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Today’s post is the final installment of the social selling series.  To review, we’ve covered:

Creating a Robust Online Presence

Developing Social Networks

Using Social Tools to Gather Intelligence

Sharing Content to Drive Business Development

Today we’re going to address the ultimate goal of social selling: relationships.

Being online is critical, but it is not going to bring in work.  Creating a network is key, but once again being connected or friends with someone online won’t generate new business.  The same can be said for gathering intelligence – information that you and your firm need to be better sellers and marketers, but social listening won’t result in new project commissions.  Content sharing gets us a lot closer, but you’re not using social selling to be a publisher or content curator.

At the end of the day, it is still relationships that matter most.  And while you are using social selling to create new relationships and strengthen existing ones, there’s a whole world of difference between "virtual" relationships and real-world relationships.

Social selling is a means to an end – a way to meet new contacts, be they decision makers, decision influencers, or connectors.  But the “end” is not gaining a new connection with a person you targeted on LinkedIn.  The “end” is getting in front of them, meeting them in-person, or at least having a phone conversation with them.  The goal of using the social selling tools is ultimately to take the relationship offline.

Sure, social selling is a process, and will become a key tool for maintaining contact between personal visits or phone calls, but never lose sight of the ball here.  You want to generate new business for you and your firm.  The day may soon be here when it’s common for a surgeon on one side of the world to use a robot and remote connection to operate on someone on the other side of the world.  But for most of us, we want to meet that surgeon and talk with them, in person, before we move forward with the surgery.

The same thing holds true for our prospective clients.  So how do we get there?

For starters, begin expanding our network.  As we joined LinkedIn groups and gathered intelligence, we came across a number of people that we wanted to virtually meet, but we really didn’t have a good excuse to make the connection.

But now we’ve been sharing content, both in LinkedIn groups and in our LinkedIn status – and perhaps via Twitter and Facebook as well.  When we share content, we start to build name recognition.  In advertising lingo, practitioners refer to “effective frequency” – that is, the number of times a person must be exposed to a message before they make a response (or recall the message).

In a famous 1885 book entitled Successful Advertising, Hermann Ebbinghaus posited that it takes twenty exposures to an advertising message to get someone to purchase the product being advertised.  This has been studied again and again over the past century with no real agreement. 

However, a good rule for any marketing campaign is to focus on reaching the right people with regular frequency.  This applies to TV commercials, print advertisements, electronic ads, email campaigns, direct mail, etc.  In fact, it applies to blogging as well, as higher frequency posts generate more traffic and subscriptions – assuming that the content is of value to the readers.

There’s a direct correlation with social selling, because you need to be regularly sharing content to generate name recognition or personal brand awareness.  So before you begin reaching out to connect with total strangers, be sure that you are doing what it takes to get in front of them. 

Content moves swiftly on the social web, and if you only comment,  post, or Tweet occasionally, the reality is that very few of your social connections (or members of your LinkedIn groups) will ever see your posts.  Within LinkedIn you can, fortunately, get away with a lesser frequency than with Twitter, where you could make the exact same Tweet five times, spread throughout a single day, and only have a few of your followers see it more than once.

So make it a goal to regularly engage in group conversations, and share a continual stream of meaningful content on your status updates.

Once you feel that your targeted connection has been exposed to your posts, it’s time to reach out to them.

If they happen to be active in one of the group discussions, and you comment on the same discussion, there’s a very good chance they’ve seen your post and have some name recognition.  In this case, it’s an excellent time to invite them to connect on LinkedIn. 

In the previous post, we ran through a sample related to BIM-facilities management integration.  If a conversation is taking place on LinkedIn, make sure that you are participating.  But you can also use it as an excuse to make new connections.  For a targeted contact who has been active in the dialogue, send an invitation to connect (remember, you “know” them because you are in the same group).  A simple one may be:

“I recently joined the COAA Group and have been intrigued about the ongoing BIM dialogue.  My firm has been using BIM for more than five years, and I’m happy to be a resource should you have some specific issues or questions.  In fact, we just published an ebook, BIM for Owners – I’d be happy to send you a copy.”

Are you trying to sell them anything?  No, you are explaining your rationale for connecting, and offering to send them something.

Most people are not going to reject your request.

We’ve all had complete strangers try to connect with us.  They send a generic message, or try to sell us something in their invitation to connect.  But do we ever actually accept their request?  Rarely, if ever.

So make sure you are not that person.  Don’t send an invite with a crappy sales message: “We’re a 50-year-old engineering firm specializing in higher education and I think we could bring a lot of experience to your campus.  Let’s talk.”

Isn’t that off-putting?  

Social selling is misnamed, because you should never, ever sell.

Instead, focus on relationship-building.  Once you’ve found a legitimate excuse to connect with someone, and they’ve accepted, work to enhance the budding relationship.

I remember back in the pre-Internet days, a standard sales maintenance technique was mailing articles of interest to your prospects or clients.  You would come across an article that you thought might be meaningful to your contact, rip it out of the magazine, and send it with a short, hand-written note that said, “I thought you might be interested in reading this….”

That’s actually a great technique for social selling.  Not all your shares need to be “public” – they can be very targeted to certain connections.  Pull up your connection’s LinkedIn profile, and select the “Send a Message” button.  Write a short note, and include a hyperlink to the article or blog of interest (you can’t attach anything using the “Send a Message” feature).  Using the Autodesk example from the previous post, your targeted message could be:

“Good morning, Sarah.  I know that you are still struggling with how to integrate building models created in Revit with your ongoing facilities operations.  I just came across this excellent summary from Autodesk, the software company that produces Revit:  Hope things are going well with you!”

All you are really doing is sharing meaningful content, but you are sharing it with one specific person.  And while you could send the message to multiple recipients, it is probably better, from a relationship-building standpoint, to share the message individually with multiple contacts instead of several at once. 

Depending upon the recipient’s settings, he or she may receive an email notification of the message, or it may even pop up on their smart phone or tablet.

Yes, you can do the same thing via email.  But how many emails do you get a day?  How often do important emails to you get lost in the incessant stream that is your inbox?  However, very few people get regular LinkedIn messages, so yours will stand out. 

Just don’t abuse this feature!

I like to share the story of a county commissioner that was one of my contacts.  If I tried to call him, his gatekeeper would intercept the call.  If I sent an email, he’d probably never see it.  However, he was a very active Twitter user, and we follow each other.  So when I wanted to reach him directly, I’d simply send a Twitter direct message.  He’d usually respond quickly and directly.

Another way to build relationships online is by offering to introduce your contacts to someone they want to know or who could benefit them.  In this case, you are the connector.  If you help your connections with their business, they will certainly remember it.  Likewise, if you know someone that could really help your contact or provide valuable insight, by all means offer to make the introduction. 

It’s been said that networking is giving, and that is especially true with social selling.  You really are just building and enhancing your network, so give freely to your connections.

As you get to know them better, the opportunity might arise to write a LinkedIn recommendation or endorse their skills.  When appropriate, do this!  If you work on a project together, you may want to write a recommendation about the person’s project leadership.  If you hear them speak at a conference or society meeting, write a recommendation about their presentation skills.

They’ll have the option to approve the recommendation before it appears on their LinkedIn profile, and providing them with a well-written, unsolicited recommendation may very well make their day!

Once again, you are giving, not asking for business. 

Going Offline

You’ll need to decide when the time is right to take a new relationship offline.  When your new contact is five states away, this might not be an option.  But for successful new business development, you really need to progress the relationship to this stage.

By virtue of being socially connected, they will be more likely to agree to meet with you – especially if you have provided them with meaningful content or introduced them to people they wanted to meet.

The first face-to-face may be low key, at a neutral location.  Perhaps a conference, trade show, or society meeting.  Find out if they will be attending, and make plans to meet before, during, or after the event.  Ideally it will be more than just a handshake, but this is sort of like dating, and you’ll want to take it slow so as to not scare them off!

When you feel comfortable with your virtual relationship, give them a call.  But don’t sell to them!  Maybe you have a lead for them, which is always a good excuse for a phone call.  Maybe you found some valuable information for them, and you felt that it made sense to have a conversation before you forwarded it to them. 

As the relationship evolves, the time will come when it makes sense to invite them to coffee or lunch.  You can pick up the phone and do this (probably leaving a voice mail), or use the message feature of LinkedIn. 

If you have something of value to them that is not electronic in nature (like a book or hard-copy white paper, etc.), offer to drop it off at their office.  In some cases they may say, “Leave it at the front desk.”  That’s okay, but even better are the times when they say, “Ask the receptionist to call me – I’d like to meet in person.”  And of course, the best will be when they say, “Great, let’s do lunch.”

Don’t be afraid to push the conversation a bit.  When you offer to drop that something off, ask when they’re available for a few minutes because you’d “like to shake their hand and meet them in person.” 

Sometimes you’ll need to “push” this relationship development schedule a bit.  Maybe you’ve connected with a facility manager, you’ve shared some dialogue online, and this person’s company or institution has released an RFP, or you get intelligence that they are about to.

Go ahead and try to take the relationship offline, but never make it about you.  Develop a value message before you ever pick up the phone.  This may require brainstorming with your colleagues – project managers, marketing, business development.  Obviously you will be doing information-gathering (Do they have a preferred A/E/C?  Are there firms you should team with?  What is the timeframe?  How do you get prequalified to receive the RFP?  What’s driving the project?).  Yet, you still need to provide some value to them.

Maybe content can be the give: “Bob, we just completed a new student housing complex very similar to the one you have planned.  We developed a case study about the project, including feedback from students now living there.  They had a lot of great insight, and it actually provoked a lot of internal discussion about the expectations of students today.  Would you be interested in reading it as you embark on your project?  I’m also happy to hook you up with your counterpart at College X, and set up a tour for your key staff to benchmark.”

Obviously, in this example I’m trying to position my firm for the student housing complex.  But once again, I’m trying to provide value – in this instance a case study, relevant input from end-users, and a behind-the-scenes tour. 

While social selling has created a new playbook for business development, whether you are a dedicated business developer or seller-doer, the sales rules haven’t changed.  Don’t sell.  Educate.  Provide value around every corner.  Build and maintain relationships.  Focus on their point of view and what’s in it for them.

By adding social selling to your business development approach, you’ll have yet another weapon in your arsenal.  And, truth be told, a lot of technical professionals abhor cold calls (giving or receiving).  They freeze at networking events like conferences and society meetings.  They’re too shy to present at conferences.  So social selling provides another, less stressful yet effective option to develop new relationships.

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At the beginning of this series, I stated that even though I was presenting social selling as a series of steps, it is really an ongoing process.  So at any given moment in time, you may be doing all five steps at once.  You always need to be updating your profile.  You always need to be looking to expand your network, perhaps joining new groups.  Intelligence gathering is something that you need to be doing daily.  And finding and sharing content needs to become habit-forming, so you just do it.  Ultimately, each relationship you are building or strengthening will be in a different stage of development, so continually nurturing your connections is essential to success! 

How have you used social selling?  What advice do you have for those embarking on the process?