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Ask Alex: Getting the Life Story

July 05, 2018 by Sherpa

Every month, Sherpa Co-founder Alex Fisher answers your questions about senior housing sales based on her experiences as a successful leasing counselor, sales director, and community owner. Read more about Ask Alex in Alex’s Open Letter To Senior Housing Professionals.

To submit a question, email AskAlex@sherpacrm.com.


Dear Ask Alex,  

I love chatting with prospects, but I find that our conversations tend to stay surface level. I want to dig deeper! What should I do, or ask, to get them to open up?

-Wondering in Illinois


Hello Wondering!

I am so happy to receive your question. Getting prospects to open up is not easy. Every person is different, with a unique situation. If a prospect feels that you’re attempting to “sell them,” they may put up their guard. Instead of trying to find the magic question to ask them, ask yourself this one instead: What does my prospect’s current and past life story say about their values? Let me explain further.

A life story is the series of events, moments and contexts that have established an individual’s view of the world. That’s a big concept in a little sentence. Now, why is listening to your prospects’ life stories so important? Julie Beck explains it wonderfully in her article at The Atlantic. I recommend reading the full piece, but here’s an excerpt to get you started:

“A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.”

So, how do you go about getting their life story?

Be patiently curious. Prospects are facing a tough decision. If they’ve contacted you, then they are aware that a change needs to happen. This doesn’t mean it feels any easier. And they may sense any intensity or extreme interest as bombardment. You can’t immediately respond to an inquiry with “so, tell me, what was your mom like when you were growing up?” It’s a great question, but you must build trust to earn the right to ask it.

Ask questions about their good times and their tough times. Sounds scary right? To allow ourselves to ask the questions that can deepen the conversation, we have to become vulnerable. After you have established trust by showing them your intention to help, not “sell,” you’ll find that their responses to more personal questions are often well received and allow them to tell their story more fully. I’ll give you an example from my own experience as a sales counselor. I once had a prospect we’ll refer to as “Mr. B.” After a few conversations, and once trust had been established, I asked Mr. B, “What was the hardest decision you ever made?”

“Quitting smoking!” he said without hesitation. “How did you decide; did you ever think that you would be able to do it?” I asked. He responded, “Because it was good for me.” Now, cut back to my present conversation with Mr. B; it was clear that a move to a community would be good for him, but he was ambivalent about letting go of his home. However, by telling his story of quitting smoking, he was reminded of his wisdom, resiliency, and ultimate ability to make the right choice when faced with a tough decision. This gave Mr. B the confidence to know that he could face another tough decision and trust himself to make the right choice.

Listen for the values in the story, not the plot:  When people tell us their stories, the really good stuff is often found “between the lines.” As a sales counselor, it’s your job to listen to what’s not being said. If a prospect tells you about her husband’s former missionary work and how they moved to China with two young children, do you merely hear the words “travel” and “mother,” or do you hear “commitment” and “adventure”?

Compare and contrast. Once you’ve become familiar with their life story, observe their current situation. At Sherpa, we call this a “Typical Day.” What is their life like? Are they able to live out their values? Let’s look at some examples that show how a prospect’s situation may inhibit their ability to do that.

Keep in mind, the story is the key to finding their values; their current situation is the key to finding their motivators:

  • I started a volunteer group.” (I place great value in being of service). “I can’t drive to church any longer.”
  • I was a professor.” (I place great value in teaching others). “I am alone most of the day, and my grandkids are far away.”
  • I was a researcher.” (I place great value in learning new things). “My eyesight is failing, and it is getting hard for me to read.”
  • I was a concert pianist.” (I place great value on playing music for others). “I don’t have a piano, and no one to play for anyway.”

People begin to consider a change when their situation is inhibiting them from pursuing what brings them joy and meaning. That’s why they’ve contacted you.

Be proud to witness the telling of a life story! When a person trusts you to hear their life story, they may tell you things that even they haven’t heard themselves say out loud. Speaking with an objective party gives them the opportunity to explore their life without fear of judgment. It is you, the sales counselor, the hero, that gets this privilege.

Exploring a life story provides you with a roadmap. This roadmap will help you guide your prospect’s decision making, identify their motivators, and prompt discovery into what is most important to them. Ultimately, you’ll be able to help them discover their capacity for growth and change in the process.

Remember, we all want to live aligned with our values, no matter how frail, no matter how scared.

Stay heroic.


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