An Open Letter to Social Sellers Everywhere

Tony Hughes


Dear Social Seller of 2015,

Now that I've got your attention I must warn you. It is dangerous to implement basic social selling techniques. I wanted to take a moment to express a word of caution in applying a cure-all or over-simplified approach to strategic selling within social mediums. A one size fits all approach simply won't work. Any advanced selling system is based on the fundamentals however you have to leverage a process and acknowledge the nurturing required for an effective sales cycle to happen in social environs over time. Let me make my case...

When we treat social selling as the next big thing, as if it were a transactional cold call where we can achieve million dollar closing results with one or two calls, we take the sector backwards. All the same guiding principles apply to social selling so it's been my personal mandate as of late, to advance social selling into something elevated that I've dubbed Advanced Strategic B2B Social Selling. It's a modern twist on an ancient classic. Dave Brock says it the best ever: Prospecting is the New Prospecting! What's not to love about that?! But it's actually a profound commentary on the decadent global state of interrupt and push-button selling, a condition that social sales has allowed some to slip into.

My hair may be greying but I've noticed this 'social-for-social's-sake' undoing highlights a major gap in the sector. For Millennials and others looking to leverage LinkedIn or Sales Navigator at the core of your strategy, I would highly recommend dropping everything and reading Neil Rackham's books like SPIN Selling. Then take those learnings back to it... I would also recommend savvy sales managers make the investment in power modules on top of CRM like TAS Dealmaker and Pipeline Manager, or even go with Pipeliner CRM, to take control of their pipeline and manage key account growth. Don't just install it, train your people on it thoroughly, weekly and quarterly.

The folly of Sales 2.0 or Social Selling is it's often missing the context of the coming Web 3.0 paradigm. The vision of what strategic social selling can be is a highly focused weapon for change management over time. Understanding and mapping a political power base is more important than ever. The Status Quo and Do Nothing are more megalithic than ever with budgets slashed on razor thin margins. It's becoming even more of a winner-take-all and oh how the mighty fall! Incumbents are disrupted every day by smarter, faster leaner point solutions.

Connecting on 'social' with frenemies or blockers in the account can sink deals just as you aim to accelerate them. You need to pinpoint the mobilizers, your advocates and build consensus amongst champions inside the prospect's ecosystem. Leveraging trigger events without the underlying knowledge of military strategy is fatally flawed. We must understand the ripple effect our actions will create on the account based on sound business acumen, assessing the customer's balance sheet, reading their annual report and gaining a deep knowledge (and understanding!) of their culture. A lack of understanding of what's motivating all stakeholders in the account, could literally set you back an entire enterprise sales cycle. Yes, using social selling can get you fired or even cause you to time warp backwards down a 12 to 18 month spiral of your hard won efforts!

Is it possible to accelerate deals using social selling? Yes, yet I am of the mind if only you mix the old school with new school methods. There are strategies and there are tactics and you must know the difference. In selling, powerful prospects are trying to outwit you on a three dimensional chess board with a backgammon board underneath. When you move your piece you must be 15 steps ahead. Aggressively pushy, quota-crusher selling behavior on social will get you blocked or deleted. Cunning wiles mixed with intuition and a sixth sense thin slice for reading people and situations born out of tens of thousands of hours in the field, will be your compass to navigate these land mines as you build a bridge of trust over troubled waters. It's so incredibly noisy, it's become deafening to purchase anything in this day and age. That's why executives shut you out and procurement takes over with the reverse auction to ignore your value and throw the lower price competitor in your face.

Should you get rid of your desk phone? I prefer a cell phone to show localized caller ID so prospects actually pick up. I digress... Where I'm going with this is that Trigger Event selling is a science irrespective of technological channel. Challenger Selling is somewhat of a remix of recurring themes which renders Solution Selling, Strategic Selling, BattlePlan, Insight Selling and Consultative Selling absolutely more valid than ever. Learn and practice them all and then mash them up into your own mixed martial art form before you step valiantly into the Muay Thai octagon!

If you are just starting out your career in selling with your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ in hand, put down your social selling quiver for a moment today. Put down the compound bow Robin Hood, and learn to shoot with antique fire arrows before you go storm the castle! Hit pause and go read the great authors on this subject. Study the great books that deal with complex sales challenges and parameters such as Jeff Thull's Mastering the Complex Sale or Mahan Khalsa's work with Franklin Covey. If you are an ambitious sales manager looking to move up the ladder and make your mark in 2015, make sure to steep yourself in Proactive Sales Management by Skip Miller, Selling to VITO by Anthony Parinello, Aligning Strategy and Sales by Frank Cespedes and Jason Jordan's clairvoyant Cracking the Sales Management Code. Wouldn't it be nice to manage the KPIs that can actually be managed and leverage the sales activities that actually lead to revenue outcomes? Get crystal clear about what actually can and will move the needle; read Mike Weinberg's book: New Sales. Simplified. Not only speak the MBA lingo of leading and lagging measures and indicators but then... leverage them to move the boulder. Social selling didn't make it easier. It made winning even more of a Sisyphean task!

If you sell products or services on a longer enterprise sales cycle time continuum, heavily touted transactional-based social selling means will simply fail. There are critical success factors that must be learned by experience in order to effectively manage your time, pipeline, powerfully leverage a CRM, set the 'right' meetings, open powerfully, discover before you present, nail an on-site meeting and master a telephone. Mike Weinberg's pithy hyper-concise book has managed to encapsulate the highest levels of new business development. Jill Konrath is a sage when it comes to cataloguing multi-faceted strategies to penetrate new accounts whilst selling to big companies.

There's been a stunning array of get rich quick, instant gratification, fad diet type social selling material put out recently. Just like any quick fix, it simply will not work sustainably. We gain the weight back and lose our shirts if we don't walk out of the casino. Social selling is limiting and should be used responsibly as a compliment or a supplement, never a crutch. It almost needs a Surgeon General's warning! My research and experience bears out that it can only become a core strategy once the aforementioned materials are studied and lived. It's a deep nurture, enablement, awareness-building and big deal force multiplier.

It does not replace the greatest technology ever invented. The indisputably original YOU. There are hundreds of other amazing complex and strategic selling books, theories and disciplines out there but I have mentioned just a smattering as they've had the most profound impact on my career, development of my own RSVP methodology, writing The Joshua Principle and it is my fondest wish that they will help you to get started and begin to be dangerous. I must puncture the social selling bubble and forgive me for casting aspersions on the social selling revolution as Messiah.

In contrast, imagine how powerful you'll be by becoming a Level IV Trusted Advisor wielding a premium LinkedIn profile while you challenge the status quo? Jim Holden posits that only 3% of all sellers ever achieve or operate at this level. It's critical to understand what it means to become a trusted advisor, and how that trust is earned through collaboration, persuasion and consultative value creation. Beyond the features and the benefits are the politics in the account, hidden economic / competitive factors, outcomes and risk we must manage deftly at a senior level. The CEO who signs only pulls a seat up next to her for you to collaborate on a mutually arrived at solution which grows over time, if you've added significant, unexpected strategic value above and beyond the norm.

So what's the social selling message to the advanced sellers out there - for the road warriors seasoned in closing seven-figure deals? Take the road not taken. Jump into the deep end head first and never look back. If you have gray hair, you actually have an amazing edge. Don't worry for a second - you will not drown. If you have business acumen and situational awareness, understand enterprise sales cycles and political power-bases, embrace proactive sales management and how to navigate a highly matrixed account with 'bee swarming' as one of my readers called it recently (i.e. meeting with various stakeholders in order to move a deal forward); you'll get on swimmingly. If you have a rock-solid sales process [maybe an amalgam you've built yourself], then you actually have a tremendous edge.

Think of LinkedIn as yet another phone and integrate it into your process. LinkedIn Sales Navigator is like the most advanced cell phone in the world. It's Google Glass. Think of Twitter as the spokes, the amplification that used to be encapsulated as Direct Response Marketing or e-mail blasts. Apps that filter Twitter give you context, then you're being strategic with the tool from firehose to laser.

The medium changes but the message stays the same. The methodologies that always separated top performers who won in the field, still win in the digital age. Iconoclastic salacious books sell with shock and awe but you need tried and true methods to sell complex products / services, if you want to stand a fighting chance of transcending self-commoditization and getting blocked by the digital gatekeepers [where do you think the traditional gatekeepers went?] They now screen the CEO's LinkedIn Profile! We must be the key-masters of the new digital fortress, leap over the moat blasted from the trebuchet of insight.

As sellers, we live and die by our results. When I train sales people I train them to execute. I spend a ton of time on 'execution' of which I have only found two books written on in the context of selling. SPIN Selling and The Four Disciplines of Execution are ones for the ages! Be proactive, learn to avoid the busy fool syndrome and place a major emphasis on execution whilst vastly simplifying your sales process. It's not rocket science. Humorously, I recently worked with a fellow with a background in astrophysics and even he was excited to get these concepts straight.

The 57% statistic on 'buying cycle' by CEB is a bit of a red herring because great sellers know they can uncover demand or even create it in any economy. They've been doing it over the telephone for time immemorial. It's called influence, understand the science and persuasion. [Cialdini] Even with contact rates down, they're still breaking the ice and bringing in high value meetings - every day. Hear that sound? That's your phone not ringing. That's the mouse clicking. Reach out and talk to live human beings. It will change your career, income and life. You're job will be 1,000% more enjoyable.

From my lens, relying on lead-gen vaporware widgets or content strategy alone is why only 60% of sales people hit their quota. Over-achievers are communicators and leverage every channel conceivably available to get to the target - whatever it takes, maintaining integrity but staying the course. I've also seen the Machiavellian social sellers out there who want to 'kill it' or 'crush it.' Hmmm...How would you feel if you were objectified into a bull's-eye? Soften up, leverage a bit of polish, panache and finesse - this is a human-to-human game. Digital didn't change that. You look more offensive in 'all caps' with your 3,000 percent benchmark report featuring empty promises of inflated ROI. We see right through you and hit delete.

Many of you reading this in the global social selling community I'm connected with [and I've sought you out, some 300 - 500 awesome thought leaders] are experts in your field. You're already pioneering ways to fuse the old and the new. I would just hope you too realize this gap and take the time to step back and help a new generation learn what still matters in the older methods. Why not always build in some key takeaways on sales process, frameworks, methodologies, syllabi and good old fashioned roll-up-your-sleeves training into the mix? Challenger Sale gave organizations an excuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater and announced the death of Solution Selling. The aptitude tests came out to detect the Challengers! Now we can all just show up, provoke with insight and we'll win by challenging key executives. Just tell the smart people how you're smarter. [Gong!]

They still MUST know, like and trust you first. People buy from those they like and trust; it's an immutable law of selling. Consultative selling is not dead as Linda Richardson puts it. Although we don't want to ask, "What's keeping you up at night?" because it's supposed to be right there on Google, it doesn't mean we can't create a value hypothesis in advance. We must diagnose before we prescribe and work collaboratively with active listening to peel the onion back to their real problems, problems the customer doesn't even know she has. We can build a solution comprised of many solutions that digs to the heart of the problem. We can work together to build the business case. We can sit beside our dream clients and work to derive value progressively (ongoing) for all parties involved. We can negotiate on a win-win basis.

Newsflash! Human nature and thousands of years of evolution have not changed the basic game we're playing. Personally, I'm not going to invest millions into something I haven't vetted thoroughly face-to-face and through references as well as performing sound, back-channel due diligence. Would any CEO buy sight-unseen over social alone? #Never. Maybe if it's the biggest incumbent in the marketplace but even then, what if they don't give you white glove treatment as they've gotten too big for their britches to provide concierge service? In this case David can often defeat Goliath [case study]. It's a game changer when you feel your vendor can transmute vendor-status into a true partner and provide you with world class, above-and-beyond, service levels.

I want to encourage social sellers to return to being strategic sellers. My message to the social selling intelligentsia is 'let's take a more intelligent approach' and study our history so it doesn't repeat to bite us in the you know where. Let's go old school! Reading this and setting your sights on 150% to 200% quota this year, you may be wondering, how can I get there? Go read the classics. Get a library card and shut down the computer. Lock your smartphone in a safety deposit box for reading time - that's a move more valuable than Kruggerands.

Pick a mentor who is twice your age and pick their brain with a volley of situational questions about real world experiences in the field over decades. Let them spill the war stories, what it really took to get the deal over the line. Find someone in your company to practice, drill and rehearse with. Go through the hard questions, dry run your presentations, practice Situation, Problem, Implication and Need-Payoff (benefit) questions (SPIN). Practice active listening and open questions that lead to value. Become a student of history and politics. Read multiple newspapers [yes, the paper ones] every day to look for trends and trigger events. Start to form a gestalt in your mind so you can bring an informed perspective when you finally do sit down with the very important top officer. She'll be more impressed by a global perspective and lack of blinders on than any attempt to wow her with your technocratic prowess.

Close the laptop, tablet and log out of the smartphone. Humanize your approach. Take notes in long-hand. Build out Design Thinking or First Principles based brainstorming processes to generate truly unique insights. Test your hypothesis for a compelling business case out on your own CXOs. It's going to take a bit more work than reading a tweet to transform a key customer's business, don't you think? I remain convinced that executives in 2015 are yearning for something more, something deeper. It starts with sellers who truly attempt to understand their business, their challenges and strategic objectives. Challenge yourself. Be original! Dare to be visionary in all you undertake. Carpe diem!

There are parallels to diet fads in my mind or those late night infomercials blurting get rich quick. Social selling has been held up by the promise of immediacy. It's up to you if you're going to be Lawrence of Arabia and lead the people to glory or deep into the next mirage dying of thirst. The alchemist of our social selling age is within each one of us. If we've ever had any modicum of success in selling to our dream clients, we know intrinsically how it really should be done. Teach with integrity and walk your talk.

Challenger Selling has been misinterpreted as hubris toward the powerful which will just get you delegated down to who you sound like: a transactional telemarketer. Social Selling and Challenger are actually brilliant facets of deeper methods underpinning them, methods that came before [thank you Neil Rackham] that are majorly nuanced. These could be your silver linings playbook but you must mine the diamonds my friends! To use these constructs powerfully requires responsibility. Don't operate the heavy machinery of social networks with your C-Level customers while intoxicated by the 'it's easy' peanut gallery. Understand executives fully on a deeper level by taking a lengthy pilgrimage to the Holy Land that is a diverse knowledge base, something I call the Strategic Selling Pantheon: Keith Eades, Jim Holden, Neil Rackham, Miller & Heiman, Linda Richardson, Craig Elias, Tibor Shanto, David Brock, Jeff Thull, Art Jacobs, Tony Parinello, Mike Weinberg... there are more, the list is long but it's not endless.

I feel like I can almost count the bloggers on one hand that are taking the new insights and fusing them with the luminous old world laws. My realization in writing this is they know much more than what's on the surface so my open letter is to encourage all social selling thought leaders to open up and share their rich history. What got you here? Shoot from the hip, heart and tell me your story. Let me feel the foundation of how you think and why you've arrived at the insights you broadcast! Then it has meaning for me.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. - Henry David Thoreau

The best thing that you can do to be lethal in social selling is to step back and learn the difference between transactional and strategic methodology and then go steep yourself in a master class on Audible or Amazon. If you're a Founder or CEO selling a SaaS product under $250K per annum, you should consider not betting the house on a costly field selling organization. If you are running a thriving inside sales team, study the bible of predictable revenue scaling that is Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross and mix this with Sales Navigator licenses to bring a whole new level of pre-call research and trigger event omniscience to your process. Translation: massively lower your cost of sale. The Board and Investors will be ecstatic.

If you're selling enterprise software, mobile, ERP, hardware, cloud based applications, big data, IT, security - PaaS, IaaS; if you're selling to government or Fortune 2,000 companies with byzantine procurement; if you're selling in response to RFPs... this letter applies to you. History repeats itself and the great secrets of selling have been laid out for you. Your path amongst the stars has been charted. We are all standing on the shoulder's of giants so let's not miss the opportunity to carry the knowledge forward to new generations.

Older generations, let's not be too stubborn to embrace change and apply the time-tested laws of strategic selling that we know produce outcomes; and apply to the new tools and platforms that can enable them. Pass the knowledge down but also absorb the new rules. We all know the dinosaur adage and the visual of pulling a wise elephant out of the quicksand. Selling is undergoing a mini-Renaissance right now. But we are missing the full double rainbow helix effect of the Age of Enlightenment if we can't connect ourselves to our roots. We need to know where we came from to evolve and see around curves.

It's a brave new world so I would suggest reading David Meerman Scott's 'The New Rules of Marketing & PR,' if you have not already! This is where my journey began. Mentees located me around the world based on my YouTube videos reflecting on Challenger Sales and they kept suggesting DMS's book...and others. I also got connected with Tibor Shanto and Craig Elias [Shift!], as well as social selling leaders such as Tim Hughes at Oracle UK, who are building a unique blend of "enterprise social selling" fusing old and new to withstand the downward pressure of selling disruptive solutions into established legacy markets.

As you may have noticed by now, I've plunged-in to the deep waters of the social selling revolution but my vessel of curiosity has rapidly been attacked by a giant squid. I have found a Mariana Trench of a major niche or gap to fill - the sector is crying out for more advanced methodology for social selling. And they don't even know that's the secret to making it more effective. Or maybe you all do, and that's why this open letter is more of an open reminder - a nudge to do more. Explain more... Where are you coming from in that recent post? Call out the book you've just quoted, reference the method that you learned in training in the 80's or 90's or Oughts and why it might still apply or doesn't at all. Maybe one piece of it needs a slight tweak or change? Pointing that out could be eye-opening, enlightening and highly illustrative to someone hungry to know. Let us learn with you...

Has selling changed? Are there systems that have gone the way of the Dodo? Sure, but most have been adapted and the authors are still at large figuring it out just like we are. They're leveraging survey data and training as we speak. It's a data-driven approach but there's one X Factor they'll always have on the youth: Wisdom. On the flip-side there is the wisdom of youth. Not knowing you can't do something produces miracles. The Millennials often have no limits, break all the rules and thereby redefine the game as we knew it.

If you'd like to embark on this journey with me, to understand how we can leverage social selling, social media and social networks to close seven figure engagements purely inside and accelerate them, stay tuned to this channel and my upcoming book.

Call me crazy or even dead wrong. Either way, I would love to hear your responses below. Are you thinking of social selling from a lens of elevating the channel? If you're a seller where are you still struggling with social selling? How are you avoiding complexity and commoditization in increasingly crowded markets? What's helping you compete and win as you navigate increasingly complex, matrixed organizations where everyone has an SVP title? Are you developing a foothold in the power base? Are you frequently sitting down with CXOs? Actually?! Are you going up against legacy incumbents as a cutting edge start-up technology to land and expand, breaking through with social selling at the helm? How are you tying all the technologies together? Are you a micro-marketer radiating your thought leadership expertise to move from push to pull? What message would you send to the Social Selling elite?

Sincere regards,

Tony J. Hughes, Sales Reverse-Mentor


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at


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