Dave Stein published a report on this question, warning that the importance of social media in B2B selling situations should not be over-hyped. According to this report, good use of methodologies and CRM systems are still more important for successful B2B selling.
You can imagine, that this conclusion did not sit well with the social media fans. They used the tools they believe in (e.g. twitter and blogs) to make their opposition to be known loud and clear. I do not want to enter into this debate as I think it is of little help for sales leaders looking for guidance on this question.
Why is the question relevant?
From own experience, I know that using social media can eat up considerable time, especially in the discovery phase. It is thus legitimate for a sales leader to be concerned whether the time salespeople spend with social media is time well spent to interact with the prospects and customers in an optimal way to generate the revenue streams expected from them. Leaving the sales people alone in how to integrate social media into their work practice is the least effective approach and will negatively impact productivity. I therefore want to propose a pragmatic proactive approach sales leaders can take to tackle the challenge.
A pragmatic approach to Social Media
For the purpose of this discussion, social media can be understood as a number of different continuous 24/7 networking events in separate venues (platforms) , each with its own flavor and attendance. As with classical networking events, the question is probably not so much whether to attend such events at all but to choose the events provide providing the highest return on the time invested for attending. Common sense would suggest to go there where prospects, customers and respected opinion leaders for your target markets are “hanging out”. So why should this guidance not be used for selecting the social media best suited to enhance relationships with your clients?
Where can I meet my audience?
This screening of suitable platforms obviously takes time. It should therefore not be left to the individual sales person. Rather task a social media savvy individual or a small team within your organization with finding out where your target audience can best be met. If you have a millennial (generation Y) person in your team, I would delegate this task to him/her. You would not only minimize productivity impact on your team, but a the same time create a valuable learning experience for this individual or small team. A millennial most likely takes it for granted that social media is the first choice also for building and maintaining professional relations. Through these screening task, they could discover the relevance of their assumption. If the targets cannot be found there, then obviously they will see that they need to learn some other methods if they want to be successful in their selling role.
For this screening process, it is also important to use a wide definition for 'social media”. It is not only “Facebook”, “LinekdIn”, “Xing”, “Twitter” etc. There are many more specialized communities having their own sometimes very sophisticated platforms. In my filed of interest “The Customer Collective” is an example of this category. “Sales Management 2.0” is another one in my space who uses “Ning” . Most likely you will discover, that there is more than one platform that needs considering.
How to use the platforms?
Knowing only where your audience can be met is not enough to let your salespeople loose on using social media. There is still too much of a danger that individuals might waste their time not only in the initial discovering how to use the media, but they might also develop sub optimal habits that become time wasters on the long run.
Figuring out the right use is a much more complex task than the screening process. The sophistication of those platforms creates a lot of overlap functionality especially when several platforms are relevant to reach your audience. Each platform tries to offer a wide range of functionality because their primary purpose is to generate captive audiences which attract advertising dollars.
Millennials or social media enthusiasts are not the best suited people for this task. Here pragmatists with a broad business perspective but at the same time sufficiently detailed knowledge about the platforms to be used are needed to reduce the complexity to a palpable level for the individual sales person. Chances are that such individuals cannot easily be found within the organization or building the expertise internally will take too long and you will need some external help.
The best way assuring that social media does not distract your salespeople is to take a proactive role and figuring out how best to use it specific for your organization and then give clear guidelines how you want your people and provide them with help to use these media to become more effective .