I’ve talked a lot about the evolution of sales over the last 10-15 years. One of the causes of the evolution is, of course, social media. What is interesting to me is that social media itself is evolving quickly, and many people aren’t keeping up to speed with this evolution.
This was brought to mind a few days ago when a client asked me if I thought that LinkedIn was losing its usefulness as a sales prospecting tool. That’s really a great question. For years, I’ve been recommending that salespeople use LinkedIn to get quality introductions and warm referrals to new potential customers, but even that mechanism is losing its effectiveness for reasons that I’ll discuss below.
LinkedIn was, and still is, the premier business networking site. I’ve always thought of it as the “visible Rolodex;” in old-school face to face networking, it would be considered rude to ask the other person to open their contact book and let you look through. However, LinkedIn facilitates this by making contacts visible when two people are connected. This greatly enabled the process of asking for introductions – if you were a second degree connection on LinkedIn (I know Bob, Bob knows Jane, Bob introduces me to Jane), the intro was usually a fairly simple ask. For years, my ratio of requests to introductions was between 1 to 1 and 1.5 to one.
That number has been going down, not only for me, but for others that I work with. What’s happened? Does this mean that people are getting tired of being asked for intros? I doubt it; most people I talk to report that they aren’t asked that much. What I do think it means is that more people are becoming less discriminating in their link requests and acceptances, meaning that those ‘second degree connections’ might not really be a personal connection at all. Thus, when you see a second-degree connection and ask for an introduction, the person you’re asking really doesn’t have the ability to introduce you in any meaningful way.
I can’t cast stones here; I’ve become far less selective in the past year in my acceptances, and my social media coach tells me that I’m doing the right thing. Given that LinkedIn has removed the ‘ask for introduction’ button, they too must feel that this is becoming less and less important.
Another issue is what I call “Facebook posting.” LinkedIn used to be very business-focused in what its users posted. This, too, has changed. Political posts now take up a large amount of anyone’s daily feed, whether you’re the one doing the posting or not. Other non-business posts – even Facebook-style party pictures – are becoming a bigger and bigger part of LinkedIn. This makes it more difficult for business-focused users to separate the wheat from the chaff, and harder for solid business articles to get noticed.
There are other, more minor issues that can impact LinkedIn’s usefulness to some users, but this article is focused on selling and salespeople.
So, if LinkedIn is evolving, does that mean that it’s not as useful anymore? Not at all. It just means that we need to evolve with it.
First of all, the old ‘ask for an introduction’ system can still work – it just becomes more of a numbers game than in the past. Depending on the size of one’s network, the 1:1 relationship between intro requests and intros is more like 3:1 or 4:1 now. That means that if you need two intros per week, you probably need to send between 6 and 8 requests. That means that your network needs to be large; otherwise you can burn out your contacts.
Second, direct prospecting on LinkedIn is showing some promise. Rather than going through your contacts and looking for introductions, simply targeting the people you want to talk to and sending them a connection request WITH A SHORT MESSAGE ABOUT WHY YOU WANT TO CONNECT WITH THEM is yielding results, although with too small a sample size to put ratios to it yet.
There are a few things that are important about this technique. First, I’m not a fan of signing up for LinkedIn Premium and then just blasting InMail. I prefer to connect. If I send someone a connection request with a short (because that’s all that you’re allowed) note about why I want to connect, and they accept my request, they are typically at least open to the next step in the conversation.
THEN I send an InMail to them explaining how I think I could be of help to them. A well done email can get a conversation going that results in an appointment. If you want to use this technique, I wouldn’t recommend sending a “blind” connection request; i.e. one that doesn’t include a small sales message. If you send a blind request, and then hit the contact with a sales message, they can feel blindsided. I prefer people to be informed.
A variation on this technique is that, when you see you are second-degree from a targeted contact, to request an introduction from your connection as we used to.
LinkedIn is also getting to be far more useful in job seeking and candidate search. I’ve used it as a recruiter for several years, and it’s always been a small but high quality candidate pool, as compared to CareerBuilder. In the last few searches, I’ve found that the quality continues to be high, but the quantity is going up significantly. If this trend continues, LinkedIn will be the best site to find professional hires within another year or so.
Finally, I have found significant success, for myself and my clients, in getting recommendations and testimonials using LinkedIn’s “ask to be recommended” feature. Testimonials, I have said for many years, are one of the greatest marketing tools we have. They allow prospective new customers to see you through the eyes of a happy current or past customer – and that’s a credibility booster that can’t be beat.
Oddly, I recently read an article by another prominent sales “guru” who said that you shouldn’t ask for recommendations; if your customers like you enough, they’ll simply recommend you without asking. To me, this is horrible advice and comes from being out of touch with what most salespeople face in their work environment.
Sales is a profession built on the idea that we get what we ask for, and don’t get what we don’t ask for. And, frankly, it might not occur to even the happiest of customers to post a recommendation on their own. A polite, respectfully worded recommendation request – when you know the customer is a happy one – is not inappropriate or out of line. And it’s one of the easiest and best ways to gather testimonials.
To conclude, LinkedIn is still highly useful as a sales tool. Its usefulness is just evolving, and we as salespeople must evolve with it. 2-3 focused hours per week on LinkedIn can still be time well spent.