Are you ready for the phenomenon of social sales?

This article first appeared April 19, 2010.

Social sales was voted by you as the number four sales trend for 2010. Arguably, social media is contributing to the democratisation of information and, armed with this information, customers will demand different things from sales people and companies. Customers are tuning into online communities, blogs, forums and social networks to gather information and make buying decisions.

For instance, the retail car market is undergoing significant changes with customers firmly in the driver’s seat. With the emergence of the information age consumers have far more knowledge about what to buy and where to buy it. On the whole, customers are doing their research, checking with their networks and peer groups, reading or viewing the latest comments online, and have potentially even made a buying decision before they step into a store. This is fast becoming the norm in car sales. No longer is the sales consultant one of the first to engage with the prospective buyer, today they may be near last when the customer walks through the door. Smart businesses will realise that engaging with the customer has changed and to speak with and meet viable prospective buyers they need to migrate to a new level.

In the business-to-business space buyer behaviours are changing too. The buyer is either a purchasing agent or decision maker and they are armed with far better information well before they interact with a sales person. This will demand a different relationship.

If sales people see their role as only being “educational” they will be unable to match the requirements and expectations of customers. People are getting tired of the old sales model of “shut up and listen”, especially if the information they are getting is patronising, know-it-all, we’re the best, readily available on the web and in some cases incorrect or outdated.

It is important that sales people recognise that customers are likely to be as informed about the product as they are (or at least believe they are). Customers are influenced beyond the boundaries of traditional businesses and long held relationships. We, the sales person, are unlikely to be the first person the customer will go to, even with established relationships. The long held tradition of key account management where every person of influence in a customer account is mapped on a “blue sheet” and armies of account teams are marched to surround the customer are numbered. In many cases, they are now surrounded by social media.

Customers are using social media to build up independent knowledge, and compare and contrast information and opinions. This knowledge gives the customer power, and that power fundamentally changes the dynamics of the sales relationship. The web has also opened up communication channels which has changed the landscape forever. The old model is magnified; where in the past consumers used to tell five others if they were happy with an experience and 11 or more if they were unhappy, they can now communicate, positive or negative, in real-time with other consumers on a massive scale.

B2B customers are demanding a different relationship. They want to interact with a sales person that legitimately questions, challenges ideas and innovations, and can clearly articulate how they will work to bring value beyond the product.

Rather than go and talk to buyers alone, sales people and businesses need to go to the social networks to listen to, observe and interact with customers to help find a footing and take note of the consumer voice.

Social sales will also demand that the sales team work in collaboration with the marketing group to help seed the right information about their offerings into their markets and networks where their customers look to for information and to exchange ideas. Customers want to see your work in action and get feedback from the sources they trust.

Entering into the social sales world also requires sales people to put aside their reluctance and adopt new technology. Social sales is the dawn of the new salesperson that doesn’t shy away from using information and systems to their advantage. The social salesperson will make the most of CRM systems interlinking CRM functionality to connect with social media, marketing, campaigns, networks, etc to track the threads of customer conversations, opinions and ideas. CRM can no longer be ignored or treated as a telephone directory by sales people and businesses.

The responsibility for social sales doesn’t just reside with the sales team either; it needs to go all the way along the whole sales chain and beyond. At a recent leader’s conference, a speaker asked the 500 heads of business in the room whether they use social media including Twitter, Facebook and the like.

Somewhat alarmingly, only five raised their hands. We need to use CRM and social media tools to make strategic calls – the CEO, CFO, COO, and CIO will be asking: “Tell me what you see behind the numbers”. This request is referring to the patterns of information, customer comments, buying decisions, influences, customer experiences, emotions and feedback that will influence what we make, how we interact with our markets and much more.

In 2010 and beyond, leaders, sales teams and businesses will need to invest time, resources and money to learn how to interact in these emerging social spaces. Why? Because the traditional channels to the customer such as email marketing, trade shows and face-to-face meetings will be less effective. In some cases you may not even be interacting with the customer directly but with their “recommendation network”. The real challenge for sales will be to identify and engage with these new networks. Social sales involves different skills, leadership and a culture which values a collaborative model of free knowledge exchange.

Social sales is likely to change selling fundamentally – so are you and your business ready?

Thanks to Mark Parker and Charni Cargill for their collaboration on this piece.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett practices as a coach, advisor, speaker, facilitator, consultant and writer and works across all market segments with her skilful team at BARRETT. Sue and her team take the guess work out of selling and help people from many different careers become aware of their sales capabilities and enable them to take the steps to becoming effective and productive when it comes to selling, sales coaching or sales leadership.To hone your sales skills or learn how to sell go to www.barrett.com.au.

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