Social Selling: Is it Really New?

Posted on October 7, 2013

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Social Selling in the 60’s

I find myself speaking a lot on the subject of Social Selling but whilst the technology, the media and platforms are new, much of what we mean by Social Selling is not new at all. As a living and breathing example of this let me refer you to businessman Harvey Mackay who I heard interviewed recently by Dan Pink in his excellent podcast series Drive Time.

Mackay was born in 1932 so was in his 70’s when FB was invented. He has, and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, been around the block. A few times.

In his first job as a young seller he nervously approached  an older colleague called Mr Carpenter for some advice. Mackay asked  ‘How long after you start calling on a sales prospect do you stop?’ Mr Carpenter, apparently one of the most experienced in the company (Mackay referred to him as an ‘old grisly’), replied. ‘it depends on which one of us dies first’.

I am not sure I would describe Mr Carpenter as a Social Seller (because I don’t have the data not because of his obvious persistence) but I have no doubts about Mackay. Mackay is, by any reasonable definition, a Social Seller.

Where have all the Sellers Gone?

In 1959, Harvey Mackay purchased an insolvent envelope manufacturing company with just twelve employees, three outdated folding machines and one printing press. Today, his company, Mackay Envelopes produces 4 billion envelopes a year, has $100m revenues and employs over 400 people in what I think we can all agree is a highly commoditised and difficult market.

However, he is not only the founder and CEO of Mackay Envelopes, he is also a New York Times best selling author and columnist. In fact he has sold more than 10 million books.

If you met him today  and asked for his business card though, it would say none of those things. It would not say President, CEO or Author. It would say ‘Harvey Mackay, Envelope Salesman’. This is as much borne in pride for his profession as it is humility. In a world of Account Executives, Product Advisers and Outcome Managers, Mackay is a salesman. This is because, for Harvey Mackay, being a salesman is a noble profession. It means being in service to his customers.

The Social Imperative (is what is really new)

Fifty years before the invention of LinkedIn or Twitter, Mackay realised that before you could have a network of trustworthy and valuable contacts, you first had to build a network of people who value you and whose trust you have earned. His book, “Dig your well before you are thirsty” is a testimony to this approach.  For me some of the examples are definitely ‘of their time’. Social mores have moved on somewhat. That being said, what Mackay intuitively knew was that selling required an unrelenting customer centred focus and a strong sense of ethics.

It would be difficult to argue, fifty years on, that Mackay plays anything but the long game. And  played it successfully. HIs approach is one of doing the right thing. Mackay focused first on his own behaviour and the results followed. He is a master of aphorism and he articulates this as ‘Conduct  your business as if your Mother is watching’

So there is nothing new in this approach. Successful sellers have always been social in the way they conduct business. What is new is that a customer centered, buyer-centric approach is no longer optional. The shifting dynamic between buyer and seller has moved the power more and more towards buyer. Buyers are better informed and better connected than they have ever been before. The increasing use of social platforms, ratings sites and online reviews continues to enable and empower buyers and forces sellers to do what they should always have been doing. What Harvey did.  And if you think it is just B2C, think again. Take a look at Glass Door as only one example. As Dan Pink puts it in to Sell is Human, it is no longer Caveat Emptor. It is Caveat Venditor. Seller Beware.

Separated by Decades, United by Purpose

Harvey Mackay and the Social Seller have much in common. Whilst they are separated by decades, they both agree that success means being a better seller and a better human. In a world where power has shifted from seller to buyer they both have to conduct their business as if their Mothers are watching.

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