Thousands of blogs and articles on social selling, media, marketing focus on building Personal Brands and Thought Leadership. The experts proclaim sales people must become thought leaders and focus on building their personal brands. These same experts say sales people must engage socially, whether through blogging, social engagement, or whatever mechanisms, developing and demonstrating their thought leadership to prospects, customers, and markets.

In truth I struggled with these concepts. From a corporate management point of view, I’ve always thought it more important to build and reinforce a company’s brand and thought leadership. I’ve wondered why a sales person with a Small and Medium Business Territory in St. Louis, Missouri should focus on building their global brand presence and thought leadership in Mumbai, Shenzhen, Paris, Capetown, and Sao Paulo. I’ve tended to think of that as a distraction.

Thankfully, I’ve come around. I think it’s critical for sales people to build their personal brands and thought leadership! It’s actually something the best sales people have done long before the concept of social selling was ever conceived. Even long before Vice President Al Gore invented the web.

In the old days, sales people thought of this as building their personal relationships, credibility, and trust with their customers. We think of this as building our reputation in our company, with our customers, and in our communities. Ultimately, these reputations were enhanced by living up to our commitments, assuring customers got the results we committed, assuring they were satisfied and promoters of both our companies and us. Today, this is loosely called personal brand building — though I’ve never heard a social selling expert talk about it this way.

They always brought new ideas to their customers. They got the customer to think differently about their businesses, helped them find ways to improve results, reduce costs, improve quality, profitability, and grow. Today, we call this providing insight and building thought leadership.

In engaging their customers–in every interaction, it’s critical for sales people to build their “brands.” It’s important to provide thought leadership. But where these efforts are most meaningful, relevant and impactful is when they are hyper local. We are successful when our customers treat us as trusted advisors and look for our help as they seek to achieve their goals.

We reap the benefits of this brand building and thought leadership in growing the results we and our customers achieve, growing our “following” through strong referrals made by our customers to others in the community or industries.

I’m less convinced, however, on the importance of building a personal brand and our thought leadership broadly. The objection is really based on having sales people focus their time and efforts on their own customers, markets and territories. Prospecting, expanding your relationships, visibility, engagement in your own territory is the highest priority and most effective ways sales people can use their time.

It is critical that we continue to build our value, credibility, trust and confidence with our customers. It is critical that we continue to challenge customers to think differently.