Personal Brand v. Personal Character – 7th & Last Rule of Social Selling

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Be noisy and hip! Build a personal brand! Salespeople are being urged to do this at all costs. Much of the advice being offered about personal brands is about visibility and style. You’ve read and heard a good deal of it, I’m sure. If you distill the advice down, “be noisy and hip” is what you get. And seeing it described that way probably answers why much of what you’ve heard about personal branding left you uneasy.

“It’s as powerful as Frodo’s ring.” That’s what you’re hearing about personal branding. And social media is always promoted as the primary means to that end. Highly visible B2B salespeople are sometimes accused of unrestrained egotism. A few deserve the label, I’ll admit. And the mad pursuit of personal branding is bringing out the worst in some of them. But top-flight salespeople are rarely vain little egotists engaged in relentless self-promotion. They are much deeper and much more substantial.

My problem with many of the self-declared experts in personal branding is two-fold: First, they seem to know little about real branding. Second, they seem to know even less about character. And for highly successful salespeople, the two are always in alignment.

What’s a Brand Anyway?

It is possible to create and maintain a “personal brand” if we first understand what a brand actually is. A brand, any brand, is not what it says about itself. It is what others believe about it. That means that brands belong to the people to whom the brand is important. Which makes personal brands (as well as B2B brands) tough to observe. It’s the classic iceberg scenario: what you can observe is a tiny fraction of what exists. Let me illustrate with an example.

When I look at companies that are my clients, the hardest things I need to uncover and understand are their brands. That’s tough because my clients are small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) and their business models are all B2B. So intense listening is required, and I need to listen to their active customers and potential customers in order to understand what their brands mean and stand for in the minds of their customers. Their brands are nearly invisible to casual observation because those brands exist in the minds of those inside their spheres of influence: their customers, former customers, potential customers, friends, and competitors.

It’s impossible to understand brands (personal, B2B, or consumer) simply by observing their outbound messaging, their identity package, and their product and service design. Sorry, but that’s true. But the fact that we can observe so little of brands doesn’t make them any less powerful or any less real.

Try this for a working definition of brand: “A brand is what others know to be true and valuable about you.” That’s true of B2B brands. That definition applies to personal brands too. A brand answers three questions directly: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? I’ve quoted Greg Galle, co-founder of Future Partners before, and those questions are his. And they are the key questions that need to be asked of all efforts at personal branding in the same way that they are asked of B2B and consumer brands. So let’s do that.

Substance and Style

The first and second are easy to answer. You can quickly tell anyone who you are and what you do. At minimum you can give them your name, company affiliation, and the products and services you represent. But it gets tough personally when you try to describe why it matters.

For top-flight B2B salespeople, a personal brand is powerful when it’s welded to personal character. And we need a useful definition of personal character to understand what should drive any effort at personal branding.

I’d propose that personal character has three elements: your own values, your own strengths, and your own purpose. If you can describe what’s important to you, what you bring to the party, and what you intend to accomplish, then you can easily answer the third of Galle’s questions: Why does it matter. And you can also start to determine what kind of personal branding effort is going to reflect those traits honestly and accurately.

“There is a big difference between reputation and personal brands. Reputation is built upon past experiences — good or bad, a real track record. Personal branding is often an ego-based image based on communications. A personal brand can demonstrate a person is there, but it’s often shallow and can be contrived. It’s just like a sport stripe on a car, nice but no engine, no guts, no substance.”

— Jeff Livingston

Now, if your personal character traits include dishonesty, apathy, ignorance, selfishness and / or laziness, don’t bother reading farther. In fact, the only action you should be taking is getting out of B2B sales because you’re a sea anchor, and a miserable reflection on the highly professional and highly ethical B2B salespeople with whom I have the privilege of working.

By the way, I’ve never subscribed to the belief that under-performing salespeople lack sufficient motivation, or that the motivation can be applied externally (by me or anyone else). Motivation is entirely intrinsic for the best B2B salespeople, and it is rooted in their characters. In fact, for most of them, the primary drive is to be of service to others.

If your company calls on you to compromise your character by being less than forthright with customers, manipulating them consistently, or ignoring the customer’s interest in favor of their own, you’ve a different decision to make. Given the unmet demand for top-flight salespeople, there’s no reason for you to sit tight when a company’s customer experience is a consistent fist to your gut.

Hype-free Personal Branding

If your efforts so far to create a personal brand have the flavor of Mad Men, there’s a reason. It’s likely because you started with packaging rather than with the product. A strong personal brand isn’t about egotism. It is about vulnerability and openness. It’s about standing for something that will resonate with others, particularly with your customers. So as you begin thinking about how you want to represent yourself, there are four of questions I find useful to ask:

1.  Is your brand in concert with your character? In other words, is everything about how you present or represent yourself about more than merely your personality and appearance? Does your character come through? It should. Let me give you three examples to illustrate what I mean. A personal brand for Mother Theresa would clearly signal compassion and self-sacrifice. A personal brand for Abraham Lincoln would signal strength and resolve. A personal brand for Warren Buffet would signal both integrity and humility. Your own should signal the core elements of your character: your core values, your significant strengths, and your personal purpose.

2.  Does your personal brand reflect the real you? If you’re the jeans and tee shirt type, then branding featuring you in Seville Row suits isn’t going to ring true. If you’re the geeky type, then featuring you on a motorcycle with a swimsuit model riding behind you isn’t going to ring true. Style needs to be subordinate to substance. Which means you start with substance and figure out the style that echoes it clearly and honestly. Again, your personal brand needs to reflect the elements of your unique character.

3.  Does your personal brand tell your own story? This has nothing whatever to do with being “multi-faceted” which is the code word for creating multiple personas aimed at different audiences. That advice to create multiple personas is incredibly misguided and downright dangerous for B2B salespeople. It undermines your integrity.

“Integrity” and “integrated” come from the same root word in Latin: integritatem. It means whole, undivided, intact, uncorrupted. My favorite working definition of integrity is “consistently making and keeping commitments.” And a person of integrity is the same person wherever we meet her. There’s no mask. That doesn’t mean that she’s making inappropriate disclosures of herself (insufficient boundaries). But it does mean that she’s the same person from the veneer all the way down to her core. Therefore, everything about your personal brand should tell your story. And it should make sense to your spouse, children, colleagues, and customers.

4.  Is your personal brand “fully human?” Can people easily relate? If your photos have been retouched to perfection, you may be missing the point. If your career path hints that you’ve never made a misstep, never joined the wrong company, and never stubbed your toe in some fashion, that’s probably not going to serve you well. If you present yourself as fully human, you’re on the way to being appreciated as approachable and winsome. That will enable people to make an emotional connection to you, and that’s vital.

Any effort you make to build a visible, personal brand needs to start with the substance of who you are, with the core of your character. So resist the temptation to focus first on the packaging and appearance. Make the main thing the main thing. When the live human fits perfectly with the expectation created by your brand, you’ve gotten your personal brand in alignment with your character. And that’s a powerful thing.

Answer Galle’s third question: “Why does it matter?” But make it personal: “Why do you matter?” Another way to ask it is my favorite: “What difference do you make?” Your personal brand should have a specific and a tangible answer to that incredibly pertinent question. What’s yours?

“Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”

– David Ogilvy

What do you think?

__________

Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. Another part of it is building intentional and strong brands. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment. 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.

Find Big Challenges – The Sixth Rule of Social Selling

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Your role is to enable your customers to meet their needs, grasp their opportunities, and defend against their threats. Whether you like it or not (and I happen to like it a lot) that’s how your customers see your role. If you’re not doing one of those three things, you’re a distracting and useless waste of time. Period.

Got your attention yet? Good. The salespeople who are using social selling (resources and methods) most effectively are making one of those three things happen for each customer. They are working to understand exactly how the customer sees their own needs, opportunities, and threats and then to do something about them.

Can you help your customer solve large-scale problems? Let me ask the question another way. When you weld the value you, the salesperson, can create yourself (personally and directly) onto the value that can be created by the products and service you sell, can you slay a dragon-sized problem? I suspect the answer is yes.

In the earlier posts in this series, I’ve made the case for developing substantial and influential relationships using all of social selling. But to deserve and keep those relationships long-term you need to go somewhere with them. You need to deliver value that your customer contacts see as significant. Three things are required if you’re going after dragon-sized issues with your customers.

1.  Find and Agree on the Dragons This seems obvious. In practice, it isn’t. Regardless of the sales model on which your company’s sales process is built (SPIN, Challenger, ROI, SNAP, Consultative / Solution, High Trust, or Agile) the initial foundation remains consistent through them all: You and the customer must understand and agree on circumstances that are worth changing.

Whether you lead the customer to that shared understanding or whether they lead you to it is immaterial. Yes, there are methodologies like SPIN Selling that work exceptionally well to create that shared understanding. Yes, much of the time you’ll need to reframe the circumstances so that the customer sees the situation as you do. But the point is getting there, and getting to a “there” that’s big and gnarly enough to be worth battling.

What would a decision-maker, particularly an executive high up in one of your customer companies, agree is a dragon-sized issue? Most often, it is dragon-sized if it affects the organization in one of two ways.

Survival / Cash Flow These are issues that threaten the very existence of the organization, at least in its present form. Companies can grow themselves out of business if they run out of cash to sustain them through that growth. So cash flow is genuinely a survival issue for every ranking executive, not merely the green-eye-shaded Chicken Little’s in accounting. It matters.

There are other Extinction-Level threats you’ll uncover in a customer organization. And they will certainly be labeled “dragon-sized.” Those can include competitive threats, major changes in the behavior of your customer’s customers, the price or availability of raw materials, regulation, supply chain disruptions, channel and distribution disruptions, and a host of others. That’s why it is vitally important that you understand and track your customer’s performance and circumstances. That’s how you’ll stay alert for survival-threatening issues.

Profit / Growth The other large category of issues that will earn that dragon-sized label are those that have a material effect on profits and growth. And that applies even to organizations that are nominally classified as “not for profit.” (Talk to any association executive and have her tell you how important the association’s “net income” is at the end of the year when they net expenses against income.) This category is where you will find most of your opportunities to have a dragon-sized impact.

There’s an accounting concept that’s very useful to top-flight salespeople: Is it “material?” I won’t wade into the nonsense that has swirled around the term “material effect” for more than ten years following Sarbanes Oxley.   Instead, I’ll use the very useful rule-of-thumb that accountants and auditors have used for decades by asking this question: Will solving the problem (or meeting the need, or grasping the opportunity) make at least a 5% difference to the customer’s bottom line for the year? Note, I didn’t say five percentage points. I asked whether you could make a five percent improvement on their results by slaying that particular dragon successfully. If so, your solution will have a “material effect” on their results. There is no executive who can afford to ignore it when someone presents them with an opportunity to “make a positive material impact” on their results.

Here’s how to do the math, and it’s easy. Let’s say that your customer has $100 million in revenue for the year. At a ten-percent profit margin, they are netting $10 million each year (exceptionally high, but easy math). Anything that would swing that up or down by $50,000 or more (a five-percent change) is big enough to be labeled “material.” That means if you can make a $50,000 positive impact on a $100 million enterprise, or a $25,000 impact on a $50 million enterprise, you can make an impact that even the CEO cannot legitimately ignore. And that scale of impact is well within the reach of most B2B salespeople.

If you want a customer executive to give serious consideration to any overture or proposal you’ll make at any point in your sales process, the best way to guarantee their rapt attention is to demonstrate the potential to have a material impact on their enterprise. And it is that material impact test that tells you whether you’re making an enterprise level sale or not.

An “enterprise” opportunity is mistakenly associated with Fortune 1000 companies. And that’s misleading. An enterprise opportunity, deal, or relationship is one that the customer sees as very important or vital to the health and success of their enterprise. That means you can create enterprise-level (vitally important) impact for organizations of all sizes.

2.  Focus on Customer Outcomes Again, this seems obvious. But too often it is simply overlooked by salespeople who are mid-range performers, and even those who are working to use social selling resources and methods. A focus on customer outcomes is the only thing that will get you (and keep you) taken seriously by a C-level (or near C-level) customer executive.

I’ve long been a fan of the “So What?” test. I apply it everywhere. It certainly applies to branding, all marketing messages, and even to the design of a remarkable and memorable customer experience. But it especially applies to salespeople who want to earn, develop, and retain long-term relationships with executive-level decision-makers. It needs to be a constant script running in your head as you prepare for any conversation or communication. If the customer can ask “So What?” of your message, and not come up with a compelling answer, you may as well have skipped communicating completely.

Here’s another way to look at it: Greg Galle, co-founder of Future Partners, gets the credit for demanding that his clients formulate straight answers to three simple questions: Who are you?  What do you do?  Why does it matter?

To Galle’s three questions, which he asks of brands and marketing, I’d add a fourth specifically for salespeople: Does it matter enough?

The last two questions are direct enough to be harsh. But if you cannot deliver a clear, cogent, and direct answer to either of those, then you’ll fall off the radar of an executive-level decision-maker and fast.

3.  Make Audacious Commitments This one stretches salespeople and their companies consistently. That’s because it runs directly contrary to the old and hairy axiom, “Under promise and over-deliver.” The axiom is bunk. If you under-promise to me, I’ll yawn and turn my attention elsewhere. In that I’m typical.

You don’t win and hold attention without wowing. Unless and until the commitment that you and your company are prepared to make reaches a “wow” you’re unlikely to leverage your hard-won relationship effectively for the benefit of your customer, yourself, and your company. So what makes a commitment a wow? Wow commitments are tangible, memorable, and genuinely superior.

Tangible. You need to promise a measurable outcome. And an intermediate or activity-based measure doesn’t cut it. Too much of sales / marketing automation focuses on activities and intermediate metrics. Your customer executives aren’t interested in activity, they are interested in measurable, financial results. The bottom line really is the bottom line. So “clicks” and “views” are not nearly as compelling as a commitment for a percentage or dollar gain in revenue, in net income, or in expense reduction.

Don’t miss the opportunity to calculate and document that measurable outcome. At the very least, be specific about the minimum ROI the customer can count on from your offer. If that ROI is material to the performance of her firm, you’re on your way.

Memorable Frame your commitment in clear language that’s direct and powerful. It should look something like this: “You will be able to (outcome) by (measurement / dollars) because we will (action). This requires your commitment of (resources) which will be returned by (date).” This is powerful because it cuts through the hedging and dumps all of the qualifiers that your customers are accustomed to seeing from others.

Genuinely Superior Nearly everyone reading this has competitors. For most of you, those are direct competitors. For some, your competitors are substitutionary rather than offers of direct replacements for your products and services. To make a dragon-slaying offer to a C-level decision-maker, your need to propose value that she sees as genuinely superior to what she would expect from others. If your proposal offers results that are material to her enterprise, you’re likely there already. Because you’re framing your results as I’ve described, those results should be seen as superior when compared with offers focused on prices, features, and benefits.

The top-flight salespeople I know maintain relationships by solving big, important, expensive and painful challenges for their customers. They enable their customers to take advantage of dragon-scale opportunities. So tell me, are you reaching for dragon-sized challenges as your customers would define them? Or are you chinning yourself on the curb?

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. 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.

Earn Your Access – The Fifth Rule of Social Selling

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Direct, early access to the real decision-maker – not someone whose power is limited to saying “no,” but the person who has the authority to say the final “Yes” – It’s the Holy Grail for professional B2B salespeople. And it has gotten harder and harder to gain. You’ve seen the statistics already. The buying process is often 50% to 75% complete before a company that’s planning a purchase reaches for a supplier or a salesperson. And the era of the salesperson as technical expert or as animated brochure is well behind us. This has companies looking at their B2B sales organizations and questioning the expense. Few have figured out a clear alternative, but the intensity with which they are looking is high.

And yet, I have the privilege of coaching B2B salespeople who grow their books of business year-over-year, and who typically sell over $1 million in new business each year even though their individual transactions (invoices) rarely exceed five figures, and their annual contracts (for those who sell them) rarely exceed the low-six figure range. For small and medium-sized companies, that’s excellent performance. So what gives? Aren’t these salespeople faced with the same challenges that you or your salespeople face? What are they doing differently to reach and engage real decision-makers? At least the following three things:

1.  Play the Long Game The first thing they are doing is playing the long game. Yes, they track and report their near-term deals as their companies expect. But none of these top performers believe that simply working the basic system and developing deals is nearly enough. They do that, but they don’t stop there. These salespeople will track purchasing cycles, contract renewal dates, product lifecycles, customer performance, customer initiatives, and other customer timelines as much as three years in advance. For the salesperson who is a midrange performer, that’s inconceivable. And yet the top-performer’s thinking and tracking aligns perfectly with the planning cycle for their own companies and for their customers. Here’s how: (Fair warning, there’s a very short lesson in corporate finance and corporate culture involved. But it will be valuable, so indulge me for a couple of paragraphs.)

Except for startups that take virtual products and services to market, there’s a maximum sustainable growth rate most companies include in their planning. (Startups face sustainable growth limits too, but their models work differently. Development speed is often their constraint.) For most, the sustainable growth rate tends to hover around 25% per year. That may not seem sexy until you do the math. That means that the company can grow to 3X its original size in five years, and 9X in ten years. For most small and medium-sized businesses, that’s great performance. It’s especially remarkable if it is doable debt-free. Those, by the way, are the sorts of businesses Warren Buffett finds compelling.

Debt-financing to fund and fuel growth is expensive and restrictive. While interest rates are low at present, the covenants lenders require companies to honor are incredibly restrictive. Venture capital is more expensive and nearly as restrictive. Therefore, the wisest way to fund growth is to do it from retained earnings – from profits that are held inside the company rather than distributed to owners or shareholders in some fashion. It’s not sexy, but it is wise, and companies that do it tend to have strong balance sheets. So that’s one reason that the sustainable growth rate hovers around 25% per year – you can only accumulate retained earnings so fast.

There’s another reason, and it is cultural. Few companies that deliver tangible (rather than virtual) products and services can scale faster than that. There’s a long list of companies that serve as case examples (or cautionary tales) who radically exceeded that rate. A great case study is the defunct airline, People’s Express. People’s Express imploded because it grew so rapidly it couldn’t onboard enough new staff without diluting the culture that enabled its early growth. When it failed, the “old timers” were people who had been part of the company for more than 12 months. There was no institutional memory. And as the culture got diluted the company failed to deliver the customer experience the brand had promised and previously delivered. Customers who had been raving fans defected, and the rest is history.

Since their customers and prospective customers tend to work on the same sorts of cycles, top-flight salespeople work to engage customers about their long-term initiatives and development plans. They want to know what’s going to happen, not just what’s already happening. That’s the only remaining method to insure that you’re already in the conversation when the customer begins to recognize an approaching need. But you cannot do this effectively unless you’ve invested the time and attention to understand the customer’s business (current performance, challenges, threats, objectives, initiatives, priorities), as well as the effort to develop relationships long before you begin to propose anything. You play the long game to earn your way into those relationships.

2.  Network Up The second thing that top-flight salespeople consistently do is set the bar for network connections and developing relationships higher and higher. When I help salespeople analyze, map, and understand their networks, the salespeople who fail to reach higher often surprise me. Salespeople tend to reach a comfort zone dealing with people at a given level in their customer and prospect companies. And I often hear them express fear of “going over the heads” of their primary contacts both in their current customers and in their prospective customers. It’s terribly short-sighted.

A few months ago I had a memorable conversation with an excellent salesperson who was terrified at the prospect of trying to create a C-level relationship. In private he shared that he had no idea what he would talk about in a conversation with someone at that level. I asked him to describe in detail what he knew about one of his largest customers where he felt vulnerable to a new competitor. The depth of what he understood about the customer’s business was startling. While his relationships were all at the middle-management level and below, his understanding of how the customer did business and where the company struggled was very deep. I asked permission to pull the CEO of the salesperson’s own company into our conversation to listen. I then asked the salesperson to repeat the overview. He talked for fifteen minutes with a lot of energy about the customer company. I then turned to his CEO and asked him for a piece of unfiltered feedback. I asked the CEO to tell the salesperson whether that understanding would be valuable and welcome if he had been the top executive of the customer organization. Without a minute’s hesitation, the CEO looked at his salesperson and said this: “You’d be priceless. You have the kind of deep understanding that a CEO fights to get, and from which he or she is usually insulated. Once I knew that you had this kind of insight, I’d keep you in easy reach. And I’d reach for you.” The salesperson was amazed.

Those relationships take some courage to create, and they must be earned. But earning them becomes possible if you’ve invested the effort to sharpen yourself, and the effort to understand the customer’s situation in depth.

SPIN Selling has been called the best sales book ever written to date, and it may well be. But what’s too often missed about Rackham’s brilliant model is digging deep enough into the customer’s situation at the beginning. Salespeople exposed to SPIN Selling get enamored with the “I” (Implicate) and then begin from an understanding that’s too shallow. Unless and until you understand the customer’s circumstances (their situation – the “S” in SPIN Selling) well enough to understand what will drive their decision process, you could implicate a need that’s too small to motivate action. The need may be real, and the solution may be a great fit. But if there are larger drivers afoot, your whole effort could get shelved as simply not important enough. That’s a wretched place to be.

3.  Get Visible Many salespeople have described a fear of being highly visible inside their customer’s and prospective customer’s organizations. That one baffles me. Yes, I’ve listened carefully. Yes, I’ve heard them worry that if they were too visible they would become targets for unfavorable attention of some kind. But, honestly, I just don’t get it. Here’s why:

One of my LinkedIn endorsements is from a friend long-retired whose company was a client of mine very early in my sales career. I did millions of dollars of business with his firm, with an average invoice of only about $10,000. And I was the only seller that cultivated a relationship with the firm’s principals, him included. I worked very hard not only to understand his business model and industry segment, but his business specifically. And that understanding enabled me to offer a perspective he couldn’t easily get elsewhere. It was my earliest experience of learning to “speak truth to power / authority.” But it paid off handsomely for him, for me, for his firm, and for the company I represented. I was as thoroughly insulated from competing sellers as I could have dreamed. And I earned that relationship every day by making myself visible, listening constantly and carefully, and thinking hard about my client’s business.

Being visible means being known as a valuable resource by more than the direct users of your product or service. And that means being known well beyond those who manage the buying process (whether “purchasing,” “procurement,” “strategic sourcing,” or “supply chain management.”) Those who are affected by your products and services need to know you too, and that certainly included executives. They need to understand that you’re there to create value in advance of and in excess of the value you expect to receive in return. And they need to know that you’ll welcome it if and when they reach for you. They cannot reach for you if they cannot see you.

Top-flight B2B salespeople are involved far earlier in decision processes than the marketing automation folk tend to see. When they have relationships that are deep, high, and in advance of an approaching need, they are able to help frame the discussion of the approaching need, and even the framework within which a solution will be applied. And it is social networks and social selling resources that enable salespeople to identify, understand, approach, and engage real decision-makers long before a buying process begins.

So the question is: what do your relationships look like with your customers and prospective customers? Are you playing the long game? Are you networking up? And are you getting more and more visible? If not, why not?

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. 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.