twomesDoes your online persona know how to talk to people?

This is the best of times, and the most opportunistic of times. To further paraphrase Charles Dickens, this is also an age of both wisdom and foolishness.

Salespeople today are wise enough to know the value of relationships—with prospects, clients, and Referral Sources. But far too many of us foolishly waste opportunities to build real connections with people, because we think the rules for relationship-building are different online. And that’s just not true.

Do You Have Split Personalities?

It’s a tale of two personas. Each of us has two identities—one for the real world and another for online interactions. It’s just too bad our online personas are so rude.

We used to have only two ways to connect with people—talk on the phone or meet in person. Now we communicate through email, social media, live chats, and video conferencing. This presents new opportunities to reach prospects and clients around the world, but it also creates new challenges.

We understand in-person codes of conduct. We smile and shake hands before beginning a conversation with someone. We say “hello” on the phone before diving into an exchange of ideas. Our voicemails are welcoming and friendly.

However, both our communication skills and our manners seem to go out the window when we’re online. We click buttons to invite people to connect with us on LinkedIn. (Where’s the “hello?” Where’s the conversation?) We don’t even use salutations in emails. We just begin with truncated sentences. (OK, maybe that’s the English major in me surfacing.) We forget to say thank you for referrals, or we do so in a quick, impersonal email. (How about a handwritten note?)

Here’s a hint for salespeople: Your online persona should be just as professional, engaging, and polite as your real-world self.

The Rules for Online Engagement

Relationships have always powered sales. But the way we develop relationships has changed.

In a Harvard Business School case study from 2000, Heidi Roizen—professional networker, business executive, and venture capitalist—highlighted three key elements of successful networking: access to the right people, your performance in and after the interaction, and your consistency over time.

Roizen has now updated her tips for the digital age. In her brilliant article, “Today Everything Is Relationship-Driven,” she shares eight best-practices for building, maintaining, and expanding our professional networks—online and off.

My favorite is #2: “Don’t confuse social media connections with actual intimacy.”

As Roizen puts it:

Just because someone connects with you on LinkedIn doesn’t mean they’re your friend. Social media creates a false sense of intimacy, particularly when people choose to expose a lot about themselves. Social media has allowed us to have broader relationships, but at the end of the day, human relationships haven’t changed — we haven’t increased a human being’s capacity to have close associations with a lot more people.

And everyone has to set their own limits about how accessible they will be. For example, I get a lot of requests to make LinkedIn connections, and if I know both sides of the equation, or I feel like it’s a reasonable request — somebody has a job opening, somebody else is looking for a job — I will probably send it. But if somebody is trying to use two steps: “Dear Heidi, will you please send this to someone you know who knows the person I’m trying to reach?” I just refuse all of those. Because I’m not going to ask my network to do things on my behalf when I’m not a party to the equation.

Read the rest of Roizen’s article for the other seven tips.

Bring Your Best Self—Online or Off

Remember, relationships power sales, especially when you prospect through referrals. You already know everything you need to know about connecting with other people, or you probably wouldn’t be in sales. Just remember to bring your best self to your online interactions—and to eventually take your relationships offline and have real, live conversations.

Connect with No More Cold Calling

Follow Joanne on Google+ or Twitter @ReferralSales, or connect on LinkedIn and Facebook.