I recently read an article written by Liz Gelb-O’Connor, a Senior Executive for Strategy and Innovation at ADP, a long time leader in the world of sales optimization. ADP takes the building of their sales organization seriously, so Liz’s article was included as part of a sales management compilation published by the good folks at CSO Insights. (This is the 10th release of this compilation that comes out several times a year, and I strongly recommend getting on their mailing list.) Liz’s article on Social Selling as a Competitive Advantage was well written and usually on point. She defines three behaviors that form the basis of social selling at ADP found in quotes below to which I have added my comments.
“Research to enable a relevant conversation at the right time with the right contact.”
While this is a refreshing thought in the age of waiting for the phone to ring, I believe successful sales professionals have always performed significant upfront research and sought to identify appropriate contacts versus simply waiting for requests for proposal. Of course, the internet has vastly expanded the ways to research our prospects, and social media avenues create yet another window into their thoughts and potential buying processes.
“Engage/join the conversation early in a ‘non-sales-y’ way.”
In a time when so much information about both buyer and seller flows so freely it should not be a surprise that those vendors whose relationships coincide with the start of a sales process are unlikely to compete on anything other than price and speed of response.
“Demonstrate thought leadership and industry expertise to help build relationships.”
For my mind, this element is the most challenging to deliver consistently over time and the one that will require most support from the organization as a whole. When I think of industry expertise, I refer to knowledge of our customer’s industry and business environment. To accomplish this, salespeople and the companies they work for will need to value understanding of their customers’ businesses for more than knowledge about their own products and services. To demonstrate “thought leadership,” sales professionals and companies will need grasp the fact that whitepapers and case studies are primarily self-serving and, as such, do not get the job done.
Most interestingly of all, however, Liz makes the prediction that “we have about a 24-month window for social selling to be a competitive differentiator.” On this point I could not disagree more. Fundamentally, I believe that Liz is vastly overestimating the focus and resolve of both her competitors and the rest of the world as a whole as ADP has represented an anomaly in the world of selling for as long as I can remember.
Social selling, or whatever buzzword it has evolved into, is hard work.
As Liz accurately points out in her article, one cannot simply go through the motions but must embrace building relationships and adding value far in advance of a deal. This change must happen at the cultural level (rather than represent another marketing fad), but this is something that companies have proven again and again over the years they are not willing or able to do.
Furthermore, this shift in behavior must be authentic. Social selling doesn’t bring you closer to your prospects if they perceive you are getting closer ONLY to get your hand in their pocket. Social selling is first and foremost about caring for the social interactions associated with building long term relationships. As proof I offer the simple example of solution selling, which has been around for more than two decades. Yet year after year and day after day I struggle to convince clients it is more important to understand your customer’s problem than to present your own solution.
Relationships are fundamentally based on interactions over time, and in that sense, social selling can in and of itself move the needle. However, the level of intimacy in our business relationship is a function of the degree to which you actually care about your customers and prospects, and fortunately this is very hard to fake. As such, those that grasp the true purpose of social selling and are willing to apply the consistent and authentic effort required to make it work will reap the benefits for many years to come.
By Townsend Wardlaw