In a time where buyer behavior has rendered cold calling nearly obsolete, successful sales prospecting begins with using tools like live chat and social media to build relationships.
Dan Swift, CEO of Empire Selling, has built his career around the latter. Back in 2012 Dan joined LinkedIn as a senior sales leader charged with launching its social selling business – training LinkedIn’s own global sales organization in the process. He’d go on to become the VP of Sales at Sprinklr, guiding the company through its own high growth period, before striking out on his own. Today with Empire Selling he’s helping B2B companies drive revenue and deepen customer relationships through digital and social selling training.
I hosted Dan on our podcast to break down the challenges and rewards of sales at high growth companies, the do’s and don’ts of social selling techniques, how salespeople can use content to play the role of trusted advisor, and more. If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to it on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our chat.
Adam: Dan, welcome to Inside Intercom. Can you give us a quick rundown of your career to date and the types of companies you’re now working with at Empire Selling?
Dan: I’ve been in enterprise sales now for 18 years. The last 12 of those have been in leadership positions. My first real job was at GE Capital in Australia, and then I moved back to London and joined a company called Complinet, which was a back office compliance software company. It was ultimately acquired by Thomson Reuters, so a 200-person company got swallowed up by a 45,000-person company.
Fortunately LinkedIn found me 18 months later. At LinkedIn, I launched the social selling business and brought LinkedIn Sales Navigator to market. After about two and a half years there I joined Sprinklr, a social media management technology company, and was there for three years as a divisional vice president. January 1, 2018 I officially started my role as CEO of my own company, Empire Selling.
We’re essentially helping B2B companies drive revenue and deepen customer relationships through digital and social selling training. We do live workshops and a ton of speaking engagements. Right now we’re working with some Fortune 50 companies, all B2B, down to much smaller startups here in New York City. The only exception is some B2C work with financial services and insurance companies.
Adam: How was your experience of getting your own startup off the ground while being a leader in a high growth company? Is there anything that you’d recommend for someone going through something similar?
Dan: The best advice I’ve got is to be completely transparent with what it is that you’re doing. When I joined Sprinklr, I made it very clear to the leadership team that I had this business, it was very much a side hustle, and I’d be doing it evenings and weekends. That transparency came upfront, and the leadership team basically said, “Anything you do externally, any teaching, any learnings you get, bring them back in-house. Make sure the Sprinklr sales organization benefits from it.” In that way, both parties win.
In terms of trying to figure out the viability of a business while still working, use the time when you’re gainfully employed and getting an income to test content or the technology. Make sure you’ve got that viable program or platform. Do your research on the total addressable market and the market readiness for whatever you’re doing. Have that income coming in to pay the bills before you go do this, and definitely try to get some clients that are going to be with you for the medium term when you get started.
Scaling sales in periods of high growth
Adam: Looking back at your time at LinkedIn and Sprinklr, both companies were going through extreme periods of growth during your tenure.What’s it like riding that trajectory, particularly as someone in sales? Obviously there are a lot of challenges that come from that. What sticks out?
Dan: Definitely some advantages as well, as you suspect. You tend to have something unique or something that’s very much in demand, so the advantages should be obvious. You tend to be able to sell slightly more easily, and it definitely helps in a sales position when you’re working for a well-recognized brand like a LinkedIn.
But the challenges, there’s a lot of them. You tend to get pretty large quotas, because the leadership team believes that the market opportunity is there and they’ve made certain commitments to the board. You have to sell a lot more of it to get there and make the same kind of money maybe that you’d make at another organization.
It’s not as easy as some might think. For example, when I was at LinkedIn we launched a brand new product. LinkedIn was known at the time for talent and marketing solutions, and we had to educate and challenge our prospects with what we were bringing to market, which was LinkedIn Sales Navigator. People didn’t think of LinkedIn as a sales tool. In fact, the team that I was responsible for was selling into the highly regulated financial services and insurance market. Obviously, social media is not at the forefront of everyone’s minds in those sectors, and certainly not when it comes to selling. There’s definitely challenges there.
With fast-growth companies also comes a mixture of cultures. Some cultures are super supportive in these kind of environments, very entrepreneurial and incredibly compassionate – at least the real fast-moving, forward thinking-ones. Others are not as good from a cultural perspective, a little toxic. It really does depend on the leadership team.
Adam: That example of financial institutions is really interesting, because it’s such a large, traditional industry that’s used to doing things in the same way for a long period of time. How do you begin to approach that problem of trying to get them to switch from some sort of existing solution that they understand really well to something more digital, like a social solution?
Dan: Sure. We actually brought in The Challenger Sale to help us do that, because you’re essentially challenging the status quo. You’re challenging a way that the industry has worked for decades. Also, you’re helping them get to a place where they realize for themselves that they actually have a challenge or a problem, or they could be operating way more effectively. In this example, the way we challenged was teaching them that there was a lot of stuff going on on LinkedIn in terms of members engaging with other members, particularly high net worth individuals. Then we’d get them to think about this as potentially just another channel they could be operating on to win those high net worth individuals.
Adam: One thing that is always a challenge as you scale is keeping your processes aligned. Whether it be from LinkedIn or Sprinklr, what’s one particular moment where you really had to change how you and your teams worked? How did you solve that?
Dan: When they’re growing incredibly quickly, oftentimes the company will outgrow the infrastructure. I think a couple of things jump to mind. The first one is communication. You have to communicate clearly. You have to have a common language around whatever it is that you’re doing, and a specific operating framework. For sales, we brought in a couple of different methodologies. We used Force Management, a growth play company, which allowed us to have that common language so we could really expedite one-on-one meetings, team meetings, and the way that we communicated around deals.
The other part of it is culture. You’ve got to have the right culture, because you are going to outgrow your infrastructure, and when things do start creaking it’s the people around you that you’re going to lean on. That’s why culture’s so important. Essentially, you’re going to battle every day, and you want to have those people around you to support you. When systems start creaking, they’re the ones who are going to look out for you.
Hiring and holding onto talent
Adam: You can’t really talk about scaling culture without talking about hiring. When you were hiring in these positions, what were the hard and soft skills that you looked for most?
Dan: A lot of people think it’s critical to bring in that individual with the 20 years of software sales experience, but oftentimes that individual might not necessarily be comfortable in the new market. Conversely, you might have incredibly talented individuals with less sales experience but incredible domain experience.
You need a little bit of both. The people with 20 years of enterprise sales experience can really help the people nearer to sales take a more strategic approach with account management and that sort of stuff, but then the people who have that domain experience – in my world that’s social media – can help the people coming into the space. When I’m building my teams, I always have a little bit of something from each different area. Diversity is so important to make sure you have the right mix and the right collaboration.
In today’s world, people jump around a lot, which makes it difficult to see if someone has capabilities in sales.
Then, specifically on hard skills, I’m looking for people who’ve got a proven capability in sales, a proven track record. To prove it in sales, you’ve really got to be somewhere longer than two and a half years or so. In today’s world, people do jump around a lot, which makes it difficult to see if someone has capabilities in sales. That’s when the interview process becomes critical. Then soft skills, coachability. You’ve got to be able to pivot. You’ve got to be able to take feedback so you can move forward 10X. Coachability is huge.
Adam: On the flip side, in a time when competition is so high for talent, how do you sell your company to candidates to make sure that they were aware that this is the right opportunity for them?
Dan: First of all, it’s me understanding what they want to do, and what they think they’re capable of, to make sure it is the right fit before I try and sell them on anything. I want to make sure that they understand they’re coming on a journey with the company and with me as their leader and make sure they’re the kind of person you want to hang out with for eight hours a day, five days a week at least. I think that’s pretty important.
I’m known for being a compassionate leader. I show a ton of vulnerability because everyone should do that to be able to learn and get better and help the people around you feel comfortable asking questions. So that in conjunction with a good hiring process, normally gets you off to a pretty fast start.
Yes, there is a great war for good talent, but I think there’s a stronger thing happening where a lot of companies do not have a particularly strong middle management layer, particularly in sales. Everyone knows the biggest reason people leave a company is their boss. If we can solve that across the sales industry and help sales leaders become more effective and more compassionate, but more up to date on things like social selling and new ways of approaching a traditional sales industry, then I think you might see less movement around SaaS companies.
Adam: Is part of that taking more time to carve out different types of career paths rather than standard management tracks?
Dan: It’s definitely that, but it’s also taking the time to slow down and understand what it is the individual is looking to try and get from the experience. When you actually do that and you get to know the individual as a human being, that individual working for you not only will go 10X what they probably would’ve done otherwise, but you build a very special relationship. You get to do some very special things together at incredibly fast-paced companies. It sounds obvious but so many leaders don’t do that.
The foundations of social selling
Adam: A major area of emphasis and success in your career has been social selling. Can you just define social selling for us? How is that different from something like social media marketing?
Dan: Over at LinkedIn, social selling was all about leveraging your social network to find prospects, build trusted relationships and ultimately achieve your sales goals. I think all of that is fine, but I think there’s a misconception around social selling, that ultimately a social seller is just going to sit on social media and not leverage other channels like the phone or email or, increasingly, video. That’s not the case.
Social media marketing is leveraging social media one to many. It’s a company trying to hit up a ton of consumers to pass on a message. Whereas social selling is one to one. It’s identifying an executive, a middle manager, a practitioner, whoever it might be, and leveraging social media, and maybe relationship data, to find a warm path into that individual rather than cold calling. Or, perhaps it’s leveraging some social insight about that person as a human being to reach out warmly and get a meeting.
I always want to align to how buyers want to be engaged, and a lot of the research says they want to be engaged on social media.
Adam: Zooming out a little bit, how has software sales changed to the point where this channel has risen in importance?
Dan: It’s less about what’s changing SaaS and more about what’s changing for buyers. There’s a lot of research out there that cold calling is becoming less effective. The latest report, I think it was from the Harvard Business Review, says it’s not going to work 97% of the time. It does work 3% of the time. Now, as a salesperson, I always want to align to how buyers want to be engaged, and a lot of the research says they want to be engaged on social media. It’s more about how we want to serve our customers and how we want to engage with people than it is about any changes in SaaS.
Adam: As an example, let’s look at the “ungettable” call or meeting. How might you use social selling to start building that relationship?
Dan: Imagine you’ve got an executive who we know is an economic buyer, he or she’s got the money to buy whatever it is that you’re selling. There’s three parts of social selling that I evangelize. The first one is your network. You have to build and nurture your network. Build it, connecting with every single person with whom you have a meaningful business interaction every single day. Because the bigger and better your network, and if you nurture that network with content, chances are you’re going to be able to get yourself a warm introduction from someone in your network who trusts you because of the content you’re sharing.
Now, the second part of it is, once you’re with the executive or even in your outreach through someone, that executive’s going to care about things like white papers to educate them. Contrast that to a practitioner, who might just want some tactical guidance around how his or her day could be better. It’s making sure that we use the right content in our outreach.
Then, finally, if you’ve done enough and that warm introduction has worked, that executive is going to look at your LinkedIn profile to see who you are, because it’s natural human curiosity. If that person looks at your LinkedIn profile and sees a traditional resume and sales-y approach to LinkedIn, mentioning things like performance against quota and all that sort of stuff, it’s a bit of a turnoff to a buyer and definitely an executive. But, if your profile talks about how you’ve got this rich history of helping executives and buyers like him achieve his goals, then that’s a very different emotional experience. The conversion tends to be way higher if you take that approach. Network, content and profile are the three big pillars that can be needle moving.
The worst thing is that they just blast out corporate content over and over and over again.
The 50/25/25 content mix
Adam: I imagine that mix of content you share is crucial, because I certainly can’t see this being effective if all you’re sharing is corporate piece of content after corporate piece of content. You’ve got to position yourself as a human being too, right?
Dan: Absolutely. I have a 50/25/25 rule. Before I explain too much of what it is, I’ll explain the worst thing that people can do on social media. The worst thing is that they just blast out corporate content over and over and over again – information promoting the company that they work for morning, lunchtime, afternoon, evening, five days a week, sometimes seven days a week. All you’re doing there is positioning yourself as a salesperson to your network. You want to position yourself as a trusted advisor, so it’s critical to share content, but you’ve got to get this blend right.
50% can be what I’ve just described, all that corporate content. That’s okay. It’s a channel. You want to educate. 25% should be around what I call industry content. That’s not anything produced by your company, but information that you source that can be helpful to your target buyers about the industry they’re in, so they can become better professionals, more productive and successful. Then, the final 25% should be nothing to do with any of that. The final 25% has to humanize you on social. For me, it’s coaching, it’s helping people be the best they can possibly be, and anything that I find, I read or I’m sent that I think will benefit people in my network, I share. That’s the last 25%. You need balance as a person on social.
Adam: Sales in many ways all about measurement. Social selling is a much more longer term play, so how do you measure its success?
Dan: It’s actually a little easier to measure than perhaps people think. There’s a lot of talk in the market that you can’t measure the effectiveness of social media. I think that’s just not accurate. Here’s a couple of things that you can think about doing. The first thing is the number of warm introductions you get on LinkedIn to your prospects. That could be measured on a weekly basis. Then there’s the number of meetings with each prospect type: economic buyers, champions, influencers and maybe coaches. Measure the number of people you’re getting in each of those because then you can see where your outreach is working and where it’s not and be able to tweak.
If a buyer looked at their profile right now, what kind of experience would that buyer have?
Next, look at the opportunities that were started with content that you shared on LinkedIn, Maybe someone liked that content, took the conversation offline and that started a new opportunity. That can be measured. When I was at LinkedIn and Sprinklr, we actually used Salesforce for that. All we did was link all the opportunities back to whatever generated it. We could see at the end of every quarter how much revenue had been influenced by social.
Adam: Obviously, LinkedIn is the most natural outlet for this type of material but do you need synergy between your Twitter presence and your Facebook presence as well? How does that fit into the picture?
Dan: Yeah, definitely. The more you get into this, Twitter becomes an interesting channel too. You definitely have to have consistency across all the social channels, and that’s the way that you present yourself, and also the photos that you pick and the tactical way you describe who you are, which is super important. I use Twitter less as a communication tool and more as a research tool. There’s a ton of great stuff that companies are putting on Twitter, but also the individuals that you’re trying to sell to are putting things out on Twitter about themselves. It gives you great insight and a great opportunity to leverage that insight to bridge an introduction.
Adam: When it comes to social selling, what’s something that our listeners could do in the short term to start driving results?
Dan: First of all, they should think about how they’re positioning themselves on LinkedIn. If a buyer looked at their profile right now, what kind of experience would that buyer have? Would it be a bit of a turnoff because you’re just a little egotistical and talking about yourself and promoting yourself, because you’re trying to appeal to recruiters? Or, are they having a much more trusted advisor kind of interaction where they look at your profile and say, “That’s amazing. I’ve got to talk to this person.” That’s the first thing.
Another real quick win is connecting with every single person in your organization. Now, that’s easier if you’re working for a 200- or 300-person company, obviously. If you’re at a much larger one, perhaps you connect with everyone in your division. But it’s amazing who knows who and LinkedIn, obviously, opens so many doors through warm introductions.
The high potential of video content in sales
Adam: Empire Selling covers a lot more technique than just social selling. As someone that’s been in this space for as long as you, what other emerging sales channels are you really excited about?
Dan: The thing I’m most excited about, particularly for this year, is video. It’s going to be fascinating to see how video develops. There’s amazing companies out there who are doing it really well. I don’t know yet how executives are going to feel when people like me reach out to them with video. I’m not sure yet whether that’s going to be the right vehicle, but I think it is going to be powerful for middle management prospects and practitioner prospects for salespeople to use video.
Adam: What about that application really sticks out to you? What are the companies who use video well doing that’s so interesting?
Dan: A lot of it is the back end that a company’s going to be able to see, the data in terms of how are sellers using it? How are they performing? What sort of messages are landing when someone opens the video? How long is the person watching the video? Do they sit on the video all the way through to the end? Do they share it with people? You start getting a lot of good insight, and you can start tweaking your messaging accordingly. I think it’s just a bit of that, but it’s ease of use as well. Salespeople, for the most part, want to have tools that are going to be incredibly intuitive, and just quick and easy, right? Video does it really well.
Adam: Dan, thank you so much for sharing part of your day with us. Before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about Empire Selling and generally keep up with your latest insights?