With over 360 million members worldwide, LinkedIn is one of the major social networks (alongside Facebook, Twitter and Google+). In fact, for business, it is arguably the social network (Its closest competitors, Viadeo and Xing, lag far behind with around 65 million and 15 million members respectively). Although Twitter can also be a great resource for sales prospecting, too.

Often, however, LinkedIn is pigeon-holed as simply the place to go to look for your next job. Certainly it is used extensively by recruitment consultants the world over to find and approach candidates. But to simply look at it this way is to do the network a significant disservice.

Savvy sales people selling in the connected world, are increasingly using LinkedIn as a primary source of new leads and tangible revenue because you can't always wait on marketing to generate leads for you. In fact, for business to business, LinkedIn is a critical tool that can make your prospecting faster, smoother and, ultimately, more profitable.

We’re going to turn the rest of this article over to Anna Bratton, one of our top salespeople. Anna is focused on a selection of strategic accounts for Salesforce in the UK. These will typically have a number of decision makers who will affect a sale.

LinkedIn is one of the core tools Anna uses to deliver against her sales targets, because as she points out, “It’s the best tool we have for business development.” The skills of a modern salesperson have changed and LinkedIn allows you to connect with, and get more information on, companies, prospects and decision makers.

Here are some top tips for using LinkedIn to turbo charge your sales:

Tip 1: Never miss a chance to connect

The first thing I’d say to any salesperson who’s ready to get serious about LinkedIn is take a long hard look at your contacts. Contacts are the currency of LinkedIn. If your contacts are predominantly family, friends and old school pals, you’ve got some work to do.

Connections breed connections. Your first level contacts open up a route to a wide range of second and third level connections. This is how you scale your network. Strike while the iron’s hot – whenever you meet anyone (online or off) always follow up quickly with a connection request while you are still fresh in their mind.

Tip 2: Discover a better way to map your prospects

One of the main things I use LinkedIn for is mapping out the decision makers within my target prospects. I deal with some very large multinational companies, so there can be numerous people involved in making and influencing a purchase. But even for smaller B2B sales, you’ll often need to influence a number of individuals.

You’d be surprised how much people put in their profiles – which team they’re in, which office they work out of, what projects they’re focusing on. With a little detective work, you can quickly build up a picture of who you should be talking to, what they’re like (check out their recommendations) and what they’ve done before.

You can also build up a map of who reports to who and gain a clearer picture of the people you’ll need to influence to make the sale. (For a start, take a look at the “Viewers of this profile also viewed...” box on their profile.)

Tip 3: Never make a cold call again

Hardly anyone I know likes making cold calls. More often than not they’re a waste of time and feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Today, there really is little or no excuse for going into any call totally cold.

With LinkedIn, you can almost always learn enough about someone to make your call, or sales pitch (if you're further into the process), more relevant and useful to them. And it’s not simply a case of digital stalking. Personally, I’m always open with the people I call about having looked at their LinkedIn profiles. I find it helps break the ice. Plus it shows I’ve gone to more trouble than 90% of the other salespeople who call them every day.

I pay particular attention to changes in profile, status updates, connections we have in common and anything they’ve posted to a group (which can be reason enough to call them in the first place). Also, with a paid account, you can see expanded profiles of everyone on LinkedIn (not just those of your immediate contacts). This provides even more useful insights you can use to make a real-life connection.

Tip 4: Get past the gatekeeper with InMail

Ask anyone in sales – senior decision makers are a tough group to get through to. It’s not surprising when you think of it: they get besieged with calls and emails every single day. So to protect their time they screen calls, ignore most of their mail and have gatekeepers to prevent unwanted sales approaches from getting through.

While I’ll try everything I can think of to get through to senior execs using traditional channels, sometimes they are simply too well guarded. That’s where InMail comes in.

InMail is LinkedIn’s internal email system and allows you to send an email to any LinkedIn user without requiring an introduction. Basically, it ensures your email gets through to their inbox. LinkedIn claims that an InMail is 30 times more likely to get a response than a cold call (which, if anything, sounds conservative from my experience).

InMails are only available on paid accounts. The higher level the account you have, the more you get. On the entry-level business account you’ll get three to five InMail ‘credits’ each month. This means you’ll want to reserve them for when everything else fails. But the good news is that if you receive a response to an InMail within 90 days – even a “not interested” response – the credit you spent to send it gets refunded. 

Tip 5: Unlock a smarter way to search

LinkedIn has a fabulous search facility. With their advanced search you can find people by title, company, location or keyword. Grab a paid account and you can add company size and seniority level too. By intelligently mixing the different filters you can get really deep and identify key individuals quickly and easily.

You can also save your search criteria and get a weekly report listing anyone new who matches the customers you’re looking for. So, for example, I could save a search for Procurement Managers in the pharmaceutical industry within 50 miles of Dublin. Then, each week, I’ll get an email with anyone new who matches my search (and who deserves a closer look). I can’t overstate what a powerful feature this is. I use it all the time.

Tip 6: Learn what’s happening in your prospect companies

As any salesperson will know, change creates opportunity. People join, people leave, companies make important announcements – any change can present a good reason to get in touch and offer to help.

LinkedIn makes discovering these changes easy. You can follow any company that has a LinkedIn page. That way you’ll see anything that changes directly in your updates. It’s an easy way to stay up to date and spot new opportunities.

Tip 7: Use groups for more than simply keeping up to date

I love groups. Like most people on LinkedIn I use them to learn more about the industries I focus on, but they can also be a great source of new sales prospects. Member questions are great for telling you about frustrations and unmet needs. They can also give you the perfect reason for making contact with a prospect.

But groups are incredibly useful in three other ways:

  1. They can give you further insights into what’s happening within a prospect company – how active they are, whether they’re hiring etc.
  2. They allow you to see more of an individual prospect’s details – in particular their full name. This is usually restricted to first level contacts (which reinforces the importance of tip 1).
  3. Group membership gives you both the reason and capability to make more connections (it’s one of the criteria you can select when you send a connection request).

Tip 8: Make your profile work harder for you

While a lot of what I’ve said so far concerns outbound activity where you are going out to discover information and make contact, it’s important not to ignore inbound too. If they’re interested, your prospects will invariably look at your profile. So it makes sense to ensure it is 100% complete and delivers a professional impression of both you and your company.

Make sure you include current links to your company site, your Twitter account and Facebook page (I find that a significant number of people who check out my LinkedIn profile go on to follow me on Twitter).

You should also get some high quality recommendations – especially from existing happy customers (quality is better than quantity). This will give visitors a better idea of what you’re like as a person. After all, even in B2B, people still buy from people.

Finally, always add a photo. It makes you more tangibly real and creates a good impression. Make sure it’s a good quality shot (nothing wacky or from a recent party) and don’t forget to smile!

Tip 9: The ‘look and look back’ trick

It always amazes me how few people know that you can see who’s looked at your profile. Unless visitors have set their profiles to anonymous, you can click on the “Who’s viewed your profile?” link and see a list of them. The free account limits how many you can see while paid accounts give you the whole list. Of course, once you know this, it can become quite a compulsive activity.

This can work for you in two ways:

  1. The fact that someone looked at your profile is a good excuse to reach out with a connection request
  2. If you look at other people’s profiles, a certain proportion will always look back (see 1 above)

Even when you get visitors described as “Procurement Professional from the Pharmaceutical Industry” you can still click on them. LinkedIn will then give you a list which will include the actual visitor. It then takes just minutes to quickly visit each profile to show you’ve looked back.

Tip 10: Integrate LinkedIn with Sales Cloud

As you’d expect, I use Salesforce Sales Cloud to track and manage my sales pipeline. I can easily integrate my LinkedIn contacts with my Sales Cloud records and tag where they came from. It means I can quickly see their work experience and education as well as our shared connections. I can also add in their photo (which I find really useful).

Of course, LinkedIn isn’t the only place I get information about my prospects. Sales Cloud also allows me to bring in what I learn on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Klout too. It makes accurate contact management essential and means I can get a more rounded (and ultimately more valuable) view of my prospects – wherever I am.

What are you waiting for? 

So that’s it – how I use LinkedIn for developing and managing my sales pipeline. I can honestly say that I’d be lost without it. While LinkedIn will not make the sale for you, by using it intelligently you can gain a tangible advantage over your competitors. It gives you a crucial edge that can translate into improved sales performance. It certainly has for me.

For more tips about using LinkedIn and other social networks for sales prospecting, download this free Social Media for Sales Prospecting guide.