The horror in his face made me laugh out loud. I was in a videoconference coaching session with a VP, Sales & Marketing. I was coaching some of his salespeople and to track with them, he was doing with me what they were doing. He and I had designed a new business development process from the ground up, and were vetting each stage and step. We were deep into the process, and focused on how to gain access to a decision-maker.

He had chosen an important prospective customer as a prototype, and we’d identified the key players and decision-makers. We were researching those individuals, and I was showing him what it was possible to learn about an individual businessperson using LinkedIn, Google’s advanced search, Twitter, Facebook, and a handful of other resources. We weren’t using any of LinkedIn’s cool new features for salespeople. And we weren’t using a powerful data aggregator like InsideView. But what we’d found was amazing and shocking.

He pushed back. “Wayne, this is too much. There are things here I’m not sure we should know. There are things I’m seeing that we cannot ever use.” He was right, and that’s my point. The first rule of social selling must be “Don’t Be Creepy.” For salespeople it’s equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Violating this can easily lose you the opportunity to develop the customer. It can torpedo a career just as quickly.

Social selling is incredibly powerful, but I still find myself convincing company owners, sales managers and salespeople that the only alternative to it is extinction. Using the methods that worked 20 years ago is a path to the tar pits. Its track record of gaining access to decision-makers is unmatched. Several studies have demonstrated that social selling will enable a salesperson to gain access to a decision-maker 60% to 80% of the time. That’s 5X to 8X the performance of conventional, legacy methods.

Fortunately, when a company sees the metrics and documented results of social selling, they are usually ready to take the plunge as fast as possible. Therein hide a number of risks or submerged rocks. And unintentional creepiness is one of the biggest. In social selling it is far too easy to step across the line between personal and professional. And you can step across it too early and too far.

Social selling, of course, is much more than merely using technology tools (data sources and networks). It’s the process of carefully building authentic and appropriate relationships with potential customers. Catch the adverbs and adjectives in that last sentence. Each is important: carefully, authentic, and appropriate. Doing this well requires very good judgment, patience, and some emotional maturity too.

So, when does social selling become creepy? Let me give you three examples:

1. Social selling becomes creepy when it becomes too personal too fast. If you’ve done business with a customer for five years, you may know each other’s spouses or significant others. You may know the names of each other’s children. You may have intentionally and comfortably shared social activities. In your environment and organizational culture, that may be appropriate and not risk any raised eyebrows. But you need to exercise great caution to avoid the temptation to get too personal way too soon.

The shocked sales manager I described above was reacting to information that he knew his salespeople could misuse, and would misuse if not guided and coached. We had discovered the following: the buyer’s spouse’s name, children’s names and schools, children’s sports teams, charitable causes the buyer supported, favorite sports, favorite foods, places traveled to on the buyer’s last three vacations, professional associations, religious affiliation, and the fact that the buyer was currently engaged in a job search. We’d found that in less than an hour, and without ever leaving our respective desks.

Many of those pieces of information would tempt an inexperienced or immature salesperson to make a reference much too soon in a developing relationship. I’ve seen one memorable instance where a salesperson that should have known better made a reference to personal information about the buyer at first contact, literally while introducing herself. That one led to a call from the buyer’s boss to the salesperson’s company president. Not good. Needless to say, that didn’t work out well for the salesperson or her company.

2. Social selling becomes creepy when you cannot keep business the focus. Most salespeople have been exposed to old, bad sales training that encouraged them to look around the customer’s office and ask personal questions. Creepy social selling is even worse. Because you can learn so much about a prospective customer, the temptation is great to let the focus slip from business to something (anything) else. You’re making contact in order to do business. Finding coincidental commonalities with the customer can be a positive, but you need to keep the main thing the main thing. In some fashion, you’re approaching the buyer because you believe you can improve her business results in some way. That needs to be the central focus from the very beginning.

Researching both the organization and the individuals is vital now. But the information you should consider actionable is business information. If you learn that the buyer has recently completed a challenging professional certification, that’s an appropriate piece of business intelligence to capture and use. If you learn that the buyer has recently completed successful treatment for cancer, that’s not an appropriate piece of intelligence to use. Period. And yet I’ve seen that misstep made.

3. Social selling becomes creepy when you cross the line into brown nosing. I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself. I’ve had salespeople research me (I’m an easy target) and discover where I’ve made a recent presentation or keynote speech, what I’ve published recently, or where I’ve been quoted. I’ve heard adjectives like “amazing,” “excellent,” and “outstanding applied to presentations I’ve made when the salesperson wasn’t in the same state, much less in the same room when I delivered said presentation (and when it wasn’t recorded or transcribed.) It’s silly and smarmy.

The message it sends is distasteful in the extreme. It says: “I’m going to ingratiate myself to you with false praise, pandering to your ego, so you’ll be unable to resist my pitch when I propose doing business together.” My reaction is typical: I don’t want a handshake, I want a shower.

Remember my definition of social selling? I said: Social selling is the process of carefully building authentic and appropriate relationships with potential customers. I’m encouraging you to exercise wisdom and care to build relationships that have a fighting chance of lasting because they are both authentic and appropriate. Brown nosing isn’t authentic in the least. Excessively personal overtures aren’t appropriate early in the process.

So, what guidelines are appropriate to observe when you’re gathering information and deciding what you can use appropriately and authentically? Let me divide it into three headings: Never, Always, Maybe.

Never: Information you discover about an individual’s religious preference, sexual preference, political affiliation, family, and personal causes. Those are off limits even if you actually share an affiliation or preference with the buyer. Period. Treat the customer as a professional who likely knows how to keep her personal life personal, and her professional life professional. Information about a buyer’s health falls in the same category, as does information about spouses, children, parents and extended family. Trust me, “junior” doesn’t want to know that you’re in awe of “senior” when that parent’s shadow is what junior is fighting to get out of. I don’t want to hear you tell me that you know my wife is passionate about architectural stained glass or about knitting in my first contact with you, even though she is. Trust me, I’ll never answer your email and never return your call.

Always: Information you discover that is professionally pertinent is important. That’s especially true when you discover it in the context of the buyer’s organization. If the organization is celebrating an accomplishment or honoring the buyer in some fashion, and you have an authentic shared interest or experience, that’s great. But be careful of the temptation to brown nose.

Information you find about the organization that references the role of the individual in the organization is golden. So look for information about an individual that has a professional or an organizational context. Ask yourself: “Is this material to how this person does his job, makes his contribution, enables his organization to thrive?”

Industry organizations and associations to which the buyer belongs can be very appropriate points of connection, especially if you discover that the individual is very actively involved. These can be organizations focused on developing the entire industry, a specific professional expertise, setting standards, or developing individuals. When you can legitimately connect your approach with what the individual is doing to “give back” to his or her industry or profession, those overtures can be powerful and welcomed by the buyer.

Common professional interests are also incredibly valuable. For example, if you see that someone has read, liked, commented about, reviewed, or shared a recent article, business book, presentation or Slideshare, that’s a great point of connection if you have genuine interest in the subject. Those can signal parallel interests and parallel values if you’re authentic. If you’ve never read a business book, don’t bother. One of the worst misfires I’ve seen by someone trying to make this kind of connection artificially was the salesperson who was asked what most resonated with him from a book he hadn’t read.

Maybe: Here’s a good example of a “maybe.” If you learn that the individual has changed roles, even if it is an apparent promotion, be wary. Title inflation is rampant in organizations now, especially in lieu of real responsibility or higher compensation. Japanese industry uses the term “window seat” for someone given a “face saving” promotion in order to get him or her out of a position of authority. As baby boomers age and delay retirement, you may encounter one who cannot be separated from the company without risk of an age discrimination suit. Some are being “promoted” into window seats instead. For many, change isn’t a good thing. So notices of changes in role, changes in organization, changes in locations may not be good things in the eyes of the buyer. Be wise and wary. Err on the side of being too careful.

What you don’t know can’t help you. That’s why social selling trumps conventional and legacy sales methods every time it is used well. But remember that you’re using information to earn connections, to gain access, and to engage a decision-maker. You’re not looking for a drinking buddy, a travel companion, a golf buddy, or anything similar. So use what you learn wisely, carefully and well to create new relationships that are both appropriate and authentic.