Easy ways to reach out to potential customers.

Sales are like great employees: Every business could use more of them. Unfortunately, though, I’m a pretty poor salesman.

That’s why when I write about sales strategies and techniques, I turn to experts for input — like Mike Derezin, vice president of sales solutions at LinkedIn, the online social network for business professionals. Recently we talked about social selling, the process of building stronger relationships with potential customers based on truly understanding their needs and problems — in short, getting to better know the people you hope to do business with.

Every person involved in sales dreams about living in a world without cold calls and enjoying a network built solely on referrals. Those dreams are actually closer to reality than you might think. And that’s a good thing, because cold selling lacks personalization and relevance — the fundamental tactics that establish good business relationships and lead to more sales.

Related: Customer Satisfaction Builds Your Business Base

In today’s e-business environment, cold calls are a last resort. Instead, salespeople use social networking to ask for personal introductions and connect with prospects and customers. This is what’s known as social selling.

By building your own personal brand and leveraging existing networks, anyone — regardless of industry or the size of your business — can master the art of social selling to drive referrals. Here are five ideas to get you started.

Connect with people you know. While this may seem obvious, a strong network built on real-world connections allows people to vouch for you. It will also strengthen your referral bank by opening up the possibility of forming relationships with people your connections know.

LinkedIn’s research shows that buyers are five times more likely to engage if the contact is made through a mutual connection, so be sure your offline contacts are reflected in your online world.

Leverage your company’s network. Have you ever made a cold call only to later find out that a co-worker knows your prospect? Social networking minimizes the chances of this happening. It also makes it easier to get information about the people you want to engage and a path to connect with them. According to LinkedIn research, 88 percent of buyers will engage in discussion if introduced through someone in their existing network.

And remember, no one likes a canned approach. Be thoughtful enough to customize your message. It will go a long way in making a good first impression.

Find connections based on shared interests. Online alumni networks and industry-specific networking groups are just two examples of places to connect through shared interests. Think of these as your “digital watercooler,” a place to engage in conversation with information that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Engaging with prospects through common interests will give you more visibility, making it more acceptable to ask for a referral.

Build your professional brand. Consider your online presence as a key marketing tool. Half of buyers say they won’t work with salespeople who have incomplete social profiles online, so make sure you put your best foot forward by tailoring the content to reflect your expertise. (And don’t forget to do the same on the “Meet Our Staff” page of your business’ website.)

Experiment with videos and images by embedding them in your profile. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” has never been more true than on social media.

Be vocal. Beyond your profile, liking and sharing content can increase the likelihood that your network will engage with the information and pave the way for new referrals. Consider sharing articles or blogging regularly on relevant industry topics. Give your point of view and invite responses by taking risks in your answers.

On sites other than your company’s website, it’s OK to share information about your products and services, but only occasionally and as appropriate. This will distinguish you among a sea of salespeople and position you as a smart resource.

And lastly, stay on top of what’s important to your key contacts by paying attention to the content they share, and chime in when you have meaningful insights.
Social selling offers massive opportunities to make new contacts, establish an online reputation and build a sales pipeline. Together, these activities lead to an increased network of referrals, which is easier to achieve than ever before.

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