Serve Don't Sell: How Serving People Online Builds Business

Serve Don't Sell: How to build trust in digital publicServe Don’t Sell has a simple mission: to highlight and honor educational and inspiring acts of service in digital social public. CSRA’s client work in experiential social media and research projects in ethnographic research of social media have me scouring public social networks, forums, blogs and other interactive digital social venues for examples of business helping others, and I feature these examples on Serve Don’t Sell and link back to the original sources. I don’t publish private conversations to which I have access without permission. Unless specified, sources are public and accessible via Google.

I am constantly inspired by the profound acts of service I encounter, and I want to honor some of them here because few businesspeople understand what I’m talking about when I describe these helping conversations. Having been in professional services since the 1980s, I have seen that expert knowledge, which used to be exclusive to “experts,” is now widespread within the public. People have always been smart, but they have been isolated and compromised during the analog era, relative to organizations. Digital social networks now accelerate knowledge, so pockets of people are incredibly well informed about any kind of topic you can imagine—and many that you cannot ;^). Serve Don’t Sell aims to raise the awareness of smart crowds.

Serve Don’t Sell is organized by CSRA, which helps businesses understand how social business (social media and social networks) are changing business relationships. Most businesspeople have been conditioned to think about “customers” to whom they “sell” products and services. During the 20th century, much of business became de-personalized, but social media is changing that. Businesspeople need to relearn how to focus on serving people without “selling” to them. That’s why I feel the examples on Serve Don’t Sell are so important.

I do not think that businesspeople need to become full-time good samaritans, unconcerned with business and profit. What I have found is that consistently serving people in specific situations drives more profit because people trust you more and many will want to buy from you when they see that you sincerely have their interest in mind. In many cases, they will recommend you to their friends and networks. The Trust Business Chain Reaction shows how trust monetizes.

Before you think I’m crazy, consider that multiples of people are watching the interactions in digital public. So, when you serve others, you build your reputation among many more people than you realize. And any of them might recommend you. Many will when they understand through your interactions that you have relevant expertise and you want to serve them. Most important, people find it hard to resist someone who is relevant and focused and who cares.

I hope that these stories and examples of service will inspire you to begin serving.

Lastly, I invite you to get involved and help B2B sales, marketing and management to tap the potential of service. To learn how you can support our mission, please see “Get Involved.”

How It Works

Core Serve Don’t Sell “posts” are sourced from digital social forums on the public Internet, unless specified otherwise. Core posts have two parts:

  1. The blue/purple/bold hot-linked titles take you right to the posts.
  2. The black text description underneath each title gives you some context about why I selected the post and what you’ll find there.

Serve Don’t Sell calls out all kinds of interactions between firms and individuals. I am particularly interested in educating B2B sales and marketing professionals about the potential of serving people in digital social public. Social Business Services has guidance for how B2B is changing, and it outlines how CSRA helps firms adapt and thrive.

Where the Posts Come From

My research and client work have me online, often twelve plus hours a day, and my workflow includes saving thousands of links per year that I find particularly valuable. I cull the Serve Don’t Sell examples from these links.

Get Involved

The need to educate B2B sales and marketing professionals is immense. If you like the Serve Don’t Sell mission and would like to be a part of it, I invite you to get involved. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Weigh in: share your thoughts and insights on posts by commenting on this page; what do you find most or least helpful about our picks?
  • Bring your friends who are trying to figure out why relationship building, service and sales “don’t work like they used to.”
  • Submit your own inspiring examples by adding their links and explaining what you like about it in comments; I can include them in our examples.
  • #DriveForTrustExplore Drive to Trust, CSRA’s new initiative that enables partners to be the first among their peers to build trust at scale and activate the Trust Business Chain Reaction. They’ll learn how trust builds stronger businesses.

Best Practices

As you review the examples below, keep in mind these best practices for serving, not selling:

  • Every discussion is an arena; select the ones you enter with purpose, and give your best service. Remember that it’s a digital arena, and your interaction will last forever, so make your interaction distinctive in terms of detail. Some of the questions I ask myself are: is the topic interesting to me or relevant to my business? Are the people, based on the question (“OP” = original poster) and/or the responses relevant or interesting?
  • Consider the interaction among the group thus far, and add to it. What information can you offer that plugs holes in the discussion? How can you mention important facets of other posters’ points? This is easy when you consider the OP as your client whom you want to help make a decision of some kind.
  • Ask questions to clarify details and make sure you understand the nuances of the question or request of the OP. Also ask questions of other responders.
  • Always be respectful of other people, even if someone is rude or insulting. Unless you are in a venue that’s angry or spiteful, assume that most of your audience is reasonable, so your response to rude or insulting people has more impact on what people think of you than the rude or insulting remark itself. No one can hurt you when you take the high road and stay focused on serving people. You will look even better if you face criticism with grace.
  • Always admit your ignorance or uncertainty about something; the main rule is to not claim to stand for anything you can’t support with facts.
  • Diligence the OP by looking at his/her other posts in the forum or LinkedIn or Twitter profiles; they can help you understand where s/he’s coming from.
  • When you are among the first respondents, be aware that you can help set the context for the conversation by your first response. For example, if your expertise is in a defined area, but there are peripheral areas you don’t know as well, say this as a part of your response, so other posters can pick up on it.
  • Send the link to the discussion to other people you know via email or other social networks and invite them to contribute.

Serve Don’t Sell Examples

Here are my hand-picked examples of people serving other people, in B2B and B2C contexts. The purpose here is to illustrate what it looks like. Please note that the table is built real-time; sometimes it takes a few seconds, so thanks for your patience.

B2B Conversations

Look at these inspiring examples of clients collaborating to advise each other about real estate, B2B sales, installing/maintaining smart home and security systems, and selecting vendors.

Real Estate

B2B Sales

Smart Home & Safety

Vendor & Product Selection

CFO discussion about evolving accounting regulations and how they affect OP's books, leases and firm. Overall superb example of high-quality service to forum members in esoteric subjects; note how members know each other and refer to each other in their contributions; @molliemossman gives a comprehensive response that has a tinge of self-promotion but includes many useful links and substantial ideas. Note that 2 members give their email addresses, too.
CFO asks forum for advice on relocating corporate office; several excellent detailed contributions; all contributions are substantial, and no contributor promotes him/herself; in fact, note this forum's "flag as offensive/promotional" link; it's clear that this forum has a strong service culture, which generally increases the level of trust and depth of contribution
Brief discussion on leases and property taxes for commercial leases
Superb collaborative detailed discussion on commercial real estate deal on residential apartment building: financing, fire codes, gotchas
Detailed collaborative homeowner discussion advising Boston relocation to Baltimore region
More Serve Don’t Sell real estate conversations
Superb discussion in CFO forum advising CFO of SaaS firm on B2B sales commission structure; look at the depth/breadth of advice in the forum; OP doesn't come back in to debate, but if he had, I'm sure it would've increased the depth substantially; several members qualify their advice by explaining their roles, and this makes their advice more helpful; stating your point of view explicitly is best practice. Several contributors refer to each other's comments, too, which increases the quality of the discussion.
@julian provides a standout response that gives read value without promoting himself. Note the value stems from his setting the context and providing extensive detail. These two elements show that he understands the situation and has significant expertise in helping people with email marketing [and related]. Well done.
I picked this one because it uses two ways to add value. The responder offers a detailed response, but he also uses a pinch of irony and humor, which can add significant value if done respectfully and carefully. I don’t recommend using humor until you know the character of the venue well enough; it is likely to do more harm than good. However, in this case, @stingray is a “Super Advisor” who obviously knows this forum very well. It adds to his credibility and authority because he shows his confidence. Most important, it adds value but doesn’t substitute for it; he delivers high quality detail.
Good example of astute discussion on blog post's discussion of broken enterprise software sales model
CEO queries forum on sales executive compensation, netting diverse, detailed advice
Robust discussion that is always relevant to B2B sales and marketing professionals, and a frequent source of discord. @stingray, by playing the contrarian (respectfully) increased the value of the discussion considerably, so others chimed in. Well done!
Robust thread on whether to mention client names in resumes. One of the most valuable kinds of service: @Tony Restell & @DenLin comment on several of the other comments, respectfully pointing out flaws in the advice. When done professionally and using facts to support one’s position, this helps the questioner evaluate all the other advice in the thread. It also gives other contributors the chance to argue their points.
More Serve Don’t Sell B2B sales conversations
Detailed thread on setting up smoke alarms in Domoticz smart home systems
Detailed discussion on how to test fire #smoke #alarms for compliance
Useful discussion by #home #inspection pros: How they advise homeowners on #smoke #detector lifespans
Excellent detailed discussion abt building home safety/automation systems, configuring software & smoke alarms & detectors
Long thread among homeowners who share their hacks for false smoke alarms: a couple professionals weigh in at the end
Detailed thread on installation of smoke detectors and smoke alarms and systems
More Serve Don’t Sell smart home & safety conversations
Several patients/families advise each other on liver cancer/transplants. @wayne1343 gives a standout contribution that shows that laymen/patients can be very well informed. Note that several participants suggest hospitals and physicians around the country for the specific procedure under discussion. This is remarkable as it shows how patients are partners to physicians now; they do not have the training of med professionals, but they often become very well informed in forums like this one.
CEO of consultancy seeks advice on evaluating firms for outsourced accounting services offers good/bad lessons; @keithperry offers a high-quality contribution, and he sets the bar high; @lynneholloman means well, but her suggestion is not substantial, so she should have added more substance or stayed out because comparatively she makes no impact; @keithjohnson looks bad for politicking; @billhite qualifies that his firm offers those services but doesn't come across as selling, only offers the provider's POV, so useful; @jdfloyd offers a great source & shows that contributions need not be long, but if short, specific; @molliemossman stands out b/c she reframes the question, OP may not need to outsource, she recommends self-sufficiency; @gerrilazarre gives a fine, in-depth response. All together a high quality thread!
Useful to compare helpful and not-so-helpful contributions: @changedcreation gives a useful process suggestion; @timerider asks the OP for more info; @geekghost gives some of the best tactical advice; @aronmatt3 offers a name but it's fairly useless as s/he doesn't qualify the suggestion; @kimmyyong similarly doesn't qualify, so advice useless; @jgrieg interjects some humor with advice; @promocodegirl and others give pricing/coupon suggestions. Overall, this is an excellent example of the depth and breadth of advice that prospective buyers get; note that the thread continues for several pages!
Excellent example of forum members serving a business owner asking advice on selecting an SEO firm. @joeroxx kicks it off with a comprehensive set of suggestions; @kevinpeter adds some process tips; @joeroxx comes back in to respectfully disagree with @tedel's advice. Great example of how prospects self-educate and of how people serve each other online.
Superb thread advises OP on how to organize a vendor evaluation/selection process for cloud accounting software. It has numerous useful contributions; note @LenGreen asks several basis questions to help the forum give better responses; @KenStumder drills down with more business questions; @BobScarborough synthesizes the thread thus far and offers some advice. Excellent example of serving, not selling. Note that many of the participants are finance professionals but none offers his/her services. #kudos
OP (Brent) asked the question and interspersed the “Answer” within the thread that we reference here. He illustrates another best practice that any discussion participant can do: synthesizes other responses while referring directly to them. I call this “moderation” because it combines discrete ideas and often adds insight to them, which elevates the entire discussion. Note that anyone can play a moderator role; it is an excellent way to add value while showing your mastery of the subject. Well done, Brent!
More Serve Don’t Sell vendor & product selection conversations

B2C Examples

As buyers of services and products, customers of all products and services are increasingly well informed because they get inside information about everything online—by finding and consulting people in similar situations about the gotchas, prices, and other “inside scoop” information before they even approach providers or stores. Most of the people that help are customers of relevant products/services, and the best responses are backed with facts. It’s increasingly common to overhear very informed customers in stores knowing more about products than store employees.

High Tech Troubleshooting

Coping with Cancer

Career & Job Search

Plastic Surgery

Superb example of in-depth, specific advice in forums; even if you aren’t a computer hobbyist, imagine any business problem instead of the computer build. And it was difficult to select the “best” response because there were so many high quality responses in this thread.
High engagement in general; tech discussions peripheral & memory specific rare; exception is gaming, but majority of those are board games. @Lakai gives appropriate detail based on the Requester’s question. He also provides links and specific suggestions.
More Serve Don’t Sell hightech troubleshooting conversations
Several patients/families advise each other on liver cancer/transplants. @wayne1343 gives a standout contribution that shows that laymen/patients can be very well informed. Note that several participants suggest hospitals and physicians around the country for the specific procedure under discussion. This is remarkable as it shows how patients are partners to physicians now; they do not have the training of med professionals, but they often become very well informed in forums like this one.
Thread useful for learning since it exhibits effective and not effective posts. OP @johnny2020 gives incomplete info, so MD @bhumikamd asks questions to get more complete data. @johnny2020 answers the Qs, so the MD gives OP a medical reference and encourages further discussion. OP gives the forum an update after 10 months. Several other posters pile on, but their posts contain little data & reflect the need to be heard. I don't mean to diminish this need, but without giving details or framing what kind of help they want, they reduce the chance they'll get responses. And none did.
Excellent example of a cancer patient having a detailed discussion with a physician in a public forum about patient's recovery from radiation and chemotherapy for her throat cancer. It shows that MDs can and do have medical discussions in digital public; @heinrikmd serves @lolita620 in several rounds of questions. Note that specific (technical) details greatly increase the quality of the interaction; vagueness acts as a wet blanket. @heinrikmd's first response indirectly invites more detail.
Long thread of several patients, and a physician, on post-operative experiences from cancer-related kidney operations. Note that participants' level of knowledge varies widely. The most valuable contributions use facts to support their questions or assertions; opinions are far less valuable unless they also include facts.
More Serve Don’t Sell cancer conversations
Robust thread on whether to mention client names in resumes. One of the most valuable kinds of service: @Tony Restell & @DenLin comment on several of the other comments, respectfully pointing out flaws in the advice. When done professionally and using facts to support one’s position, this helps the questioner evaluate all the other advice in the thread. It also gives other contributors the chance to argue their points.
More Serve Don’t Sell smart home & safety conversations
Plastic surgery Q&A forum shows useful range of provider styles (21 MDs respond). Some are promotional while others are serve-first. @philipyoung suggests an appt. @brentmoelleken provides his own thought leadership. @yoashenzer gives a nice explanation and refers to other MDs, so feels more collaborative. @richardrand offers a counterpoint and recommends against surgery and suggests OP could be less critical of himself. Likewise @rachelstreu suggests that surgery would probably produce little change. When providers recommend against the surgery, their trust levels can rise significantly.
Excellent example of how healthcare is changing; breast aug client gets "second opinion" type information from another plastic surgeon. Note @kosepuus gives significant detail with her OP, along with pics, which are normal for this procedure. @drpelletiere shows his/her expertise with the details in response. Note @kosepuus follows up with pics to support her next point (here a pic is worth WAY MORE than 1,000 words ;^). This helps elicit another great response from @drpelletiere.
Off-the-charts engagement help OP member @humber plan her mommyjob (tummy tuck + breast augmentation). Note the detail in her OP in terms of the medical (weight loss, former operations) as well as their emotional meaning for her, as well as her family situation; she owns her feelings, which makes it easier for other members to relate. @cherrypie99 offers a standout contribution because she reminds all that she's speaking about *her* experience & the detail abt her recovery is useful. Note how @humber serves as moderator by responding to contributors, another best practice. @vex pops a great question, and response from @humber about complications.
More Serve Don’t Sell plastic surgery conversations

CSRA Serve Don’t Sell Posts

Some of my thinking on how the relationships between providers and users of products and services are changing profoundly. People who understand this trend and how to respond to it have a rare competitive advantage. Those who continue to put their own agendas ahead of customers’ will suffer increasingly because they are out of synch with customers’ expectations.

B2B Executive’s How-to Guide to Social Business

B2B Customers Getting Social Fast: How Marketing and Sales Can Evolve

Case Study: IBM’s Experience with B2B Social Business

Increasing Customer Transparency: Real Threat or a Paper Tiger for Marketers?

Realizing Value: The Social Network Life Cycle Model

How Social Networks Change Business Development and Profit

LinkedIn Case Study and ROI: Business Development in Professional Services

Even more posts on serving, not selling B2B sales, B2B marketing, human resources.

Serve Don’t Sell Discussions

Discussions about serving people online in which I’m participating:

[commented] Snapshot of how @dropbox is boosting #customer #centricity (video/transcript). I asked how they backed customer focus with incentives to make it last #experience #CX #employee
[comment]Useful example of #bad #manners on #LinkedIn: @aliceheiman fights impersonal "selling" #kudos
[commented] Useful: Boost #CX by reorienting B2B #marketing #sales #customer #service around buyer journey
[commented]Great example of #customer #experience embedded in firm culture: their CS team not driven by $$ but desire to help
[commented] The 4 types of #B2B #salespeople: How tech is displacing them (1MM jobs gone by 2020) & how to respond
[commented]INSIGHT on firm/brand mission as a motor for B2B communication & marketing [commented] #kudos #fb
[comment] On-point B2B sales reflection: either listen/add value OR interrupt

Even more Serve Don’t Sell discussions

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