Not so long ago, most businesses would prepare themselves for tackling a new vertical market or geography by buying a list of companies that fulfilled appropriate criteria. Despite paying a not-inconsiderable sum to a list building company for this resource, typically a good proportion of the email addresses contained would be worthless from the outset, either because they were out of date or were generic (i.e. [email protected] or position-based addresses) rather than named.
Often by the time the list had been cleaned it would be down as low as 50% of the original addresses. And even then, any approach to those that remained on the list would be as receptive to cold calls as you would expect - any salesperson will tell you how difficult it is to get past the gatekeeper to reach an influencer or decision-maker with an unsolicited approach.
But social selling is changing the sales landscape.
“Where social selling has been so useful is the power behind the data,” notes Rob Thomas, CEO & CDO at WSI-eMarketing and an established keynote speaker on the topic of social selling. “For instance, the advanced search on LinkedIn allows you to track down the right decision-makers and the right influencers in your target market or target companies. And beyond that, it allows you to swim in the same pools as them by joining the same groups, and engage with them in a conversation.”
With social selling therefore putting people in the top of the sales funnel, and with marketing automation used in tandem, salespeople can leverage the data intelligently to find out what point in the buying cycle a prospect might be. Thomas adds: “If they then approach them in an intelligent and timely manner, they have really delivered the one-to-one marketing that we have been talking about for the last 20 years.”
So what best practices should salespeople follow to ensure that this vision is realised?
Set up individual profiles correctly
Every profile – for instance, a LinkedIn profile - is in effect a franchise for the business, but one that is branded to each individual salesperson. Therefore each profile needs to be set up in a particular way that aids discovery.
Salespeople must make sure that their profile represents how they help their customers solve their problems. A personal profile shouldn’t read like a CV or appear as if they are fishing for another job. It should represent how they bring value to their employers in their current role and in what areas.
For profiles to be truly impactful, they should also heavily feature endorsements. “If it’s just a profile that I’ve written about myself, it’s no better than AdWords – it’s still just stuff I’ve written,” notes Thomas. “So it should be supplemented with endorsements and recommendations, providing a 360 degree appraisal and validation of how good I am.”
And these endorsements shouldn’t only come from customers. There should be recommendations from coworkers, superiors, project teams that the salesperson participates in and suppliers. Taken together, this builds up a picture of how the salesperson interacts with all of these people – something that is very valuable, as it’s not just customers and prospects that could be checking out the profile, but also potential suppliers.
“Potential suppliers could be selecting companies to do business with based on the fact that they are ethical and pay their bills on time and tell the truth,” says Thomas. “So if everyone in the company is building up a picture of themselves organisationally, and working to the same standard, it says a lot about the business.”
Set up the business profile correctly
One of the other best practices to follow is ensuring that the business as a whole is optimising its profile. Many social networks enable companies to have their own branded business pages. LinkedIn goes further still with its Showcase Pages, which are designed for spotlighting a service, business unit or initiative within the overall brand. These should be capitalised on, and each individual within the organisation should encourage their customers and prospects to follow these business pages.
It is important that when customers/prospects visit these pages that they see that regular content is being shared, and that this content is not just promotional material, but is content that speaks to them as potential buyers around the challenges that they face on a daily basis.
Thomas explains: “You need to position yourself as someone who is interested in helping me around my whole challenges, and not just the individual ones that you might be able to solve. It is about becoming a trusted advisor.”
When it comes to striking the right balance of content on the business pages, Ashley Cooksley, chief business development officer at Emoderation, notes: “I’d like to credit Cheryl Mikovch at IBM for something she said during this past summer’s Social Shake-up in Atlanta. She discussed how IBM uses the 7:2:1 method for social selling. Out of 10 posts you make to social, follow this 7:2:1 rule: 7 posts should be 3rd party content; 2 posts should be your content (could be personal updates, etc),
1 post should direct to your company.”
Grow your network
With the profiles optimised, businesses now need to find ways of connecting with prospects and influencers. This requires growing your network through effective daily behaviours. For instance, the advanced search on LinkedIn is a good way of identifying the right people, after which you can examine what groups they are members of and join them.
“You might then start communicating and joining in the conversation, offering the hand of friendship in the sense of trying to help solve people’s problems, joining in discussions, and by introducing them to third parties, rather than trying to sell your own products and services,” says Thomas.
At that point, once there have been conversations with somebody, it is an appropriate time to extend the invitation to formally connect. As Thomas advises: “You can say ‘now we’ve had a couple of conversations through the group, you look like somebody who might be valuable to me in the long run in terms of introducing people and I might be able to introduce people to you, perhaps the time is right to connect’. And they will probably accept your LinkedIn request.”
These should be daily behaviours, and with perhaps 30 minutes a day invested in this, the average salesperson should be able to connect to two or three on-profile prospects every day. If you add that up over a year, then that equates to a lot of qualified leads at the top of the sales funnel.
Once you’re connected and starting to engage with people and they eventually become clients and customers, the key is to then use them to continue building the momentum. Social selling is about the continuance of getting feedback in the form of recommendations to further build your online reputation.
Thomas continues: “When your customers and connections think you’ve done a great job, remember to ask them if they know other people that perhaps have similar challenges that perhaps you should be talking to and whether they could introduce you. Just the simple process of having that as part of your modus operandi means that you will get more quality leads and more quality introductions and sales people are more likely to be far more successful.”
But Thomas warns: “All of this takes time and effort and a lot of people start the process and then get impatient with it and revert to their old behaviours. So we would certainly recommend that you stick for this for at least 90 days of small step changes in your behaviour.”
By applying these behaviours in tandem with marketing automation and content marketing, the funnel is being filled up with people who are connected with you, hear what you do and why you do it, and know how good your reputation is, so that when they have a need in your area of expertise, they will pick up the phone to you automatically. This is the inbound marketing potential of social selling.
“We may one day move to a world where salespeople are naturally answering the phone and taking enquiries and sales,” suggests Thomas. “I’m not naïve enough to think that happens overnight, it takes several months if not years to get to that position. But in the meantime you have some pre-qualified leads so that if the salesperson needs to speed up the end-to-end sales process, they are already connected with influencers and decision-makers so that they can get past the gatekeeper and have an adult-to-adult conversation in terms of transaction analysis in a way that they couldn’t have dreamt of doing 10 years ago when they were still cold-calling using a list they had bought.”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.