Hype vs. Hope: For Salespeople, Is Social Media Living up to Its Promise?

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Social media has permeated our personal lives so thoroughly that we hardly notice when a new technology tool chips away a little more of our privacy. But in sales and marketing, we embrace social media as transformational. We’re primed for game changers, and we don’t need to look far for good old fashioned hype in these articles about how social media will transform sales:

For Sales Guys, Social Media is the New Cocktail Party
Five Ways to Increase Sales Through Social Media
How to Tap into the Social Media Phenomenon for Greater Sales and Profits
Social Selling—Building a Web2.0 Sales Force

. . . But is social media living up to its promise?

Double-edged sword

It depends. One statement by Kevin Waldvogel, Account Executive at Image Systems sums up the ambivalence of eight senior salespeople I interviewed for this article: “Social media is great to help people and get your name out there, but not the greatest place to make instant business. It reminds us to listen to people who are in need of help and think about helping them because you never know when you might be in that situation. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

One edge symbolizes that social media provides valuable improvements to sales processes, and the other that social media won’t help if it’s not intelligently embedded with more mature, proven sales techniques.

From Waldvogel’s comment, one senses that if the plugs were suddenly pulled on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, life would go on—at least for this group. Social media touches their jobs, but outside of collaborative CRM, I couldn’t find one case of a corporate mandate to use it.

Clearly if there were a mandate, it would have to consider the boundary of social media, a question Jeff Baker, Major Account Manager for Hewlet-Packard asked. “It’s important to expand the list, to expand the footprint” of social media. According to Baker, it’s everything from the directories in today’s cell phones, which can be shared, to electronic community directories. Joe Panella, Sales Manager at Alpha Systems, corroborated Baker’s idea. He has scoped the recipient line of more than one neighborhood community email to find domain names of companies he targets for his company’s suite of data collection products and services. When he finds one, he sometimes contacts the individual. But from there, his sales processes are little changed from the early ’90’s when he joined his company.

Mike Chiappetta, Unified Computing Systems Specialist at Cisco, voiced a similar view. “Selling hasn’t changed in fifty years. LinkedIn makes for great icebreaker discussion, but you don’t know your prospect’s agenda or business problems, so you gather nothing that will help you in a B2B sales process. There are no shortcuts for doing real homework.”

Real homework requires learning strategic and operational pain points that ignite sales processes—information which social networking sites don’t offer. And while the sites offer community, there’s no insight about the activities between community members. According to Chiappetta, “if I spend time on my client’s corporate website or Yahoo Finance, I’ll get more information to help me build trust than I ever can on LinkedIn.”

Social media’s greatest impact results from how it enables internal sales collaboration.

These seemingly prosaic uses of social media are emblematic of the resourcefulness of people who sell for a living. They don’t necessarily rely on sophisticated social networking software to capture, share, and use information about the organizations and people who are potentially valuable to them. They exploit little ways to improve on what they already do. I asked about the most visible social-media created change in their jobs. The prevailing answer? Email—not voice—now transmits an overwhelming majority of prospect sales communication. According to Panella, “I rarely get a phone message, but I touch 200 emails a day.”

Still, I probed for a big social media success story. Panella told me of a large order he sold when he serendipitously discovered a friend’s posting on Facebook. Baker described how he facilitated a sale for HP hardware in Eastern Europe by connecting a graduate school colleague to an Outlook contact who specializes in IT financing in that region. But despite these positive outcomes, neither Panella nor Baker is convinced that the same tools could dependably enable them to repeat those successes in the future.

Internal collaboration

For the salespeople I interviewed, social media’s greatest impact results from how it enables internal sales collaboration. Cathy Cromley, Sales Director at market research firm IDC Government Insights, uses Yammer, which her company implemented to enable employees to share knowledge internally. In an organization with over 1,000 analysts, Cathy would find it overwhelming to identify expertise on high-level topics such as cloud computing or green that she researches for her prospects and clients. But with Yammer, she can find referenceable projects, connections to subject matter experts, and blogs internal to IDC.

Eric Freeburg, Senior High Touch Account Manager with Motorola Enterprise Mobility Business leads teams of up to 70 people on sales engagements for large accounts such as Kellogg, Whirlpool, GM, Ford, Chrysler, and La-Z-Boy. For Freeburg, internal collaboration is mission critical. If he spends time on social networks, it’s managing his team through Motorola’s CRM software, Salesforce.com. “Who has time for LinkedIn?” he asks.

External sales processes

When it comes to client contact, the veteran salespeople I spoke with use social networking tools conservatively, and in different ways. Baker of HP, manages one customer, AOL. “I know everyone I need to connect with at AOL. I don’t do prospecting the way others do.”

Trudy McCrea, CEO of IT Services firm Achieve-IT, LLC in Northern Virginia, avidly uses social media tools, but not to close business. Through Outlook, she maintains a list of target accounts, and uses LinkedIn for an advanced search to uncover who isn’t in her database. She searches for specific information about the kind of people who work for a company, their education, previous company affiliation, and other background to develop a second tier of contacts. From there she might make a cold call by phone or send an inMail. She also uses LinkedIn’s Groups function extensively. McCrea understands the role luck plays in developing new business, saying “I make many unplanned discoveries.”

Unfortunately, social media websites have driven many influencers away.

Motorola’s Freeburg works with between 50 and 300 active customer contacts at a time, but uses one resource—Salesforce.com—for the daily information he requires. He uses LinkedIn mainly to post his professional credentials so he can “present myself without bragging.” IDC’s Cromley thinks of online social networks as a dynamic Outlook application that doesn’t require time or resources to maintain. She uses LinkedIn and other tools “mostly to keep up with where people are.”

Protocol and impediments

This conservative use of social media might result from the fact that adoption of social media tools faces large hurdles—an often-obscured reality. According to Panella, “some employers don’t allow their employees to use (social media) for company purposes. They place restrictions around it.”

Such impediments aren’t fully recognized. In a March 31, 2009 webinar “Hear it Now! Social Selling: Live Q&A on Selling with Web 2.0,” Christopher Carfi of Cerado, Inc. said that it’s important to engage with an influencer in their place first, and that if they have a public persona to use the mechanisms provided. Unfortunately, social media websites have driven many influencers away. McCrea, who regards client privacy of paramount importance, works with a high-level contact at Google who had a public persona, but changed because the visibility brought unwanted solicitations. According to McCrea, “LinkedIn doesn’t shield customers. (My contact) got unwanted email and now uses Facebook. Now, people keep less data on LinkedIn to keep from being found.”

Several salespeople shared that simple business etiquette guided their decisions about how to adopt social media. Cromley believes that using social networks as a prospecting tool is “not appropriate,” adding “I’m offended by someone trying to tap my network simply to hawk their wares.” While she uses LinkedIn to look up information about prospects, she cautions that salespeople “should be careful not to look like you’ve stalked the person.”

And then there’s The Law. A senior business development professional who sells technology solutions to the legal industry said that attorneys must address confidentiality, security, and privacy issues of Electronically Stored Information (ESI), and the public nature of the Internet adds to the complexity of legal issues. Many sources of ESI are discoverable in legal matters —something to think about before you set up your next social media campaign. My contact cited the case in which Whole Foods CEO John Mackey posted blogs for over eight years on Yahoo online stock forums by using a pseudonym. The SEC opened an informal inquiry to see if any insider information was released. Although the SEC ultimately concluded that Mackey hadn’t broken any laws and that no action needed to be taken, ethical issues linger.

Social products and services

If better social media mousetraps exist, salespeople will buy them, and Twitter has made the shopping list of at least two.

If social media hasn’t forced major process changes among the group I interviewed, it has dramatically changed the products they sell. Motorola, long a dominant player in mobile technology and retailing “has always been a strong supporter of social networking and is developing solutions for its clients,” according to Freeburg. IDC has conducted numerous studies of government’s use of social media and has released a case study about how the DC Government used YouTube for procurement, entitled Social Networking and Takin’ Care of Business Every Way. In the legal industry, FTI Consulting broke ground in legal discovery with Attenex, a software application that provides visualization of social networks by tracking email traffic and document trails. In a global economy, this resource provides crucial support to corporations that might need to document connections for a seamy side of social networks—bribery activity.

If better social media mousetraps exist, salespeople will buy them, and Twitter has made the shopping list of at least two. Ironically, the staid legal industry occupies the vanguard of industry adopters. That’s because “congress is adopting Twitter, so attorneys are as well,” according to my legal industry contact. Cromley also considers Twitter a potentially valuable tool. The analysts at IDC use it extensively in the financial services vertical, and the company will expand its use to all six verticals in which it competes.

The road ahead

If the individual insights of these salespeople prove anything, it’s that social media’s promise depends on the ingenuity of the people using it. But there’s another takeaway. Even in the face of market upheaval, and a great shift in information power from vendor to consumer, legacy selling processes are surprisingly durable. We’re a long way from the seismic changes in selling others have predicted.

So where are we on the Social Media Maturity Curve? No one can say with certainty. Some have suggested that we’re at a social-media saturation point. In her recent column, Let Them Eat Tweets—Why Twitter is a Trap (The Medium, New York Times, April 19, 2009), Virginia Heffernan wrote “Twitter may now be like a jam packed, polluted city where the ambient awareness we all have of one another’s bodies might seem picturesque to sociologists (who coined “ambient awareness”) to describe this sense of physical proximity, but (it) has become stifling to those in the middle of it.”

If that’s the case, in an uncertain economy, should companies take a conservative approach and delay implementing new selling strategies by waiting for the Next Great Thing after social media? No. When deployed intelligently, social media can provide remarkably valuable outcomes. Here are a few points to remember:

  • Social media should transform [i]processes,[/i] but not etiquette.
    Technology-enabled sales tactics will backfire unless acceptable business protocol is considered in the customer experience.
  • Social media enables business strategy. It’s a set of tools, not an endpoint.
  • In the short-term, deploy social media tools selectively. Identify the most persistent selling problems you or your sales team faces, and embed social-media tools where appropriate. Unless there’s a compelling reason, don’t rip and replace.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Andy – superb article. You really put the whole issue in perspective without the normal accompanying hype.

    A couple of corollary points.

    First, it continues to surprise me that subscribers don’t try to use CustomerThink as a social media from the perspective of exchanging ideas. As you know, I recently tried to engage readers in building a discussion thread (a la Linkein) around a provocative blog topic. You were the only person who took the bait. There’s clearly a boundary or restraint issue, but I can’t figure it out. Any ideas?

    Also, being extremely active on Linkedin with perspective swapping, I believe it’s set very far apart from FaceBook and Twitter. Several of us in the business process space have started posing challenging questions regarding our work, andd we’ve discovered a real thirst for knowledge-sharing. You can mine Linkedin for input and commentary in ways I doubt you could with consumer-oriented social media.

  2. Dick: finding discussions threads through online social media provides a great way to identify sentiment and to uncover developing unmet needs. Although I’ve read much about the opportunities, none of the salespeople I spoke with for this article mentioned tapping this resource. I am interested in learning if other companies have deployed processes (successfully) for lead generation and best-practice sales knowledge sharing through online discussions and commentary.

  3. Andy – I’m unsure whether leadgen works as a primary purpose to be active on Linkedin (as we are). We’re using it to focus attention on office process in a business/consultant community that has yet to grasp OP’s importance. But we did have the VP HR of Cisco link to our site yesterday to download articles. 🙂

  4. Andy, I’m just getting back to responding to some articles and here I am responding to on more of your articles.

    In asking myself why social marketing is growing by bound, leaps, bounds, leaps is an interesting question. I’ve come to the conclusion there are only a few reasons:

    * It is seen by many as being much less expensive than using traditional forms of marketing,

    * It is comfortable having that distance between the two parties and lessons the fear of getting a “no.”

    * While being a small business, it is a way of looking like a big one (a carry over from the reason why in the early days this was a justification for having a web site.)

    * It is a way of proving to others that one is up-to-date on the “new ways of doing business.”

    * It alleviates having to be behind the counter, standing on a sales floor, knocking on doors, doing cold calling i.e. doing “shoe leather marketing.”

    * It is taking the onus of the negatives associated with being “in sale.”

    There are, I’m sure other reasons but the above come from taking to people of why they are or want to get involved in social marketing.

    The “social marketing” is a misnomer unless one believes that all networking or prospecting ins social marketing. If one lives in some countries from Central Italy to the east coast of China, then all business is social and it is an important part of every businesses’ marketing technique. To call it “viral networking” would be closer to what it really is i.e prospecting for potential customers/clients by viral methods. As I’ve written in previous article and in responses, it is not unlike the breakfast, lunch, business meetings, volunteering in all kinds of civic and other activities we’ve participated in other than viral networking allows one to reach a much wider audience more often in a shorter time period. It carries the same ills that the “older” forms of networking. For example, few in traditional networking and in viral networking look to give leads or ask others to join them on some project. It’s a “gimmee attitude” from beginning to end.

    What it lacks for most people who are involved in viral networking is a plan of what or how they want to use it and what their goals are. They jump in because it’s the “thing to do” if one wants to be seen as being “with it.” I know several who have been very successful as a way to get business. All, btw, sell services and not products. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t get requests from people wanting me to join their network even though I’m not a member of the network and the same number of requests from those, like I, are on Linkedin. To date, only twice after I’ve agreed to join someone’s Linkedin network have others sent me a message other than to say thank you for joining their network. That’s not unlike gathering business cards at meetings and do nothing with them.

    If one changes “marketing” to read “potential customer awareness of one’s business, maybe it would bring better results than any marketing method does. Customer awareness is putting information about one’s business and the products and services it offers. . . offers and not sales because until the sale is made all it is information based. The closer potential customers/clients get to the products and services being offered, it calls for more detailed information, etc to where it gets down to making a decision and that’s where selling comes in.

    The question is just how long will it take for people using viral networking see realistic results on their time and effort. While it does not cost to be involved in viral networking, one’s time does have a monetary value which, maybe could be spend more effectively as a way of getting additional new business. If people find other forms of networking are more effective, then how long will these viral marketing programs last?

    Since it was mentioned, is participation in Customer Think a form of viral networking? Are you, me, others using it looking for others as potential customers/clients or referrals from others that would result in some business? I cannot say who is or who is not. For me, my partication is to “go to school” on those such as yourself who take the time to write articles and post replies. I look at it as my “viagra for the mind” that help me keep up (pun intended) with what is going on in the business world.

    Thanks for prescribing me a refill with your article.

    AlanAlan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network
    Member, Linkedin.com

    You are invited to suggest to your associates, acquaintances, family, friends, customers/clients to learn why everyone has something to sell by visiting http://www.sellingselling.com

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