Thanks to social media and the proliferation of personal information available online, salespeople are more effectively engaging and building relationships with prospective clients and current customers. Social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, along with business information providers like ZoomInfo, InsideView, and Jigsaw, deliver insights previously unavailable to most salespeople.

“In sales, doing research ahead of time is essential and these sites are a wealth of knowledge if used correctly,” says Scott Allen, coauthor of The Virtual Handshake. “Doing your homework by finding out about targeted clients gives you an edge, and it shows clients that you’re addressing their needs and speaking to their individual challenges instead of treating them like just another presentation for that quarter’s quota.”


Demographic information is important, he says, but what salespeople are looking at now is a client’s psychographic profile. That type of information isn’t available through list services, but a social network profile reveals a deeper portrait of clients, including hobbies, affiliations, and in some cases even their favorite movies or books. Allen highlights how effective using one piece of information found on LinkedIn can be during a sales meeting.

“A salesman I met told me that in researching a company he was pitching, he discovered that an executive at the company had an interest in ballroom dancing,” he says. “He decided to use dance metaphors like partnering and leading throughout his presentation. The executive sat silent, nodding his head in agreement each time [the salesman] used the metaphor. He was an underdog going in, but got a huge contract out of it because of that one interest the guy listed on his profile.”

Jill Konrath, author of Selling to Big Companies, says that a little research like that to get in the door is all salespeople need to stand out in the ever-growing crowd. “Today corporations get pitched by so many people that the price of admission requires additional research and a deep understanding of what that company and its employees are going through…[like] looking at triggered events that happen within or external to a company that cause it to shift priorities.”

Lower-than-expected earnings, new product launches, changes to legislation, even severe weather conditions are examples of the events salespeople need to look at to understand a prospect’s state of mind. Much of this information is readily available online through services like Google Alerts, RSS feeds on investment pages, and business journals, but that kind of research is time consuming—which is why business information sites are growing.

“All companies know how to measure is how many calls people are making, and salespeople buy into the mentality that if they’re calling then they’re working hard, no matter how strategic the calls are,” Konrath says. “Managers focus on filling the pipeline with as many prospects as possible, instead of developing a thought-out approach to who they should be targeting.”

Allen agrees that measuring the impact of this kind of customer insight keeps companies from adopting it, but says not having clear ROI shouldn’t stop them. “I tell companies that if they want to know exactly what impact this is having, they need to show me every step in their sales process and exactly how much it advances customers along,” Allen says. “Nine times out of 10 they just don’t know, so there’s no way to tell that adding one piece [of information] to the process is having.”

One company seeing real results from deeper information is talent management firm Advantage. It uses software from InsideView to generate leads and better inform its sales force. The Advantage sales staff can instantly find real estate announcements, acquisition news, and private-equity funding notices that indicate a potential customer may need its services. So now a salesperson can go into a call knowing specifically how to pitch a new customer. As a result, Advantage now converts 50 percent of its leads into actual opportunities, and has increased its overall close rate from 10 percent to 50 percent.

There is also a plethora of anecdotal evidence that sales departments are more effective when trained to gather information through social networks and other online outlets.

“There’s a lot of good marketing automation technology out there, but at the end of the day sales is still personal,” Konrath says. “Corporate decision makers hear from dozens of people saying the same thing every day, but if they see you’ve invested the time in learning about their company’s needs then they’ll talk to you.”

In today’s virtual world, where business is largely conducted via email and other impersonal means, going in with increased insight makes all the difference. “Ultimately, using the information available through these new resources builds the rapport and intimacy necessary to build that relationship and trust without a face-to-face meeting,” Allen says.