Social media and the salesforce: problem or panacea?

New research from The Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Sales Leadership Alliance explores the impact and value of social technologies on the salesforce, writes Thomas Brown


Times are tough. The financial crisis of 2008-09 has evolved into a prolonged period of economic turbulence rather than, as many by now would have hoped, fading to a distant memory. These continuing global economic problems are compounded by political instability, rising raw material costs, an uncertain future for the eurozone and concerning unemployment figures across the Continent.

Business leaders face unprecedented challenges to growth and, at the forefront of these, is the perennial tension to deliver improved performance with less resource to fuel it.

Once a rallying cry, “doing more with less” has become a permanent feature in the business vernacular. It’s no longer a recession response, but the norm – a new mantra guiding planning and budgeting discussions for many.

Adding a further twist to these macro pressures, technology has become the new “megatrend” of the last ten to fifteen years. Over this period, both form and function have advanced almost unrecognisably. Computing power has continued its rapid growth trajectory while cost, exclusivity and complexity have fallen – both for consumers (think iPhone) and businesses (think software-as-a-service). And central to this megatrend sits a new phenomenon – social media.

It is these factors combined that led The Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Sales Leadership Alliance to focus the 2012 Sales Benchmark on the impact of technology and social media on the salesforce.

Most discussions about social media focus on platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, whereas the true meaning runs far deeper. Fundamentally, social media represents a new construct for how people connect, communicate and collaborate, and it is with this definition that the business value truly lies – and opportunities to “do more with less” reside.

Many are sceptical about how a consumer novelty can have any real value in a commercial context

An early review of results from our 2012 Sales Benchmark reveals increasing recognition of this potential among senior sales leaders: 61 per cent of respondents believe that social media is playing an increasingly important role in communication, collaboration and knowledge management within their salesforce; and 64 per cent agree that it is becoming an increasingly important tool for developing market/customer insight and stimulating innovation.

Despite this strong acknowledgement of potential, however, a gap emerges: only 16 per cent of the same audience strongly agree that their sales processes, supporting tools and technology are optimal for business needs; and only 7 per cent of sales leaders had embraced social media in sales several years ago, embedded it into processes, and seen a positive and measurable return. Scope, we therefore conclude, to extract significant value.

Some years ago, before laptops, tablets and mobile phones were considered standard equipment for an external sales team, the idea of their introduction was met with scepticism. Accusations of unproven benefits, added costs, potential vulnerabilities (such as client information/data) and the risk of distraction were levied at those proposing their use.

Today, in much the same way, many are sceptical about how something so widely considered a consumer novelty can have any real value in a commercial context.

Indeed, 60 per cent of our senior-level respondents agree that, without proper attention and management, social media risks becoming a distraction for their salesforce. But this risk can’t simply be ignored; the same number (60 per cent) of respondents agreed that social media is already permeating their business and, if they don’t harness these tools, their salespeople will use them anyway.

To put concerned minds at ease, it’s essential that the introduction of social tools extends beyond the technology, and is supported by a change in sales processes and behaviours. For instance, a global drinks brand recently introduced Salesforce.com’s Chatter tool to its UK salesforce.

Rather than stop at the introduction of the technology, they communicated a clear purpose: accelerate reporting, remove time spent on administrative tasks and improve “good practice” sharing. They then took this a step further by replacing a series of legacy processes with faster, “real time” equivalents enabled by the Chatter tool. For the salesforce, this moved the focus from the “new shiny gadget” they’d been equipped with, to an improvement in productivity and gave them clear, new processes to work to.

It is essential to ensure that clear links are made between the proposed change in operating practice and its impact on business performance – a point at which the innate measurability of a sales operation can be advantageous.

For instance, our survey reveals that 63 per cent of senior sales leaders agree speeding up communication with and among their salesforce is a key priority, and one which can be readily translated into meaningful and measurable financial aims and benefits.

For example, if a 500-person external salesforce are spending on average 20 per cent of their time completing and submitting activity reports with an average three-day lag from customer visit to submitted report, a sales leader can extrapolate: (a) the time cost of administrative activity; and (b) the opportunity cost of acting on a customer opportunity (or resolving a problem) faster. This then provides the basis for a simple, yet compelling, cost-benefit analysis in terms more likely to resonate with a finance director than a request for the new technology alone.

One final consideration, however, is senior management buy-in. While early results from the 2012 Sales Benchmark point to a growing interest in social technologies for sales on the part of sales leaders themselves, commitment and understanding from broader senior executives remains luke warm: only 19 per cent of senior sales leaders agree that senior leadership fully understand the value of social media as a communication and collaboration tool for their sales force.

“Getting the board on board”, while perhaps a somewhat trite expression, consistently arises as an essential factor of success in any change initiative. Educating senior stakeholders about the commercial potential of social technology and making the case for change may be a wise first step.

The survey for the 2012 Sales Benchmark is still in progress but can be completed later – full results will be published in late-2012 – at www.global-benchmark.com/salesbenchmark

Thomas Brown is head of insights at The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), and a regular adviser to marketing and brand leaders, as well as CIM media spokesman.