One common trait is shared by all of the highest-performing salespeople I know. Each one works steadily and intentionally to increase his or her Sphere of Influence. It is a process so ingrained it has become habit. They do it so naturally and so consistently that it draws very little attention. And each one’s individual sphere tends to be large.

That’s worth a momentary detour. The size of a salespersons LinkedIn network is now being used as a rough gauge, both of her level of professional engagement, and of her effective sphere of influence. I made an informal tally of about fifty salespeople whose current productivity I know firsthand. The size of their networks matched the bell curve of productivity perfectly. Like it or not, it’s easy to vet that statement. Ask any recruiter off-the-record. I did. Or do it yourself. In my informal and small sampling, the highest performing salespeople inevitably have networks exceeding LinkedIn’s 500+ milestone. Mid-range performers showed up in the 250 – 350 range. And the “retreads” I described in an earlier post were uniformly below 250. Where are you?

But I want to describe something much larger than merely making as many LinkedIn connections as you can by becoming a LION (LinkedIn Open Networker -- not a good thing) or piling up followers on Twitter. So I’m not talking about merely growing your network, even though that’s important. I am talking about making a significant investment of yourself into the people within your network.

Unfortunately, this is something too often missed by the majority of salespeople who live somewhere in the middle of the sales performance bell curve. The good news is that this is a learned behavior, a method of working. And that puts it within the reach of any B2B salesperson who chooses to learn and apply it.

When I coach sales managers and their salespeople, I always begin at the same place: learning to master and use all the tools in their company’s sales process. Your company does have a sales process, right? If so, why swim against the current? If the company has invested in a sales process and the tools and resources to help make the sales organization effective at each stage and step, why not leverage them to the max?

Developing and applying the skills to leverage a sales process can easily move a new salesperson to “journeyman” status. That’s important, especially for new salespeople who are working to reach that all-important first performance rung within their own companies: becoming a “keeper.” But that’s a miserable place to take a victory lap. So what’s the real, long-term objective that’s worth pursuing? That’s easy. It’s becoming a trusted advisor.

Maister, Green and Galford wrote a book I recommend highly -- The Trusted Advisor. It wasn’t written for salespeople. It was written for consultants, CPA’s, attorneys, and others in professional service firms who are working to get their expertise appreciated, used, and paid for. But the authors have done an excellent job describing the process of building both the breadth of expertise and depth of trust to earn the standing of a trusted advisor. I use this when coaching salespeople who are working to build social selling skills. And we work through it chapter-by-chapter. It helps them understand just how far they can build their own credibility and influence. By the way, I also recommend The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, co-written by one of the original authors, Green. If you want practical “how to” resources, it will provide them.

When perceived authority (which is much more than merely applied subject matter expertise) is paired with earned trust, the influence is substantial. So how do you earn that standing? I’ll offer you two specific places to start:

1. Offer Value First Stephen Covey wrote and spoke at length about making deposits into what he called “emotional bank accounts.” And I’m intentionally stretching that metaphor when I recommend that you find ways to make consistent deposits into relational bank accounts, and do it proactively. For as long as I can remember, others have suggested that salespeople ingratiate themselves with potential clients by offering small-scale bits of value – pieces of information, links to articles, and the like. The stated goal is staying “top of mind.” That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m encouraging you not to limit it to potential customers, and I’m suggesting that you not limit it to bits of random flotsam and jetsam. The last things that most of your potential customers need are notes (virtual or physical) recommending random reading. Unless it is current, pertinent, and actionable, don’t bother. No one needs a link to another clever but useless listicle. Instead, enable the people in your network to make new and valuable connections.

I am always on the alert for opportunities to introduce someone I know to someone else I know. I work to make those introductions happen, and then step back out of the middle once the introduction is made and an initial conversation has happened. It’s work. It takes time. It requires coordinating the schedules of two other people. But few things are more valuable than connecting two people who can serve as resources for each other. When I have a client facing a problem outside my capabilities, my first response is to make an introduction and then step back. When I make those introductions, I have no financial interest in what happens afterward, and that’s on purpose. It keeps my hands clean, and let’s me tell my client that my only gain is the satisfaction of connecting two people who can create value together. I’ll admit that the behavior is sometimes puzzling to one or both parties. And I have clients who will ask me whether there’s something going on behind the scenes. I can truthfully answer: “No.”

I’m encouraging you to do this for everyone inside your sphere of influence, whether or not the individual is or could ever be a client. Make the investment in making the connection. It’s a practical and professional way to “pay it forward” and to be the prime mover at the same time. The effect is usually profound.

This helps earn you a reputation as trustworthy and as a value-creator whether you benefit immediately or not. It also helps position you as a “first resource.” First resources are those people we reach for because we know they will welcome the opportunity to help, and we know they deliver honest value when they can. The wonderful byproduct for a salesperson is that you’ll find yourself introduced, welcomed, connected, and endorsed as trustworthy and valuable.

If you approach this expecting a “quid pro quo” dynamic, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll always be offering more value than you receive in return. There are a lot of reasons why. Some people will never have the opportunity to reciprocate because their circumstances will prevent it. Some will find your actions memorable but unusual enough to make them uncomfortable reciprocating. Some simply won’t have the same sort of “invest first” mindset. That last reason is disappointingly common. But this is worth the effort nonetheless.

Leverage Your Understanding If you’re sharpening yourself as I described in my prior post in this series, then you’re going to have even more value to offer beyond that of making connections. Others would dispute this sequence, but I believe that knowledge builds and becomes more powerful in a patterned way. We start with data, which is slugs or pieces out of any real context. When we can understand the relationships between different bits of data and organize them in some fashion, we can begin to call it information. When we take that information, internalize it, and retain it, it becomes knowledge. When we comprehend and synthesize that information into what we already know, we reach understanding. Finally, when we are able to leverage that understanding and make it actively effective, I think that qualifies as wisdom. Whether you care for my particular sequence or not, there’s a sequence at work nonetheless. You have the ability to develop understanding and even wisdom that will be very valuable to others. As you do so, offer it.

I’ve watched too many people, especially contemporaries of mine, trying to hoard their understanding in hopes of gaining security or power or something. Purported “subject matter experts” are often the worst offenders. Usually the effort is in vain. Obsolescence overtakes them while they are carefully hoarding. So offer the understanding you’re gaining.

The offer is best made personally, and in a context that makes sense. It’s not pushy in the least. For example, I’ll often tell frustrated sales managers that I understand, and would be happy to listen and offer help with no meter running. I listen with a view toward offering a connection, resource, or information source that they might find helpful and useful. If the conversation leads toward me being of more direct help that’s fine, but that’s not what I expect or attempt to make happen. I do the same with salespeople who are struggling with a large opportunity and having a tough time. Often that help is entirely extraneous to a current engagement with the salesperson’s company. But it lets me continue to earn and deserve the relationships by investing in them when I can.

Your objective is to create a gravity that pulls others toward you, and keeps them willingly engaged within your sphere of influence. You can’t do it by ingratiating yourself in some shallow fashion. And you can’t do it by focusing solely on those people with whom you want to do business. The necessary investment is deeper and more substantial. And the range of your deposits into the relationship accounts of others needs to stretch much more widely.

Salespeople tend to be distracted by “tricks, tips, and secrets.” What I just described runs directly contrary to that sort of shallow manipulation. There is magic in this, and it is powerful. But it is built in relationships with individuals and with time. The magic is that it grows more and more powerful with time and ongoing effort. It is a self-sustaining and virtuous cycle.

Where do you begin? Well, I find this question very useful for myself: “Whose life did I make measurably better today because he or she had contact with me?” When you can name a name at the end of each day, you’re on the way.

What do you think?