Articles

Seven networking secrets of superstar sales professionals

By Gabriel R. Gonzalez, Danny Pimentel Claro and Robert W. Palmatier

Customers in the 21st century want solutions that combine products and services, which makes the relationship manager’s job increasingly complex. One sales professional or account manager no longer can know it all. They simply cannot understand all of the things their company can do for clients, which makes their internal connections across the firm more important than ever. Talking with and meeting new people comes naturally to most relationship managers, which is the good news. They don’t need much prodding from their managers to develop internal networks. But our new research, based on data from nearly 500 employees in the same company, shows that certain types of internal structures work best to accentuate information and cooperation benefits and boost sales performance. Some relationship managers allow their social networks to grow haphazardly within the firm, but the superstars take a more strategic approach. Here are seven observations from our research, published in the January 2014 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing.

Fill the gaps. Rather than allowing social networks to develop randomly within an organization, superstar relationship managers identify their internal blind spots and work proactively to exploit structural holes. A person can never have too many friends, but diversity and breadth in a social network can matter as much as quantity.

Combine informal and formal. The most effective relationship managers blend two types of internal networks for maximum effect. They tap into their informal networks, which tend to be looser and more dispersed, to gather information from different and sometimes unexpected sources. Then they bring what they learn back to their formal networks — the ones assigned by the company — where they cooperate to convert new information into tangible benefits for customers.

Accentuate the power of one. Potential benefits increase when formal and informal relationships combine in the same people. Such overlapping roles enable friends and team members to know what information is most helpful to share because they understand each other’s formal roles.

Pull up a barstool. Work provides the context for internal relationships. Even when colleagues go to lunch together or share drinks, conversations eventually come back to work. That’s when contacts from other departments and business units are likely to give up their secrets.

Don’t forget Finance. Relationship managers need connections in Research and Development so they know what innovations their company has planned for the next quarter. They need connections in Procurement so they know how those innovations will be sourced. Perhaps equally important, but sometimes overlooked, is the importance of staying connected to Finance. Closing a sale often depends on a company’s ability to offer creative or flexible financing, which means relationship managers need to know what options they can put on the table.

Make your own luck. Firms can hope their relationship managers take the initiative to develop helpful connections across the organization. Some synergy is inevitable. But firms can boost their chances of success when they create meaningful opportunities for colleagues to engage and collaborate across functional silos.

Keep your focus. Internal relationships matter to the firm only when they lead to better understanding of what the customer wants and how the company can deliver. Everything else is secondary — something relationship managers must keep in mind as they build their networks and prioritize their time.

The authors’ research appears in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Marketing in an article titled Synergistic Effects of Relationship Managers’ Social Networks on Sales Performance.

Gabriel R. Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Danny Pimentel Claro is Associate Professor of Marketing and Strategy at the Insper Education and Research Institute. Robert W. Palmatier is Professor of Marketing at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.