The Social Underpinnings of Sales Strategy

May 8, 2017

  • chess-pieces

This is the third in a series of posts written for the benefit of B2B sales strategists and leaders. The first articulated the reasons for embracing a digital system of engagement as a key component of sales excellence. The second provided a framework for evaluating the maturity of an enterprise committed to developing its social selling capability. This post explains how a robust and repeatable sales process should incorporate social media in its core activities. To be practical and specific, I’ll tie these recommendations to Miller Heiman principles, since these represent one of the most pervasive sales frameworks in the corporate world today.

Quick Refresher

For those unfamiliar with the Miller Heiman approach, it was first defined in a book that spawned one of the most prestigious sales training companies in the world, now recognized globally as a Top 20 Sales Training Company.

The following are the ‘6 Key Elements’ in the Miller Heiman (MH) sales process: (1) Identifying Buying Influences; (2) Uncovering Red Flags and Strengths; (3) Evaluating Response Modes; (4) Formulating Win-Result Statements; (5) Defining the Ideal Customer Profile; and (6) Managing the Sales Funnel.

To maximize the impact on sales outcomes, my recommendation is that (1), (2), and (6) should have an explicit tie-in with social media. Let’s look at each in turn.

Identifying Key Buying Influences

The MH process calls out the importance of four “influencers” in any complex sale: The Economic Buyer, who is ultimately responsible for releasing funds; the User Buyer, who stands to gain through your proposed service or solution; the Technical Buyer, whose role is to identify disqualifying features of your proposal; and the Coach, who is personally and professionally motivated to see you succeed.

Any sales professional who claims to be strategic in his or her approach should spend some time mapping out these stakeholders before the sales conversation even begins. Here are some specific questions to ask:

  • Economic – who will most likely decide whether to fund our sales objective, given the expected implications of our product or process on the status quo?
  • User – where is the locus of influence and authority in the specific geography, division, or team that is most relevant to our sales objective?
  • Technical – who from IT, procurement, or legal will likely be the gatekeeper for our proposal?
  • Coach – with whom do we have the strongest pre-existing connection(s), and could the individual(s) provide initial direction on how to position ourselves?

There are, and certainly should be, many ways in which to answer these questions. But there’s no doubt that LinkedIn can accelerate the process dramatically with a combination of highly specific search filters, the revelation of previously-unknown connections, and AI-driven lead suggestions.

Uncovering Red Flags and Strengths

MH identified an interesting correlation between top-performing sales reps and an openness to – in fact an enthusiasm for – identifying information gaps. Red flags are like red meat for the carnivorous club achievers who recognize such gaps as sign posts to their success. Thus, an equally important aspect of the pre-sales process is to preemptively uncover missing pieces as a basis for one’s account-specific sales strategy. To that end, the team should be asking the following:

  • Whose LinkedIn profiles are richest, and what can be inferred from them? Whose profiles are the barest, and what research actions follow from this?
  • Which influencers have we contacted before, what did we send, and what was their level of engagement?
  • Who has joined the company within the last 90 days? How has he or she been successful before, and how does this play to our strengths/weaknesses in this situation?
  • Who has taken on a new role within the last 90 days? What seems to be his or her new mandate?

Again, it is always prudent to explore a variety of research angles, but every single one of these questions can be answered to a surprisingly thorough degree with LinkedIn data. This in turn should help to define a clear action plan on how to advance one’s sales objective.

Managing the Sales Funnel

Within the MH process, the purpose of the sales funnel is to stabilize revenue by focusing the team on the right activities. The funnel itself is comprised of four stages: (1) prospecting; (2) qualifying; (3) covering the bases; and (4) closing the order. Because time and uncertainty decrease from (1) through (4), the goal of the sales manager is to move opportunities down the funnel at a steady pace. Theoretically, this is accomplished by allocating a roughly equal portion of reps’ time across each of the above activities.

For most teams, however, the natural inclination is to work the funnel bottom-up. First they finalize the few deals that are on the verge of “Closed Won.” Then they push to cover the bases for deals with the highest revenue potential. Then they verify that the leads they’ve identified are in fact real. Finally, and only if time permits, they narrow the universe of potential leads through active prospecting.

The problem with this, of course, is that unless you’re feeding the top of the funnel in a regular and systematic way it starts to run dry. MH therefore recommends focusing the team on prospecting as the second most important activity, not the last.

Social media has a critical role to play here. First, it makes prospecting considerable easier for reps by introducing AI-based technologies such as automated lead recommendations and customized news feeds. Second, it allows management to monitor digital prospecting activities in a way that isn’t possible with phone calls, emails, and meetings. Leading indicators like the number of log-in sessions, searches performed, and leads saved can be tracked at the individual and aggregate level to drive the right behavior for the team. 

The Bigger Picture

In addition to these specific ways in which social media supports the MH sales process, there are two overarching elements that are worth calling out. The first is that any account-specific sales strategy should be constantly reviewed and refreshed to ensure it accurately reflects your current understanding of the evolving sales landscape. The second is that your strong and weak points should be well understood before each selling encounter begins. These bedrock principles underscore the fact that a good sales strategy is both dynamic and dependent on systematic preparation. In this sense the optimal strategy should rely on regular use of social media, since it is the best available digital means of finding such real-time, bottom-up intelligence on your key accounts.