by Barbara Giamanco and Kent Gregoire
First Published on hbr.org
It stands to reason that sales, the most social of business activities, would make use of social media. Platforms for online collaboration are rapidly changing the way we work, offering new ways to engage with customers, colleagues, and the world at large. Sales reps now have the ability to participate in global conversations about their products, their field, and their expertise. But some companies are so worried about potential mistakes or loss of control that they don't allow participation. That's a bad idea.
Choosing not to be present in social networks puts your company and your salespeople at a competitive disadvantage. Instead, acknowledge the risks and mitigate them.
Many sales leaders monitor their reps' social media use for purposes of damage control. They're concerned about inappropriate posts that could cause a PR crisis; false representations, unguarded disclosures, and copyright violations that could bring legal exposure; leaks of confidential company information; and the possibility that competitors will learn too much about client relationships and early-stage opportunities. Deborah Gonzalez, an attorney specializing in social media, has seen dangers arise particularly in industries such as health care and finance, which have strict requirements regarding communications — but she's observed privacy and confidentiality issues in less regulated environments as well.
These risks, however, can be managed with well-crafted guidelines. Policies at IBM, Nordstrom, and the U.S. Air Force, for example, highlight the importance of exercising good judgment, showing respect, refraining from disclosing confidential information, avoiding conflicts of interest, and representing opinions as purely one's own. Each lists steps to take to repair a mistake, beginning with an apology. Need a starting point for drafting a policy? The consultant Chris Boudreaux maintains a database of more than 200 organizations' policies at SocialMediaGovernance.com.
The harder-to-manage risks concern basic execution. Even if not illegal or offensive, posts can be tonally unappealing, off-brand, or ungrammatical. Inexperienced reps may use social networks as a megaphone for blasting generic pitches far and wide.
The only way to reduce such risks is through training. Beyond walking reps through the basics of setting up profiles, you need to teach them how to use social tools to network, build referral relationships, prospect, generate leads, and conduct pre-sales-call research. Be sure to cover the etiquette, with its dos — personalize your message, participate often, listen, give value — and don'ts — send sales spam, show impatience, pretend to be something you're not.
It's especially hard to teach the nuances of online communication. First impressions count, and without a face-to-face or phone interaction, it can be hard to gauge what impression is being made. Much of social selling happens in short, staccato messages that are easily misconstrued.
A risk that's often overblown is the fear that social media will distract from real work. This kind of worry is not new; reps have always engaged in activities that may seem purely social. It's typically been addressed by a relentless focus on outcomes. In other words, salespeople have always had to think about the return on social activity; they're unlikely to stop doing so now. And to the extent that the risk is real, it's easily mitigated: Connect with your reps on LinkedIn and follow them on Twitter yourself.
With the right social media policies and training programs, a company stands to gain an enormous amount from its sales organization's online communications. And it's possible to mitigate the risks. And as your customers increasingly come to expect social network engagement, the biggest risk of all is to stay on the sidelines.
Barbara Giamanco and Kent Gregoire are partners at Social Centered Selling, LLC, an advisory and training company focused on bringing social media capabilities to sales organizations. Giamanco is a coauthor of The New Handshake: Sales Meets Social Media (Praeger, 2010).