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The Network Sales Approach: Definition, Strategy and Sales Networking Tips to Increase Sales

April 17, 2021

Sales Strategy

The Network Sales Approach: Definition, Strategy and Sales Networking Tips to Increase Sales

Social networks are key in sales - in quality and not just in quantity of connections. We'll show you how to increase sales by adopting a sound network sales approach.

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The B2B SaaS marketplace of today is highly dynamic and rife with stiff competition. Fast-paced business environments challenge sales teams to always remain ahead of the curve. For SaaS sales leaders, your message must be clear: All hands on deck. Now more than ever, sales reps need to make use of a diverse pool of lead generating resources and tactics. Such measures may range anywhere from investments in forward facing digital assets used to rake in new leads to new automated sales solutions used to assist sales reps throughout the process. However, there’s another comparatively low-tech/high-output route to generating more qualified leads - one which builds on the trust in the relationships your company has forged and maintained over time. 

The network sales approach is an approach to selling which can help your team acquire and engage with the right leads by utilizing existing professional and personal relationships. Social networks are key in sales - in quality and not just in quantity. Finding the right contacts among many is a common challenge at the core of sales network management. From contacts forwarded along to you by your company’s own clients to casual conference acquaintances, sales networking can help introduce you to potential leads or expand your existing contact pool of well-connected industry experts and key connections.

In this article, we’ll show you how you can foster a network-based view of sales within your team and improve lead generation through a variety of conventional networking means.

Pockets full of useless business cards won’t help your team increase sales in the long-run. While getting the word out is a start, finding the right network contacts for your business can pose an equally daunting challenge. We’ll run through a number of essential sales networking tips to help you get connected with the right people and maintain your relationships effectively. We’ll also double click into research on the topic which outlines which different types of sales networks there are and when it makes strategic sense to tap into them. Once you successfully implement an effective network sales approach, your team can reap the benefits of established credibility, keep a strong reference pool and make valuable lasting connections which will create value down the road. Here’s how.

What is the Network Sales Approach: Definition and Scope

The network sales approach is a sales methodology in which sales reps access existing networks to locate qualified prospects through referrals. Salespeople can make use of personal or professional networks when searching for leads. Sales networking targets either potential leads or well-connectedbrokers” who can then open the door to even more potential, or even better qualified would-be leads or valuable information. 

Sales reps usually start with the nearest network or trusted clients, professional contacts or even personal friends. Initial direct contacts such as these will yield indirect contacts down the line. As we’ll demonstrate further on in the article, the notion that a pool of direct contacts who sales reps know personally is the best first step towards new lead generation can be misleading. While direct contacts will undoubtedly help in a variety of sales situations down the line, indirect contacts in sparse networks can have an even greater impact at early stages within the sales process.

It’s important to note that network sales or sales networking are NOT the same as network marketing. The latter is another term for the controversial marketing strategy known as pyramid sales or multi-level marketing schemes with strict binary commission compensation systems.

Types of Sales Networks and Contacts: Steps Towards Effective Network Management

Each stage of the sales process involves different sales networks and coordination efforts on the part of the seller. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Daria-Shevtsova)

Many businesses invest highly in lead generation in the hopes that the sheer mass of incoming sales leads will inevitably yield a desirable number of qualified leads. In this line of thought, it may also be easy to think that a great deal of direct contacts within a select network will produce similar results. However, in a 2006 article titled Better Sales Networks published in the Harvard Business Review, Üstüner and Godes demonstrate that the internal makeup of sales networks and sales reps’ understanding of how to manage them are much more decisive factors in determining whether sales teams meet their sales performance goals. In their article cited and briefly summarized below, the authors present a framework for managing social networks and demonstrate the importance of building and maintaining relationships in sales. Despite being more than a decade old, Üstüner and Godes provide valuable insight into the sales networks and their practical implications which is still very much relevant today.

Üstüner and Godes define sales networks as a “person’s set of direct and indirect contacts.” The authors split the sales process into four primary stages: 1) Identifying Prospects, 2) Gaining Buy-in and identifying upsell opportunities, 3) Creating Solutions and 4) Closing the Deal.

Each stage within the sales cycle calls for two distinct network management actions on the part of the seller: managing the flow of information and coordinating the efforts of contacts. Sales reps tap into different kinds of social networks at different points as sales progress and employ a specific set of network management tactics in order to achieve specific sales objectives. 

The authors state that most sales reps build networks within four primary categories:

Prospect Networks include key contacts with decision making power in the lead firm as well as those its purchasing and engineering groups.

Customer Networks are made up of contacts referred from current clients. 

Marketplace Networks may be former coworkers, members of trade associations or other individuals who sales reps typically keep in touch with.

Intra-organizational Networks are groups of engineers, managers, marketers, manufacturing experts, and other sales reps from your own company.

(Source: Üstüner and Godes, 2006)

Üstüner and Godes cite the density of the connections within a chosen network as an important factor affecting the access to information. Tips on new leads, industry developments or news on competitors may be shared more freely within a dense network where many individuals already know each other and communicate frequently. Sparse networks, on the other hand, may be better suited for acquiring new information or leads.

The researchers assert that precisely these sparse marketplace networks are the ones sales managers should steer their teams towards during the prospecting stage. Once your team has identified an opportunity, the next necessary step within the solution selling process involves acquiring new information on what the prospect’s core problem is. This step involves building relationships with key decision makers within the prospect’s company. Here, Üstüner and Godes underscore the importance of developing an understanding of the prospect company network structure in order to engage with the right people.

Dealcode’s Tip: Identifying these individuals early is one way you can increase sales by wasting less time on deals that will never happen

Buyers are relying on more resources than ever to inform themselves on a products prior to reaching out. (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Scott Graham)

Now it’s time to create a solution based on the extensive knowledge of your prospect organization’s problem. In order to best craft a solution tailored to the customer’s unique needs, sales reps rely on the intra-organizational network of contacts and the information and expert knowledge these individuals convey. According to the authors, this type of sparse network configuration calls for reps to establish a web of contacts from different branches or fields (e.g. marketing, technical support or software engineers) within their own organization and coordinate their collaboration in crafting the optimal solution. 

When it comes to closing the deal, Üstüner and Godes highlight the importance of a well established network of past customers and industry experts as references. According to a Demand Gen report, the mix of resources buyers now use to consider vendor products and solutions increasingly includes peers and colleagues, prior experience with the vendor, industry experts, analysts and influencers, as well as review websites. Selling an experience with your own “unpublished” unique customer success stories which today’s well-equipped prospects don’t have access to can help you win more deals.

To briefly summarize Üstüner and Godes’ framework: network management primarily involves information management and mobilizing and coordinating contacts. Each stage within the sales cycle calls for different skills and responsibilities. The further along reps are in the sales process, the denser their networks should be.

Essential Sales Networking Tips: First Steps Towards Network Sales Success

Network sales can involve many moving parts. Here are some key questions you may want answered. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Cytonn Photography)

The first step in crafting a proper sales networking approach is to consider the following questions:  Who should I approach and why is it worth my time to engage with them? Is the contact associated with the right type of business within your target industry? Never blast out a generic email to everybody within a contact list - even if you’ve refined it a bit to seem less one-size-fits-all. This will more than likely be perceived as spam, not to mention moves like this usually bring with them more risk than reward. 

Two common types of contacts to look for are potential customers and well-connected individuals who can introduce you to new leads. Friends, close acquaintances or other contact groups with whom you have an established rapport are a great starting point. However, if you’re knowledgeable about your field and can convey a sense of value to your contacts, it should be relatively easy to build the trust you need to maintain your relationships.

Further down the line, it’s worth it to consider the above network management framework by Üstüner and Godes outlined above: Which type of network configuration - type and structure - makes the most sense at a particular stage within the sales process? Which type of sales network does the contact you’ve reached out to represent and how may mobilizing a network of this nature help with further sales networking tasks or deals down the road?

Selling Style and Sales Personality: Play to Your Team’s Strengths

Know your team and you'll know where they excel. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Leon)

Especially within the context of network sales, an in-depth understanding of each team member’s sales personality types can prove quite valuable. Individual character traits and unique selling styles determine how sales reps deal with setbacks, work alongside team members and ultimately how they understand and interact with the buyer. For example, where network sales is involved, more outgoing sales personality types may be more adept at interacting with contacts in primarily forward-facing roles involving broad networking skills at the lead generation stage. Extroverts excel at projecting positivity on the phone and maintaining a high level of personal interaction all throughout the day. While these team members can easily manage compiling a large network of potential buyers, other more analytical seller personality types may prove better suited at coordinating and maintaining network relationships. 

In short: Sales personality types can affect how well reps perform at various stages within the sales process stages and shed light on which tasks team members are better suited to. First-hand knowledge of distinct seller attributes can help you position sellers for success and increase sales.

Curious to see where you or your team stand? Take the Dealcode sales personality test to discover what kind of seller you are at heart. Following completion, you’ll receive an individual analysis as well as guidance on how to best accelerate your B2B sales career through targeted improvement today. 

Increase Sales with Better Sales Networks: Tips for Sales Managers

Promote a culture of network-based awareness among your team members and you'll help your sales reps create value in relationships and increase sales. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Maxime)

Sales reps who understand and value the importance of building and maintaining valuable networks will be assets to the company rather than just employees. In order to promote awareness for the network sales approach and build on existing networking and relationship-building competencies, sales managers should be proactive at hosting social (virtual) events and providing the right training for their teams. Such arenas provide space for exchange among contacts from various industries and colleagues alike. Sales reps have the opportunity to expand their network as well as their knowledge of the field they sell in.

And interactions such as these will create value down the road: Experts in their field build better relationships.

Work From Home and Virtual Networking

Virtual conferences have taken the place of in-person networking opportunities. How do we adapt? (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Chuttersnap)

Everybody has been forced to put a good many things on hold due to the worldwide pandemic. That weekly meetup for coffee has shifted to FaceTime and team meetings are held via Zoom. Not only has work-from-home transformed our everyday work-life interactions, but it has also completely changed the broader face of networking as we know it. Some of our key questions include: Which types of networking-related challenges have companies had to grapple with due to the pandemic? How have businesses begun to compensate for the lack of face-to-face networking opportunities and which strategies have they employed to reestablish personal touch points within the sales process and beyond?

The trend towards virtual events is one attempt at filling the void. Trade fairs have moved their operations online and conferences have gone virtual. Businesses with the capacity may opt to host their own special online conference event in lieu of in-person fair appearance. Settings such as these provide great opportunities for new product updates and announcements. Nonetheless, alongside companys’ existing (hopefully also effective) digital presence in the form of active social media campaigns, website updates and newsletter subscriptions and a steady stream of relevant content shared by sales reps, content curators of these events need to be sure not to overload their guests with information.

Another key consideration if you plan to host an online conference event is how you make use of virtual face-to-face interaction. While an online presentation for a larger group can make a good first impressions, personal interactions make lasting impressions.

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