10/15/2012 01:36 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Sales -- Moving Beyond LinkedIn

I had two oddly similar conversations last week. The first was with a colleague who made a name for himself selling multi-hundred-million dollar projects to the Fortune 50 and the federal government. The second was with a salesperson for a very small business selling <$100,000 projects to mid-sized businesses. Solutions totally different. Complexity of the sale totally different. Target markets totally different. Yet they were lamenting the exact same thing.

They were both struggling to secure the attention of critical stakeholders and decision makers for the opportunities they were pursuing. Both expressed the same frustration, "I had an introduction to so and so through a peer/colleague and I had other mutual colleagues put in a good word for me, but I still can't get this thing moving forward."

Both these sellers made one of the most common, yet often missed, mistake of sales. They failed to take into account the shadow power structure of the opportunities they were pursuing. Instead, they focused on their own LinkedIn networks and their overlap with the individuals they were trying to influence.

LinkedIn is a fabulous tool. But it is important to understand that there is a difference between your professional network and the Opportunity Network of the sale you are pursuing. Ideally, there is overlap, but they should be viewed as two separate entities.

An Opportunity Network is the lattice of stakeholders and influencers that create the formal and informal decision-making structure of the sale. It is essential to understand not only who the individual stakeholders are, but also their profile type in the specific opportunity as roles may change by opportunity. There are three profiles in every opportunity:

  • Facilitators are the most common. This type of relationship is formed through mutual business interests with the various stakeholders of an opportunity. Their main purpose in an Opportunity Network is to help you connect with as many people as possible. A Facilitator provides a solid personality profile of the stakeholders and decision makers as well as a clear idea of the role and influence of each. His relationships with the stakeholders enables him to help you with follow through on promised actions and keep you abreast of developments. As the deal moves from creation to procurement, a Facilitator may fade in importance. However, Facilitators should never be left out of the loop. They are an invaluable source of insight and intelligence as an opportunity progresses.
  • A Counselor is considered a thought leader and expert in her areas of interest. She has helped the decision makers solve a strategic problem. Decision makers trust her perspective and actively seek her insights when they tackle problems. Equally important, the decision maker uses the Counselor to help build his own reputation as an expert. Counselors have a high degree of clout within the circles she operators. Counselors are judicious in making connections. Before they reach out on your behalf you have to convince them that this particular opportunity is worthy of their attention and will reinforce their reputation. Once their support is secured, the probability of success increases. The Counselor becomes an invaluable member of the team as she is able to influence the decision makers thinking. More important, she is able to uncover and address resistance from other stakeholders.
  • Mentors are the top-tier of the Opportunity Network. They have long-standing personal histories with decision makers and, very often, their bosses. Mentors have contributed to the decision maker's success more than once. They are deeply trusted advisors. Mentor's protect the senior stakeholders and often act as gatekeepers. Mentors are described as the "power behind the power." They can be informal decision makers even if they sit outside the corporate or government structure. Securing their support is challenging. Keeping their support even more so. But gaining the support of Mentors dramatically increases your probability of success, reduces competition and shortens the sales cycle.

Understanding and mapping the Opportunity Network is time-consuming. It can be challenging, but it is the key to creating competitive barriers to entry and transforming yourself from a vendor's sales person to a trusted member of the customer's team.