company, you’re typically given the “why this company” story. So if you’re the first sales person, you need to develop your own “why” story, and then you need to develop what I call your own personal “aha moment.” Use the product, and get to know it intimately, so that you can say, “I totally get why this is so meaningful to our customers.”

Spreading knowledge across the portfolio

Adam: Fast forwarding to today at Emergence a little bit, is this one of the key elements that you’re still coaching a lot of the portfolio companies on? What types of problems are you solving for them most frequently?

Doug: We 100% get into story telling. In fact, one of the first things I do when I meet with a new company we’ve invested in is ask for their first call deck. I don’t care what role you have in the company, if you’re the Head of Marketing, you’re the first AE, you’re the Head of Sales, or even the CEO, I’m like, “Send me what you use. We’re going to rebuild it.” Because I guarantee you it’s going to fall in the old same trap, which is, “Here’s who we are, and here are our customers.”

In the early days it’s, “Here’s how much money we raised, here are our founders, and here are our backers.” That doesn’t really mean anything. You have to earn the right to actually share that information.

We’re in the business of pattern recognition

In the world of early-stage investing, we’re in the business of pattern recognition. Series A- and series B-stage companies all kind of struggle with the same things, especially if these are technical founder-led companies, and they’ve just recently made their first one or two hires. The reality is: we dig into everything and ask whom we sell to and why. How do we know that those are the right buyers for our products? Are we trying to go up stream too quickly?

Adam: I imagine it’s got to be especially hard for the technical founders who aren’t used to selling to know that maybe a particularly flashy logo isn’t the right whale to chase at that point.

Doug: Part of it is getting them to think, “Are we resourced?” What if you signed up at Proctor and Gamble and had 50,000 people using your product all at once and they had a problem, or there was a bug? How do you respond to them? Do you have enough people in customer support, or customer success to make sure that they’re wildly successful, or to make sure that their pains are fixed if there’s an issue? Do you have the infrastructure to actually support that many people on the project? There are a whole bunch of usability questions and company questions: Whom do we sell to? How do we know they’re the right customers? What’s the propensity to buy and what’s their willingness to pay? Those are two different factors, by the way.

Patrick Campbell at ProfitWell always talks about this willingness to pay component that a lot of people neglect. For our existing customers today, how do we make them wildly successful, and how do we know about their willingness to pay continually? How is this a must-have versus a nice-to-have? It’s a really, really important question we dig into in the early days. Then we get into buyer personas, hiring plans, hiring strategies and sales operating models.

Adam: And I’m sure testing the upper bounds of pricing is experimenting with how much you can get these people to pay, how to put the right value on it, etc.

Doug: That’s always an interesting balance, because in the beginning maybe you charge a little less than what you think you can get, and then all of a sudden you think you need to raise your prices. Hold on, do you know that? Have you tested it out that people are willing to pay that much, or are you going to find yourself in a situation? At Box, I think we were selling our Enterprise product for $35 per user per month, but when we were selling to Enterprises in the very early days, we were selling it for $5. Now they’re definitely earning the $35, but in the very beginning it was core storage, which isn’t really worth $35. It’s finding that happy medium.

Adam: You mentioned a lot of this being pattern recognition. What are the sorts of things that you and your team are doing to democratize knowledge across the companies?

Doug: That’s a big part of what we do. Another partner, Viviana Faga, was CMO at Zenefits and was Head of Marketing at Platfora and Salesforce in the early days. The two of us look at building models. We want to make this repeatable. For example, I took Mark Roberge’s book, The Sales Acceleration Formula and I turned that into a hiring model: If you’re going to hire at scale, how do you identify the characteristics you’re really looking for? How do you interview for those characteristics, and how do you score against those? I send it out to all of our sales leaders. I’ve got everybody on a Google group just for all the sales leaders. Also, if you go to our Thoughts page, we’re posting some of our models there for the general public. It’s important information that everybody should be using.

Adam: Doug, this has been a lot of fun. Where can our listeners go to keep up with you and the latest from Emergence?

Doug: If you want to get ahold of me, I’m at doug@emcap.com. If you visit our website, you can go to the Thoughts section, where we’re posting a lot of our models, articles on our thesis, and what we like to invest in. Then, of course, I always post on LinkedIn every now and again with some interesting things to noodle over.

Intercom on Sales book ad