Social Selling: learning from worst practices

Is Social Selling utter nonsense? Let’s save time for our readers, the answer is a resounding no’. What is nonsense, however, is the claim, voiced by some ’experts’, that one may just have to sit behind a computer to sell more. Here I have investigated this matter in the light of my field practice of both selling and social selling. 

Social Selling
The infamous Glengarry Glen Ross ’ABC-Always Be Closing’ sequence

I have had a Social Selling itch for a long time

When so many people are touting the benefits of social selling and businesses are changing their habits to accommodate new trends, there is always a risk that the trend becomes a fad and that all reason is lost. 

This is why, I have long wanted to answer the above question on this blog, and I decided to do it (disclosure) as part of an engagement with our client Touch & Sell. Here is an introduction and an English version of my blog post. 

Salesmanship, Selling and Social Selling

Salesmanship is a subject which is dear to me for many reasons. A, because I used to be a salesman a long time ago. Even though I readily admit that I was not the best performer. B, for having designed marketing information systems for Europe and the rest of the world for many years (there, I was doing a far better job).

Selling is a difficult job but a very enriching one, and I cannot help but reflect on all the things I learned because of it. Strangely enough, doing business is probably one of the least taught subjects in business schools. This is weird and also tale-telling, one mostly learns about sales in the field.

Having said that, it’s also a shame, because there is a dire shortage of sales talents in many countries.

It is a shame, in these times of unemployment and also of inequalities, which despite the economic recovery, continue to thrive. Sales is not only at the core of business, it is also a good way to improve one’s net worth. As a matter of fact, in some businesses, I have known top salespeople who earned more than the MD.

Death of a Salesman’s Reputation

Having said that, the reputation of sales people isn’t always great. Sales might even be seen as a ’dirty job’ or at least I’ve seen quite a few young people scoff at the suggestion that they should embrace that vocation. Well, let’s be honest here, I went through that too, when I realised that I my career had to start with sales, I wasn’t too happy at first.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the infamous ABC (Always Be Closing) Alec Baldwin mantra in the Glengarry Glen Ross David Mamet-James Foley 1992 film. Baldwin pushes a bunch of real estate losers to close deals by all means and threatens to fire all but the top two among them. In the film, Baldwin aka Blake, won’t take no for an answer and some salesmen are even trying to steal deals to better close them and sustain their families. 

The film probably didn’t do anything to promote this noble trade. It is therefore not difficult to imagine that other approaches of sales had to crop up.

The 21st Century motto: ’Stay behind your computer to close more deals!’

It is common belief that it should be far more rewarding to sit behind a computer than go rubbing shoulders with potential customers in the field. Understandably, there is less pressure. Hiding behind a screen makes you feel safe, it is much more comfortable (screens, unlike Baldwin-Blake, don’t shout at you).

A word of caution: I would be of course ill-advised to criticise those who work behind computers and in the digital field in particular, since I’m one of them. But that’s not my point. If you want to increase sales, you have to see more customers, not fewer, and to that avail, you will have to leave the comfort of your office and leave that computer behind (all the more so that computers are always with us on the go nowadays and so it has been for me for the past 30 years).

The theory that social selling is a replacement for sales methodologies is a joke.Click To Tweet

Come to think of it, I believe I should promote such theories for the benefit of my competitors, selling would then be easier for me and my teams. 

For Web marketing agencies too, and perhaps even more than all other kind of businesses given the level of competition we are facing, seeing customers has never been more important. 

Is social selling a good excuse for not visiting customers?

In a nutshell: what you should be remembering about Social Selling

  1. Don’t confuse social selling for spam

  2. The social selling index (SSI) is not a reliable indicator, it can be tweaked and inflated artificially

  3. Social selling makes can help you grow your network, therefore generating more appointments vs encouraging you to hide behind your computer

  4. Eventually, tools may help salespersons achieve better results, but are no valid replacement for sales methods

Should social selling replace sales calls?

I have practiced social selling for a long time. However, my answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’. I am under the impression that the world of sales and marketing has recently gone crazy. Too much of that social selling activity is the fact of social media bores.

According to Mark Schaefer, marketers have a knack for using technology for being more annoying, and I must admit that the recent developments in social selling made me reflect on the relevance of our business and ethics, on the meaning of sales and last but not least, about the actual definition of social selling itself.

Here are some thoughts on the subject, and my advice to salespersons, sales managers and marketers who have not completely gone bonkers.

Death of a B2B salesman

Sales is extremely difficult, it requires energy and proactivity. Yet, learning how to let go is even more important. Being a good salesperson implies avoiding Joes Isuzu’s hard selling methods at all cost.

Recently, The Joe Isuzus of this world decided to swamp social media platforms — namely LinkedIn — with their so-called social selling approaches. This is not doing anything to improve the perception and image of sales persons.

Here are few examples of social media hassles:

  • A sales person, or even worse, “business developer”, who contacts you immediately after you have accepted her/his add request on LinkedIn. It’s irritating, especially if you have no chance in hell of ever being one of her/his customers.
  • A sales person who sends you her/his sales pitch and drowns you in information in copy-paste manner through an inmail, without even bothering to call you Sir rather than Madam (or vice versa depending on circumstances).
  • Third example, the business woman or man who scraped your email address by scanning LinkedIn after adding you in for a connection and includes it in his newsletter without your formal permission (in other words, who “spammed” you shamelessly and regardless of laws and ethics).

I could go on like this forever. I stopped being a customer five years ago and despite that, I have never been so annoyed on social media and mainly LinkedIn. Imagine what real decision makers are feeling.

Many of these annoying salespeople’s products or services would be the solution to a considerable collection of problems. Yet, such methods are so unrelenting and brutal that they tend to be counterproductive.

Grow your social selling index and become a sales Czar!

Regardless of such bad practices, what is social selling exactly? What I understand from the pitches of its evangelists can be summed up in a few words:

“Cold Calling is passé and ineffective: sharing information and attracting customers to you is far more relevant. To this end, simply copy and paste links and messages, or curate content (prepared by someone in the head office): share, network, customers will flock. No more need to see customers, the higher your social selling index (SSI), the higher your commission. “

I know sales people from major US IT businesses who are pressurised by their management so as to grow their social selling index and earn bonuses. Beware of that: salespeople, I once was one of them, are always keen on circumventing managerial decisions for their own benefit.

To grow your SSI, you do not have to be influential, just hook up on LinkedIn and follow their checklist. Personally, I’m rather bad at this. It’s understandable, I spend far too much time with my clients or on their engagement to be able to be hyper active on social networks.

Salespeople are feeling the heat and need to change, but how?

B2B buyers are getting tired of sales calls. Forrester rightfully pointed this out in a famous 2015 report. They even predicted that (some) sales people would disappear. Even though I’m not quite sure when this will happen.

In a way, this is not even new. Jeffrey Gitomer’s motto has always been, “People don’t like to be sold but they love to buy.”

On the one hand, some traditional techniques such as cold calling are now even less effective: it is estimated that a mere 1% of sales calls lead to an appointment. It doesn’t mean that seeing more customers is useless, because without sales visits, there are no sales.

On the other hand, other methods such as content marketing are on the rise: the Content Marketing Institute indicates that it would be 3 times more effective than outbound marketing. However, this does not mean that the a salesperson’s aim in life is to sit behind a computer and click on links, let alone bombard LinkedIn with readymade content prepared by central marketing.

There is a lot of confusion out there. Tools are just tools, technology is nice but only when it’s useful and last but not least, sales and communications are two different jobs.

Telephone technology has nothing to do with the fact that decision makers are not picking up the phone anymore. What changes their behaviour is the kind of people hassling them. And it’s understandable.

Let me make a few points about inbound marketing and true social selling

  • Content marketing knows no “targets” but audiences. This is crucial. The very definition of this term by Joe Pulizzi mentions audiences (vs targets). Decision makers should not feel like rabbits in the headlights of your Range Rover. Rather than “targets”, speak to your audiences and be relevant,
  • Content marketing works when it is authentic. Clicking on links prepared by robots will not help you get more appointments,
  • Content marketing is an excuse to see more customers, not fewer. Turning salespeople into marketers and vice versa means you are choosing the wrong method and aiming at the wrong thing. Marketing must help salespersons see more customers, that’s what I call true social selling.
  • Social selling, the real McCoy, is not the fact of clicking on links that one does not understand (or even that one has not read), to submerge Web channels. Such channels are already overwhelmed with content. Besides, content effectiveness is constantly reduced by platforms via their algorithms, in order to protect their users and therefore their business.

Finally, what is social selling?

Social selling, means one should not annoy potential customers. Instead one should offer them added value and use authentic and quality content wisely to better serve them.

Looking at social selling that way will make you see more customers. Not fewer. To this end, do generate events, multiply contacts, generate incoming links, encourage potential customers to call you, and eventually, sell more.

To achieve this, good sales people will need to see customers and prospects and use content marketing techniques to enrich their visitors and contacts, not to sit behind their computers.

Switch from social selling to well designed sales enablement platforms

Ultimately, Salespeople should not stop visiting customers, they should even aim at seeing more of them. Use content to better your salesforce and supply them with quality content which will help them see more customers and turning sales calls into relationship-building exercises.

Such is, in my mind, the true meaning of Forrester’s report on the evolution of sales. Forget about SSIs, we’ve heard too much of this, let’s get back to good and serious business.

Yann Gourvennec
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Yann Gourvennec

CEO & Founder at Visionary Marketing
Yann has a long-standing experience in marketing, information systems and Web marketing. He created visionarymarketing.com in 1996 and since then, he has practiced Web strategy, e-business and Web communications in the field. He was a member of socialmedia.org from 2008 till 2013. He is a lecturer, a keynote speaker, an author and blogger. In early 2014, he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur when he founded his digital marketing agency Visionary Marketing.
Yann Gourvennec
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