EPISODE 566: The Dunbar Number of 150 Relationships and Successful Selling with Michelle Warner

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This podcast, sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales featured an interview with Michelle Warner. She’s the creator of Networking That Pays.]

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MICHELLE’S TIP: “We can maintain 150 stable social relationships at a time. That’s called Dunbar’s number. If you can understand and be intentional about who are the 150 people who can continually move your goals forward, you can go actually build relationships with those folks because you have the time to do it, because you’re so clear on such a small number. When you do that, then you have an exponential effect that keeps building over time.”


Fred Diamond: We’re going to be talking about a topic that’s of interest to me. It’s basically improving or accelerating or making better your connections with public sector customers to improve public sector sales. I’m based in Washington, DC. You’re not too far, you’re in Chicago. We have listeners all over the globe. But since we’re based in DC, we have a lot of people, Michelle, who have sold to public sector markets, or do sell to public sector markets. You’re an expert on that particular topic, among other things. You’re also the creator of Networking that Pays. We’ll talk about that for a little bit. It’s great to see you, and let’s just get right into it, public sector sales. Tell us a little bit about why public sector sales are different than commercial sales and why we’re having this conversation today.

Michelle Warner: Thanks so much for having me. It’s interesting, I think I’m an expert in public sector sales by mistake because I had a company that sold to the public sector and I had a background in digital marketing and direct marketing. I had to figure out real fast when I realized that wasn’t going to work. I had to go figure out what did work. To me, what the difference is, is that folks who are in public sector – and listen, I’m not naive. I know this is not true of 100% of the sector, but a lot of them are there for more than just the job. There is a mission-driven aspect in some way of why they’ve chosen to do the job that they have.

With that comes a little bit of a different mindset when they’re talking about purchasing things. They’re looking at a little bit of a bigger picture. They’re looking at some sort of mission that they’re trying to fulfill. With that comes a little bit more of a relationship. A sale is less of the transactional sale that we might see when you’re talking about big corporate deals, and a little bit more of figuring out how to acknowledge what the person that you’re trying to sell to, why they’re there in their position, what it means to them, what is that mission below that’s driving some things, and how to help highlight that and build a relationship around that. It feels like an inclusive sale.

Fred Diamond: When we’re talking about public sector, again, we’re talking about government, federal, state, and local, of course, not-for-profits or nonprofits, education, NGOs. You mentioned their mission. Talk a little bit about what that looks like. Again, with corporations, it’s usually about profit, or saving costs, or increased productivity, or maybe enhancing customer service. Talk about what some of the missions might be of some of the customers that have committed their careers. One of the interesting things about public sector employees is maybe they were in commercial and then moved to public sector for a time just to kind of “give back”, if you will. What might be some of the missions that you’ve seen out there?

Michelle Warner: A lot of the missions that I’ve seen are directly tied to impact. Of course, there’s a little bit of profit, but they want to see the impact and whatever their organization might be driving towards, whether it is an NGO, a nonprofit, local government, state government, federal government, they want to see the impact of what they’re actually trying to do. A lot of times in corporate, that’s directly tied to the bottom line, and that proves impact in many ways. In the public sector, it doesn’t necessarily prove impact. They want to see projects move forward. They want to see case studies. They want to see, frankly, their mission out in the world so that they can attract more funding, so that they can attract more grant money. They need a little bit of a different spotlight than corporate has so that they need to prove that impact in order to keep their mission moving in the direction they want it moving.

Fred Diamond: To be successful in sales to the public sector customer, talk a little bit about how you think sales professionals need to be. I just want to put the context of what networking, that pace. Well, actually, I want to ask you to talk about that first. It’s described as the introvert friendly, always awkward, free connection system to help companies bring in leads. Talk about Networking that Pays before you answer that question, just to put this in a little more context.

Michelle Warner: Networking that Pays is actually the system that I developed for myself using network science in order to sell to my public sector employees. When I had this startup that was selling to them, I was coming right out of business school where I had happened to spend two semesters learning the social science of how networks operate. When I was faced with this challenge, I thought, “Wait, I can create a system based in the science that shows how to actually develop relationships.” That’s what Networking that Pays does, is it kind of flips our traditional networking on the head. A lot of times in networking, you’re thinking about, “Okay, I just need to go to an event, meet as many people as possible, figure out a way to follow up with them.”

I flip that and I say, let’s be intentional and instead, let’s figure out who you want to meet and figure out what their mission is, what their impact is, what they care about. Then go find a way to meet them that helps match with that mission, help them forward their mission, help them forward their impact by handing them a way to do that as the way to be introduced to them. Then start your relationship on such a solid footing that the sale, number one, you’re trusted much faster. Number two, that opens the door for a sale in an industry where, let’s face it, the public sector don’t trust a lot of people, especially newbies.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned science-backed. Talk a little bit about that. Talk about how you created the scientific way behind this.

Michelle Warner: There’s a science of how this operates. The first thing you need to understand are strong and weak ties. Our networks are made up of strong and weak ties. You can think of these as maybe Russian nesting dolls or rings around a planet. Your strong ties are the people who are closest to you. There’s usually maybe five to 10 of those people. Those people that know what you’re up to 90% of the time, it’s the very closest people.

Then you have succeeding levels of these weak ties. We generally don’t know that weak ties exist. If you’re not intentionally creating a network full of weak ties who can help you get what you want, you run into the situation where you all of a sudden need something from someone. One of two things happens. You run into them at the grocery store and you get all lucky because a conversation pops up and you call it serendipity and, “Wasn’t I lucky to run into so-and-so who could help me?” I would say you weren’t lucky. I would say you were blowing off your weak ties. If you had intentionally thought about who should be in your weak tie network, you never would’ve had to get lucky by running into them because you would’ve already been building that relationship.

The other thing that happens is you let these weak ties roll in and out of your life. You’re not intentional and clear on who needs to be there. You haven’t talked to them in a year and all of a sudden you need something and you say, “Oh my gosh, I need to call Fred and ask for this,” and, “Oh crap, that’s not available to me because it’s going to be really awkward right now.” We make our sale much harder because you’re starting from scratch all the time.

Whereas if you can understand who your 150 people should be in your network, and it’s 150 people, that’s another piece of science, we can maintain 150 stable social relationships at a time. That’s called Dunbar’s number. If you can understand and be intentional about who are the 150 people who can continually move your goals forward, you can go actually build relationships with those folks because you have the time to do it, because you’re so clear on such a small number. When you do that, then you have an exponential effect that keeps building over time.

Fred Diamond: Let’s get deep into this a little bit. You said it’s a small number, it sounds like a relatively large number. Talk a little bit about what should the sales professionals listening today, what should you be doing to those 150? I’m thinking about, I think it’s a Zig Ziglar line, that you’re the average of the five closest people that you spend with you. A lot of times I’ll think about, “Okay. Who are the five people right now?” Talk about the 150 and what should I be doing? Should I be calling 150 people every day? Should I be having 150 people on my text list and just randomly texting them, “Hey, just checking in”? Give us some deep insights into what we should be doing, and what’s it called again? The Dunbar number?

Michelle Warner: It’s Dunbar’s number, Robin Dunbar. He’s a sociologist out of the UK. It’s actually fascinating research. He’s found this number in countless places in history and also within the animal kingdom. It’s quite fascinating.

Fred Diamond: Tell us, what should we be doing to the 150? Now, also, if we’re thinking about in sales, there’s obviously your associates, your partners, and then there’s customers and friends and family. You may have a cousin that you talk to every day that’s supportive, that’s in the same industry. Get a little bit deeper into who the 150 are and how should we be aggressively or actively connecting with them?

Michelle Warner: That’s the first thing you do. You put up a great point about your cousin. The 150 is made up of your friends and family and your acquaintances and your professional ties. Immediately, we’re probably talking about 60 to 80 professional ties, once you lap off all the friends and family categories. That brings the number down immediately. But what’s interesting about the number is I get one of two reactions. I either get your reaction, where you say, “That’s a huge number.” Or I get the opposite reaction, which is why I talk about the 150, of people thinking their entire LinkedIn following should be their network and they should be talking to all of those people all the time. I want to distinguish between followers on LinkedIn and people who you have proactively identified can move your business forward. That’s what I want you doing from a networking perspective, is looking at what is the avatar? The same way we have a client persona and an ideal client avatar, what is the avatar of a person who you can be best connected with in order to move your business forward?

A lot of times it’s not your end customer. It’s who’s going to be the person who introduces you to the end customer. Who is going to be the person who’s in charge of the stages? Who’s in charge of the different introductions? Who’s in charge of the different committees? That’s a really big deal. I had big breakthroughs when I got on some government committees that opened some doors. Who are the people who can do that? Build a relationship with those folks, prioritize that. Then you have a continuous cycle of preferred introductions to your clients.

Fred Diamond: We’ve done over 550 episodes of the Sales Game Changers Podcast. We’ve interviewed VPs of the Microsofts and Oracles and Amazons of the world. Most people that we interview have been selling to public sector their whole career. It’s an interesting market because there’s a lot of rules and regulations, and you just said committees. There are people who are influential. There’s contracts, there’s laws that must be in place. The reason I bring this up is a lot of the people they’re connected to have also been selling to public sector for 20, 30 years. It’s a specialty for people to sell into.

One of the interesting things I found, and that’s why I found this number, 150, so remarkable, a lot of times people don’t know what you do. Selling to public sector is a specific discipline, for example. Let’s say you sell some type of service, maybe it’s marketing services or something related to that as compared to a product per se. It’s vague, not everybody knows what, let’s just say, PR services are, or consulting services might be. One thing I found is that not everybody really knows. You might think they do. One of the old jokes is I work for a bank. Well, not everybody knows the various services that a bank can offer to corporations. How do I ensure that the 150 people on my list really understand what I do for a living so that they can help me?

Michelle Warner: That’s part of the game of figuring out what that persona is and what are the characteristics of somebody who does understand that. A couple of the tricks I use, one of the most common, is who are your clients working with, either right before or right after you? If we’re talking about a PR services person, who were they working with right before that? Maybe they’re doing a rebranding, maybe they’re doing some sort of marketing strategy, and they’re bringing in a different set of experts for that. How can you forge relationships with those folks who then, the next natural question from whichever government entity they’re working with is, “Hey, who do you know? Who can help us implement this?” Then they bring up your name. That would be a typical example in services.

The same thing with products. What are the complimentary products? The classic example here, it’s not from the public sector, but it’s the wedding industry. I would hope that every DJ in town knows every caterer in town, knows every wedding photographer in town, because you build a circle of referrals in that way.

Fred Diamond: I like to watch the show The Shark Tank. Mr. Wonderful is the wedding guy who has a lot of investments. I actually was a DJ for a couple of years after college. Right now I’m thinking about some of the caterers. I want to talk though about the relationship with the customer. You made a great point that the 150, most of them, besides friends and family, should also be people who can refer you, can introduce you, can help you understand the nuance of the customer. One of the great things about selling to those types of markets is that there are people who have power. Maybe they’re elected, maybe they’re career people. For you to be successful or for your company to be successful, you really do need to understand that.

Talk about building the relationship with the customer in public sector. We talked in the beginning about mission. Tell us a little bit about ways that we can build the relationships with the government customers, and talk about it from an authentic perspective. You made an interesting point that there’s some distrust in public sector about sales. But at the same time, a lot of the great sales professionals who sell into public sector view it as a service, view it as they’re helping with the mission. Talk about building that connection to the government customer.

Michelle Warner: I’ll use my example as the example here, because I think it’s a perfect illustration of it. My company was selling low cost internet into big city local governments, a lot of the 10 biggest cities in the US, and to the nonprofits in the school districts. Our goal was to get affordable internet access, paired with affordable computers into the school systems so that the kids would not be without that technology. Those folks get hit up with sales calls and promises and, “Oh, I’m going to solve all your problems and I’m going to bring computers.” They didn’t believe a word from me. I was just a woman from Denver making promises.

Well, I had built connections, my ideal connection avatar, I had built connections with people on federal government committees who were working on the broadband plan. I had built connections with folks who were at all the leading conferences on the future of education. What I did have was I could have any keynote that I wanted at any of these conferences. But I was very much struggling to make a sale. What I did was, going back to people who care about their mission. What I did was I said to my potential customers, “I see the impact that you want to have. I see what you’re trying to do. Let’s shine a spotlight on that.”

I would turn down the keynotes and I would ask, “Can I do a panel discussion instead?” Before any of these folks were my customers, I said, “I want to shine a spotlight on your mission and what you are trying to accomplish, and the roadblocks in front of you, so that these people at this conference can understand what you’re really up against. Come, we’ll put you on a panel.” There, I was able to shine a spotlight on their mission to make them feel seen and heard, and guess what? They all became my customers afterwards, because they trusted me, because I said, “Let’s get you a spotlight for all of your struggles and what’s up against it so the industry can help understand that.” Instead of just grabbing the keynote myself and going for the spotlight, I prioritized the relationship.

Fred Diamond: I used to work at Compaq Computer in the mid ’90s. For people who are young listening, they were the number two company right behind Dell. They were eventually bought by HP, et cetera. But were branching into education and we had not a whole lot of success until this branch in the mid ’90s. There was a guy who was a director of IT. I’m not going to mention his name in case I botch it, but we found out that he was a champion and we put him on panels. We brought him to conferences and the amount of people that were interested now because it wasn’t our sales people, and our sales people did their job of course, but having that.

I’m curious, it’s interesting what you just said, because one of the things with public sector markets is unlike commercial, you’re not going to make deals on the golf course. A lot of times, if you’re selling commercial, maybe you join a country club and the CFO or the CEO is a member. You get to meet him in a relatively short amount of time. You get a meeting and they may be able to offer you a contract or something. One of the jokes about selling to federal, again, I’m based in the DC Area, is the company decides, “Gee, we’re going to go after the federal market because it’s Fortune One. It’s a 60 billion IT market. We’re going to send a guy from Cleveland into DC. Gee, there’s no sales this year because you have to establish yourself and get on contracts. Gee, it’s two years. We haven’t really sold much. Maybe federal isn’t for us.” Talk a little bit also about building the relationships, but also the expectations around how long it might take, and is it worth it?

Michelle Warner: I think about it in terms of how you’re going to go through the bureaucracy. That is just a fact. If you’re in this business, you should be aware of that. How can you make that less painful for yourself? The way I see it as less painful and move as fast as possible is to get into a situation where you can have a snowball running downhill. If you prioritize the relationship up front and you’re building trust and people want to work with you, even if it has to go through the bureaucracy and they have to follow the rules, then you’re still making it easier. You can create a situation where you start at the top of the mountain and it’s a snowball going downhill. It may not go downhill as quickly as you want it, but if you don’t prioritize that relationship, if you were just one operating in the same way everybody else is operating, now you’re climbing a mountain, and getting through the bureaucracy field, there’s going to be a problem at every single turn. You’re not going to know what anybody’s thinking and there’s going to be all this confusion, and you’re just going to make a long process even longer. What I would say is go in eyes wide open, know what you’re getting into and how can you make that easier on yourself? But still recognizing the time it’s going to take and the rules that are going to need to be followed.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you a sales question as it relates to that. The customer knows if you’re a vendor of whatever it is you said, IT services, marketing services, whatever it might be, they know that you want to sell them something. Now, we talked earlier in the conversation with Michelle Warner about getting through to develop the trust and all those things, but they know you want to sell something. They’re not stupid. Talk a little bit about that type of authenticity in addition to genuinely being interested in helping the customer achieve their mission. That’s one of the things that, again, I’ve learned after working with so many public sector customers, definitely the ones that reach a certain level, director levels or whatever the numbers might be. They’ve chosen this path because of that mission, to make the health of the citizenry better, to build better energy systems, to make the world a more environmentally-friendly place, to protect us and to provide safety, if you will. Talk a little bit about the sales process and how authentic do you think people should be in saying, “Hey, listen, I want to replace Company X with our solutions”? Talk a little bit about the sales communications in addition to mission authenticity, if you will.

Michelle Warner: I can only relate this to my experience and I want to be very clear. I was selling into big city governments and big nonprofits. Big budget, big contract deals, but I was not selling into DC government. It may be a little different, but number one, I think A, you need to understand the environment you’re in. You better care about the mission a little bit too, or it’s going to get you very frustrated very quickly. You have to be able to look them in the eyes, and I never pretended I was doing anything other than I was. I said, “Listen, I understand you need to trust me. I see your mission and I’m going to allow you to further that mission, whether it’s with me or not. Then you can see that I believe in your mission too and I’m all in for that. Then we should probably talk about the fact that I can actually help with that. But I’m not going to ask you to do that until you deeply trust me, and part of deeply trusting me is watching me further your mission and help you do that.”

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that similarly with partners. You mentioned the 150. There’s definitely some partners, referral sources as well. From your experience, what are some things that people do wrong in those relationships that caused them to either go straight for good and possibly never even come back?

Michelle Warner: Make it too transactional. This is just not a place where it’s transactional and it’s your typical sales things. I remember leaving a conference once and I had a stack of business cards mile high, and somebody looked at me who’s interested in partnering, and he’s like, “Wow, you had a great day. That’s going to lead to a lot.” I’m thinking, “This was a complete waste of time and my personal space, because I don’t know who any of these people are.” I think when you’re trying to play maybe a more traditional sales game, that’s going to be apparent with partners and with everyone, and folks are going to be a little wary of that.

Fred Diamond: I’m curious, we have a lot of young people, people junior in their sales career. It’s a challenge to create relationships. Mostly you’re probably as an SDR type of a role, and even your initial role, especially of the last two years, you’re definitely going to be inside for the most part. Government offices now, ever since 9/11, are very difficult to get into. You used to be able to just, even the Pentagon, you could find it wasn’t hard to get into the Pentagon and walk the halls. I remember once I went on a sales call and passed Al Gore, and I once passed Colin Powell walking into the Pentagon. Right now you can’t get into those buildings because of security. Obviously with the last two years of COVID, it’s even harder to get in. People aren’t necessarily even back at the office.

The reason I bring up that example is when you are walking around, you see people, you could stop them for a minute. If you’re walking with somebody who knows this person who’s walking past, they’ll make the introduction, then maybe you see them again and the relationship kind of builds. Give us some of your advice, Michelle Warner, for people who are junior in their career, who are, first of all, they’re learning what they’re selling, they’re learning the art and science of selling, they’re learning what it’s like to be in a business environment. Give us some of your tips on what they could be doing to start the road to building these relationships.

Michelle Warner: I think clarity is the number one thing, especially, again, with that ideal connection avatar. Starting to understand who can you build to be on your side in one of those inner rings of your weak ties? We don’t need to be making absolute best friends with someone, they don’t need to be a strong tie, but how can you start building some anchor weak ties who are going to open doors for you? Somebody who’s maybe one step ahead of you where you can figure out a way to meet them. Maybe it’s a mentor-mentee relationship, or maybe it’s just a friendship, or whatever that sparks, but somebody who’s one step ahead of you can open more doors than you can. They are going to be able to show you the ropes a little bit. Those people are easier to meet.

I am not against having so much intention that I stalk somebody that I know I need to meet. If I figure out they’re going to be in an event, I go to that event with a plan of how to meet that person. Once I’ve met that person, game over. I don’t care if I get anything else out of it. It’s that intentionality of knowing who your 150 are, or frankly your first five to 10, because that will change your life. Knowing who those people are and going and meeting them, or meeting a version of them, that’s going to start changing everything, rather than trying to meet everybody and everything all the time.

Fred Diamond: Now, I love the use of the word intentionality, and especially if you’re young. This is one bit of advice that I usually give people is, if you want to be successful in sales, ask your parents who some of their friends are who are in sales. Again, this is the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and you know what? I have three children, one of my son’s friends would say, “Hey, Mr. Diamond, I know you run the Institute for Excellence in Sales. Could we meet for a cup of coffee?” Anybody I know would be thrilled to meet someone who’s going to ask us for some career advice, especially those of us who are at a certain level of our careers. We would love to give the advice and be genuine, say, “I want to get better in my career. I’d be interested in hearing some stories from you.”

I love the way you said intentionality about, “Go figure out a way to meet that person.” You know what? It’s not going on to LinkedIn and saying, “I’d like you to have a meeting because I want to show you my product.” That ain’t working. The best thing to do, it’s be genuine. “Hey, I’d like to talk to you because I want to grow my career. I’ve seen you’ve being very successful being on LinkedIn,” or selling to the public sector, what it might be. Michelle, this was a fascinating conversation. I’m going to be thinking all weekend about the 150, the Dunbar number, because a lot of people think that I’m very well-connected and have a lot of people that I can rely on. I’m thinking who those people are and maybe what should I be doing to get the message out there.

A little bit of a different question, but obviously a lot of people who are listening today are on LinkedIn. That’s the business network and people who are learning that all the time. What about like Facebook? One of the cool things I think about Facebook is people show other sides of their life. One thing that we’ve talked about the last two years is being on Zoom and things like that, we see their house. You see maybe the cat walking by, or maybe the baby jumping up there. Talk about that type of intentionality. You don’t want to be creepy, of course, but do you think it’s important to be on like a Facebook, a social network, to see what people are committed to?

Michelle Warner: I think it’s a great point. It’s one that I use and talk about in Networking that Pays a lot, because we’re talking about your weak ties. We want them to be permanent. You’re going to run out of work things to talk about. A little bit of the personal needs to come in. One thing I do is I give daily themes about how you should reach out to folks, and on Friday it’s Catch-Up Day. What I do on Friday is Instagram. I use Instagram, not Facebook, but I spend time in the DMs. You will never see me posting on regular Instagram, it very rarely happens, but I will reach out to people and I comment on things that we have in common. That’s one thing I talk about in the ideal connection avatar. There are likely thousands of people who meet that avatar from a business perspective. What personal things do you want to bring into it so that you can connect with them?

I recommend having three ideas. You got to like dogs, the outdoors, or some form of water if we’re going to be friends, because that’s what I can talk about all day long. Yeah, I get on Instagram and I just comment on the hike somebody’s taking, and that solidifies the message. That solidifies the relationship for a quarter or more, because it’s specific. It’s not just some generic, “How are you doing? How’s the weather?” In 30 seconds we can trade a hiking story and it solidifies the relationship.

Fred Diamond: I’m from Philadelphia. There’s a convenience store known as Wawa. My kids grew up in Wawa. We used to post whenever we would go to Wawa with my kids, and my daughter, who’s a college student, University of Florida, she’s known as the Wawa Whisperer. She says that people reach out to her whenever they go to a Wawa. Even yesterday, somebody who’s a customer, one of my members of the Institute for Excellence in Sales randomly posted a comment about Wawa. We talked today with Michelle Warner. It was a great conversation about prioritizing connections with public sector customers, but also with the people who are going to help you get to the public sector customers, your partner network, and your colleagues.

Michelle, I just want to applaud you. We were introduced by a number of people from various places of my life. As I mentioned in the very beginning, I have a book out called Love, Hope, Lyme. One of my dear friends in the Lyme world initially made the connection. Then somebody else who knows me from the Sales Game Changers Podcast coincidentally said, “You need to talk to Michelle.” I just want to acknowledge you for the work you’re doing, for the science that you’re putting behind the true necessity of building connection and building relationships. Good for you. Give us one final action step, something specific. You’ve given us 15, 20 great ideas. Give us one more thing that people should do right now after listening to today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast.

Michelle Warner: I think it’s to do a double check on that ideal connection avatar, and spend a little time this weekend thinking about who your avatar is. Even more importantly, who might be some weak ties who are stumbling around in your world right now that you can solidify a relationship with? If you can find five of those and you can commit to being consistent in your relationship with them, it’s going to change your life.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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