• June 1, 2009
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Sales and Social Media: No One’s Social (Yet)

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

If you work in B2B sales, you might research companies through Hoover’s or find prospects on LinkedIn. You might keep up with friends (or just goof around) on Facebook or follow the world’s stream of consciousness on Twitter. Maybe there’s some overlap from the professional side to the personal side, but not that much. All this social networking seems to have so much potential—and yet it all seems just beyond your grasp. Is this all there is?

Yes. At least for now.

Most people agree that social networking is full of possibility. It’s become a way of life for many of us, and it’s beginning to have a noticeable (and, most would say, very beneficial) effect in the consumer world. But in B2B, where vendor-buyer relationships still matter, the new channels for experiencing and leveraging those relationships are barely penetrating.

An April 2009 report by ES Research Group surveyed B2B sales professionals about their use of social media. The results, as first reported by Assistant Editor Jessica Tsai (http://sn.im/h107a), were not encouraging. (See “Do These Tools Help You Win B2B Sales?,” on page 30.)

“Results show that a very small percentage of salespeople are using Twitter or Facebook; some more are using LinkedIn and Hoover’s,” says Dave Stein, chief executive officer and founder of ES Research Group. “They’re not really using social media to sell.” Even the most commonly used tools in the survey—Hoover’s and OneSource (combined in the study because of the similarity of their services) and the oft-mentioned LinkedIn—showed little effect in actually winning sales. Mostly, they did what social networking used to do with phone calls and handshakes: provide an introduction.

It may seem strange that tools designed to provide closer and better contact aren’t having more effect on the sales process. That’s part of the reason ES Research performed the study in the first place. “I’m a blogger, I’m on Twitter [and] Facebook,” Stein says. “I love tech and I’ve always been an early adopter. The idea of B2B sales is important, and social media is important.” The study was born, he recalls, after he got “some nasty comments on my blog, saying, ‘All you need today is to be on social networks and the world will be a better place for sales.’”

But social CRM doesn’t yet provide the same value in B2B as it does in B2C’s world of immediacy. “It’s an issue for marketing right now, not sales,” Stein says. “Sales leaders are always looking for the next shortcut,” he adds. “There’s a tremendous amount of hype around social media and Sales 2.0—it gives another opportunity for the quick fix instead of doing the right thing.”

The right thing in this case is a reasoned, considered approach to how the social component works with selling. “You don’t want 150 salespeople with their own methods and processes for using Twitter,” Stein says. “Integrate social media to your methodology, so everybody knows the capabilities and the responsibilities.… Find the customers and segments where it will have an effect.”

Stein references a recent report by CRM analyst firm CSO Insights, which said almost half of all salespeople aren’t making their numbers this year. (See Reality Check, March 2009.) “If that’s so, I don’t want them spending two, three, four hours a day fooling around with this technology if it will distract them.”

It all depends on corporate culture and capabilities. Some sectors are adopting social media quickly and smartly, integrating it into their processes. Some aren’t. Stein has two examples of the latter:

  • One of the largest insurance providers in the United States had very little sales technology and a major branding problem—namely, that everybody’s heard of the other top insurers. “I recommended they get onto social networks like LinkedIn,” Stein says. “They came back a few days later with a message from their compliance department, stating that their people can’t communicate outside the company except with the text-based corporate email system, so it could be logged and tracked.” The company wasn’t allowed to go social.
  • A $3 billion division of a $12 billion company that does industrial manufacture of heavy equipment had a different reason for not adopting social technology. “Very few of its salespeople are using PCs for anything other than email—not even Google,” Stein says. “The company is in the dark ages, and so are its employees—the company hires people who work that way. Their customers aren’t there either.” In this division’s case, there would be no benefit from going social.

“Some of us are moving more quickly than others,” Stein says. “You can’t drag [the laggards] forward—it’ll hurt them more than it’ll help in these tough times. Getting them to use [social technologies] responsibly should be the goal.”

Another of the difficulties in adding social technology to the enterprise is that it’s still relatively new and highly fragmented. “There isn’t a social or 2.0 CRM system that’s fully integrated,” says social media expert Paul Greenberg, a regular contributor to CRM magazine and the author of CRM at the Speed of Light. “Innovators…provide pieces, not a suite.”

This is especially true in smaller companies, many of which are still trying to put together a CRM approach that works. “Social is a technology for customer engagement strategy,” Greenberg says. “Small businesses aren’t all that interested in integrated social stuff. They want operational help first. Large-scale enterprises are much more serious about social.”

Paradoxically, relationship-building social tools are emerging at a time when some businesses no longer seem to need them. “The value of the relationship is lessening, as the decision is being made more on functionality,” says Jim Champy, chairman of consulting for Perot Systems and author of Inspire!: Why Customers Come Back. “IBM had it the old way—selling servers on the strength of the relationship and the IBM name.” In the days of mainframes, IBM could even charge more for its products because of those strengths. While those days are over in most industries, Champy notes, “the relationship is still big in government selling.”

That said, there’s still definitely a place for social computing in the B2B sales world, and that place is growing. “Consumer thinking and consumer applications are penetrating the business world,” Greenberg says. “Look at the BlackBerry Pearl—businesspeople are still consumers.” Indeed, our individual interests influence the business tools we use, and it’s just a matter of time before the social networking we enjoy as private people becomes an integrated and integral part of how we work.

We may already be moving in that direction. “Facebook is CRM for our social lives,” says Clara Shih, the head of social media alliances and product strategy at Salesforce.com. That mindset is what led Shih to create Faceconnector (originally called Faceforce), a Facebook application that integrates profile and friend data with accounts, leads, and contacts in Salesforce CRM. (See "Sales in the Facebook Era," for an excerpt from Shih’s new book, The Facebook Era.)

The trick with social CRM is to “balance mutual purpose—what’s in it for the business, and what’s in it for the customer,” says Adam Sarner, an analyst with research firm Gartner. Facebook is imbalanced, he says, citing the social network’s flip-flops on its Terms of Service and its ill-fated advertising feature, Beacon—a pair of notorious cases in which Facebook made changes that negatively affected its user community without consultation, causing uproar and quick reassessments. Adding social components to B2B sales, and CRM in general, he says, is about “establishing ground rules, and putting in guard rails.”

So how do we begin to move toward change? Stein says that part of the solution is using market research to find out if, and where, social media can help a business interact better with its clients, rather than relying on the B2C model where it seems that merely having social outreach, even through trial and error, can be enough to provide benefits.

David Meerman Scott, marketing expert and author of World Wide Rave, has an immediate suggestion, one that doesn’t involve your sales team’s social network, but the network your prospects have on their own: “How can a B2B CRM vendor harness the viral phenomenon?” he asks rhetorically. “Using white papers as lead bait is archaic, a holdover from direct-mail [marketing]. But take that boring white paper, flip it to landscape printing instead of portrait, print it in color, and make it ‘spreadable’ as a PDF e-book under a Creative Commons license,” Scott says. “Don’t use it as lead bait, use it to spread ideas—you can get as much as 50 times the spread if you remove the email requirement. Then add a secondary call to action—invite the reader to a Webinar. That works.”

Greenberg suggests something more direct, drawing on initiatives that some companies already have in place. “‘Voice of the customer’ means practical employment of a customer advisory committee, and the committee must be empowered,” he says. Giving those committee members a way to interact via social technology—something they’re likely doing anyway—lets them feel like they have immediate and direct access to the company. It also lets the company bring more customer voices onboard.

Does social networking lead to the sell cycle and stop there, or will there ever be a truly social sales process? “Currently, it’s internal, but there’s a lot of opportunity to continue to the end,” Sarner says, noting that many sales forces have had success using social networking within the organization for behind-the-scenes teamwork to support customers. In the future, he says, it may be “people coming to you via social for a purpose, possibly ending in a sale. How do we connect the dots? How do you use social applications to solve [the customer’s] problem and your problem?”

The Internet’s a social phenomenon, and as long as businesses and customers use it, there will be a place for social technology in sales. “The Internet’s the number-one communications channel ever built—it’s the printing press plus the phone,” Sarner says. “Your best customer experience is 90 percent automated,” he adds, and the immediacy of social CRM technology can be part of that automation.

“CRM vendors need to connect to this, but they will never have a social CRM suite,” Sarner concludes. “It requires a partnership model.” Even more, he adds, companies “should remember that everything we use now—Twitter, Facebook, Hoover’s, and all the rest—may disappear, and so they should build the possibility of change into their social platforms.”

All social media channels, Sarner says, are little more than “disposable applications”—but social computing itself isn’t. The platform has to be sustainable, he says, even if “you can’t always count on any particular piece being permanent.”

Contact the editors at editor@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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