“I was talking to a salesperson in a car dealership just last week, and they were saying how the average buyer now walks into their showroom already knowing what they want to buy, knowing the price they want to spend and that all they expect the salesperson to do is reassure them about their decision.”
Recognise this tale? It’s one that social selling expert David Tovey tells, but also one that an increasing number of salespeople find themselves telling. Research from Sales for Life states that 57% of a consumer’s buying decision is completed before they are “willing” to talk to a sales rep, while 77% of B2B buyers don’t ever talk to a salesperson until after they have performed independent research into a product or service.
What’s more, 71% of prospects trust user-generated reviews on sites like TripAdvisor more than a salesperson in making a purchasing decision, while 72% use social media to research a company or product before making a purchase.
The knock-on effect is that salespeople are finding targets harder and harder to hit, and seeing traditional selling methods become less effective. A survey of sales leaders by Artesian states that three-quarters of sales forces did not hit their targets on a regular basis in 2014, and that 30% of the respondents’ sales teams were viewed as “weak or struggling”. With the average cold calling appointment rate now at a lowly 2.5%, the strategy for reversing these fortunes appears to lie with switching tactics to match customer buying behaviour.
As a result of prospects increasingly taking to social media to quantify purchasing decisions, the sales discipline has seen the rise to prominence of the ‘social seller’. Sales for Life says being a social seller is now fundamental to being a modern-day salesperson, and that 72.6% of salespeople who used social selling as part of their process outperformed their peers last year, while non-social media users missed quota 15% more often than their peers who used social.
With such a clear line to improvement, what are the fundamental aspects of becoming a successful social seller? Rob Thomas, chief digital officer for WSI-eMarketing, says it starts with accepting that social media is now a go-to communication channel for professionals at any level, and shouldn’t be underestimated:
“The buyers and prospective customers have more information at their fingertips than ever before…MDs, CEOs and other decision-makers are all on social media.
“You may not think that social media affects their decision-making processes but our experience and recent studies beg to differ. If these are the people you and your sales team are targeting then you already know the difficulty in even getting them on the phone. The amount of cold calls you have to make to reach decision-makers is only rising. Social selling sets you up as a source of information, a name and face they already know. Social media is just an extension of word of mouth – a worldwide, 24/7 networking event.”
In this respect, social selling starts with semantics: replace the term ‘social media’ with ‘social network’ and suddenly it represents something not so distant from the traditional mode of selling. But it then necessitates salespeople to redefine how they use social to broadcast their professional credentials, their products and services and their knowledge of the world they work in.
Being a social seller is, in essence, about being seen as an industry voice, requiring salespeople to not only get to know their prospects better through social networks prior to reaching out to them, but to also create a profile of themselves that in some way helps their prospects, putting their end-product to them within the context of their role. It’s what the Social Selling Lounge’s Matt Baxter-Reynolds calls the method of “getting the salesperson being squeezed out of the buying process back into the buying process, so that once again they can control and influence the buying decisions of the business”.
David Tovey, author of 'Principled selling - how to win more business without selling your soul’, tells the story of an event that occurred at an industry exhibition that proves the value of salespeople getting to understand their prospects on social media:
“I’m walking down a particular aisle and this person comes up to me and puts his hand out and says “Hi David”. I'd never met this person before but they knew me through my Twitter profile and we’d shared some content on Twitter before. So we had some rapport, and I was instantly interested in what he had to say. It was highly perceptive: meeting that person face-to-face for the first time, having had a social media relationship, is completely different from meeting them cold at the exhibition.
“Salespeople can use tools like Linkedin and Twitter in several ways: you can actually use them for building the CRM database, building contacts at a higher, decision-making level than you'd normally be able to make, but then you can also share and produce content that gives you a better connection with your customers. In that respect it’s about adapting traditional methods to fit the channel.”
Five key steps
Central to this adaption are five steps that The Social Selling Lounge’s report, ‘The ‘How’ of Social Selling’, says sales leaders must get to grips with in order to foster a sales team of astute social network users:
- Step 1: Setting up shop – understanding how to prepare the salespeople so that they can be discovered.
- Step 2: Listening – understanding how to listen to what is happening in the wider network to scale up that discoverability.
- Step 3: Authority and influence – understanding with how to build up authority and influence so that decision-makers will select the salesperson to be part of their network.
- Step 4: Optimisation – understanding how to use technology to optimise the sales process.
- Step 5: Collaboration – understanding how to bring connected economy ideas into the organisation so that it becomes more agile and flexible.
In a world of real-time analytics and instant gratification, these steps show that becoming a social seller is by no means a rapid process. However, Jill Rowley, a renowned social selling expert and evangelist, says the adaption process is as much about a change in philosophy as anything else:
“It's really important that that mindset is not about sell, sell, sell… a rush to get a buyer’s signature. The mindset has to be – I'm going to be the buyer’s coach, I'm going to coach them all the way to success. I'm going to help that buyer solve their business problems, achieve their goals, I am going to help them, I'm going to serve them, I'm not going to sell to them.
“Your social network is your net worth, and people are only open to connecting if there’s value. Trying to close sales makes it seem like you’re jamming something down the buyer’s throat. We need a whole new language in sales, and we need to ask ‘why’ as well as ‘how’. There's a lot of really bad social selling happening on Linkedin, on Twitter because too many people are taking old-school tactics and applying them to new school channels and expecting better results. The results come in time through understanding the channels and how to add value.”
The ‘why’ of social selling
Beyond the possible financial benefits, the ‘why’ of social selling appears to be the big question most salespeople ask about the topic. Artisian’s survey of sales leaders found that while 97% think social makes it easier to identify, connect with or get noticed by customers, 80% also think that the volume of communication that a customer receives from brands makes it harder for salespeople to be noticed.
But Rob Thomas states this is where sales and marketing must do better to align: “Social Selling fits so well with the Inbound Marketing methodology. Inbound is all based on becoming a trusted source of information. You don't want to blast ads at your customers, that doesn't get their attention in a crowded marketplace. Instead you answer their questions, genuinely inform and educate them.
“Understand your customers and cater to their needs. That's always what sales should have been about, but as we all know sales is often so focused on target hitting that the needs and wants of the customer has played second fiddle to the targets. To the money. Cold calling is a numbers game.
“Wouldn't it be better if a large portion of the leads salespeople are chasing are warm leads? People who've seen some of your content via social selling or inbound marketing? Social selling and inbound are perfect together, they have the same aim. Network well and nurture your contacts just as you would customers; the same ethos runs through both systems. If you're a trusted, reliable and informative source then you'll see this pay dividends with buyers.”
And Jill Rowley agrees, adding that social sellers should rely on the marketers around them for improving their digital footprint and the content they use to “get noticed”.
“Salespeople have to have the digital social networking skills, and be using the same tools as their prospects, but the biggest part of social selling is content; part of social strategy is really leveraging content as your currency and having the rep share valuable thought leadership that isn’t just straight from their own hand but from the subject matter experts, the thought leaders, maybe the analyst, the control, the third parties. So content is such an important aspect of the social selling initiative and who owns content in the organisations: marketing.”
And as with the other aspects involved in social selling, closing the gap between sales and marketing requires salespeople to adapt further. But as Rowley warns, social selling is really only about a salesperson’s ability to adapt: “Your sales force is on the brink of EXTINCTION. They have been replaced by search engines and social networks. It’s time to adapt or die.”
It’s this process of adapting to the social selling climate that we will be examining in the coming chapter of this series.
Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.