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Six degrees of sales separation

New social-networking applications designed to close deals are based on the premise that every salesperson has a Kevin Bacon or two in their lives, but just need help finding them.

Finding the "six degrees of separation" between sales reps and customers is getting easier -- and techier -- thanks to a new breed of software.

These social-networking applications are based on the premise that every salesperson has a Kevin Bacon or two in their lives; they just need a little help finding them. And once they do, the hope is that those connections will enable sales staff to get a foot in the door with clients -- and build on personal relationships to get deals done.

The potential payoffs: contracts are signed, commissions grow and revenue increases.

Spoke Software Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., is readying a new Web-based enterprise application that starts at $75,000 and is billed as a percentage of sales. Here's how it works: Using an agent on the desktop, it searches corporate information -- namely messaging, calendaring and contact records -- from Microsoft Outlook, along with unstructured data culled from the Web. It then outlines connections between a salesperson and his target client, ranking the strength of the links between the two.

For instance, companies could check leads gathered at a trade show against their staff's contacts. A rep may have an existing relationship with a potential customer. Or the lead may know someone else in the corporation, perhaps a marketing or engineering employee. The salesperson could then leverage that relationship to get in touch with the client.

"It's the small-world theory," said Chris Tolles, vice president of marketing and co-founder of Spoke. "You are probably connected to the person you want to get to in a surprising number of ways."

That's what Michael Cleland has discovered. His company, consulting giant Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, is one of seven firms piloting the Spoke software.

Cleland had been working alongside a fellow vice president for five years but had no idea that his colleague had a connection with one of his potential clients.

"Not only did he know him," Cleland said, "but he was playing golf with him that week."

Currently, about 50 staffers at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young have volunteered for the pilot program, but the company expects to eventually roll out the software to at least 400 salespeople and account execs. Cleland said the biggest challenge has been getting some employees to participate; some have complained that Spoke's initial e-mail scan can take more than an hour to complete.

For some companies, however, there may also be a privacy concern. Cap Gemini Ernst & Young believes that data on its network is corporate information subject to search. It gives employees the option of putting personal e-mails in folders that Spoke won't scan.

Analyst Chris Selland, founder of Cambridge, Mass.-based Reservoir Partners, dismisses the notion that privacy is an impediment to social-networking tools. He said that providers offer sufficient privacy guarantees, including the ability to opt out.

While this is an area that venture capitalists are honing in on -- with Spoke and Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn Ltd. attracting the lion's share of attention -- Selland expects that one provider will ultimately dominate. Just like online auction giant eBay is the central place to buy and sell goods, Selland said, it'll be beneficial to have one source tracking relationships.

"At the end of the day, you get out of [these services] what you put into them," he said.


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