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I'm going to tell you the story about how I came to appreciate just what LinkedIn means to a B2B salesperson.
The story starts 25 years ago when I was assigned a new sales territory. I was to “open up” the mid west part of America--roughly the Great Lakes states from Minnesota over to Ohio. I was faced with the task of figuring out who the prospects in my new territory were, but I knew the drill: Find possible prospect companies from an old industry directory, start calling them, and figure out the organization. Then try and find out if they were using the right technology for our new product line, figure out who was who, qualify them, and try to get a meeting. Build all this knowledge through 20 or 30 phone calls to the company in question. Repeat for 200 companies. Does this sound like a huge amount of work? Yes. But it did not seem like it back then, as you had no other options.
Fast forward to the early '90s: I was running a small sales organization that sold local area network test gear to companies with their own networks. Of course there was still no Internet, no e-mail, no smartphones, pretty well no smart anything (this is usually the part of the story where my nephew rolls his eyes and makes some smartass allusion to the earth cooling and dinosaurs, but I digress). But market intelligence had come a long way. I could buy a software package that listed all the largest companies in my sales territory, what type of equipment they were using, and how much of it they had. We had some intelligence now on who the prospects were, and what products they might be candidates for. But we still did not know who was who at each company, and sometimes even who was where.
Leap ahead another 10 years or so and now there were companies that could, by one means or another, provide me e-mail address lists for prospective customers. Unfortunately, much of this data was out of date. I knew from working with catalog customers in the '80s that 2% of mail lists go bad every month, and I am guessing the same holds true for e-mail lists.
By 2009 I was a member of LinkedIn. And like many members I found it novel, and interesting; but while this networking stuff was nice, it was hardly earth shattering. Then one week I thought to myself, “Everyone uses this for networking. I wonder if I could find prospects for my industry using LinkedIn?” It took some time to figure out the best way to use the search part of LinkedIn, but when I figured it out, what I found was jaw dropping. I found all of our old customers, all of the companies we had tried to get into, and many more I didn't even know existed. I had figured there may be 10,000 to 12,000 people in North America affiliated with the industry I was researching. LinkedIn told me the number was really closer to 32,000.
Since that moment, I have devoted a lot of time (some people think I can be a little obsessive, but I like to think of it as being...focused) to figuring out the in’s and out’s of using LinkedIn’s search engine and, just as important, figuring out the ways that people express themselves on their LinkedIn profiles and what to look for on those profiles. What I have found is that LinkedIn can be used to find the companies that could use a product or service--and often I can find obscure companies with a requirement where the competition are not aware of them--and then I can see who the players are at that company and figure out how they relate to each other. I can sometimes see how they are currently dealing with the problem with which I may be able to help them. And, with LinkedIn I can look at their profile and figure out how to approach them.
Sometimes the data is incomplete--after all, everything on LinkedIn is subjective information provided by the users--but the information gets better all the time. How much better? That search I did three years ago now yields 97,000 people. The information is just getting better, more complete.
LinkedIn is a database of all--or so close to all that it makes no difference--of the B2B prospects that a company would want to know about. Every customer is there along with clues on how to address them. Every company involved in B2B sales should make it a goal to master LinkedIn.
It took me 25 years to find a company that had come up with what I saw as the missing key to B2B sales success. Don’t take 25 more years to figure it out for yourself.
Bruce Johnston is a sales consultant specializing in social media and especially LinkedIn. He has over 25 years experience in high-tech sales and management. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his profile on LinkedIn. Visit his column page on PCB007.