Enrich Your Network! – Fourth Rule of Social Selling


One common trait is shared by all of the highest-performing salespeople I know. Each one works steadily and intentionally to increase his or her Sphere of Influence. It is a process so ingrained it has become habit. They do it so naturally and so consistently that it draws very little attention. And each one’s individual sphere tends to be large.

That’s worth a momentary detour. The size of a salespersons LinkedIn network is now being used as a rough gauge, both of her level of professional engagement, and of her effective sphere of influence. I made an informal tally of about fifty salespeople whose current productivity I know firsthand. The size of their networks matched the bell curve of productivity perfectly. Like it or not, it’s easy to vet that statement. Ask any recruiter off-the-record. I did.  Or do it yourself. In my informal and small sampling, the highest performing salespeople inevitably have networks exceeding LinkedIn’s 500+ milestone. Mid-range performers showed up in the 250 – 350 range. And the “retreads” I described in an earlier post were uniformly below 250. Where are you?

But I want to describe something much larger than merely making as many LinkedIn connections as you can by becoming a LION (LinkedIn Open Networker — not a good thing) or piling up followers on Twitter. So I’m not talking about merely growing your network, even though that’s important. I am talking about making a significant investment of yourself into the people within your network.

Unfortunately, this is something too often missed by the majority of salespeople who live somewhere in the middle of the sales performance bell curve. The good news is that this is a learned behavior, a method of working. And that puts it within the reach of any B2B salesperson who chooses to learn and apply it.

When I coach sales managers and their salespeople, I always begin at the same place: learning to master and use all the tools in their company’s sales process. Your company does have a sales process, right? If so, why swim against the current? If the company has invested in a sales process and the tools and resources to help make the sales organization effective at each stage and step, why not leverage them to the max?

Developing and applying the skills to leverage a sales process can easily move a new salesperson to “journeyman” status. That’s important, especially for new salespeople who are working to reach that all-important first performance rung within their own companies: becoming a “keeper.” But that’s a miserable place to take a victory lap. So what’s the real, long-term objective that’s worth pursuing? That’s easy. It’s becoming a trusted advisor.

Maister, Green and Galford wrote a book I recommend highly — The Trusted Advisor. It wasn’t written for salespeople. It was written for consultants, CPA’s, attorneys, and others in professional service firms who are working to get their expertise appreciated, used, and paid for. But the authors have done an excellent job describing the process of building both the breadth of expertise and depth of trust to earn the standing of a trusted advisor. I use this when coaching salespeople who are working to build social selling skills. And we work through it chapter-by-chapter. It helps them understand just how far they can build their own credibility and influence. By the way, I also recommend The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, co-written by one of the original authors, Green. If you want practical “how to” resources, it will provide them.

When perceived authority (which is much more than merely applied subject matter expertise) is paired with earned trust, the influence is substantial. So how do you earn that standing? I’ll offer you two specific places to start:

1.  Offer Value First Stephen Covey wrote and spoke at length about making deposits into what he called “emotional bank accounts.” And I’m intentionally stretching that metaphor when I recommend that you find ways to make consistent deposits into relational bank accounts, and do it proactively. For as long as I can remember, others have suggested that salespeople ingratiate themselves with potential clients by offering small-scale bits of value – pieces of information, links to articles, and the like. The stated goal is staying “top of mind.” That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m encouraging you not to limit it to potential customers, and I’m suggesting that you not limit it to bits of random flotsam and jetsam. The last things that most of your potential customers need are notes (virtual or physical) recommending random reading. Unless it is current, pertinent, and actionable, don’t bother. No one needs a link to another clever but useless listicle. Instead, enable the people in your network to make new and valuable connections.

I am always on the alert for opportunities to introduce someone I know to someone else I know. I work to make those introductions happen, and then step back out of the middle once the introduction is made and an initial conversation has happened. It’s work. It takes time. It requires coordinating the schedules of two other people. But few things are more valuable than connecting two people who can serve as resources for each other. When I have a client facing a problem outside my capabilities, my first response is to make an introduction and then step back. When I make those introductions, I have no financial interest in what happens afterward, and that’s on purpose. It keeps my hands clean, and let’s me tell my client that my only gain is the satisfaction of connecting two people who can create value together. I’ll admit that the behavior is sometimes puzzling to one or both parties. And I have clients who will ask me whether there’s something going on behind the scenes. I can truthfully answer: “No.”

I’m encouraging you to do this for everyone inside your sphere of influence, whether or not the individual is or could ever be a client. Make the investment in making the connection. It’s a practical and professional way to “pay it forward” and to be the prime mover at the same time. The effect is usually profound.

This helps earn you a reputation as trustworthy and as a value-creator whether you benefit immediately or not. It also helps position you as a “first resource.” First resources are those people we reach for because we know they will welcome the opportunity to help, and we know they deliver honest value when they can. The wonderful byproduct for a salesperson is that you’ll find yourself introduced, welcomed, connected, and endorsed as trustworthy and valuable.

If you approach this expecting a “quid pro quo” dynamic, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll always be offering more value than you receive in return. There are a lot of reasons why. Some people will never have the opportunity to reciprocate because their circumstances will prevent it. Some will find your actions memorable but unusual enough to make them uncomfortable reciprocating. Some simply won’t have the same sort of “invest first” mindset. That last reason is disappointingly common. But this is worth the effort nonetheless.

2.  Leverage Your Understanding If you’re sharpening yourself as I described in my prior post in this series, then you’re going to have even more value to offer beyond that of making connections. Others would dispute this sequence, but I believe that knowledge builds and becomes more powerful in a patterned way. We start with data, which is slugs or pieces out of any real context. When we can understand the relationships between different bits of data and organize them in some fashion, we can begin to call it information. When we take that information, internalize it, and retain it, it becomes knowledge. When we comprehend and synthesize that information into what we already know, we reach understanding. Finally, when we are able to leverage that understanding and make it actively effective, I think that qualifies as wisdom. Whether you care for my particular sequence or not, there’s a sequence at work nonetheless. You have the ability to develop understanding and even wisdom that will be very valuable to others. As you do so, offer it.

I’ve watched too many people, especially contemporaries of mine, trying to hoard their understanding in hopes of gaining security or power or something. Purported “subject matter experts” are often the worst offenders. Usually the effort is in vain. Obsolescence overtakes them while they are carefully hoarding. So offer the understanding you’re gaining.

The offer is best made personally, and in a context that makes sense. It’s not pushy in the least. For example, I’ll often tell frustrated sales managers that I understand, and would be happy to listen and offer help with no meter running. I listen with a view toward offering a connection, resource, or information source that they might find helpful and useful. If the conversation leads toward me being of more direct help that’s fine, but that’s not what I expect or attempt to make happen. I do the same with salespeople who are struggling with a large opportunity and having a tough time. Often that help is entirely extraneous to a current engagement with the salesperson’s company. But it lets me continue to earn and deserve the relationships by investing in them when I can.

Your objective is to create a gravity that pulls others toward you, and keeps them willingly engaged within your sphere of influence. You can’t do it by ingratiating yourself in some shallow fashion. And you can’t do it by focusing solely on those people with whom you want to do business. The necessary investment is deeper and more substantial. And the range of your deposits into the relationship accounts of others needs to stretch much more widely.

Salespeople tend to be distracted by “tricks, tips, and secrets.” What I just described runs directly contrary to that sort of shallow manipulation. There is magic in this, and it is powerful. But it is built in relationships with individuals and with time. The magic is that it grows more and more powerful with time and ongoing effort. It is a self-sustaining and virtuous cycle.

Where do you begin? Well, I find this question very useful for myself: “Whose life did I make measurably better today because he or she had contact with me?” When you can name a name at the end of each day, you’re on the way.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment or hit the ‘like’ button. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Sharpen Yourself! – The Third Rule of Social Selling


Some B2B salespeople I encounter baffle me. My work brings dozens of them across my path each year. There’s a significant segment who claim to desire and expect productive careers but who show almost no sign of investing in themselves. I don’t get it.

Some behave as though they have all the essential knowledge and every essential skill that they will need for the rest of their careers. It’s done. They are done. So let’s slap two coats of quick-drying cement over it, eleven coats of marine varnish, and call it “good.” And I’m not talking exclusively about salespeople late in their careers who are trying to run out the clock while relying on an established book of “annuity accounts” to support them. “Annuity account.” There’s another term I really dislike. Do you want to be someone’s “annuity account?” Neither do I. But I digress.

There’s another subgroup that seems to expect their respective companies to deliver all the new capabilities and new knowledge they will need, prepackaged, if not predigested. These salespeople look to their companies expecting education comprehensive enough to insure that he or she will remain highly effective, at the top of his or her game in perpetuity.

There’s a third subgroup that suffers from a particularly sad form of what I call “Four-Walls Myopia” – the belief that everything meaningful happens inside the four walls of their own companies. These are the folk who dive into every new technology and every new capability that their company brings to market with single-minded devotion, with real zeal. They understand the capabilities, constraints, capacities, and technical applications of all their products and services in-depth. No need for sales engineering or other technical help for this salesperson, thank you. This one already knows the specifications for the fastest Henway in the industry, and that a virtual Snavitz Integrator is completely incompatible with a hybrid-cloud-enabled Reltnick.

The common denominator among all of them is that they ignore, or actively resist, the bigger investment necessary to sharpen themselves. That’s tragic because every top-tier salesperson I’ve encountered is a life-long learner. More than that, they are nearly all autodidacts – people capable of planning and managing their own continuous learning. The good news is that being a self-managed and life-long learner isn’t innate, it is learned. Everyone reading this is fully capable of managing her own learning.

The life-long learning vital to highly successful careers in B2B sales typically has three aspects or elements. Each one has a launching point. And each one builds into something self-sustaining. This does become a virtuous cycle once it takes hold, and that’s the incredible good news. Here are the elements:

Process into System At the outset, continuous and self-directed learning requires creating at least a simple process. What sources of learning, of new information and insight, are important? How are you going to gain access to them? How much access do you need, and for how long? How are you going to actually embed the information and insight into your thinking? That last question is key. Far too often I cross paths with salespeople who are exposed to great information and great insight, and who have no process for building it into their individual knowledge bases.

The current models of adult learning describe four to nine different preferred styles of adult learning. I won’t take the time to detail the different theories, handicap them, or name a favorite. But there is universal agreement that there are multiple preferred learning styles for adults. Therefore, you need to understand yours and adapt your own process to them.

You’re likely to find that you best learn different kinds of information and insight differently. Examples will help make that clear. Let me use myself for two of them. I’ve been a woodworker / furniture maker since I was in my early 20’s. I’m now in my 50’s. So that’s three decades of learning. What works best for me there is seeing a skill, process, or procedure demonstrated and then practicing it. While reading is a favorite way for me to learn other things, I don’t learn woodworking best through reading. But I can learn quickly by being shown, and that doesn’t always mean live. I began woodturning about three years ago, and the most valuable learning resource for me has been video. So my learning styles for woodworking balance both visual and kinesthetic.

For professional learning, it is a different story. The best ways for me to take in information are through text and graphics, and by listening. Those two methods are pretty much in balance in my case. So visual and auditory learning methods work well for me when the information and insight are conceptual rather than practical. One of the adult learning models describes me balanced between theorist and pragmatist styles. And that seems to fit.

In practice, that means that I read and listen fully engaged, and prepared to argue with what I read. One of the benefits of my particular undergraduate program was learning to synthesize multiple information sources into a cohesive understanding. Another benefit was learning to actively question and argue with what I read. That led to my particular method for reading. I read with a mechanical pencil and a highlighter in hand. (Yes, that means no one is going to want my personal library.) I make marginal notes, but I keep a Moleskin notebook at hand too. And I highlight not just for emphasis, but to connect related ideas and information.

Mine is certainly not the only or even the best method. But it is the best for me. And it is a process that’s been refined repeatedly to the point that it is now a system. It’s my system. Catch that? I experimented with processes until I created a system. It works for me. It enables me to interact with the information and insight in a way that embeds it into my thinking and memory, and integrates it into what I know already. It’s active and purposeful. And it does take effort.

If you intend to become an effective autodidact, a self-directed and life-long learner, you’re going to need your own system. You’ll get there by starting with a simple process and experimenting. Trust your gut. See what you’re able to recall, and keep those tools and methods that help you do that.

Discipline into Habit At the outset, this is going to require some self-discipline, even if the subject matter is fascinating to you. That means that you’re going to build this into your weekly schedule. Every single week. Habits are built through applied discipline. It’s been repeatedly said that applying the self-discipline to do something every day for 30 days will create a sustainable habit. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But what I can tell you is that if you do something every week for a year, and in the same pattern, it will certainly become a habit. And that’s why self-discipline is essential.

My schedule doesn’t allow me to slate time for developmental learning every day. So I build it into each week instead, and don’t beat myself up for not making that investment daily. It’s my system anyway. But this did take time and effort to build into a habit.

Early on, one of my two primary sources was print. So I created the habit of taking important reading with me to lunch three times a week. And it turned out that sitting in a restaurant with my reading, mechanical pencil and highlighter worked really well for me. And what a range of luncheon companions I enjoyed. Peter Drucker and Theodore Levitt were early ones. So was Regis McKenna. To that I added a couple of hours two evenings a week. The payoff was considerable. For years, I’ve read between 30 and 50 books a year, in addition to the other print sources (periodicals, mostly).

That discipline enabled me to apply my preferred learning styles to the content and media that works well for me. Now, understand that I’m not a Luddite. I do considerable reading on my iPad now. So I’m not endorsing either a print-focus or print-primacy if that’s not what works for you, or if the information and insight you want to gain comes from non-print sources. The point is this: A system married to a habit is incredibly powerful if you tailor it for yourself.

Focus into Expertise The objective is to take the content on which you focus and to turn it into practical expertise that you can apply. In most cases, you’re going to apply that expertise by creating unique value for your customers or clients. And that ties the effort directly back to a substantial career payoff for you as you capture a portion of the value you’re creating for others, for those who are doing business with you.

One of my early areas of focus was building an understanding of how color works. I wanted to understand color theory and color reproduction better than anyone. It led me to dive into the science of light and the biology of vision. It held the promise of benefit to my customers, of course. But I found that learning color theory and reproduction paid off in several completely unexpected ways.

A few years later, I found myself teaching color theory and color reproduction to budding art directors and designers. Initially, my sole motivation was to give back by sharing something I found endlessly fascinating. But I also found myself introduced to potential clients well outside my original sphere of influence. And guess who arranged the introductions: former students who were now junior art directors trying to help their agencies and design firms solve knotty color reproduction problems.

So what’s worth sharpening yourself enough to master? I’ll give you a handful of places to start:

  • Financial Literacy Few B2B salespeople can make heads or tails of the financial condition of current and potential customers even when the information is readily available. And being able to understand basic financial statements for yourself can give you fast clues about what’s going on and what’s important inside an organization. I’m not talking about financial accounting, I’m talking about management accounting.
  • Business Models Do you know how your customers actually make money? Do you understand how they create enough value to thrive? Understanding business models, and being able to recognize different business models in use, can also help you understand what’s going on inside a customer’s business, and what’s likely to be important to them.
  • Brands A brand can represent from 20% to 50% of the value of a company. The roles that brands play has changed substantially, and they’ve become much more important in the B2B space. An understanding of how brands are created and developed can give you a great lens through which to understand how a company creates value.
  • Marketing I’ve said before that the war between marketing and sales is over: everyone lost. B2B business development is a single, continuous process that includes both marketing and sales. So make the effort to learn marketing. That’s essential if your customers are marketers, and if your products and services support their marketing. You need to be able to walk the talk.
  • M&A Acquisitions are always being made. I’ve never seen a “merger” because someone is always acquiring someone else. It’s likely you or one of your customers has been part of one in the last three years. Understanding why they happen and how they happen can equip you to anticipate things that your customers may not.

Information is expanding rapidly enough that what you know now will be obsolete within five years. If you’re counting on what you know now to fuel your career, and to enable you to earn and deserve relationships through social selling, you’re delusional. You’ll earn those relationships when you, personally, have something to bring to the table – when you can create value for your clients directly. If you fail to invest in sharpening yourself, I have no idea where that value will come from. Do you?

What do you think?


Part of my practice is direct coaching of Sales Managers and individual Salespeople. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment or hit the ‘like’ button. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Don’t be a Funnelist! – The Second Rule of Social Selling


I have a confession to make. I’m not a Funnelist. I don’t worship at the altar of Funnelism. Never have. It’s deadly. Ben Chestnut (founder of MailChimp) was right when he compared the “marketing funnel” to a meat grinder. The funnel theory goes something like this:

  • Believe that a sales or marketing funnel exists, and that it accurately describes how customer relationships are created.
  • Focus only on those things that are immediately measurable.
  • See everything in linear terms for simplicity. (Customers falling mindlessly and helplessly from the top to the bottom.)
  • Load the funnel constantly because so few “leads” will make it all the way through and be deemed “qualified” and “warm.”

It leads to a process, beloved of Funnelists and those who offer marketing automation as a panacea. It is beloved because every step of this rude and rudimentary process is measurable (soundtrack: angelic voices singing). It has six simple steps:

1 – Trigger traffic and measure It Drive digital and measurable traffic at all costs, even if you resort to cat memes, epic fail videos, recipes, life hacks, Paris Hilton, or meaningless listicles. Don’t worry about promises of valuable content that you never deliver. Do it even if you cannot create enough great content. Keeping promises doesn’t matter. Implying tempting promises, inferring value to trigger traffic is all that matters. Click-baiting is fair game. Just trigger and capture identifiable traffic.

2 – Carpet-bomb them with relentless messaging. Marketing automation is really good at this when ill-used. At the first hint of permission (the slightest casual interest) wage the most relentless campaign since the London Blitz. This is the digital equivalent of a legacy salesperson doing the old “show up and throw up.” Tell them anything and everything because you don’t know what might trigger a response. This isn’t a drip campaign. It’s 40 days and 40 nights of deluge.

3 – Suck them in with an unsustainable “loss leader.” Get them to engage in even the smallest transaction so that you can claim them as a “customer.” (Can you say “free business cards?”) In some cases, this is the “Freemium” strategy pushed over the line to the “Barely Monetized” hopper. Measure the number of new customers captured. But don’t bother tracking the revenue. Even if the revenue is measureable it will never become profitable, much less material. Ever.

4 – Socialize them everywhere possible. Publicize their likes or signups or purchases relentlessly to everyone with whom they are connected, every group in which they participate. If you are clever enough, leverage terms-of-use to use their miniscule patronage both to justify implied endorsements and to contact everyone with whom they appear to be connected. Turn them into involuntary spokespeople for your product or service by republishing their comments, reviews, and likes as endorsements. And, of course, track, measure, and report on all those claimed endorsements.

5 – Pull in their friends and colleagues. The only time this is legitimate is if you offer real value. Dropbox does this by rewarding subscribers with more free storage space for each new subscriber who joins to get to something the first subscriber wants to share. But there are darker, uglier versions of this too. Some of them are nearly as vile as chain letters. Create a penalty for failing to provide the next round of victims whose names will enable you to start the cycle over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

6 – Assign them to a salesperson as qualified and warm leads. Shelly Levene said it best in Glengarry Glen Ross: “The leads are weak.” In his case, he was right. In too many cases, the “leads” yielded when marketing automation is bolted onto B2B business development are weak rather than qualified or warm. The problem is the inability to get any sense of either need or intent to purchase.

Please forgive the hyperbole, but this is important. The motive justifying that sort of near-insanity is that everything simply must be measurable. Unfortunately, Funnelism tends to be unsustainable, short-term, and transaction driven. That’s because, let’s face it, transactions are measurable whether they be financial, information or communication transactions. You can track and report them, whether they are meaningful or not. So the focus locks onto transaction measurement at the exclusion of everything else.

It’s unfortunate that the Funnelists have largely co-opted marketing automation as their exclusive domain. Marketing automation platforms offer the promise of measurable results for marketing expense. But it’s unusual when those promised results are financial returns. Implementing marketing automation well (whether Eloqua’s, Hubspot’s, Marketo’s, or anyone else’s) demands much more than merely good technology. It also demands clear objectives and tons of great content. Most importantly, it needs to be embedded seamlessly into a business development process. Otherwise it’s an expensive and time-consuming dead-end.

There is no irresistible power that will force customers mindlessly down through a funnel if you’re marketing B2B products and services that require a skillful salesperson. None. Curiosity or intrigue won’t. An elaborate snipe hunt is easy for most business people to sense and avoid. If the product or service is complex enough or high-value enough, if the customer’s circumstances and needs must be understood and a customization is vital, then there simply is no funnel because there’s no force that can pull or push the prospective customer through it.

A much better metaphor: Effective social selling shakes its head at Funnelism and turns its attention to the meaningful and powerful rather than merely the easily measurable. The objective is authentic and appropriate customer relationships that can last and grow. So we need a better metaphor. Some have suggested turning the funnel upside down. That’s fine, but a little clumsy. I’ll suggest an alternative: sphere of influence.

Picture it as a molecule or a solar system with the salesperson or her company at the center. Smart companies will position themselves here. Those less smart will leave this to their salespeople. In either case there’s a force at work and it is attraction. Call it magnetism if you’d like. But picture the salesperson or her company at the center and offering enough value to earn influence. We’re talking about being valuable enough to be winsome, and valuable to more than simply your current, active customers.

Two concentric spheres surround that salesperson. The inner one includes those who have been drawn in far enough to become active customers. The outer sphere is those friends, colleagues, and potential customers who are paying attention and being influenced by that company or salesperson. And they are interacting with each other, not just with the salesperson or her company. That’s why social selling is so incredibly powerful. It happily recognizes that customers, potential customers, colleagues, and friends are all interacting, and they are all influencing each other. So the central work of social selling becomes the creation of that magnetic alignment, that powerful and valuable energy that prompts all those people to willingly and happily engage.

Processes and Metrics But all of this does not mean that effective social selling resists good metrics or strong processes. Quite the contrary. Social selling requires both a platform and the discipline to use it constantly and effectively. And those constant actions are, in fact, measurable. What social selling does resist is the belief that some sort of automated marketing funnel can deliver a steady flow of warm and qualified leads to the salesperson which require minimal cultivation before “conversion”, the Funnelist’s ultimate, measurable goal. In consumer and online retail marketing where no salesperson is necessary or appropriate, that’s might be possible, but I don’t claim consumer marketing expertise and cannot say.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Perhaps it is the selling process that needs the much better metrics. Marketing activity is easy to measure. Trigger points are easy to identify and track. But measuring a business development process is much more demanding.

Measuring business development progress means tracking the milestones being passed as a customer relationship develops. And what companies screw up most often is choosing what to measure. News Flash: measuring the activity of salespeople won’t yield the best set of tracking metrics. Measuring customer actions is much more valuable. What tangible action has the customer taken? What has the customer agreed to do in concert with the salesperson? Are there mutual and reciprocal actions being taken?

When designing a business development process, the trigger points must be specific actions taken by the customer, including agreements for next steps. So in addition to starting with the consideration and decision process you see in use most often, a business development process must also identify those observable actions taken by the customer that signal they are moving from stage to stage, step to step. And those you can track and measure. In fact a whole host of different measurements are possible once you begin to watch for those customer actions.

Meanwhile, effective B2B salespeople have long built networks around themselves. Social selling simply admits that no alternative is effective any longer. It then leverages the technology, networks and media that weren’t available until the last decade. It’s too bad that legacy models like the funnel didn’t disappear at the same time. For high-value B2B business relationships, the funnel should have vanished with “the world is flat.” Unfortunately there are still some who see things through the worldview of Glengarry Glen Ross:

Williamson: The leads are coming!
Shelley Levene: Get ’em to me!


P.S. I publish twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. I wrote this post last week, preparing to publish it today. Yesterday morning (Sunday), over coffee, Greg Satell’s post The Big Marketing Shift hit my radar. With B2C / consumer marketing in view, Greg speaks to the bankrupt funnel model. You need to read it. He nails it.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is building strong B2B business development processes — marketing through selling to the customer experience. If your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment or hit the ‘like’ button. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Don’t Be Creepy! – The First Rule of Social Selling

The horror in his face made me laugh out loud. I was in a videoconference coaching session with a VP, Sales & Marketing. I was coaching some of his salespeople and to track with them, he was doing with me what they were doing. He and I had designed a new business development process from the ground up, and were vetting each stage and step. We were deep into the process, and focused on how to gain access to a decision-maker.

He had chosen an important prospective customer as a prototype, and we’d identified the key players and decision-makers. We were researching those individuals, and I was showing him what it was possible to learn about an individual businessperson using LinkedIn, Google’s advanced search, Twitter, Facebook, Data.com and a handful of other resources. We weren’t using any of LinkedIn’s cool new features for salespeople. And we weren’t using a powerful data aggregator likeInsideView. But what we’d found was amazing and shocking.

He pushed back. “Wayne, this is too much. There are things here I’m not sure weshould know. There are things I’m seeing that we cannot ever use!” He was right, and that’s my point. The first rule of social selling must be “Don’t Be Creepy.” For salespeople it’s equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Violating this can easily lose you the opportunity to develop the customer. It can torpedo a career just as quickly.

Social selling is incredibly powerful, but I still find myself convincing company owners, sales managers and salespeople that the only alternative to it is extinction. Using the methods that worked 20 years ago is a path to the tar pits. Its track record of gaining access to decision-makers is unmatched. Several studies have demonstrated that social selling will enable a salesperson to gain access to a decision-maker 60% to 80% of the time. That’s 5X to 8X the performance of conventional, legacy methods.

Fortunately, when a company sees the metrics and documented results of social selling, they are usually ready to take the plunge as fast as possible. Therein hide a number of risks or submerged rocks. And unintentional creepiness is one of the biggest. In social selling it is far too easy to step across the line between personal and professional. And you can step across it too early and too far.

Social selling, of course, is much more than merely using technology tools (data sources and networks). It’s the process of carefully building authentic and appropriate relationships with potential customers. Catch the adverbs and adjectives in that last sentence. Each is important: carefully, authentic, and appropriate. Doing this well requires very good judgment, patience, and some emotional maturity too.

So, when does social selling become creepy? Let me give you three examples:

1. Social selling becomes creepy when it becomes too personal too fast. If you’ve done business with a customer for five years, you may know each other’s spouses or significant others. You may know the names of each other’s children. You may have intentionally and comfortably shared social activities. In your environment and organizational culture, that may be appropriate and not risk any raised eyebrows. But you need to exercise great caution to avoid the temptation to get too personal way too soon.

The shocked sales manager I described above was reacting to information that he knew his salespeople could misuse, and would misuse if not guided and coached. We had discovered the following: the buyer’s spouse’s name, children’s names and schools, children’s sports teams, charitable causes the buyer supported, favorite sports, favorite foods, places traveled to on the buyer’s last three vacations, professional associations, religious affiliation, and the fact that the buyer was currently engaged in a job search. We’d found that in less than an hour, and without ever leaving our respective desks.

Many of those pieces of information would tempt an inexperienced or immature salesperson to make a reference much too soon in a developing relationship. I’ve seen one memorable instance where a salesperson that should have known better made a reference to personal information about the buyer at first contact, literally while introducing herself. That one led to a call from the buyer’s boss to the salesperson’s company president. Not good. Needless to say, that didn’t work out well for the salesperson or her company.

2. Social selling becomes creepy when you cannot keep business the focus.Most salespeople have been exposed to old, bad sales training that encouraged them to look around the customer’s office and ask personal questions. Creepy social selling is even worse. Because you can learn so much about a prospective customer, the temptation is great to let the focus slip from business to something (anything) else. You’re making contact in order to do business. Finding coincidental commonalities with the customer can be a positive, but you need to keep the main thing the main thing. In some fashion, you’re approaching the buyer because you believe you can improve her business results in some way. That needs to be the central focus from the very beginning.

Researching both the organization and the individuals is vital now. But the information you should consider actionable is business information. If you learn that the buyer has recently completed a challenging professional certification, that’s an appropriate piece of business intelligence to capture and use. If you learn that the buyer has recently completed successful treatment for cancer, that’s not an appropriate piece of intelligence to use. Period. And yet I’ve seen that misstep made.

3. Social selling becomes creepy when you cross the line into brown nosing.I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself. I’ve had salespeople research me (I’m an easy target) and discover where I’ve made a recent presentation or keynote speech, what I’ve published recently, or where I’ve been quoted. I’ve heard adjectives like “amazing,” “excellent,” and “outstanding” applied to presentations I’ve made when the salesperson wasn’t in the same state, much less in the same room when I delivered said presentation (and when it wasn’t recorded or transcribed.) It’s silly and smarmy.

The message it sends is distasteful in the extreme. It says: “I’m going to ingratiate myself to you with false praise, pandering to your ego, so you’ll be unable to resist my pitch when I propose doing business together.” My reaction is typical: I don’t want a handshake, I want a shower.

Remember my definition of social selling? I said: Social selling is the process of carefully building authentic and appropriate relationships with potential customers. I’m encouraging you to exercise wisdom and care to build relationships that have a fighting chance of lasting because they are both authentic and appropriate. Brown nosing isn’t authentic in the least. Excessively personal overtures aren’t appropriate early in the process.

So, what guidelines are appropriate to observe when you’re gathering information and deciding what you can use appropriately and authentically? Let me divide it into three headings: Never, Always, Maybe.

Never: Information you discover about an individual’s religious preference, sexual preference, political affiliation, family, and personal causes. Those are off limits even if you actually share an affiliation or preference with the buyer. Period. Treat the customer as a professional who likely knows how to keep her personal life personal, and her professional life professional. Information about a buyer’s health falls in the same category, as does information about spouses, children, parents and extended family. Trust me, “junior” doesn’t want to know that you’re in awe of “senior” when that parent’s shadow is what junior is fighting to get out of. I don’t want to hear you tell me that you know my wife is passionate about architectural stained glass or about knitting in my first contact with you, even though she is. Trust me, I’ll never answer your email and never return your call.

Always: Information you discover that is professionally pertinent is important. That’s especially true when you discover it in the context of the buyer’s organization. If the organization is celebrating an accomplishment or honoring the buyer in some fashion, and you have an authentic shared interest or experience, that’s great. But be careful of the temptation to brown nose.

Information you find about the organization that references the role of the individual in the organization is golden. So look for information about an individual that has a professional or an organizational context. Ask yourself: “Is this material to how this person does his job, makes his contribution, enables his organization to thrive?”

Industry organizations and associations to which the buyer belongs can be very appropriate points of connection, especially if you discover that the individual is very actively involved. These can be organizations focused on developing the entire industry, a specific professional expertise, setting standards, or developing individuals. When you can legitimately connect your approach with what the individual is doing to “give back” to his or her industry or profession, those overtures can be powerful and welcomed by the buyer.

Common professional interests are also incredibly valuable. For example, if you see that someone has read, liked, commented about, reviewed, or shared a recent article, business book, presentation or Slideshare, that’s a great point of connection if you have genuine interest in the subject. Those can signal parallel interests and parallel values if you’re authentic. If you’ve never read a business book, don’t bother. One of the worst misfires I’ve seen by someone trying to make this kind of connection artificially was the salesperson who was asked what most resonated with him from a book he hadn’t read.

Maybe: Here’s a good example of a “maybe.” If you learn that the individual has changed roles, even if it is an apparent promotion, be wary. Title inflation is rampant in organizations now, especially in lieu of real responsibility or higher compensation. Japanese industry uses the term “window seat” for someone given a “face saving” promotion in order to get him or her out of a position of authority. As baby boomers age and delay retirement, you may encounter one who cannot be separated from the company without risk of an age discrimination suit. Some are being “promoted” into window seats instead. For many, change isn’t a good thing. So notices of changes in role, changes in organization, changes in locations may not be good things in the eyes of the buyer. Be wise and wary. Err on the side of being too careful.

What you don’t know can’t help you. That’s why social selling trumps conventional and legacy sales methods every time it is used well. But remember that you’re using information to earn connections, to gain access, and to engage a decision-maker. You’re not looking for a drinking buddy, a travel companion, a golf buddy, or anything similar. So use what you learn wisely, carefully and well to create new relationships that are both appropriate and authentic.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is coaching salespeople and sales managers, and building strong sales processes. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.

Recruiting Salespeople: Stop Hiring Retreads


Yes, I’m talking to you. You knew exactly what I meant when you saw the headline: itinerant salespeople who move from company to company on about a two-year cycle. Of course they hope that this time will be different, that this gig will last. The problem is they are going to sell as they have before while hoping for a different outcome. The companies that hire them reinforce that false hope, and set them up for one more spin through the failure cycle. It’s ugly. And it’s expensive.

B2B business development has changed almost completely over the past ten years. Using legacy methods to sell to B2B customers now is fruitless and frustrating. The actual work of effective selling has changed substantially. One aspect of the change, and a good example – social selling.

It’s not news that product and service information is searchable and readily available to customers long before a salesperson makes contact. That means the old model of salesperson = animated brochure is useless. The disappearance of traditional “buyers” for all except commodities created a demand for real business literacy. That’s because an understanding of the customer’s organization is essential to connect with and relate to actual decision-makers, often at higher levels. That interaction also requires interpersonal communication skills that are deeper and more nuanced than what legacy salespeople have needed to demonstrate.

The major tools for social selling have been available for nearly ten years. I started training and coaching salespeople in social selling in 2007. LinkedIn already had 20 million members at that point. [Few people realize that LinkedIn is now nearly a dozen years old.] Data.com (formerly jigsaw.com) was acquired by Salesforce five years ago, and in 2007 jigsaw.com was already a very useful, crowd-sharing contact source for salespeople. Using the advanced search tools within Google made background research and actionable information easy to find on a desktop.

Social selling requires different methods and different skills. And that’s the problem with retreads. Too many are still hoping that legacy methods and formerly effective skills will work if they can only apply them with the right company and in the right customer pool. It is as effective as whistling past the graveyard. Many are afraid to ask for help, for training, for coaching, or for continuing education for fear it will make them less attractive as candidates. Tragically, companies are enabling both the behavior and the false hope. Here’s how:

Companies that don’t understand how significantly business-to-business selling has changed over the last decade, or who deny that anything is different, tend to recruit and select salespeople much as they always have. In far too many cases, industry selling experience trumps everything else as a selection criterion. And that perpetuates the ugly and expensive cycle.

Stop Blaming the Recruiters! I pity the poor recruiters. Almost never is a recruiter provided with a performance or outcome based position description from which to begin a search. The conventional job descriptions they receive are heavy on experience, lighter on education, and typically have nothing to say about applied skills and specific outcomes. Then recruiters get blamed when a new sales hire fails. They get blamed even though the search and position descriptions demanded that they present candidates with a high likelihood of failure — retreads. Is it any wonder that recruiters want to be paid in full well before you can determine whether the new hire will succeed and become productive?

Demanding “industry experience” signals an unwillingness to invest time, effort, or money to onboard a new salesperson well and manage, coach, and train them to be effective. It also signals a belief that “he did it before, he can do it again.” Demanding a “track record” signals that your product and service offering is so generic that the new salesperson can sell it because it is exactly like what she has sold before. Demanding a “book of business” or “a following” is a pipe dream. High performers don’t move unless their company is closing. And most of the really high performers saw it coming and moved well in advance. When owners and CEO’s talk about wanting to hire a top performer with a book of business I ask for an example (just one) where that happened. I’m still waiting for the example.

Bad Hires are Expensive. Consider the costs of a bad hiring decision:

  • The recruiter’s fee for the bad hire.
  • The recruiter’s fee for a replacement.
  • Two years of salary and benefits for the bad hire.
  • The net profit of lost opportunities.
  • Wasted sales management time.
  • Wasted administrative and executive time.
  • Wasted sales support (estimating, pricing, proposal development) time.
  • Wasted time of other salespeople who are distracted by the bad hire.
  • Alienated prospects and customers.
  • Lost referrals.
  • Erosion of brand equity due to the ineffectiveness of the bad hire.
  • Travel, entertainment, office and other expenses for the bad hire.
  • Time spent talking, worrying, or hand-wringing about the bad hire.
  • Time invested in a misguided turnaround or “rescue attempt” for the bad hire.
  • Potential legal expenses to terminate the bad hire.

That’s why I hear owners and CEO’s telling me that their bad sales hires are hurting them and badly. A single bad hire can exceed $250,000 in direct expenses. Add in the indirect costs, and the total expense goes much higher. So what can you do differently? What should you be looking for in a new salesperson in the current environment, and how?

Reframe the Position: An effective process begins with framing the position with the results you expect and the timeframe within which you expect them. Those results need to be expressed in tangible, measurable terms. For example, one objective could be: “billings at an annualized pace of $500,000, to between four and six new customers, in (target business market), by close of the tenth full month following your hire date.” That’s impossible to debate or dispute. And it will separate the “wheat from the chaff” instantly. No retread who has been through previous failure cycles will sign up for that kind of measurable result. But without that kind of specificity, what you’re telling the new hire is “We’re paying you to do the best you can.” It should take no more than half a dozen specific statements like that example to build a position description that’s clear and powerful.

Test and Vet: An effective process includes several steps to vet a candidate before any sort of interview. I’m a strong believer in testing candidates and in more than one way. I especially like using a Harrison Assessment to gauge both eligibility and suitability. We’ve gone way beyond the days when a personality assessment was the best we could get. We can now use data analytics to assess work preferences, attitudes and motivation, work values, task preferences, and interests. That lets us predict both fit and performance.

I also use a writing test to see if candidates can write a cogent and effective business communication (letter, email). We’re seeing college graduates appear as candidates who cannot write effectively. That’s tragic but true. So a college degree is no longer a useful confirmation that good, basic communication skills have been developed. And boilerplate cover letters aren’t trustworthy writing samples either. If a candidate cannot write effectively, the candidate should be screened out of the pipeline early.

Rethink Your Interviews: An effective process includes a planned and structured interview that’s focused on results and outcomes. Backward looking “what have you done” questions are much less useful than forward looking “what would you do” or “how would you handle” questions. And the interview should always be done by groups of two or three people at a time with a candidate. An “interview” with a candidate conducted by a manager who may have looked at the candidate’s resume once, and only ten minutes before the meeting is worse than useless. Those “interviews” are actively misleading because they support decisions like this one: “Who knows? I don’t. Let’s take a shot and see how she does.”

Demonstrate Capabilities: An effective process recognizes that selling has changed utterly. Therefore, a candidate who cannot demonstrate how he uses research and social selling methods gets screened out early. One of the best screening methods is to task candidates to research your company, your executives, your services and your customers. Then have them present a profile of your own company as if you were the target customer. Newsflash: for the candidate, you are. Recruiting is very much a courtship process, the candidate should be actively courting you while you are courting them. What better way to confirm that the candidate can both learn about and understand a business organization than by having them tell you about yours? Then have him describe exactly how he would turn that understanding into an opportunity to do business with you.

On-board Effectively: An effective hiring process includes an on-boarding plan. When I reported to work on Day One of my first sales job, I was shown to my new desk and phone. I was given a key to get in and out (in the expectation I’d be working all kinds of hours). I was given a box of business cards. And I was told by my new boss: “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” Literally. That was it. I fell flat on my face.

An on-boarding process is intended to immerse the new salesperson into your particular enterprise and to make invaluable connections. Understanding your processes and your systems is the easiest part. The much harder part for a new salesperson is knowing where to go and who to approach in order to get something done. An on-boarding process that completely immerses the new salesperson into your company is vital if they are going to create the relationships inside that will enable them to be effective outside. And your people need to feel a vested interest in the success of the new hire.

Develop: Your written development plan for the new salesperson should be on the table at least by the time you conduct the first face-to-face interview. The reactions of candidates to your development plan will be very telling. If you’re sitting across the table from a retread who has no desire to adapt, to learn, or to change then your development plan should bring that reluctance to the surface quickly. Too many conversations with potential salespeople focus almost entirely on what we sell. We don’t tend to talk much about how we sell. But since how you sell your products and services affects your brand, that’s an important conversation. A salesperson can strengthen your brand if her methods and behaviors align with it. A salesperson can undermine your brand if his methods and behaviors contradict or are in conflict with it. So the “how” is as important as the “what.”

The first year development plan is the roadmap. It identifies the destination, but it also identifies the route and specific milestones along the way. Including that development plan in any interview conversation insures that your objectives are understood, and the methods and resources you expect to see in use are also understood. If you don’t know or can’t describe what works, and therefore what an effective salesperson for your company will be doing and how, you’re not ready to start recruiting.

Sidestep the retreads: Embedding a multi-step, carefully crafted process for recruiting, on-boarding, and developing a new salesperson takes some real thought and investment. But the payback is usually 10X if it keeps you from hiring even one more retread who fails.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is building processes for recruiting, on-boarding, and developing salespeople — processes that really work. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.

Crashing at the Finish: The Last, Winning Step Too Many Salespeople Skip


She was so close. She had worked to develop the opportunity for two years. She had created a couple of key relationships, and developed them very well. She had a good understanding of the customer’s circumstances and special needs. With help, she created a strong proposal and delivered it to her primary contact. Her primary contact recommended that her proposal be chosen. So she rightly believed she was in the lead. And then she lost it. Why? She didn’t ask for the opportunity to make a presentation before the final decision was made. She thought her excellent proposal was enough.

You really cannot expect the proposal itself to finish the sales process. This is frustrating for salespeople to hear when so much effort is required to build a strong comprehensive proposal. But it is a true statement. There is no good substitute for a presentation to the work group that is going to make the final buying decision.

A “Post Proposal Presentation” meeting (a P3) is something I coach salespeople to request for any high-value opportunity or relationship they are pursuing. Lots of salespeople prefer to avoid them. I hear a variety of excuses offered as explanations:

“I don’t know what to say.” This is a pretty strong signal that the salesperson has not figured out the customer’s motivation and their selection criteria. That’s a topic for another time. But it could signal that the salesperson is taking specifications both at face value and as definitive. Only rarely will a set of specifications or published buying criteria tell even most of the story about how the decision will be made and the winner chosen.

There is a pattern or a sequence of buying decisions that I still see play out consistently. In a B2B buying decision that’s significant for the buying organization, there’s an initial screening. Then three decisions are made from among those contenders remaining: First, the decision to “buy” the salesperson as “this is someone with whom we could comfortably and effectively do business.” Then, the decision to “buy” the company as in “This is a company with whom we can confidently do business.” Finally, there is the decision that the product or service being offered is the “best fit” with the specific needs of the body organization. Only in that last decision are specifications especially important.

“I’m not good in front of groups. And I hate public speaking.” This signals a great development opportunity. Presentation and speaking skills are now non-optional for successful salespeople. Period. Excellent communication skills and real poise in front of people are incredibly powerful. And I’m far from the only one to recognize it.

In a commencement address at Columbia Business School Warren Buffett described taking a Dale Carnegie course in Public Speaking early in his career. The billionaire went on to say it was one of the best business investments he’d ever made. Putting his money where his mouth was, Buffett offered $100,000 in seed money to any of the graduates in return for 10% of future earnings. For those willing to demonstrate public speaking skills or to invest in public speaking training, he upped the offer to $150,000. Nothing is more powerful for a salesperson than the ability to connect effectively with an individual, small group, or a larger audience. Nothing. For salespeople, communication is the killer app.

“It’s all in the proposal.” This signals the belief that the proposal itself can actually sell. Three things are wrong with that assumption. First, if it were true there would be no real role for a professional salesperson. Second, nearly all purchasing decisions are made emotionally, and within seconds or minutes. I have yet to see a written proposal that could engage me emotionally that fast. Third, it signals a misunderstanding of the role of strong proposal.

“I have already said it all to all of them.” This tells me the salesperson is suffering from deal fatigue. That happens when a salesperson has poured herself into a particular opportunity for months or years, and cannot bring fresh eyes to the deal. When a salesperson reaches that point it is incredibly difficult for her to hold onto perspective. Admitting to herself that she’s just plain tired of working on this opportunity is difficult. So expect to hear it expressed in other ways.

Over the past 10 years, important buying decisions have moved up inside most organizations. The research and the vetting of potential suppliers and potential choices often get delegated to a technical buyer. Sometimes that technical buyer is the primary end-user, or the person who will have the most consistent interaction with the supplier. As the research and the vetting process go on, the technical buyer is often providing written, summary updates to everyone who will be involved in the buying decision. I have seen lots of instances where everyone involved in that decision met to discuss and consider it only once, and only after the proposals were in hand.

When asked, anyone within a buying workgroup will describe himself or herself as a decision-maker. In some cases, that is true because everyone in the group may have the power to say no. However, only one person usually has the power to say the final yes. And that person, the one who could make the final commitment, may be withholding judgment and deferring a serious review of the potential options until she walks into that meeting. I have seen that behavior and that pattern play out repeatedly.

Failing to ask for the opportunity to make a final presentation is equivalent to running a marathon with no intention to put on a final sprint at the finish.

Expecting the proposal itself to finish the process is really the same thing as delegating the completion of the sales process to the technical buyer, expecting him to sell you, your company, and your offer to the decision-maker in your absence. When I describe it that way it should begin to look silly to you. Even if the technical buyer is sold and believes that you, your company, and your proposal are the best, there’s no reason to believe that technical buyer will be especially effective convincing and gaining agreement from the rest of the workgroup and from the final decision-maker. As a salesperson, that’s your job not his. Recognize the need to ask for an opportunity to make a final presentation after the proposal has been delivered. It cannot be seen as optional. Getting over the reluctance to prepare and deliver a P3 is an essential first step. But doing anything can sometimes be worse than doing nothing. So step two is learning to build and deliver a great pitch.

Great final presentations have three things in common:

First, talk about the customer, and not about you. This seems painfully obvious, and I don’t intend to insult your intelligence. But in my work with sales organizations I am surprised by the frequency with which a final presentation focuses on the seller and not on the customer. If you get nothing else right about building strong final presentations, please get this right.

One of the most powerful ways to ensure that you talk about the customer is to tell a story. Nancy Duarte has described how to use the Hero’s Journey when building any compelling presentation. It is especially powerful in this context. Newsflash: you are not the hero. The story you’re going to tell is the journey of the customer. You are going to begin with their current challenge, describe what they are now experiencing, place yourself in a supporting role as a mentor and guide, describe how they will overcome the challenge and seize the reward, and finish by describing their better life at the end of the journey. If you’ve done your homework well, this simple structure is both easy to use and very powerful.

Second, focus on outcomes, not processes. Yours may be the most elegant and most exciting new technology, new process, or new service to appear in a generation. For you, that’s fabulous. Don’t be surprised if it’s a yawn for the customer. Hammering home tangible and measurable results that your customer can expect and will pass the “So What?” test is what’s important. This is especially important if this is your first opportunity to be in the same room with the ultimate decision-maker, the one with the power to give you the final yes. She is more likely to care about the destination than about the route to get there.

This doesn’t contradict, by the way, what I just said about storytelling. Because stories are so compelling, the decision-maker will happily listen. What she won’t listen to is a description of the nuts and bolts of your particular process, product, or service. She doesn’t care about the how. But she does care about the what.

Third, make an emotional connection. Buying decisions, including B2B buying decisions, are made emotionally. Emotionally is how we choose. We then marshal facts to justify the emotional decision we’ve already made. Therefore, it’s vital to demonstrate emotion (“This will be so cool for your firm!”) and also to legitimize positive emotion on the part of the customer (“I hope you’re going to feel relief and confidence almost as soon as we start.”) The range of emotion you’re trying to trigger isn’t complex, and Plutchik modeled it clearly. You’re aiming for trust, joy, and anticipation.

Strong presentations include emotion among the rewards for answering a call to action. Yes, it does need to be done with a light hand. I’m not suggesting high drama or a dive into the maudlin. But to communicate that the customer is entitled to feel some measure of trust, joy, and anticipation as a direct reward for the decision is appropriate and powerful. Consciously including references to the emotional and psychological rewards will help you make a stronger connection to the customers around the table than focusing on facts, data, comparisons and other rational factors alone.

“Pitches” and “deals” get unfairly connected with unsavory aspects of amoral sales behavior. That’s unfortunate, because both terms are useful shorthand terms. A great pitch meeting (a post-proposal presentation) can be a wonderful thing both for the well-equipped salesperson and for the customer. Salespeople who skip or shy away from them (for any reason) give up a powerful opportunity to forge a strong relationship, and to distinguish themselves from their competitors who may do little more than show up and say: “You’ve got our proposal. Any questions?”

What do you think?


Part of my practice is coaching salespeople and sales managers, and building strong sales processes. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.

Selling by Leading Change

Leading Change

Anyone who doubts that everything is changing must be in a stupor of some kind. From my vantage point, everything is changing. And the faster that things change the faster the value of what you currently know is evaporating. To a greater degree than ever before, sustained learning is now key to your success

Subversive Marketing: How to Build a Brand When They Tell You “No”

Powerplayer 1

The task was daunting, no way around that. Picture yourself facing this: You’re responsible to grow revenue for a company that’s smaller than most of your significant competitors, has a narrower service offering, and no reputation outside its immediate locality. It has no structural source of competitive advantage. It’s a custom-manufacturing / service firm in a high cost-of-labor area. It has no cutting-edge products or services, and a top down strategy to behave as a “fast follower” rather than to innovate. It applies technology developed by others rather than developing its own.

Picture your resources: an ossified sales organization, a small marketing budget, leadership with an operations and finance focus. Picture your constraints: your organization is a subsidiary of a corporate parent that’s command-and-control driven. The parent has developed guidelines for name and logo use that prevent you from using either in any distinguishing fashion. What do you do? Frankly, you do the only thing you can do. You become a subversive. You build a brand without ever telling anyone you’re doing it.

Subversive is a term I like. The dictionary definition is great fun: “Subversive (Səbˈvərsiv/) — seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.” Synonyms include: disruptive, troublemaking, inflammatory, and insurrectionary. Even better, the noun form refers to a subversive person. Synonyms include: troublemaker, dissident, agitator, revolutionary, renegade, rebel. Sounds to me like the stuff of great marketing and great marketers.

A Subversive Role Model

Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, the protagonist in the movie V for Vendetta is a great example of a subversive becoming a brand. V’s intent was certainly to “subvert an established system or institution.” To do that, he made trouble, was disruptive, and was very inflammatory. While I don’t endorse the over-the-top violence of the film, that character is a great role model. For the company I’m describing, it was essential to subvert the established system. That system put the company at a severe disadvantage in the marketplace. The company was bowing to the entrenched positions of established and larger competitors. Creating a strong and positive brand was the essential response.

Many sales and marketing executives are handed big challenges by small to medium sized enterprises. Often those companies were built in an era when a brand wasn’t essential for B2B marketing. “Doing it the way we’ve always done it” is sometimes celebrated, but often used as the trump card defense against anything that hasn’t been done before, no matter how necessary you may know it is now. So what was handed to me wasn’t all that unusual. However, my diagnosis was. And so were my tactics in response.

The diagnosis was simple for someone who had already built four strong brands: without one we’re toast. We’d never get taken seriously, we’d never get included for review by the clients we wanted, we’d never get outside of the local geographical space, and we’d never meet the revenue targets being set for us. Nothing would plow the road in front of the sales organization, enabling them to be effective. Any other approach was a recipe to fail. I’d simply have become one in a long line of sales and marketing executives through a fast-spinning, revolving door. That wasn’t on my agenda. So, here’s what I did to build a brand within the constraints I had:

Create an Alternative Icon

The key to subversive branding in situations like this one is creating a brand icon separate and distinct from the name/logo/tagline combination in the steel grip of the corporate parent / corporate subsidiary. Those will need to appear somewhere, most often given a minimal hat tip. But the major branding icon needs to have power absent from the corporate name and logo. In my case, that was an emblem or medallion (we called it a Service Seal) that expressed our promise and implied that we guaranteed it. The benefit of this tactic is that no one is going to hand you branding guidelines for something other than the corporate identity. So you’re leveraging organizational myopia while happily obeying the letter of corporate law. I was never called on the carpet for having done something that didn’t obey the corporate guidelines.

Make an Audacious Promise

I pushed hard to get the leadership team to agree on a simple mission statement so that I could create a positioning statement from it. That’s Marketing 101 — nothing remarkable there. However, it’s curious that no one else saw this as “mission critical” (pun intended.) I did. I needed to anchor the brand’s claim to the organizational mission, and I needed an adjective. The mission wasn’t especially remarkable. It was a simple statement about being of service. Remarkable was that it expressed the intention to create an experience long before anyone was talking and writing about creation of an intentional customer experience. And the adjective described the quality of that service experience: extraordinary. Therefore, from the top down, the operating company made a commitment in writing to create an extraordinary experience. Perfect. I was armed to make an audacious promise with a completely clear conscience because the company’s leadership had committed to the language I was about to use.

Create a Powerful Voice

Audacious claims often fail to ring true. An audacious claim delivered badly or clumsily will trigger skepticism and suspicion rather than confidence. That’s because an audacious claim or promise can sound like more marketing hyperbole. Fortunately, that’s a bullet that good marketers can effectively dodge by asking “whose voice?” rather than “what voice?”

One of the consistent efforts we made was to solicit actionable customer feedback. We did it through telephone interviews. A brilliant third-party research firminterviewed six customers by telephone each month. We carefully crafted the questionnaire to get to the customer’s experience, perceptions, brand affinity, and the stickiness of the relationship. The interviews were designed to take 30 minutes each. And the feedback we received included verbatim comments from customers that the research firm transcribed for us. That means we got detailed feedback from about 70 customers a year. And that’s a gold mine for a good marketer.

From the verbatim comments of real customers, we were able to easily identify our “raving fans.” And we used their actual words to craft a voice-of-the-customer, testimonial campaign that ran unchanged for almost ten years. New voices appeared regularly in all of our print and digital marketing messages. We used the words of our customers to declare that they were actively receiving what we were promising – extraordinary service. It was incredibly effective.

Stay the Course

Brands are built in increments. To use an over-used metaphor, building a brand is like building a cathedral. It is not like building a retaining wall. A retaining wall can usually be built in a couple of weekends or a few days. A cathedral takes years or decades. To build B2B brand equity, the brand needs to stand for something. But the brand also needs to stand for the same thing, consistently and resolutely, for years. That means that your B2B brand dare not be a slave to fashion.

A brand icon — the combination of a graphic, name or word, and tagline — cannot get repeatedly changed without restarting the building process each time it changes. Brand equity (the presence and power of your brand in the minds of your customers) is far too precious to abandon when someone would like a fresher look or a new theme. Yes, that means frustration for art directors who feel constrained. Trust me, they’ll get over it.

Refine and Polish

Brands do need regular polishing. That’s very different from reinvention or ill conceived “brand make-overs.” Polishing a brand is an exercise in discipline. It’s the search for those elements of your brand communication or brand identity that can be simplified, made cleaner, made clearer, made stronger. But that’s only possible if you began well, with a brand promise anchored to your organization’s purpose. Without the clarity of a powerful, unchanging brand promise that resonates with your customers and potential customers, you’ve no unchanging point of reference against which to gauge potential refinements.

If the promise is a strong one, if it describes how you’re going to create remarkable value for your customers and what they can expect to experience when they become and remain your customers, the clarity it yields can be genuinely startling. It’s also a complete conversation stopper when someone wants to try something that will dilute your brand equity rather than distill it even further.

What Else Does It Take?

Subversive branding relies on a marketer’s willingness to integrate every action and every investment in order to leverage the scarce resources just as far as possible. Leveraging a customer feedback process to create brand messaging is a good example. But this also requires a willingness to make careful decisions about what you can actually execute on your own without much in the way of outside resources.

What Can You Expect?

So, what kind of results can you expect from subversively building a brand? Well, the results of the example I described were telling. In ten years, we tripled revenue while moving from breakeven performance to industry profit leader performance. We built customer relationships so strong that we had more “evergreen” and auto-escalator contracts with our customers than the rest of our sister companies combined. We intimidated our competitors to the point that when one of our customer testimonials appeared, competing salespeople later shared that they simply took that customer off their prospect list. The pursuit would be a waste of time and effort. We enjoyed exceptionally low customer attrition. And we were routinely invited to participate in vendor selection processes. We were almost always a finalist, and usually pitted against a pair of much larger competitors. Our win rate for those opportunities was also industry-leading.

We did all of that despite structural constraints that were very real, and from which we got no relief. We had no other source of durable competitive advantage. But we were able to deliver remarkable results because we built a great brand — subversively.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is creating and building strong B2B brands. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.

How to Torpedo Your CRM System

angry businessman with document

Carl (name changed to protect the guilty) stood in front of my desk, furious. He was clutching two fistful’s of paperwork. If he’d had hair, it would have been on fire. Carl was a salesperson, and had been for years. I was his newly-minted boss, and the target of his fury. And it was all about “my” new CRM system.

Carl was holding prospect sheets, his personal records of years of contact activity. And he was furious that a prospective customer he claimed as his own had contacted the company, asked for a salesperson, and I had assigned the prospect to someone else. Set aside for the moment that Carl’s prospect had contacted us to ask for a salesperson. My assignment wasn’t arbitrary or capricious. My first step was to look for the prospect in our new CRM system. Lo and behold, I found nothing. No record. So I made a decision, made the assignment, and spoke to the prospective customer. Carl found out about it after the fact.

There’s another piece of the puzzle necessary to complete the picture. When I implemented the new CRM system I didn’t require the salespeople to enter their own records. I provided someone to do that work for them. The salespeople had the opportunity to provide their information in any form, including paper records. I did that for two reasons. First, I wanted the database built cleanly and well. Second, I wanted the implementation done on schedule. Carl chose not to provide his prospect sheets for data entry. I don’t know why.

I patiently explained to Carl that the only thing that mattered was what I could see in the system. If it wasn’t in the CRM system, it didn’t exist. Period. This had been made explicit from the beginning of the project, I reminded him. He stormed away, shouting back that he wasn’t going to forget this. It was an amazing display of emotional maturity. A day later he approached the administrative resource for help getting his records into the system.

Under the best of conditions, implementing a CRM system is tough. It’s not for the fainthearted or weak-willed. Most implementations I have seen firsthand were not planned well, done well, or used well. As a result, CRM systems are widely criticized. Salespeople tend to despise them. However, the technology itself is rarely the culprit. For the bad ones I’ve seen, the technology was fine and the implementation itself was miserable. Here’s why:

Lousy planning. If you believe the CRM system is going to be easy to implement, and will require minimal customization, there is swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you. That pair of assumptions is beyond naïve. Careful and thorough planning is vital. If the system is not configured well and customized before the salespeople are required to use it, noncompliance and chaos will follow.

Insufficient support. It’s foolish to expect salespeople to invest the necessary time to build their own records at the beginning. Wherever those records are coming from, one individual needs to own the task of building the database. Elimination of duplications is only one of the reasons. Accuracy, consistency, and speed are the others.

No ground rules. For any database to work well, every entry in each record needs to follow a pattern. Naming conventions are a great example. One vital ground rule is that no account name (the name of a prospect or customer organization) can include an abbreviation. Therefore, the American Society of Association Executives can never be shortened in a record to ‘Am. Soc. of Assn. Exec’s.” or to ASAE. Never. Otherwise, tracking down and eliminating duplicate records is nearly impossible.

No discipline. This one is chronic. Unless and until salespeople are required to manage their work through the CRM system, they won’t. If sales managers look the other way when a salesperson is managing their calendar, their communications, or their record-keeping outside of the CRM system, the data inside the CRM system will never be trustworthy. Two things cannot be negotiable. First, there is no alternative. Salespeople must use the system and only the system. Second, the simple ground rules must be followed. All the time.

At intervals, I found myself sending a query to one of my salespeople to find out what they were planning to do during a two-week block where they had calendared no activity for themselves. My point was twofold: First, I wanted them to know that I was interested enough in how they were managing themselves to ask. Second, I wanted to leverage the learning opportunity. The most effective time to plan and schedule the next act or activity is when completing the current one. Salespeople that do always have larger pipelines and more deals in development. But they usually need help developing the habit.

Minimal customization. An effective CRM implementation requires some counterintuitive thinking. The best outcome is a system that is clean enough and simple enough to be easy and fast to use. That takes real work in the beginning. It is very easy to add complexity to a CRM system. It is much harder to make it simple. Left unchecked, fields multiply. Lots of things would be nice to know. But there is an inverse relationship between how much information you ask the sales organization to provide and how much information they actually will provide. While marketing and some other managers would love to have extensive data that can be parsed down to the granular level, asking the sales organization to provide it is silly. They simply won’t.

Therefore, there are two critical guiding principles as the system is customized. First, simplicity is paramount. That means most of the “nice to have” or “good to know” fields need to vanish. Don’t gray them out, make them vanish. Ask only for the information vital to move opportunities forward and to manage the sales organization.

Second, begin with the end in mind. Design the reports first. Figure out what information is necessary to lead and manage the sales organization. Keep the reports simple and focused. Make them meaningful, easy to understand, and easy to interpret. Then customize and enable only the fields necessary to gather that information and paint a clear picture. It’s probably much less than you expect.

A perfunctory rollout. For sales organization, this is a very big deal. Implementing a CRM system goes to the core of how individual salespeople work, of how they manage themselves. Therefore, an effective rollout will involve more investment in the salespeople than simply a couple of group sessions to show them the application and answer their initial questions. A good rollout will require group training, and more than one session. A good rollout will also require individual training and support. Some salespeople will not happily put their limited technical literacy on display in front of their peers. That means one-on-one support will be essential as they learn to use the system. And a good rollout will require coaching — sales managers using system data as the context for account and opportunity planning and coaching with individual salespeople. Until they see the data put to use for their own benefit, to make them more effective and give them the opportunity to win more deals, any CRM system will be interpreted as a club. Usage will remain spotty, and compliance will remain grudging.

No ownership. Someone needs to own responsibility for the system and data. That cannot be the individual salesperson. Salespeople are myopic about information, and information sharing. It’s very difficult for a salesperson to understand and hold in mind why information is important to others and how it is going to be used. So corner-cutting (which looks to a salesperson to be a reasonable time-saving measure) is almost unavoidable. Someone needs to police and own the data. The best candidate could be the individual responsible for generating reports from the data. But some of this is organization-specific, and a one-size-fits-all policy is impossible to recommend.

Limited visibility. This is my favorite example of being penny wise and pound foolish: implementing a CRM system for a sales organization that cannot be accessed by anyone else. A good CRM implementation will enable marketing and sales to create a thorough and rich profile of a potential customer and each of the key players in that organization. The entire arc of the deal can be captured and tracked. Every key factor affecting the customer’s decision can and should be described.

Too many times, motivated primarily by a desire to limit the number of seats or licenses, companies will lock out customer service and other workgroups who are tasked with delivering on the commitments made to the customer. In other words, for those who need to deliver the promised value, there’s no access to the understanding of the customer that has been carefully created. No, that is not hyperbole. Yes, it is as idiotic as I made it sound.

If the salesperson has done her job well, not only will she capture the specific commitments made to the customer, but she will also have discovered what, for that customer, are the unforgivable sins — the things we must never do. If we expect the salesperson to know those things, to capture and to share them, why would we not make them available inside the CRM system? The CRM system should be the single place anyone goes to find vital customer information. Always.

Therefore: Choosing the CRM system that is the best fit for a given company is pretty straightforward. The decision factors are obvious: cost, vendor reliability, easy integration with an ERP or other enterprise system, and ease of customization. That’s the easiest part. The hard part is always the implementation. Any good implementation depends on thorough planning, careful customization, and disciplined use. If you’re not planning to make those investments, then don’t bother. No CRM system is a magic bullet no matter what the system vendor might want you to believe.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is planning, designing and mapping CRM implementations that really work. If you could benefit, call me and let’s talk.

Toxic Sales Training


Some of what passes for “sales training” is just plain dangerous. Actually, I would label it: Highly Toxic. It is toxic to sustained improvement, to sustained sales growth, and to the careers of those who recommend, endorse, buy and implement it. It is chosen with the very best of intentions, but it is worse than ineffective. It isn’t harmless; it is poisonous and sometimes deadly.

Got your attention? I hope so. That first paragraph isn’t hyperbole. At some point I hope the “event-based” sales training model dies a long-overdue death. The risks and the damage are real. But for now, sales trainers still offer programs that are almost entirely event-based. And that’s scary.

Event-based sales training follows a pattern: Phase One is minimal preparation on the part of the presenter and the participants. Phase Two is a large-scale event, often multiple days long, involving the whole sales organization at once, often in the same place. In essence, it is a seminar of some kind that may include exercises and activities, based on a proprietary model, approach, method or “secret knowledge.” Phase Three is post-event implementation. Typically it includes very limited access to the trainer or presenter, and some printed materials that the client company is expected to use on their own. Phase Four is the disappointment that follows in a matter of weeks when nothing is different or better.

Dave Stein gets full credit for sparking my thinking around this by applying the term “half life” to sales training. The half life of most sales training is about six weeks. An Equation Research study detailed the failure of most sales training to produce lasting improvement. All evidence of event-based sales training had evaporated in about six weeks. And the study only measured evidence of any positive effect of event-based sales training. The negative effects can last far longer.

  • Toxic sales training poisons attitudes: When there are no lasting results toxic sales training kills the belief that sales effectiveness can be improved at all. When experiences with event-based training are disappointing, they convince executives and leaders that nothing can be improved.
  • Toxic sales training creates a malignant cycle. The cycle looks like this: The sales organization is not meeting the revenue needs of the organization. Something needs to be done to improve its effectiveness. A vendor is chosen to provide event-based training, often because the vendor is very visible and has a long client list. The event is held. The training is generic, not tied to the company’s sales process. There is no effective follow-up, no individual coaching. Nothing changes. All evidence of the training event is gone within weeks. Afterward, the sales organization isn’t effectively meeting the revenue needs of the organization.
  • Toxic sales training radiates a deadly energy. Most even-based sales training is high-energy. It’s based on media, music, and high-energy presenters. Event-based sales training is often noisy and distracting. Unfortunately, event-based sales training draws attention away from the real need, the real work and any real progress. Afterward, the pipeline is carrying no more opportunities, and the opportunities aren’t moving faster or more easily through the pipeline.
  • Toxic sales training stunts real growth. Event-based sales training comes with expectations: effectiveness will climb and results will improve. When those things don’t happen, the salespeople are blamed, and painted as unable to leverage an expensive investment in them. Since they’ve been given that great opportunity and not put it to use, they certainly won’t be given any other resources.

This really must stop.

Developing a high performance, highly-effective sales organization is a process. It calls for strong support systems and development of individual salespeople. That means building a sales process tailored to your customers and the relationships they want. And it means coaching salespeople to use that process — coaching tied to the salesperson’s current opportunities and individual needs. It is a systemic and disciplined process that can produce dramatic results. A two-day training event is no substitute.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is planning, designing and developing sales processes that really work. If you could benefit, call me and let’s talk.