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The 6 Principles of Inbound Selling

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It’s no secret that buyers have changed.

Salespeople used to have all the information. But with the emergence of the internet and online review sites, buyers can do their own research, diagnose their own problems, and to a certain extent, design their own solutions.

This creates a significant shift in the dynamic between buyer and seller. Salespeople can no longer rely on information asymmetry to entice prospects into a conversation. So what can they use?

It’s a new era of selling -- far less pushy, prescriptive, and product-focused than the past. The rise of inbound selling necessitates new principles for salespeople to adapt to the changing reality. Here are the six tenets that I think all sellers would be smart to ascribe to if they hope to succeed in the years to come.

1) Know more about your prospects.

It’s true that buyers can learn about your company’s products or services without ever contacting a salesperson. But the flow of available information goes both ways. Salespeople can also glean an abundance of insights about their prospects through a quick online search. Why not fight fire with fire?

Pre-contact research is incredibly important in inbound selling. The more personalized and customized you can make your outreach, the more likely the buyer will tune in and respond.

From a company perspective, go to their website and learn about their products. Figure out how they differentiate from their competitors by poking around on rival companies’ websites. Visit review sites to understand how customers perceive them.

You should also strive to learn about the specific people you’ll be reaching out to and potentially working with. If they’ve published blog posts or third party articles, read them. Look them up on LinkedIn to get a sense of their career trajectory and primary job duties. Even check out their Facebook profile to pick up a few personal tidbits. Maybe you’ll get lucky and you’ll find that you have a common connection (or friend).

With so much information free for the taking, you have no excuse to be calling your buyers completely cold. If you sell a low price product with a high transaction volume, just five minutes will suffice. But if you sell a high price product and only close a few deals per quarter, I’d encourage you to invest a half hour to an hour per lead on research.  

2) Discover why they might buy from you before you even reach out.

In the case of inbound leads, you can probably stand to spend less time doing research. Why? Because you already know a bit about their interests.

When a person visits your site and converts on a form, you know when and what they downloaded. And if your company uses marketing automation software, you’ll be aware of the pages they’ve viewed and how often they’re coming back to your site.

All of this information is a great gauge of the prospect’s subject and level of interest. Use this knowledge to start the conversation. At HubSpot, reps say, “I see you downloaded an ebook on [subject]. What are you looking for help with?” Phrasing the question this way means the conversation doesn’t shut down if they didn’t read the content or it wasn’t what they were originally looking for. Instead, this question serves as a jumping-off point to start discussing their interests and needs.

3) Time and place your attempts.

Every second that goes by after you receive an inbound lead erodes your chances of connecting with the prospect. That’s why it’s critical to pick up the phone just after someone visited your website -- or even while they’re still on it.

It might seem a bit aggressive (or even creepy), but your call will be much more welcome while they’re in research mode than two hours later when they’re eating lunch, or trying to get something done. You’re actually helping them by timing your outreach in this way.

Another prime opportunity to reach out: the minute they open your email. If you’re on the road a lot and don’t have inside sales support, set up your marketing automation system to notify you via email or text message when a prospect is on your website or opening your emails.

This site visitor and email tracking data also has bearing on how you should prioritize lead outreach after their first visit and your first attempt. Contact prospects who have visited your website frequently before reaching out to less frequent visitors. To make this easier, create a view in your CRM to parse out recent visitors. 

And no matter if you generated the lead through outbound prospecting or inbound efforts, you should always make multiple attempts. Too many salespeople give up too soon. I suggest reaching out at least four or five times before sending a breakup email -- a secret response-driving weapon.

Social media can also help you improve your connect rate. As soon as you receive a lead, find them on social. Commenting on a post they’ve written or shared is a perfect entre to a conversation that you can just pick up the phone and continue. Your cold call just got a lot warmer.

4) Be interested, not just interesting.

As Saint Francis said, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”

You’ve researched your prospect and picked up on their inbound cues. Now use that information to demonstrate your genuine interest in them. Not really all that interested? You’re in the wrong profession.

Showing that you share interests with your prospects not only allows them to drop their guard so you can ask higher-level or open-ended questions, it also gives the seller a chance to learn what the prospect is working on before delivering their positioning statement. With more information about the buyer’s priorities and concerns in mind, the salesperson can closely tailor their value statement to the prospect’s needs.

In the past, a positioning statement was little more than an educated guess. But with the new information at your disposal, it’s no longer a guess -- it’s just educated.

5) Build up your thought leadership and following.

Every salesperson should be an expert on their products and services. But beyond that, they should also become experts on the industry they sell into, and the business issues their clients face. According to Dr. Robert Cialdini, authority is one of the biggest drivers of decision-making. Therefore, if a prospect perceives a salesperson as an expert, they’re far more likely to listen to their recommendations and potentially buy from them. Even better, if the content a salesperson publishes is shared online by others in the community, the prospect now has social proof of the salesperson’s expertise (another one of Cialdini’s principles of influence).

How can reps build up their thought leadership? Through writing. I highly recommend that all salespeople write a handful of blog posts on LinkedIn Pulse or a company or personal platform. They don’t have to be perfect -- just get your stream of consciousness thoughts on a page. That way you’re entering the discussion, and showing your buyers that you’re learning and exploring their world with them. If you’re strongly averse to writing or your company doesn’t allow it, raise your profile by curating and sharing interesting content from industry experts, thought leaders, and prospects on Twitter and/or Linkedin.

Another way of building up a following while ingratiating prospects to you is to ask them to contribute to an article you’re writing. I’ve found that if you reach out to people for their opinion, they’re very likely to oblige -- and even share the content after you’ve published it.

There’s no benchmark of how often you should post. Just aim to build up a small collection of blogs that you can send to prospects when the topics come up. Instant credibility earned.

6) Be wicked SMAHT.

Until now, these tenets have focused on activities sales reps should do. But equally as important in the world of inbound selling is having the right attitudes and attributes.

HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan uses the acronym “SMAHT” to describe the qualities of the modern salesperson:

  • Sharp. Know as much about your prospects as they know about you.
  • Motivated. Drive in sales will never go out of style.
  • Ambiverted. Today’s seller can’t be a straight extrovert. They must be a bit introverted to empathize with their prospects.
  • Helpful. Learn about the buyer’s industry and specific scenario to help as much as you can.
  • Transparent. Long gone are the days when you could pull the wool over buyers’ eyes. Be totally clear about the results and ROI of your product -- or incur a wrathful review.

A new era of selling has dawned, and what got you here won’t get you there. Adopt these six principles to stay relevant and earn revenue.

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