Dedicated readers of TRMusings know that I recently conducted a social media workshop at the Foodservice Sales & Marketing Association (FSMA) Top2Top Conference. Attendees from sales agency (food broker) community came together with their principal clients, the food manufacturers, to discuss industry issues and to network. As part of my research to prep for my session, I entered the scheduled participants names into LinkedIn to see who had profiles and who did not. I discovered that nearly eighty percent of the manufacturers had active profiles; but less than forty percent of the sales agency attendees were active on LinkedIn. The gap did not surprise me as much as its relative size. It told me that despite the fact that “relationship selling” is the primary business of sales agencies, they were under-utilizing the tools and technology available. Tools that could positively impact their business.
The focus of my workshop was to highlight some of the new social media tools, and advise participants on how to apply them to grow their revenues. This post will be an extension of that session, but focused only on how a food sales agency can “Shine a Light” on its organization, and communicate its capabilities and strengths to its manufacturer principals (and prospective principals).
The majority of food sales agencies are small businesses, many operating for decades in their respective markets. Yet the face-to-face methods of relationship selling and business development from years past are simply are not present in today’s hyper-active environment. Broker-owners, therefore, must work harder to establish and maintain relationships with a broader array of contacts within their manufacturing sector clientele.
During my thirty-plus years as a food company sales and marketing executive, there were typically a number of opportunities throughout each year to personally interface with my broker organization owners and their key executives: conferences, meetings, business reviews, etc. My broker rosters were not simply a list of company names, but represented individuals with whom I had personal relationships, and whose company capabilities I knew intimately.
But that was then. Today, executives — and even manufacturer field representatives — are captive to reduced budgets, increased demands, and complex strategic initiatives. Despite the need for a closer understanding of the broker organizations representing their brands within the 50 key markets in the US, most manufacturing executives do not have the same opportunities to interface with their broker sales partners as before. So agency executives must take the initiative, or it won’t happen.
LinkedIn provides an excellent set of tools for sales agencies to highlight their capabilities, key staff, and major account relationships. Properly developed and used, even a small broker organization can establish and expand their visibility to their key manufacturer principals by not only linking their networks, but by posting relevant content to showcase their market and industry expertise. When needed, they can reach out directly to their principal’s key executive via LinkedIn “InMail”. (Based on personal experience, I have found that a LinkedIn message is often addressed with more immediate attention and gravitas than a standard email. Seriously.)
So why aren’t more agency executives using LinkedIn to enhance their executive relationships while polishing their brand? Lack of knowledge about its purpose and use is one reason, which I hope I addressed for those who attended my workshop. But unfortunately that group represented only a fraction of the agency world. Word-of-mouth suggestion from within the industry and peer-pressure, combined with the general buzz about LinkedIn within our industry may — over time — make an impact. The succession of younger managers rising to more responsible positions within the agencies will also have an impact. Regardless, I’m confident it will evolve.
In the meantime, with minimal effort and virtually no cost, agencies can significantly raise their visibility using LinkedIn. Why not separate yourself from other brokers in your market, and polish your organization’s brand while you’re at it? Here’s a few ideas on where and how to start:
- Establish a LinkedIn Committee. Assemble a few interested parties on your staff and ask them to serve on a team to research and outline a process to establish and manage your LinkedIn strategy. Include a mix of responsibility levels to gain a broader perspective.
- Create a Company Page. LinkedIn now has “Company Pages” where you can highlight your organization’s mission and values, and link the capabilities and background for all your key staff. This article “5 Tips for Using LinkedIn Company Pages” will help you get started.
- Review and Expand Executive Profiles. Each of your key staff members should have a complete profile on LinkedIn. Have the team review them and use the information in “5 Simple Steps to Improving Your LinkedIn Visibility” to your organization to the next level.
- Find Key Contacts. Search LinkedIn for the key targets you want to add to your network. Start with your regional managers and principal’s staff you know, and work out from there. Ask for a LinkedIn introduction to those you don’t know, or simply send an invitation on your own to the target individual. Always customize the message accompanying your LinkedIn invitation (i.e. “As your foodservice sales agency in Cincinnati I would like to connect our professional networks.”) Most should respond even though they may not know you personally.
- Post Relevant Content. On your profile’s home page, there is a box at the top marked “share an update”. Post short commentary, links to relevant articles, or thoughts about industry events. Post several times per week if you can, to further raise your visibility with your network. It only takes a few minutes per day to manage once you establish the habit. Be professional and active, and your efforts will pay dividends in elevating your position as a “thought leader”.
- Participate in Groups. There are literally hundreds of LinkedIn groups dedicated to the foodservice industry (FSMA has one, for example). Click “groups” on the header and browse. Join. Participate by making comments to subjects under discussion; post new discussions on industry subjects ; respond to commentary. These activities will further “polish your reputation” and brand.
- Use Available Tools to Manage. There are LinkedIn APPS for your smartphone, web dashboards, and email notifications to keep the data stream organized. (Outline your notification preferences in your profile.) The process can be simplified using the available technology.
In my opinion, there is no more important social media activity you can undertake short term (especially in today’s volatile environment!) than establish a LinkedIn strategy for your agency. In addition to the above links, there is a plethora of information on the web on how to maximize your participation in LinkedIn. Quoting Seth Godin, “Kick fear’s ass and SHIP IT.”
What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?