Storytelling is Good for Business

by Joe Laipple, Ph.D.

Storytelling can be a catalyst for positive changes in the workplace. When done in a particular way, it can help individuals reflect on the good work they are doing, discover solutions to challenges that are hiding in plain sight, and help others replicate and repeat good outcomes. We all have stories to tell — when we tell them we are actively reflecting on what we did to overcome the challenges we faced and how we figured out how to have more good days. The answers are often in the room where someone else’s success story includes answers I’ve been looking for.

An organizational change story is included here that provides lessons for those interested in bringing about change, showcasing good coaching and leadership, and provoking questions for further discovery and active learning.

The purpose of the storytelling is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.

— Brandon Sanderson, The Ways of Kings

Jack’s Story

Jack was trying to figure out how to bring about a change in a large call center. The goal was to help customer service representatives (reps) do three things: 1. provide a quality call, 2. deliver good customer service and 3. provide help as quickly as possible. Time is money in a call center but so is rework. Jack wanted to help reps take the calls quickly but do so in a quality way. In the past, Jack could always get improvement in one of the results. They usually did this by telling people to really focus on that one item, but they couldn’t get all three up at the same time. This frustrated Jack and his team of managers and supervisors.

All three results had dropped and they noticed that the people who were good at doing it quickly (they called it “productivity”) were not as good on the customer service and quality metrics. Those who were good at quality and customer service calls had low productivity metrics. They took the extra time to do the work well. Now the pressure was on to improve all of the metrics.

Jack and his team did something very simple. They started to ask reps on the phone the same question each day for a few weeks. They would simply ask the following question to different reps at least 5 times a day: “Think about your best example today of when you were able to be productive yet provide good customer service and quality. What did you do on that call?” Most reps who were asked this question initially didn’t have a ready answer. This question required them to think about it. Usually after pausing or rephrasing the question a rep would reply, "Let me think about that. I had a call this morning where it went quickly but it was also a quality call. Here’s what I did on that call….” Reps started to become more deliberate and intentional about how they handled calls. They started to share their good examples with others. Managers and supervisors also learned various ways of doing calls quickly and well.

After a few weeks of doing this, Jack, his managers and their supervisors changed it up. They started to walk up to reps saying nothing more than “you know the drill.” Most reps gave them a puzzled look or asked “What do you mean?” or “Huh?”. The managers responded, “what have we been asking you daily for the last couple of weeks?”

The reps then said: “Oh, yes, that. You’ve been asking us to share our best example of when we had a productive call but a high quality call.” A manager would then reply “yes, exactly”, And the rep would then share a best example of what they did that worked.

After a few more weeks, Jack and his managers didn’t even have to say “You know the drill.” Reps were flagging them down, wanting to tell them about their best example from the day. After a few months, all three results improved not only a little but to the highest levels they’ve ever achieved.

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.

— Hannah Arendt

Reflections on Jack’s Story

The meaning of this story varies for each of us. I don’t know what stood out to you but I’d like to ask a few questions to encourage you to reflect on the story and what it meant to you.

  • What did you like about the story? Was there something you liked in the outcomes of the story? Was there some challenge or issue that is similar to something you face?

  • What did Jack say or do that you might borrow to help with some of the challenges you are facing?

  • What did you learn that you didn’t already know?

What Jack’s Story Taught Me

Jack’s example showed a way to ask questions that got people to think and reflect. The questions helped them recognize what they did that was successful for them. It helped people learn from their own success stories. The solutions were happening every day just not consistently enough. Without thinking about it, the reps weren’t able to connect the dots and repeat what was actually working for them.

Tips and Take Aways

A few tips based on this example include:

  1. Share your best stories of when you figured things out

  2. Ask others to share their best examples

  3. Keep the stories short and memorable. It helps your readers (or listeners) stay engaged, forces the storyteller to include the key points and fits within an overscheduled workday.

  4. Reflect on your stories and the stories of others. The answers to some of your challenges are hiding in plain sight and may be in these stories that are happening daily.

  5. Sharing stories is good for business.