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Read. Learn. Sell.

January 9, 2017 // 8:30 AM

How to Have Your Best Sales Year Yet

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Imagine yourself in one year’s time. You’ve just finished an incredible year. Not only did you meet or exceed quota month after month -- meaning you beat your previous annual number by a long shot -- but you also learned new skills, strengthened existing ones, and became an all-around stronger salesperson.

This vision is probably compelling. But as writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

If you want to get better and set new personal records, simply wanting it isn’t enough. You need a framework to guide your self-improvement efforts, give you focus, and help you track your progress.

Luckily, we’ve created a 12-month strategy for you. This guide covers the essential elements of modern selling: Prospecting, sales productivity, calling, qualifying, product demos and sales presentations, social selling, negotiating, emailing, insight selling, networking, thought leadership, and referrals.

The advice comes from many of the top sales experts in the world, including Lori Richardson, Warren Greshes, Bill Cates, Jim Keenan, Michael Pedone, Joanne Black, Heather Morgan, and more.

Read on to find your plan to having your best sales year yet.

The Ultimate Sales Guide to Beating Last Year's Numbers

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Month 1: Prospecting

John Doerr, president and co-founder of RAIN Group and co-author of "Insight Selling"

First, truly think about your value proposition for a meeting.

The challenge we all face in prospecting is to provide our prospect a reason to meet with us: Best practices, great results, recent research findings, and so forth. Buyers will meet with you if there is something in the meeting of value to them.

This is a real call I had recently with a salesperson we’ll call Kate:

Kate: Hi, I am Kate from HR Plus Consulting. I would like to schedule an hour to meet with you about our company. How about Tuesday or Wednesday?”

Me: “What value will I get from meeting with you?”

Kate: “We will show you the value of working with us.”

Me: “But what value will I get in the meeting?”

Kate: “Um … we will show you the value of our services?”

Me: “How about, ‘You will learn what employee benefits you should be offering that your competitors already offer. I will share the best ways to attract employees in a tight labor market and what’s working to retain millennials.’ Could you do that?”

Kate: “I think we can do that. Will you take a meeting?”

Me: “No, I have no need for that right now, but I bet others might. Try it. Happy selling.”

Kate gave me no compelling reason to speak with her, so she didn’t book the meeting. If you don’t provide value, you won’t get meetings either.

Your ultimate offer might be a particular consulting methodology, a type of software, legal advice, operations plan, or marketing tactic, but the interim offers -- the offers you make and prospects accept before they buy from you -- must be crafted with the utmost care.

In addition, provide value at every touch.

The first meeting is just that: A first meeting. Don’t simply follow up with, “I wanted to see what you thought of what we discussed” -- this doesn’t show the prospect why they’ll derive value from continuing to speak with you. Eventually you'll sell your company, your offering, and yourself. But first, sell the idea that the prospect's time will be well-spent during every conversation.

It’s fine to ask for feedback on what’s been discussed, but make sure you also provide a new idea or suggestion, include a white paper relevant to what was most important to them, share more detail on your research, or add value in some other way.

Work on adding value upfront and you will amp up your prospecting success.

Lori Richardson, CEO and founder of Score More Sales

Take a targeted list of 20-100 probable buyers and mail them a five-sentence letter focused on them -- not you and your services. Time the letter to arrive the same day you make your first call. If you include a call-to-action in the written message, your response rate may be as high as 30%.

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Month 2: Sales Productivity

Warren Greshes, speaker and author of “The Best Damn Sales Book Ever: 16 Rock Solid Rules for Achieving Sales Success”

Selling time is finite. In other words, you can only sell when your prospects are around -- which for most salespeople, means you can only sell during business hours.

Paperwork time, on the other hand, is infinite. You can’t call buyers at 3 a.m. on Sunday, but you can do administrative tasks. Unsuccessful salespeople tend to do paperwork during selling time. Successful ones reserve all activities that don’t require prospect interaction for non-sales hours.

On a related note, know who you’re going to call that day before you walk into the office. Don’t walk in, sit down, and start going through your names: You’ll waste 25 minutes you could have been on the phone.

That’s why the last thing you should do each night is put together your to-do list and call list for the next day. You’ll hit the ground running. And if you can free up an extra 15 minutes in your day for prospecting, you might schedule one more appointment or make three additional calls per week. That could lead to four more clients every month.

Finally, set a firm cut-off time for late prospects. My personal limit is 20 minutes. If our appointment is at 3, and we haven’t connected by 3:20, I’ll ask to make another appointment.

This helps you avoid spending too long waiting for prospects who may not be serious. In addition, it tells them your time is valuable -- and they should treat it as such.

John Boyens, sales productivity expert and co-founder and president of The Boyens Group

Every week, make up a detailed time plan which you can modify as needed. Except in times of crisis, try to make sure day-to-day issues don't push your strategic time priorities off schedule.

Successful people also identify and eliminate time wasters. Look at your work schedule from last week and ask yourself, 'If my distribution of time does not change, will I be able to achieve my personal and/or professional goals?'

If your answer is no, ask yourself:

  • What activities should I continue doing?
  • What activities would I like to start doing?
  • What activities must I stop doing?

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Month 3: Sales Calls

Art Sobczak, president of Business By Phone, Inc. and author of "Smart Calling"

Too many salespeople do not have a defined process for planning their calls, or know how to execute each part: Speaking with assistants, leaving effective voicemails, and creating a value-packed opening.

It also boggles my mind that with all of the sales intelligence available to us with a few clicks -- and so much great sales messaging instruction instantly accessible -- the majority of sales calls still do not contain personalized, customized, tailored value for the listener. As a result, assistants screen calls, voicemails are ignored, and callers get brushed off if they do speak with someone live.

Professional salespeople should educate themselves, train, practice, and execute like a specialist. The information is available. And every true professional invests in their ongoing improvement.

Sales professionals should record their calls regularly as well. Listen independently, with peers, and with coaches. We tend to be our own toughest critics, but we also don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore an outside evaluator is of great value.

I don’t have scientific evidence on this, but my observation and experience suggest that out of all their connection attempts, salespeople most commonly mess up the first connect call.

Many misguided managers and organizations still demand placing large quantity of calls, playing the throw-it-up-against-the-wall numbers game. This is a bad strategy. Success in prospecting is not a numbers game. It’s a quality game.

Making 20 more calls does not get you that much closer to a “yes” if you’re not placing a quality call each time. That’s like a baseball player swinging at every pitch thinking it enhances his chance at getting a hit.

Granted, you still need to be placing calls and talking to people, so the activity needs to be there. When you systematize your pre-call routine (information gathering, preparing questions, etc.) you can place many quality calls quickly. It usually takes several attempts to initially reach a decision maker, so you don’t have to do all of your planning for every single event attempt. On subsequent attempts, simply review your notes and remind yourself of what you had done initially.

Brian Tracy, keynote speaker, author, and chairman and CEO of Brian Tracy International

I developed a technique called the 100 calls method. It has changed my career, as well as the careers of many sales professionals I’ve coached. Simply make a resolution to make 100 sales prospecting calls as quickly as you can without emotionally investing in their reactions. As far as you are concerned, you don’t care whether these buyers respond positively or negatively. Your fear therefore disappears, making you sound more relaxed and confident. It’s a great way to become more experienced.

(Note: This doesn’t mean you should rip through a list of 100 prospects without doing research or pausing for breath. All sales calls should be customized, so do just enough research that you can speak to your prospects with some familiarity.)

Stop using call scripts: They’re often too impersonal and inhibit natural conversations. Calling (and sales in general) should be very personal. Cater to your customer’s individual, specific needs. Never attempt to sell on the first call -- focus on information gathering.

Unless you are selling something inexpensive that requires little thought, interview the prospect by asking questions. Take notes, and tell them you will come back to them. This allows you to build the relationship and exude geniality and friendliness.

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Month 4: Qualifying

Michael Pedone, founder and CEO of SalesBuzz.com

To become a better qualifier, don’t move a deal forward or remove it from your pipeline until you can answer these three questions:

  1. Do they have a problem I can solve?
  2. Are they a part of the decision making process, if not the budget authority?
  3. Can they forge the solution, should they decide they want it?

It’s also important to know the difference between a sales script and a process. You don’t have to memorize a series of lines -- in sales, the magic happens when you’re being yourself. But you do need to prepare the general outline for your conversation before it happens.

You should know the rationale behind every question, when you ask it, and its connection to the next question. Not only will you be far more prepared for unexpected answers or pushback from your prospect, but you’ll know whether or not your questions are accomplishing their purpose.

If your sales manager tells you to ask a question, make sure you understand what had to happen before to prompt that question and what should come after.

In addition, steer clear of manipulative questions such as, “What do you see not working about this deal?”

Prospects can hear, see, and sense the setup coming. The salesperson isn’t truly seeking to understand what the problem is -- they’re looking for information they can use against the prospect.

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Month 5: Product Demos and Sales Presentations

Jim Keenan, CEO of A Sales Guy, Inc.

Never give a demo or presentation without running a discovery call first. Everything you show the prospect in your demo should depend on what you learned during discovery: You need to know their current situation, how they run their business, what their existing product or solution looks like, and so forth. Use that information to compare and contrast life now to life with your product.

I also tell salespeople to separate their discovery and demo calls. You can’t fully understand the buyer’s process and needs, then create a customized demo in a single call.

Not only will you give a more compelling demo, you’ll also spend your time more productively. Some salespeople rush to give a demo as soon as their prospect shows interest. But this approach makes the customer angry if there’s not a good fit, and it’s a poor use of the salesperson’s time and resources. Qualify your prospect before your demo.

To quickly make demos more effective, stop saying “if.” I hear reps say, “If you outsource design work, you’ll like this feature … ” “If you use [competitor] … ” “If you have clients sign in … ”

The problem? This shows prospects you don’t understand their business. “If” translates to, “I have no idea what you do, so I’m throwing things at the wall and hoping some stick.”

Instead, draw clear connections between what you learned in discovery and what you’re showing them. For example, you might say, “You told me you outsource design work, so let’s walk through the template creation tool.”

Now your prospect knows you’ve listened to them and honed in on their specific pain points or opportunities, which builds your credibility.

On a related note, don’t include more than six features in your demo. Most buyers are only dealing with three or four problems or priorities at a single time; if you’re showing six-plus features, you’re likely showing some that are unrelated to their situation.

Colleen Francis, president and owner of Engage Selling Solutions

The biggest mistake salespeople make is failing to align features and benefits with the customer’s compelling reason to buy. Sales presentations should always start with a discussion of the client’s business objectives for the project or purchase. Once you have agreement on those objectives, you can share how your solution will meet them using the following formula:

  • Share the product feature
  • Discuss the value this feature brings to the customer specifically. Use language such as, “The benefit to you is … ”
  • Provide an example or proof. Use specific language such as, “For example, ABC company was able to … ”
  • Ask a question to make sure they understand
  • Ask for the sale

Never start your presentation by apologizing. It sets a negative tone for the entire meeting.

Customers like to work with successful people, not victims. So 99 times out of 100, you're better off saying nothing rather than apologizing.

If you're late, don't ask for extra time; just adjust your presentation to compensate. If your handouts aren't ready, do the presentation like you never meant to offer handouts in the first place, then offer to send them the materials after you finish.

The only thing that starts a meeting off on a worse note than an apology is an apology with strings attached: "Sorry I'm late, but I'll still need the full hour … " or "I apologize in advance that this presentation is so long, but I need to cover a lot of information." Nothing good ever comes after the word "but."

An engaging presentation is one that complements your message, not one that is your message. So, forget about never letting them see you sweat -- don't ever let your customers see you reading from your slides. Your slides should contain key points, not elaborate prose, and they shouldn't mimic exactly what you're saying. Stick to the following six rules for all your slides:

  1. No more than three bullets per slide.
  2. No more than one line per bullet.
  3. Use 28 point font or larger.
  4. Don’t cover more than five slides every 20 minutes.
  5. Use pictures or diagrams instead of text wherever possible.
  6. Don’t give the slides out until the end of the presentation. You want them to engage with you, not the printed slide deck.

John Sherer, director of sales at Appcues

Every prospect should get a different product demonstration. A demo should focus on the core of what your prospect needs to see, not each bell and whistle in your offering.

Often, I’ll hear a rep get to a place in a call where they should stop and move to close or next steps. Instead, they keep showing and talking about the product. They risk losing their prospect’s interest, wasting valuable time, and making some of the product’s features seem like overkill. Some of the best sales calls I’ve been a part of never showed the product.

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Month 6: Social Selling

Kurt Shaver, social selling expert and founder of The Sales Foundry

Some salespeople are intimidated by the idea of sharing content on their social platforms. I suggest using a three-stage process so you can slowly build up confidence.

  1. Start by sharing the content your company is producing. This includes blog posts, ebooks, newsletter updates, and so forth. This is an easy win, since everything is already tailored to your prospects’ interests.
  2. Add industry content. Give people a reason to follow you specifically, rather than subscribing to your organization’s RSS feed or blog. Good sources include industry trade magazines, publications your prospects read, relevant white papers and research reports, etc.
  3. Create original content. This step is pretty advanced, but it has a huge pay-off: You have your ear to the ground and can quickly pick up on common trends buyers are experiencing.

I also suggest reps pay attention to their individual social engagement metrics. Are there certain times of day that tend to generate more comments, likes, or reshares? Do certain types of content perform better than others? If you’re using LinkedIn, you can track your social selling score with the SSI Index -- it measures your performance against four main benchmarks.

Viveka von Rosen, founder of Linked Into Business and author of "LinkedIn Marketing: An Hour a Day"

Salespeople should stop sending extremely long introduction messages on LinkedIn that are just about them and their product or service. I can't tell you how many copy-and-pasted sales letters I get on LinkedIn which have nothing to do with me or my business. Even if they did, these messages are so long and dense there's no way I'm going to read them.

If you are going to send an InMail or message on LinkedIn, please get to know your prospect first.

  • Look at their profile.
  • Identify that they are, in fact, a good prospect for your product or service.
  • Address something specific to their profile or content.
  • Use the message or InMail to ask for a phone call or a meeting – but keep it simple and value-rich.

Yes, it might take you a few more minutes -- but you have a much higher probability of your prospect actually engaging with you and trying your product or service if you take the time to research them.

Another practice that salespeople should retire in 2017 is connecting with a prospect on LinkedIn and automatically adding them to a newsletter or email list. When we connect on LinkedIn, we are only agreeing to connect. Connecting on LinkedIn is not tacit permission to fill buyers’ inboxes with irrelevant spam.

Sharing updates is quick and can go a long way toward driving traffic to your LinkedIn profile. Install the LinkedIn Sharing Bookmarklet, which allows you to share any article to LinkedIn in a matter of seconds.

Not every article you read online will have a LinkedIn sharing feature, so the extension makes it very easy for you to share valuable and relevant content as you come across it. The organic nature of those shares tends to reflect in more views and engagement.

Download the LinkedIn mobile app if you have not yet done so. LinkedIn’s mobile app has better analytics on update shares than the browser. Not only does it display how many people have engaged with your update, but it segments viewers by job titles, geography and top three companies. This can be extremely powerful – especially if you notice that multiple people from one of your accounts is looking at your update.

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Month 7: Negotiations

Ray Makela, managing director of Sales Readiness Group

I would recommend retiring any negotiation tactic that comes across as manipulative or attempts to “trick” the buyer into making a commitment. Many sales negotiation courses focus a significant amount of time on negotiation tactics, but a collaborative negotiation is about so much more than tips and tricks. No tactic is going to be more effective than doing a great job of understanding the customer and selling value.

If you’re selling a fake Rolex or a used car, these manipulative tactics might get the deal done, but in the world of B2B sales, manipulative tactics are rarely effective and often backfire. We’re all familiar (and have likely had bad experiences) with manipulative tactics like artificial deadlines, threats, and diversions intended to compel the buyer to make a decision.

The most important step a salesperson can take to improve their negotiation abilities is to make a conscious effort to plan the negotiation. In negotiation, planning creates power. Simple exercises like understanding where you hold power in the situation (and where your buyer’s power is limited) can improve your ability to negotiate once you’re at the table. Plan key questions to understand the interests behind the buyer’s stated positions and take time during the planning phase to generate multiple creative options to satisfy both parties’ interests.

The amount of time and effort the salesperson puts into a deal should be directly proportional to the degree to which they can’t afford to lose. The more strategic, long term, high-margin and valuable the deal is to the business, the more time should be spent in the planning phase. A simple negotiation checklist (see How to Prepare for a Winning Sales Negotiation) can go a long way to ensure the seller is ready. A checklist can also be a great coaching tool for managers to help identify gaps and weaknesses in the negotiation plan.

It’s important to plan the opening of a negotiation the same way you prepare to open a sales call. Set the stage for a collaborative, successful negotiation while getting all the issues out on the table. A sample negotiation statement might sound like this:

We’re excited to work with you to deliver improved care for your patients using our breakthrough technology. (Value proposition)

We both have a strong shared interest in seeing your patients lower their risk factors and improve their overall health. (Collaboration statement)

Based on the inputs you’ve given us, we believe this program will improve outcomes while lowering total cost of ownership by 20% over the life of the product. (Value proposition)

We’d both like to see this program launched by the end of the quarter, and it sounds like we still need to agree on the per unit cost, the length of the contract and the payment terms. (Key issues)

Is there anything else we need to address in order to finalize an agreement? I’d like to propose that we explore a couple of options that might help resolve these differences. Does this approach make sense to you? (Proposed approach and response)

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Month 8: Sales Emails

Heather Morgan, founder and CEO of Salesfolk

It’s crucial to research your target audience before you reach out. Let’s say one of your buyer personas is a CMO. You should craft a message just for CMOs -- not CFOs or marketing analysts.

To research the persona, run a LinkedIn search for CMOs. Create a list of 12 to 24 people from those results. Get a sense for their KPIs, pain points, and priorities by reading their website bios, tweets, job descriptions for people in the same industry with the same title, and of course, LinkedIn profiles. LinkedIn’s “Recommendations” section is also usually a gold mine of information: It’s a clear portrayal of how they see and appreciate other people and how others view them.

After you write a new email campaign, set it aside overnight. The next day, bring up the messages again and read them out loud. This exercise puts you in your recipient’s shoes. Ask yourself, “Is anything confusing? Boring? Misleading?” Also, make sure you catch grammar mistakes.

Consistently track the results of your email campaigns. Sending messages without analyzing their performance isn’t smart, because you don’t know if they’re working.

I track open and response rates. If your open rates are really low, it might be a problem with email deliverability, your subject line, or your list. But this number isn’t completely accurate: You can get false positives and negatives from privacy settings and Google parsing your inbox.

With that in mind, I suggest focusing on positive response rates and appointment rates. If you can, track your results all the way through the funnel to Closed Won or Closed Lost. Which emails are helping you close deals the most quickly? Sourcing the most revenue?

Lately, I’ve been seeing lots of salespeople include bulleted and numbered lists. Our research shows this doesn’t work well -- we’ve tested emails with bullet points and numbered lists 12 times with more than 100,000 data points. They don’t perform as well as emails without bullets or numbers. We think it’s because these messages look more like mass marketing emails than individualized one-off ones.

Michael Pici, sales director at HubSpot

It’s a constant battle to earn your prospect’s interest and get a reply. Many salespeople are having trouble because they’re still using the legacy approach, which is basically your elevator pitch: “Hey, I’m Mike Pici, and here’s how I can help you.”

Instead, you should lead with an insight about the prospect. That could be a problem they’re having, an internal motivator within the company, or an industry event. When you can tie that to your unique value as a salesperson, you’re going to win more often than not.

The opening line should set the context: “Here’s what I know is happening in your universe, and I’m here to help.”

The second line is making the connection between the fact about your prospect and how you typically help solve that problem, maybe including your past related experiences.

The third line is an engaging question -- something that gets the conversation going.

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Month 9: Insight Selling

Brent Adamson, Principal Executive Advisor at CEB and co-author of "The Challenger Sale" and "The Challenger Customer"

To get started with insight selling, you need answers to three questions.

First, “What is it that my customer doesn’t know about their business but should?”

In other words, what problem do they have that they don’t know about? What opportunity do they have to improve that they are not capitalizing on?

To answer that, ask yourself a follow-up question: “How does my customer currently think about their business?”

Your response should revolve around their priorities, objectives, and plans. It should have nothing to do with your solution. We’re often concerned with how our customers think about us -- whether they know who we are, what we can do, and the value of our offering. But the best way to understand them is to learn how they understand themselves.

Honing in on what your customers care about helps you identify solutions or strategies they can use to accomplish their goals more quickly, efficiently, or successfully.

Finally, ask yourself, “Who inside my customer’s organization would be most interested in the answer to the first question?”

This reveals your target contact. You need someone who’s willing to take action and build consensus around your insight.

Because buying is so incredibly difficult today, anything we can do to facilitate the process makes us likelier to close. Rather than asking their customer to coach them through the sale, the best salespeople coach the customer through the purchase.

Once they’ve gotten their contact’s attention with a compelling insight, they might say, “By the way, talk to these two people within your organization. Be prepared to answer these three questions. I recommend using this term for person #1 and this term for person #2. You may also want to use this bar chart.”

One of the biggest mistakes salespeople make with insight selling is leading with their own solutions. Don’t start the presentation by talking about your company: Start by talking about the customer’s company. Reps often think they can’t present insights if the customer has never heard their business’s name before, fearing they don’t have credibility yet. However, customers are eager to hear how you can improve their business -- not how many awards you’ve won.

David Brock, CEO of Partners In Excellence and author of "Sales Manager Survival Guide"

Insights should always be as specific to the situation and company as possible. Sometimes it’s possible to be very specific, either because of knowledge or experience you have from working with the customer or data you have about their performance.

For instance, a number of years ago, I knew a customer was losing $40 million per month of revenue because they were not addressing a certain problem in the organization. Honing in on that missed opportunity and showing the prospect what was causing it immediately caught their attention and provoked them to take action. Our average sales cycle was about nine to 12 months, but this process was about two weeks.

If you don’t have that level of specific information about a company, more general -- but relevant to the person -- insights are still far better than none at all. A lot of salespeople think delivering an insight will make the customer immediately pull out a purchase order, but all a well-executed insight should do is provoke a conversation.

For example:

  • “Tell me more … ”
  • “How did you come to those conclusions?”
  • “We don’t see that as an issue for us.” (This objection is actually a great opener to a conversation.)

All of these lead to deeper conversations and deeper engagement and ownership of the issue by the customer. Consequently, we have to think, “What’s the best way to engage a customer in this conversation?”

The salesperson has to be capable of conducting a conversation and dealing with the customer’s specific questions. Too many don’t realize the insight is the start of the conversation and are not prepared to support their end of the discussion.

For example, a salesperson called me up a year ago and said, “We think you are underperforming your potential by 25%.”

My immediate response was, “Tell me more, what are we doing wrong?”

He was completely unprepared for that response and responded, “We help companies improve their performance in X areas. Some of our customers have gotten 25% improvement.”

“You said our performance should be 25% higher, so what are we doing wrong?” I responded.

This ended up being a huge misfire by the salesperson, because he couldn’t engage me in a conversation specific to me and my concerns. It turned out he was only reading a script and had no idea how to move the conversation forward, so he lost a tremendous opportunity to engage me.

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Month 10: Networking

John Corcoran, business relationships expert and creator of Smart Business Revolution

People often struggle to add value, especially when they’re connecting with someone who’s really well-known or successful. They think, “What could I possibly provide to this person?” However, they’re usually thinking one-dimensionally in terms of that professional’s industry.

Any one person can use help with many different things. You usually need to have a conversation with them or do some research to find a creative opportunity to add value. For example, maybe they love Thai food, so you suggest a great new Thai place that recently opened in their neighborhood. Or their daughter is applying to graduate school in Southern California, so you connect them with an alumnus from one of her top picks or give them background information on the area.

Thanks to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and more, you can find details on almost everyone. The most successful networkers are the ones who follow up, not the people who make the best first impression.

You need to reach out after you’ve met if you want the relationship to actually go somewhere.

This is also where delivering value comes into play: It gives you a reason to contact them and sets you apart from other people who send canned sales letters.

In addition, don’t be afraid to attend new venues and events. But if your efforts aren’t panning out, shift course.

For instance, maybe you’re on the board of a local organization. Track how many clients that position has helped you acquire in the past year. If you haven’t gotten any, staying on the board is fine for personal reasons -- but don’t tell yourself it’s for business purposes. If you’re trying to grow your client base, involve yourself in another organization.

Matt Heinz, president of Heinz Marketing

Be more proactive about inviting people to connect. Each morning, look at your calendar from yesterday and add new contacts to your LinkedIn network. You don’t need to be best friends with them -- but you do need to customize your request and make it genuine.

If you do this on a daily basis, your network will grow significantly.

Furthermore, make sure you’re adding consistent value. That might translate to posting relevant content, introducing people, or volunteering your expertise. This approach takes more time and effort than sending selfish emails about your product, but the only way to form solid relationships is giving before you take.

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Month 11: Thought Leadership

Dan Tyre, HubSpot sales director

Before trying to become a thought leader, you have to figure out what knowledge or subject matter expertise you can provide. There are ultimately three levels of experience that determine what issues or problems a salesperson should create content around.

Beginner: Salespeople with less than six months of experience. These salespeople are characterized by youthful enthusiasm and a willingness to help. What they lack in expertise they make up with hustle and extra work. Their inexperience is their biggest weakness, but their unique value is their rookie mentality.

They can create basic content, such as “The Beginner’s Guide to X,” and write posts answering product questions.

Intermediate: Salespeople with six to 24 months of experience.

They have a foundational understanding of sales, know the right questions to ask buyers (as well as some of the answers), and can explain the underlying philosophy behind their value proposition. They’re still fairly green and are limited by a relatively small sample size, but their familiarity with their buyer personas and their company’s offering is an advantage.

Intermediate salespeople can blog about getting started with a process or product, the top mistakes prospects make, and other topics that require a bit more knowledge.

Advanced: Salespeople with over two years of experience.

They have significant experience in all aspects of the business and have seen a wide variety of sales situations that they’ve handled successfully. These reps are susceptible to getting bored or careless as they become more comfortable in their roles, but they have the most value to offer their prospects because of their deep knowledge. The more experienced a salesperson becomes, the more capable they are of producing true thought leadership.

No one starts out as a thought leader on day one. Every salesperson starts out writing some information with the intent of helping their prospects. Then they start writing for more niche audiences or exploring more nuanced situations, building a consistent message, and gaining a following. Being a true thought leader is hard work. You have to know what you are talking about, you have to be consistent, you have to have a good editor, you have to post in the right places, and you have to be patient while you build your reputation. There are a lot of opinion leaders but only a few thought leaders, which is why they are so valuable.

To measure your success, keep track of your blog views, shares, leads, customers, and external invitations to contribute (such as speaking engagements or guest blog posts).

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Month 12: Referrals

Bill Cates, internationally recognized referral sales expert and keynote speaker

Foreshadow referrals with your prospects. Let them know you know referrals are earned. When you first connect with a buyer, you might say, “We meet a lot of our clients through introductions to other people who see value in what we do. I’m hoping we can not only meet but exceed your expectations so you feel comfortable introducing us to others.”

Not only does this show a prospective client you’re going to do a great job, it also plants the suggestion of a referral in their mind.

In addition, frequently check in with your clients. Ask, “How are we doing? What’s working, and what’s not working? How can I help?”

Rather than hiding behind a survey or email, reach out in-person or over the phone whenever possible. This personalizes your communication and creates a sense of engagement. If you have local relationships, use the power of social event marketing as well by hosting client appreciation events where your customers can make new contacts of their own while reinforcing their positive attitudes toward your company. Acknowledging and appreciating the people who see value in your product produces referrals without you even asking for them.

Tony Alessandra, author, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker

Salespeople are taught to ask for referrals right after a sale, but this is often a poor time to ask. The customer doesn’t yet have experience using your product, so giving referrals isn’t something they’re comfortable with yet.

Wait until the client expresses a positive experience with your product or service.

Once I get the referral’s name, I gather as much information about the person as possible. I don’t want to blindly contact them without understanding their personality, preferences, and background.

I might ask my customer, “Tell me about [the referral]: What’s she like? Does she immediately get down to business or does she get to know someone first? Is she fast-paced or more methodical? Do you know if she’s ever had any experience with a similar [company/product/purchase]?”

Then I’d ask the referrer, “Do you mind if use your name -- or better yet, do you think you could [set up a coffee or lunch where the three of us get together, make a phone call on my behalf, send an email to them before I reach out]?”

Joanne Black, founder of No More Cold Calling and author of "No More Cold Calling: The Breakthrough System That Will Leave Your Competition in the Dust"

Current clients are the best source of referrals -- both to others in their companies and to their counterparts in other companies.

To get started with referral selling, sales reps should:

  • List everyone they know within their client companies
  • Organize the list with the people they know best at the top
  • Identify those in their company who have the strongest relationships with their prospects
  • Start asking for referral introductions -- not just names and contact information, but actual introductions

Always start your referral search with your strongest relationships and ask the people you know best, not the people you think would have the best connections to your named accounts.

Focusing on each element of the sales process by turn will make you a far better salesperson. Get ready to crush your quota.

HubSpot CRM

Topics: Sales Strategy

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