Dear readers: This post contains some opinion and commentary and then some practical advice. If you’re a TLDR (too long, didn’t read) person or just want the meat, jump down to A Word About the Phrase “Social Selling” and start reading from there.
With that said, there’s a societal behavior pattern at work with social selling, which I find interesting.
Shout It From The Rooftops
Have you ever noticed how we tend to shine a spotlight on the behaviors and social mores that we want to morph and replace with a “new normal?” By shining the spotlight on an issue and increasing awareness, over time, acceptance grows. I remember first learning about this in a sociology course in college, many moons ago. Some societal examples:
- Minority groups and supporters lobby about the need for equality and diversity and foster a societal movement toward racial equality.
- Women’s groups and supporters espouse the leadership abilities of women and lobby for equal pay and opportunity and foster a societal movement toward gender equality in the workplace.
- GLBT groups and supporters campaign for acceptance and rights and foster a societal movement toward ending discrimination based on sexual preference.
The really interesting thing about this? You’ll know when we achieve equality on all three of these fronts, because one day you’ll wake up and these specific groups will be no more. Case in point – when was the last time you heard about women’s suffrage in the U.S., outside of a history class? Women in the U.S. can vote. That’s just “how it is.” (Like my favorite definition of company culture… “the way we do things around here.”)
I’ll Have an Unsweet Tea with Lemon, Please
A respected ex-coworker of mine (thanks Luke!) was fond of saying that there are two ways that change happens. He made the point using a story about a glass of water. Let’s say you have a glass of iced tea. You want a glass of water. There are two ways to accomplish the change:
- Pour the tea down the drain and fill the glass with water. Boom! Done.
- Place the glass of tea under a faucet and turn the faucet to a slow drip. It might take awhile, but eventually – you’ll have a glass of water. This latter method is very often how change occurs in our society and in our organizations.
What does all this have to do with social selling? Well, right now, we have a bunch of social selling thought leaders (who support this growing cottage training industry), all advocating social selling like it is the greatest thing sliced bread and the very thing that has or will completely revolutionize buying and selling, as we know it.
They are pushing, nudging, cajoling, persuading, lobbying, selling, influencing, sharing stats and success stories, and generally shouting from the rooftops and shining the spotlight on how social selling is the new normal, or the future, or both. For the record, many of these people are friends or respected industry connections, and in many cases, I think what they’re recommending is absolutely right. For some.
Side Note: For those of you in the training profession, you might remember how audio tapes, video, CBT, and elearning were all going to completely transform the training landscape (and especially kill off instructor-led training/ILT), right? And now, in the learning profession, it’s social learning, informal learning, mobile learning, flipped classroom, gamification, virtual ILT, virtual worlds, content curation, and more.
Seeing any patterns?
Anyway, we’ll know social selling is truly part of the selling landscape, when we stop talking about it and shining the spotlight on it. Someday, it will just be “how we sell.”
Having said all this, I’d like to offer some thoughts about social selling today, and share some ideas on how to make the most of it, if it’s right for you. This could easily be a book, so it won’t contain everything, and I hope you will comment to add thoughts, debate what I’ve shared, or generally share your thinking on the topic.
A Word About the Phrase “Social Selling”
First, I wish we would stop calling it “social selling.” Huge misnomer. Has selling not always been social (in the sense that it occurs between people… not that it’s like attending a concert with friends or a family reunion)? To Bryan Kramer’s point, is it not H2H or human-to-human? Of course it is. Now, however, we have the opportunity to research, learn, connect, build awareness and interest, and forge relationships – all through social media and other online and digital resources – as part of (or before) the selling process begins. I’m not the only one who’s called out the misnomer, by the way. See the responses to Craig Rosenberg’s (@funnelholic and TOPO) question, “What is social selling?” Some pretty interesting comments in that mix.
My Advice for Selling Through Digital Channels (aka Social Selling)
Is Social Selling Right For You?
The people who are doing much of the shouting don’t seem to ask this question often, but it’s key. I was really pleased to see Greg Alexander of Sales Benchmark Index weigh in recently with this post about the applicability of social selling by industry or vertical. The first two sentences lay it out clearly:
“The potential impact of Social Selling varies greatly by industry. Social Selling will be highly disruptive to some industries. Not so much to others.”
In short, if your buyers or those who can connect you to them are not using social media, or if social media efforts will not influence your buyers, your time is best spent elsewhere. If you’re selling into a market that has been disrupted by the social revolution, if you’re not maximizing your social channels, you will eventually be left behind. As with most things, context and nuance matter. Make a purposeful decision about how much to engage in “social selling,” and when. Check out Greg’s post for some guidance. And see these other posts about sales nuance, because it matters a lot: Sales Nuance and more Sales Nuance.
For the remainder of this post, let’s assume your buyers are engaged in social media… on LinkedIn and possibly Twitter, Google+, SlideShare, Quora, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, etc…. and that selling through digital channels makes sense for you. Fair? Fair.
Mike’s Digital Selling Formula
Here’s my approach, in a nutshell.
- Conduct Research
- Make a Connection
- Generate Awareness
- Create Interest
- Build Relationships
- Convert R2R (relationships to revenue)
From the R2R point forward, it’s all about account management – either retention or growth, based on account potential. But today, even that includes social and digital elements. Fodder for another post. For now, let’s put a little oomph behind each of those bullets.
Research Buyers Through Digital Channels
If your buyers are engaged on social media, conducting sales research through social channels makes sense. If not, you can still set up alerts (check out Mention sometime), watch for Trigger Events, and conduct other online research to learn more about them. Possibilities:
- Review profiles on LinkedIn and other social sites
- See who they are connected to
- Learn which LinkedIn groups they belong to and if they are participating in discussions
- Observe which companies they follow
- Watch their status updates and if possible, which they comment on…
…basically, observing their social footprint.
You can take this beyond standard social media sites and use a search engine and alert service, to see what else you can learn about them… philanthropic ventures, personal interests, alma mater ties, fraternal or association affiliations, community involvement, and more.
Connect and Create Multiple Digital Touches
From a sales perspective, studies abound to remind us how many touches it takes to get attention or make contact. From a learning perspective, the value of spaced repetition is well known, to increase retention. To be clear, I’m not recommending soliciting your buyers through multiple channels… I’m recommending:
- Following their digital footprint – being where they are
- Listening, observing, and learning about them
- Being part of their universe and creating multiple touch points
Build Awareness and Interest
If you hang where your buyers hang, and are seen as part of their world, you’re halfway there. Now you need to interact with them in their sandbox, to move from general recognition toward awareness of your expertise and what you do. The goal here is to enhance credibility, begin building trust, and to offer value and generally be seen as a valuable resource.
The next step is to create interest. This is a blog post or book unto itself, but suffice it to say that the relevancy of your content and the things you purposefully share should be guided by the research you did to understand your buyer and their potential or real challenges. You’ll be able to gauge interest by their reactions and actions – downloads, likes, comments, shares, and questions or emails.
- Comment in their group discussions, to add value from your experience
- See what books they’ve listed on Goodreads, ask their opinion, and share some ideas
- Learn where they have traveled on TripIt and see what travel experiences you’ve had in common, and parlay it into a discussion about why they were traveling and what they are trying to accomplish
- Comment on presentations they posted or commented on, on SlideShare… lead to a discussion about what they’re doing or an interest or need
- RT something they seem passionate about on Twitter… share your approval or interest in the topic
…basically, using what you learned about them to forge a connection, build awareness, and generate interest.
Put Relationships First
This advice isn’t meant to be as linear as the rest. This is just a good principle to adhere to, in social and digital channels. I’d like to say this isn’t news, because the pundits all talk about how relationships come first. But realistically, the advice is often unheeded by the hungry horde of reps that see LinkedIn as a massive email marketing database.
In many cases, these reps immediately enroll new connections to their marketing automation systems or newsletters, without any opt-in or warning, simply because you connected with them. Or worse, immediately after connecting, you get the boilerplate InMail solicitation, introducing them, their company, product and/or service, with a sloppy call to action for a meeting to “get your feedback” or “explore options for helping each other” or seeing “how we might do business together.” As smooth as 40-grit sandpaper, in many cases. Social approaches should be far more subtle. It’s not always possible, but it’s far better if you can “magnetize” them toward reaching out to you.
Exception to the rule
If you’re reading this blog, you know I’m not anti-selling. I’ve spent a career supporting sales organizations. I do stand for sales excellence and believe we need to elevate the profession. But if there is a compelling reason to move quickly… a need being discussed openly in a LinkedIn group, a referral from a mutual colleague who believes their contact needs your help, an uncovered Trigger Event… don’t just sit there contemplating how you will wow them through your social savvy. As Joanne Black says, pick up the damn phone!
Convert Relationships to Revenue (R2R, baby)
B2B, B2C, now H2H. I could go on. We don’t need another acronym. But what the heck, right? If you can’t do this part, meaning R2R or converting Relationships to Revenue, social media is just a fun hobby.
Hobbies are nice, but they don’t pay the bills, they don’t make your number, they don’t get you a ticket for the President’s Club cruise, and they don’t earn your spot on next year’s sales team at your current company.
The timeframe will vary and it’s not something I can tell you, without knowing more about your situation and context – but you need to move with purpose and clarity through the previous stages to get to this point of R2R “as soon as possible…” (and to paraphrase the quote about simplicity that is oft attributed to Einstein)… “…but no sooner.”
At this point, without knowing context, I always feel like the recommendations are both generic and weak, but in general…
- Use a referral or introduction, if possible – preferably from someone you’ve helped or who will give you a favorable introduction.
- If possible, give to get, pay it forward, demonstrate servant leadership, or connect them to someone who might interest them, or help them in some way (or better, perhaps someone they can help).
- Always remember this “give to get” maxim, and be a provider of valuable information and connector of people who can help each other… if you can help your prospect in some way, prior, it will help open the door for your R2R approach
- Leverage news, Trigger Events, social comments, press releases, your research (something you read about your prospect company in their recent 10-K, perhaps) or what you know from another connection, as a reason to reach out and create or shape an opportunity and begin the opportunity pursuit process.
Some Other Considerations for Digital Selling
If you don’t want people to know you are researching them or don’t want to hint to competitors that you are researching a company or prospect, you can hide activity on LinkedIn, hide your connections, avoid commenting to them in the groups (until you’re ready to make a public connection). I don’t personally hide my activity, but I know many cautious sales pros who do. Pros and cons.
Social media can be a huge time suck for little return, if not managed well. Many sales people are completely overwhelmed by various sites, choices to make, which tools to use, and how to automate effectively, to be able to maximize time spent researching and engaging, rather than doing the mundane tasks. Plus, sales people who are still getting great or good-enough results with old methods, will see no reason to switch, until social becomes so ubiquitous that they will start to lag in performance or even miss targets, because they didn’t change gears soon enough.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
So, that’s my somewhat balanced and completely opinionated take on social selling, or selling through digital channels. As usual, due to limitations of blog posts and time to edit, it’s half the story with twice the words, but I sincerely hope some of the ideas are helpful.
In closing, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I think digital selling is mandatory in some cases, and an incredibly smart and necessary strategy. In other cases, it’s good idea to start migrating toward it. And yes, in some (and probably far fewer cases) it’s a downright a waste of time. When it’s time for you to make the move or hone your approach, be a pro about it, because we all need to work harder to elevate the sales profession.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, and be safe out there.
P.S. Special hat tip to my friends and colleagues who were recognized recently by Forbes as the top 30 social sales people in the world, and the larger list at KiteDesk of the top 100 social selling influencers. Kudos!
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution
<mike at mikekunkle dotcom>
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