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Cold Calls, RIP: Sell More By Selling Socially

"Rolodex dumps" were the previous generation's most productive way to generate warm introductions in sales—learn how companies are leveraging social networks for the same advantages today.

In a former life I was a "rainmaker" in the ad agency business, charged with bringing in new clients for my agency. I had a lot of fun with this job, and I even wrote a book about my exploits with the rather catchy title Life’s a Pitch…Then You Buy.

A part of my job was to initiate new relationships with as large a number of qualified prospects as possible, so that when one of them began considering a new agency, we would have a chance to get "on the list." So every morning, five days a week, I spent at least an hour making "cold calls" to advertising directors and marketing executives at prospect companies, trying to begin a relationship-building process with someone who didn’t know us and might not have even heard of us before. I would get through to someone about 10% of the time, overall, and once I got through the odds were about 50% that I could actually begin a dialogue. It was ego-crushing work. Definitely not a job for self-doubters.

Naturally, we did everything we could to try to generate "warm" introductions to new prospect companies. We hosted events, joined clubs and social groups, and published white papers based on research that we sponsored. We also did a "Rolodex dump" whenever we hired a new executive or manager at our agency. After welcoming the exec to the firm, I would politely ask permission to go through his or her Rolodex of names and numbers in order to identify any friends, relatives, or colleagues who worked at a potential client. Rolodex dumps generated by far the most productive kind of warm introductions—friend to friend, colleague to colleague.

Today you can do a Rolodex dump via Linked In (along with Facebook, Google+, and other social media platforms). But as with everything social, this creates a tremendously valuable "network effect," and the result is that the need to make cold calls—the need to do anything but a warm introduction—has practically disappeared, at least for large companies with dozens or even hundreds of sales people networked together.

Last month I spoke to several audiences assembled by SAP, the large enterprise-applications business. Their "OnDemand" sales and marketing software application has a capability that works like this: When a new executive comes on board your company, you ask him or her for permission to access their LinkedIn account (along with Outlook, Facebook, Google+, and other platforms that contain lists of contacts). OnDemand then integrates this executive’s own contacts with everyone else’s contacts at your company, allowing others to search your connections and you to search theirs, directly. (A synopsis of how SAP does it can be found here. You’ll have to look at the other big vendors yourself to see how they do it.)

This capability is actually something that LinkedIn users have asked for before, although maybe instead of asking LinkedIn they ought to ask the big sales force automation vendors! Regardless of how it’s done, if you pool your contacts then it’s almost a certainty that someone in your company will know someone at a prospect firm you’re trying to contact, or at least someone will know someone who knows the prospect.

Now despite the potential for sales, some of your managers might be creeped out by the idea that their employer could troll through their own personal business contacts and Facebook friends. So if you want to make this happen at your company with a minimum of hassle, then you should lay down some strict rules to respect your executives’ interests and privacy. Fit the rules to your own company’s culture, but at a minimum I would suggest:

  1. If an executive prefers not to share certain contacts, or certain platforms, this will be considered a matter of personal choice, will not be disclosed to anyone else at the firm, and will not be considered in any way when it comes to evaluating job performance or compensation.
  2. No one at your company will be allowed to phone, write, or email anyone else’s contact without that person’s permission in advance, unless the communication makes no reference at all to the relationship.
  3. The best kind of introduction will always be colleague-to-colleague, so sales execs trying to arrange a warm introduction should be encouraged to seek the contact owner’s actual participation in the process, where this is appropriate.
  4. Some prospect executives are likely to have multiple connections to different executives within your firm, but any executive whose relationship is to be mentioned in a communication with a prospect must first grant permission.

One more thing that's important to remember: You may not have sales force automation software that allows your executives’ LinkedIn or other contacts to be pooled into a single database. But everyone still has those contacts. If you don’t have the software tool, then instead of doing an automated Rolodex dump with everything at once, you can at least poll your executives on a regular basis, especially with respect to your company’s "drive" accounts, or other key prospects you are trying to move through the sales funnel. So you should consider an email-to-everyone once in a while asking for "any and all contacts at Companies XYZ, ABC, and JKL."

You want to sell more and faster? Figure out how to use today’s social-media and communication platforms to do away with cold calls altogether.

What creative ways do you use social networks to boost sales? Tell us about it in the comments.

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  • John Paterson

    An equally controversial area is sales people turning up for a new job with the contact list from their job. Who owns that data? Fine to dump from the CRM their personal contacts but - their personal customers? their personal prospects? everyone else's contacts?

    Apart from the legal aspects of data ownership and privacy (we're a bit stricter about that here in Europe), what are the ethical aspects of arriving with data slurped from your previous employer?

    John Paterson

  • Tom Winston

    This is top-notch advice. I recently brought in a sales trainer to do a session on building a qualified prospect list on LinkedIn, and the results since doing that almost 2 months ago have been pretty eye-opening. The advent of social media has really made the cold call obsolete. I know people have been saying it for years, but seriously, there's no arguing that point anymore with tools like LinkedIn and even sites like Manta.

  • Ali

    I agree that there is a change in the way we sell in 2012 and beyond, however I'm not convinced that utilizing your social network in this way is most effective.  Building your network of trusted contacts means you will act as the gatekeeper between your contacts and the multitude of sales professionals who are hoping for an introduction. If you guard your network and build a high level of credibility and trust with your contacts, then the few you choose to refer on to others will come with a much higher level of respect.

  • Bryant Lewandowski

    "Scared Money don't Make Money". When I need revenue and I need it now, my team and I hit the phone-lines as hard as possible. Our social circle of networks pales in comparison to the vast database at our fingertips of cold and lukewarm leads. We go from not knowing someone to literally depositing money in an account. Call it old school but our cost of acquiring that lead  is less than a penny. People are frightened of rejection so they look for any way out of this line of work. 

  • Chris Bourgea

    This is an interesting concept. The question is will people start to connect less on linkedin and Google+ because they're afraid to be spammed/called? 

  • Simon

    I think that I am most definitely one of the types of people who would be completely freaked out if my employer expected me to give them access to all of my contacts so the sales team could pillage for any contacts there might be at companies they are trying to sell to. After all, if the company's products or services are that good and the employees are that committed, they will have already mentioned to their friend in purchasing at a potential client, wouldn't they...

  • Amber King

    Nowadays, social selling is the best way to up those sales. However, I must disagree that cold calling is dead. It is still one of the most effective marketing strategy. The reason for this is because of its ability to generate immediate response. We have to bear in mind that not everyone is active in the social media field.

    Also, I believe that it will depend on the product /service that you offer. There are those services that are not that marketable online, they can generate traffic yes, but not leads. Cold calling are like TV ads, no matter how advanced the technology is, it will stay.