Social media is changing the way our customers buy and the way in which we engage them. Before customers even see us for the first time, they have a great deal of information—not necessarily knowledge—about our company, our products, and our competition. A Customers’ abilities to independently discover and broadcast information across a variety of social networking platforms has in turn diminished the longstanding sales person’s ability to influence and control the way products, solutions, and services are perceived by their prospects. Prospects now have greater access to company and product data – including peer reviews and referrals – compared to any other time in history. If salespeople are to continue providing solutions to their customers, selling must evolve in lockstep with buying.

As a result, the sales professional is no longer the keeper and disseminator of information; that role has been usurped by the ever-widening social web. The problem is that the buying process is changing faster than sales organizations are responding. With an estimated 152 million blogs, 25 billion messages sent via Twitter, and 2 billion Internet users worldwide, social networks represent huge prospecting and customer relationship opportunities for sales.

Benefits of Social Selling

A recent survey by OgilvyOne indicates that the B2B space is seeing major gains from social selling: among 1,000 sales professionals in the US, UK, Brazil, and China, 49% believed social media was important to their success. In fact, according to the survey, top-performing salespeople already use social media to sell. 65% of the most successful salespeople believe social media is integral to their sales success. A strategic approach to social media can help sales executives reach the twin goals of increasing revenue and streamlining team efficiency.
Specifically, companies that engage in social selling gain the following actionable benefits:

  • The ability to interact with customers in the mediums/channels that they desire at the right place, at the right time.
  • A public forum to show your willingness and ability to solve problems for customers who express dissatisfaction with products or services.
  • The ability to identify customer needs and wants and solicit feedback on proposed initiatives and changes to products and services in real time.

From the customer’s perspective, social networks not only offer an easy and viral way to spread the word about good or bad brand-related experiences, they also serve as easy entry points for researching or reaching out to a company. In fact social media has become a key second step in the customer buying process. It stands to reason, then, that B2B companies and sales executives who have established a proactive approach to social selling see significant ROI.

6 Steps to Social Selling

  • Customer Research
    You need to do research into who influences your client the most – internally and externally, such as colleagues, peers, friends, and supervisors. You find them all in their social networks. Create a list of all those people and make that list the core of your social engagement. Biggest change: You no longer focus on the “social geographies” like Twitter or LinkedIn to pick up some news or inputs – instead you focus on the people relevant to you, regardless where they are. You will need to visit your most important clients at least every other day on their key online presences, may it be Facebook, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, YouTube, Stubled, MySpace… Make sure you are present at all the relevant places (not relevant to YOU but relevant to THEM). It will take a few hours to find them and understand what sites they are active on. Don’t forget the blogs they may be reading and commenting on. Most of the work is a one-time “research project”. But hey, if you are not willing to invest in your customers, you should consider changing your career.
  • Evaluate What You’re Doing.
    Many people on your team probably already use LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, etc. Take stock of how you’re currently connecting with and listening to customers, and see what seems to be working. Where are you successfully engaging and building relationships with prospects and customers? Compare this to the results from the research you have conducted and evaluate where your gaps are.
  • Start By Listening.
    Just as you wouldn’t run into a cocktail party and start shoving your business card under everyone’s nose, don’t jump on Twitter and start jabbering about your business. Instead, listen to what your target market is saying. Get a sense of who your customers’ mouthpieces are as well as their communication and interaction styles. This is not the typical “listen to your customer” – I know you do that every day. This is about understanding their needs, fears, issues, challenges; whether or not it has something to do with what you are selling. You will learn all that by reading their posts, tweets, comments… Be helpful in any way you can. Listen to their conversations. Find a way to be helpful. You will learn more in 1 hour reviewing their posts and conversations than in six stiff business-focused face-to-face meetings – never sure if you even get that far.
  • Join the Conversation.
    Leave a note on their Facebook wall, tweet with them, ask a question, introduce them to people who maybe relevant to them, let them know about great links you found that maybe helpful to them, comment on their blogs, groups… – do anything but DO NOT SELL. Take an hour or two every day to do this, and you will be able to touch more than 5 times as many clients than the best sales guy in the world following traditional methods.. Find out what resonates with people and you build relationship before you even pick up the phone. You will be greeted during your first phone call like you’ve been friends for years. You will soon think: “Cold call? How embarrassing were those times”.
  • Share Information.
    Create a way for your team members to share information internally. There are a variety of CRM-compatible tools to facilitate the tracking and sharing of information companywide. So if at a trade show your marketing manager meets a prospect who loves to ride horses, that information can be entered into a collaborative database and used to strengthen ties during follow-up calls. This is also a great way for marketing to provide greater insight into the leads that they pass onto sales. If your marketing team is already engaging in social media, have them pass on the information through your CRM on your best prospects/customers.
  • It Takes Commitment.
    Building relationships online is not something you can do all at once. Realize you may not see the payoff right away, and commit to three to six months before you evaluate your efforts. Your team’s social-selling skills will need to evolve with the Web. Prepare to invest time and effort in updating your social selling strategy, learning about new tools, and keeping skills sharp.

The change in buying behavior ignited by the social Web will continue to evolve, and the need to master social selling will continue to grow. But the measure of social-selling success is not in how quickly one can leave the old ways behind; it is in how well one can use existing sales principles to adapt to the new customer buying process. This change offers a very powerful and efficient way to engage customers, shorten sales cycles, and increase revenue. In the end, the right mindset is just as important as the methodology. Sales executives who embrace social selling will win more opportunities to maximize the growth potential of their sales team and company.