134214747If you're on the hunt for a new job or looking to proactively stay connected with peers, then LinkedIn is likely your social circle of choice. But the go-to networking venue can be an equally effective tool throughout the various stages of the sales cycle. Unfortunately, a lot of salespeople don't realize this.

Many sales reps continue to pigeonhole LinkedIn as a job-seeker site. Because of that, they are missing out, as LinkedIn can be a great place for research and prospecting as well as to build connections and do some serious relationship-building, according to Jill Konrath, a sales strategist and the author of SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies.

Konrath contends that with a little bit of education, salespeople can learn to use LinkedIn as an effective forum and to even avoid many of the pain points of the traditional sales process.

Konrath and her collaboration partner, Ardath Albee, were so convinced of LinkedIn's potential that they decided to conduct research to pinpoint how top sales professionals were integrating LinkedIn throughout the sales cycle and to examine the degree of success they were having.

The duo surveyed 3,094 sales professionals (including inside sales reps, managers, and consultants from a wide variety of companies of all sizes) and found that only 4.9% of respondents took full advantage of LinkedIn as a sales tool and attributed the majority of their new business opportunities and revenue gains to their use of the platform. However, another 39.4% attributed "several opportunities" to their use of LinkedIn.

The bad news? A whopping 55% of respondents said they never generated any opportunities from LinkedIn and still viewed the site primarily as a job-hunting resource. Most said they were pretty unfamiliar with LinkedIn's capabilities, had few connections on the site, and were hesitant to do any kind of substantive research on prospects or even existing customers.

In short, that's a huge mistake. Those people are completely missing the boat.

In their ebook, "Cracking the LinkedIn Sales Code," Konrath and Albee say those adopting LinkedIn as a sales tool are seeing pretty significant results. For example, of those researching prospects on LinkedIn, 61.4% say they've been successful at translating those online interactions into offline discussions.

They've also successfully leveraged LinkedIn to:

  • Identify multiple points of entry into an organization
  • Find people most likely to be involved in the decision-making process
  • Forge common connections they can leverage
  • Establish mutual interests to form the foundation for conversation and trust
  • Unearth new prospects that meet their parameters for the ideal customer.

Six Steps to Success

With stats to back up the viability of LinkedIn as a useful sales tool, here are six critical steps outlined by Konrath and other experts for salespeople so they can successfully use the site to find leads, nurture them, and ultimately close some deals.

1) Create a professional presence.

Polishing your profile to nurture your sales cycle means positioning yourself as a knowledgeable resource and trusted advisor, not as a sales shark who religiously nabs the top prize in President's Club or some similar corporate sales competition.

Steer clear of loading up your profile with accomplishments that speak to your sales prowess, such as the quotas you've hit or the revenue you've generated. Instead, create a customer-centric profile that talks up the business value you can deliver for clients.

Action steps: Highlight the accomplishments you've helped customers obtain, and emphasize any area of specialty business knowledge or vertical industry expertise. Don't let your LinkedIn profile languish. Make sure you are continuously adding to it and keeping it up to date. Consider embellishing your profile with multimedia capabilities like videos, SlideShares, or links to your blog.

2) Make connections.

One of the first ideal steps when prospecting on LinkedIn is to connect with existing customers and use their profiles to identify other potential contacts, both for expansion within the account or as a bridge to qualified external prospects.

Actions steps: Take advantage of LinkedIn's "request introduction" function, which prompts your contacts for an introduction to a potential prospect through the LinkedIn platform. Leverage the tool's search functions to explore the kinds of titles and positions in place at your prospect company with an eye toward who has responsibility and ownership of projects. With the right amount of digging, you can find multiple points of entry into an organization and gain some understanding of the chain of the command around decision-making.

3) Turbocharge your research.

This is one of LinkedIn's most significant strengths. The site allows for simple reconnaissance on prospects, providing a sense of their job history, work connections, and place in the corporate hierarchy. You can even drill down into their interests and some of the business challenges they face that you can help solve.

It's also a great way to find common ground to advance the conversation -- maybe you have mutual contacts or happen to have attended the same B-school. All of this is fodder for reaching out and pushing the conversation to the next level.

Action steps: Monitor prospects' connections to get a heads up on possible competition for the account. Be sure to remain in the loop with their status updates via news feeds to stay on top of new connections and any activity they engage in (i.e. blog posts, group discussions, queries). Their activity provides an invaluable window into their pain points and the business problem they are trying to solve.

4) Build prospect lists.

One of the best applications of LinkedIn in the sales process is as a vehicle to create prospect lists. Both the free and premium versions offer extensive search functions that can be tapped in a variety of ways to prospect companies within a particular geographic area or industry or to locate individuals with certain titles.

Action steps: Don't overlook LinkedIn's "saved search" capability, which lets you save searches so if anyone changes their profile to meet your search parameters, you'll receive notification and can automatically grow your list with minimal effort. You get three searches with the free version of LinkedIn, while the premium paid service provides more.

5) Cultivate recommendations and endorsements.

Your LinkedIn presence should be designed to promote your expertise and knowledge so you're viewed not just as a sales animal, but someone that can really add business value and solve a potential customer's problem. Recommendations and endorsements are critical to establishing you as a trusted advisor while lending credibility to your product or service.

Action steps: Encourage contacts to endorse and recommend you -- but recognize this exercise is a two-way street. Don't forget to let people know how much you value their expertise and contribution, and be sure to maintain a complete profile that lists the skills you want to highlight so people will have a good sense of how to endorse you.

6) Be an active participant.

Part of establishing yourself as a trusted resource is proving your expertise and being viewed as someone that can help. Maintaining a complete and active LinkedIn profile isn't enough. You have to be out there answering questions, sharing relevant information, commenting, and serving up ideas to warm up prospects and be seen as a go-to player.

Action steps: Joining relevant LinkedIn Groups is critical to this process. Identify the groups that your targeted prospect audience participates in. While observation can deliver some keen insights that are helpful to the sales cycle, it's your activity that is going to set you apart from the competition and establish your expertise. Post whitepapers, offer up links, pose and answer questions, and do anything to demonstrate industry knowledge. Above all, you want people to know that you are there to help.

Now that you know what you should be doing on LinkedIn, also keep in mind the number-one no-no to avoid in the world of social selling: Never make an overt pitch for a sale.

"You are never selling in LinkedIn," Konrath says. "The goal is to push people into conversations. In social media, people are resistant to any form of direct push."

Are you utilizing LinkedIn as one of your selling tools? Tell us how you work the site to find and/or convert leads.

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Originally published Nov 4, 2013 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017

Topics:

Social Selling