Advantages

21st Century Sales

Don Draper’s computer-free desk is a thing of the past. While the plethora of social media platforms can be maddening, we’ve got the strategies for building your book of business in the digital age.

There was something odd about Don Draper's office. It wasn't the executive chair or boxy sofa. Not the ash tray or the abundant booze. All that was to be expected – de rigueur.

So what was off about the Mad Men character's work pad? It soon became clear. There was no computer. Set in the 1960s, the television series plays out in a period before PCs, laptops and mobile devices exploded into ubiquity.
How conspicuous the computer's absence seems now.

Back then, few fully anticipated how that missing piece of digital furniture would revolutionize the business world, compelling fundamental changes in how commerce is conducted.

Amid the fast-shifting market tectonics, many forward-thinking reps have embraced digital tools to help them connect with new clients and ignite sales with existing accounts. "It's important to do new things that work without forgetting about the tried and true values and methods, "says Kathy Whitburn, strategic sales and marketing consultant for American Solutions For Business (asi/120075).

Content Queen

The way Kathleen Booth sees it, the job of a salesperson is evolving.
 "We're moving toward a point where marketing and sales roles will be completely blended," says Booth, owner of Quintain Marketing (asi/303131).

For Booth, the key to success in the new paradigm is to execute a multi-pronged inbound marketing strategy. The approach centers on creating online content that is valuable to potential buyers. "The idea with inbound is to get in front of buyers before they contact you," says Booth. "The best way to make those connections is to answer their questions and solve their problems with your content."

For about five years, Booth and her team have generated organic leads and driven sales with existing clients through content marketing. Booth creates content aimed at appealing to different buyer personas. First, the distributorship/marketing agency develops in-depth profiles of the personas. Then, Booth provides content in blogs, e-books, case studies, webinars and more that addresses the interests, pain points and likely goals of these prospects. When Web visitors click on a post in Quintain's online "Knowledge Center," they are asked to provide their name, company and email address. The Quintain team has captured thousands of leads in this way.

What's especially great, says Booth, is that content lives online forever, meaning posts that are several years old directly spark fresh sales. Recently, a several-year-old blog about Marmot jackets compelled a buyer in Alaska to contact Quintain, which is based in Annapolis, MD. "They were interested in buying 50 jackets and wanted to know if we could help," says Booth.

To complement its website content, Quintain engages in email marketing (monthly newsletter, e-blasts to segmented lists of subscribers). The company is also active on social media. The social strategy includes promoting Quintain content on popular platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and Instagram. Utilizing social media in this way has powered sales. To build buzz about its annual holiday gift guide, Quintain posted pictures of select products from the guide to Pinterest. On the hunt for corporate gifts, a Washington D.C. law firm found the Pinterest board, clicked through to Quintain's website and contacted the distributorship to buy.

Booth also nurtures relationships with existing clients through digital initiatives. She and her team use marketing software to send automated emails thanking new customers on their six-month and one-year anniversaries of working with Quintain. They retweet clients' tweets, thank clients online and include hashtags like #weloveourclients, too.

Additionally, the Quintain crew engages in more traditional relationship building. Account managers, for example, are authorized to spend up to $100 per instance on anything that will delight clients. A Quintain employee recently used some of the allotment to send a client one dozen cupcakes. Similar personal touches create stronger bonds with buyers. "I personally email each client once a quarter to ask how things are going and whether they have any feedback for us," says Booth, whose business doubled last year. "It's amazing how effective this is in making them feel important to us."

Digital Networkers

When it comes to connecting with new clients, LinkedIn has been a diamond mine for social-savvy reps. Pros like Nelson Penalver have leveraged the online professional networking platform to earn referrals to A-list buyers, turning what would have been cold calls into warm leads.

Penalver, vice president of LOI Marketing (asi/255497), often follows a particular procedure for linking his way to prospects. First, he identifies an organization. Then he finds top executives at the company. Next, he searches his web of LinkedIn connections to discover someone who is also acquainted with these power holders. Almost invariably, he finds a person who can serve as a bridge between him and the decision-maker.

Once Penalver receives a digital introduction, he plays it cool. Eschewing business talk at first, he simply tells the executive that he hopes she will find content he shares with his network useful. From there, he posts links to articles that will be of interest to the target buyer. After a few weeks, he personally contacts the prospect and asks if she saw a certain article, adding that he would like to get her expert opinion on the topic. "Most people are happy to give advice," Penalver says. "When they do, that gets the conversation going."

With a rapport established, he brings the discussion around to business, doing so in a low-key manner. In this fashion, he's opened doors to major accounts. Certainly, there are at least two striking components to Penalver's successful LinkedIn prospecting: He refrains from pushing business talk initially and aims for C-Suite executives. "Instead of trying to connect with the marketing manager, I'll connect with the marketing manager's boss," he says. "The marketing manager may be the buyer, but he's going to be a lot more interested in what I have to offer if I've been referred by his boss."

Another sales pro using Linked- In to accelerate revenue gains is Jennifer Heller. The division manager at VGM Corporate Specialties (asi/351896) stays active in her network and follows the professional movements of her connections – a practice that has stoked sales. "When someone changes jobs – or titles at the same company – it's a great time to congratulate them and ask them about their new duties," says Heller.

Doing so leads to unforeseen opportunities.
Recently, Heller contacted one of her connections after the woman moved into a new job – ordering promotional products for events at a college. Heller soon earned business from the buyer, impressing with outstanding service that included offering novel product ideas. "My service was so much better that other departments took notice," she says. Before long, she was providing solutions for three additional departments at the college.

Worldwide Reach

Kathy Whitburn says her "milk run" has turned into a "mouse run."
Gone are the milk run days of making frequent physical trips to clients' offices and prospecting "door-to-door." In 2015, Whitburn nurtures client relationships and networks her way to prospects largely from her computer, her mouse clicks leading the way. "Oftentimes, it doesn't matter where your bottom side sits in a cloud-based world," she says. She recently relocated 350 miles north from her strongest business base to a rustically beautiful spot in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Some might interpret the move as a step toward slowing down. But in Whitburn's case, it's a sign of how strongly she believes that digital tools, when used smartly, can be deployed to cultivate relationships with clients. "The way many buyers want to communicate has changed," she says. "They wear a lot of hats. They usually don't have time to sit down for an hour or two with you. So much of my interaction with clients is through email and phone calls that it doesn't matter whether I'm down the street or hundreds of miles away."

What does matter, she says, is responsiveness. What matters is taking the time – through email, calls, Skype or other means – to understand clients' needs and goals and then thinking creatively to deliver solutions that help them achieve those objectives. What matters is adding personal touches to communication that help forge relationships. "A strong conversational tone makes a difference," says Whitburn.

Being personable has helped her develop a bond with a buyer for a national health-care association in another state. The woman felt so close to Whitburn that she shared news of her engagement with the sales pro. After some friendly interaction, Whitburn mentioned she can provide products for weddings. As a goodwill gesture, she gave the buyer a discount code that would knock 25% off wedding favor purchases. "That kind of gesture resonates," she says.

Since clients have high regard for Whitburn, they're happy to provide her with referrals. Sometimes the new clients she generates this way are located far away – in other countries even. But that's not a hurdle for Whitburn, who uses technology and people skills to make herself indispensible to buyers even if she has never met them in person. Such is the case with a Montreal-based buyer she was introduced to via referral. Through FaceTime, email and calls, Whitburn communicates with the client to develop winning solutions. What's more, she chats by Skype with a U.K.-based professional for the same company, because the client prefers that the U.K. colleague have input. "As long as I'm there for them, that's what counts," she says.

While referrals lead to new clients, Whitburn also utilizes social media and an e-newsletter to lay the groundwork for sales. For help managing her e-presence, she turns to Outbound Engine, a digital marketing solutions provider with services that include regularly updating clients' social media accounts. Plus, she uses the Carlson Craft (asi/43920) Fresh App, which provides product and conversational posts for Facebook. "I also have purchased sidebar ads with Facebook when I am promoting something specific or running a contest to increase my following."

Germane to clients, her posts to Twitter and Facebook cover everything from hot products to trade show tips. One post in January generated an outstanding response. Whitburn asked followers to let her know what projects they're working on in 2015 so she could identity new products that would stimulate their promotions. She received seven direct messages from buyers with information on their marketing plans. "One simple post," she says, "led to so many leads."

Tried and True

Clearly, reps fuel business with a robust digital presence. But to imply these approaches have supplanted other proven methods is inaccurate. Creative lumpy-mail packages, cold calls, in-person networking and face-to-face interaction with clients continue paving the way to sales, too.

To further develop relationships, for instance, Penalver routinely visits major clients in his local Miami area on social calls. "I'll bring them pastries and we'll chat a little," says Penalver. "I'm a friend to them. People like doing business with their friends."

Elsewhere, Jeffrey Hattem rebuilt his business through in-person networking.
After the recession struck in 2008, the co-founder of Prime Time Promotions (asi/299327) found that many of his clients – most in the newspaper industry – lacked promotional budgets. Hattem needed to reconstruct his customer base. To do so, he joined a BNI chapter and several local chambers of commerce. He devotedly attended networking events the entities organized.

The avid runner also mined his existing network within running clubs for referrals. The hustle helped Hattem connect with an array of clients, including organizations in the fast-growing elder-care field. "We've built ourselves back up to a strong position," he says, adding that standout customer service has transformed many first-time buyers into long-term clients. "You have to make them feel so well-served they wouldn't think of going anywhere else." Trish Glazer agrees.

Last year, her company's sales increased about 30%. The president of Glazer Promos (asi/208261) and a front-line seller herself, Glazer says the ramp-up in revenue resulted from delivering clients service, creativity and reliability they don't get by going it alone and ordering products online.

That service manifests in sundry ways. For instance, Glazer prides herself on knowing clients' marketing calendars and reaching out to buyers well in advance of their initiatives. "We'll come to them with at least three solid ideas," she says. As importantly, she and her team keep clients informed throughout the order process. In the unlikely event something goes awry, "we attack the issue in every possible way to make things right."

Even so, Glazer has been confronted by clients who want her to slash prices to meet the charge of a Web-based competitor. Often, her response is to explain the value she and her team bring and how that's part of her price. While most stick with her company, some buyers go with the online option. Nonetheless, more than a few prodigals have returned. "They come back after they realize they're not getting the peace-of-mind, the proactivity and the creativity they're used to with us," she says. "If you give clients those things, most will stay loyal."

Christopher Ruvo is a senior writer for Advantages magazine. Follow: @ChrisR_ASI. Contact: cruvo@asicentral.com