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/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/social_sales_funnel_402863.jpgMost of us in sales know that one of the keys to success in our profession is to always be selling. This doesn’t mean that we have to come across like the Wolf of Wall Street, constantly pitching the customer what they want to hear whether it’s true or not, but it does mean that we have to have an ongoing dialogue with our customers and prospects.

Social media makes this possible in ways we never imagined. What I find amazing is that so many salespeople still seem reluctant to leverage these new platforms and tools to help them stay relevant in the modern buying process.

Take Frank, a salesman I used to work with. Frank worked a handful of installed base accounts where he knew who all the stakeholders were. He was an accomplished sales guy who made it to club every year.

Things started to go sideways when Frank got a promoted to a job that required him to sell to new customers. Frank did well at the classic sales tasks—prospecting for new opportunities and harvesting through to close.  He was good in front of the customer and always well prepared for his presentations. But, he didn’t do enough of them because he didn’t get himself involved in enough conversations.

Frank didn’t see a way to make money in his new role. Frustrated, he took a job abroad thinking his problem was the market or the product, but from my point of view it was him, and his refusal to adjust in the face of change.

I was just like Frank six years ago.

Sure, I joined LinkedIn back in 2005, but I mainly used it to build my contact list and search for prospects–very classic sales tasks. To be fair, that’s the main functionality it had at the time. Lots more has been added since, but most sales people haven’t moved beyond those basic activities, so even though they’re on LinkedIn, they’re invisible to the customer. I know; it wasn’t until I started actively contributing on LinkedIn and other social channels that I realized the value, and the imperative for using social media for sales.

As salespeople we are always focused on advancing the conversation with our prospects and customers.  In a simpler time, we had one buyer and a well-defined purchase process so we knew who to talk to and the general outline of the conversation.

That time is long gone. Today’s buyer is much more sophisticated, with instant access to information to understand their options and assemble a short list of vendors.  According to the Corporate Executive Board’s  “The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing,” 60% of the IT decision-making process is made before your prospect even meets with a vendor, so there’s a good chance they’ll have scoped their solution and assembled their short list before you even get a chance to meet them.

Making that short list is crucial. LinkedIn’s 2013 study, “The Social Bridge to the IT Committee,” found that 88% of purchases are made from the short list. On average only three vendors made the list, but here’s the killer: only one in six buyers purchased from a new vendor. I think about that statistic every day.

The LinkedIn study also found that today’s stakeholder map is a lot more complicated. Purchasing decisions are now typically made by an IT Committee that includes not just IT and the C-Suite, but also end users and cross-functional line of business users. It’s a challenge to first identify and then physically meet with all of these folks.

What this means is, we have to assume the fact-gathering process is taking place with or without us. We have to assume that it’s not just our usual “targets” that are involved. And, especially when trying to reach new customers, we need to do something very different to make the short list. That’s where social media comes in.

Social lets sales people be visible and valuable while prospects are researching and asking questions. In the past, sales has relied on marketing to do this. Sales is supposed to take marketing content, localize it for their target audience by industry and by role, and present it to the customer, usually via email or in-person sales calls, so the customer or prospect sees ongoing value in that relationship.

What’s wrong with that approach is how many opportunities you’re missing. If you’re just calling and emailing to get in front of the customer so you can add value, they are probably already doing something with another vendor. You might not even be reaching out to the right person. The whole conversation is taking place without you.

The other thing that’s wrong with that tactic is it doesn’t scale. Sales is a numbers game. The old metrics to success were how many calls you made and how many meetings you had. That’s not a scalable way into all the conversations that are taking place.

I’ve been using social media now for the past six years to help me stay connected to my network and “top of mind” for my customers should they want or need something from me. I can tell you that it is both scalable and effective.

As social has evolved, I’ve evolved with it, to the point that I’ve been invited to contribute here on LinkedIn on the topic of sales. As you may have guessed, I’ll be talking a lot about social selling, and I’ll be sharing the journey that saved me from Frank’s fate.

Selling today requires that we take it up a notch.  It’s no longer enough to just show up and remember the names and birthdays of our decision makers’ kids; we have to always be “on” and always contributing something of value.

You could argue that it’s marketing’s job, but I would argue it’s yours. It’s time to either embrace that or find a new profession, because if you don’t get social you won’t be able to compete and win against those who do.

This article previously appeared on LinkedIn and KurtBilafer.com.

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