The best distributors have the largest network, the best contacts, the closest relationships with their customers, right? Nope... All of these criteria matter, but the most successful sales professionals all share another feature: they are constantly challenging their customers. This is one of the conclusions of "The Challenger Sale" by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. Instead of drinking yet another cup of coffee with yet another potential customer, challengers are out there, putting the core business beliefs of their audiences to the test. Social Media came in very handy for this purpose and opened up new channels for this group of salespeople. Enter the still young discipline of "Social Selling" – a way to win and nurture leads via sharing and debating great content. Learn how to get started with Social Selling in the following article.

[Eine Version dieses Textes auf Deutsch finden Sie hier]

Challengers know a lot about their market. They know the trends and can assess how these will change the market. Challengers have an accurate idea of how customers or potential customers need to change their approach to deliver higher value. Challengers are teachers, the John Keating kind (“Dead Poets Society", remember the "O Captain, my Captain"-Keating?) Challengers are not annoying – you like to listen to them, or read their articles. According to Dixon / Adamson, challengers are mainly characterized by six skills:

1. They are good listeners and communicate skillfully with their customers

2. They understand the value chain of their customers

3. They know the economic drivers

4. They are able to show the customer completely new perspectives

5. They are not afraid to talk about budgets

6. They are able to build up pressure

Interesting. But why does a comms guy tell me all that?

Replace the word "customer" with "journalist". Now you basically have the definition of a good PR worker. We need to listen carefully to understand what our journalists are working on, what drives them. We need to understand what topics, content and formats they currently need for their readers, and we have to deal with the trends in the respective markets. We have to show new perspectives and "earn" our results, and we have to be able to create a sense-of-urgency, or else possibilities are going on forever.

We are already using our challenger qualities today to help our customers achieve their communication goals. PR is working particularly well during certain phases of the customer journey: when it comes to increasing the knowledge of customers, describing the relevance of products and solutions for specific requirements and to distinguishing them from the offer of the competition.

In sales, this phase is called "lead nurturing". Customer engagement specialist Kissmetrics has once demonstrated that 79 percent of all leads never generate deals. Very often the failure is, according to the study, that the leads are not developed and one loses them along the journey. "challenger content" is in required to solve this issue.

Marketing and social selling go hand in hand

Lead nurturing is partly a marketing task – and to a certain point this works out quite well. However, activities such as marketing emails are often anonymous. At some point prospects want to talk with real people on the other side. The first point of contact is always sales. However, prospective buyers are usually not yet ready for completing a transaction yet. Enter the challenger seller. It is up to her or him to communicate the value of a positive decision to the interested party. Salespeople must be strong communicators in this phase. But they do not have to become that all by themselves. It is the task of the communication professionals in the company to make them strong Social Sellers.

Social Selling extends direct communication with the potential customers to social networks. Here, salespeople can share more information more easily than on the phone – after all, they can see what the prospective customers themselves share, adjust their content accordingly and enter a discussion much better prepared. The biggest challenge is that content-intensive communication takes up an incredible amount of time. Whether it is about sharing long texts in a personal LinkedIn blog, or releasing exciting short updates in one’s own timeline with a high regularity – salespeople just don’t have that time, Social Selling initiatives fail.

"We always talk about the barriers between PR and marketing. It will be much more exciting if we sweep aside the barriers between communication and sales!”

The good news: In the vast majority of companies, there is exciting data as well as whitepapers, fact sheets, e-books, presentations, specialist texts and reference stories. The communication department has to pass these to the sales in an organized and smart way. Such a content service is already a middle part of a functioning social selling program. But how does it look if a company wants to introduce social selling right from zero?

Social selling in ten steps

1. Select pioneers

A part of your sales team is already moving safely in Social Media, understands the different cultures of the networks, especially business networks. Time to bring this group to a new level and turn them into professional Social Sellers. They will be the fastest to achieve success, which in turn will attract more team members for Social Selling.

2. Define focus

Challengers are savvy in their area. In communications, it needs to be very clear for which area of expertise they want to be known for. The target market segments for each salesperson are likely to provide a specific thematic direction, but this should be critically reviewed at the beginning of a Social Selling program.

3. Determine platform(s)

Sales must be where the customers are. In the selection of the appropriate platforms, it is necessary to combine the experience of the salespeople with insights from social listening tools. The business network LinkedIn should be compulsory for most social selling programs, but Facebook and Twitter should also be examined for their respective attractiveness.

4. Optimize profiles

Once the content focus for each sales person is clear, the profiles in the selected networks need to be be optimized. The profile description, the list of skills, the references and successfully completed projects should all add credibility to the selected focus area(s). Do not forget to present your Social Sellers on your website, too, and link to their profiles.

5. Build network

Content is primarily shared with one’s network. Therefore, interesting contacts should be added. Most platforms allow transferring the contacts from the mobile address book to the social network. Tools such as LinkedIn SalesNavigator (LinkedIn is a Hotwire customer) also allow you to easily identify other relevant contacts with exciting target companies.

6. Organize knowledge

Now we are almost ready to go. What is still missing is a personal editorial plan for each participant in the Social Selling program. In this way, it is possible to plan in the long term, which aspects of the focus theme are going to be told at what time, and at what frequency. Such a plan offers a valuable orientation framework, which still leaves enough space for spontaneous ideas. It also facilitates capacity planning.

7. Share knowledge

LinkedIn offers a vibrant timeline great publishing options. You can share short updates as well as long-form articles. The advantage: If a text performs well (i.e. the expert’s network is interested in the post, clicks on it, reads it), it might be added to "LinkedIn Pulse", LinkedIn's subscription news stream. The effect on my own posts (about 900 contacts): 3-4,000 readers instead of 300-400.

8. Conduct dialogue

Still, little is truely "social" about what we do. We are sharing content, but the Social Web is about giving and taking. Whoever will not give any attention or recognition to what others share, will receive none back either. Our pioneers, supported by the communication team, will have to engage in conversations with their network, comment on, share, etc. articles.

9. Measure success

Social platforms show you exactly how often and by whom your articles have been read. These findings help to optimize the editorial plan. Success data can also be used for the planning of paid updates: the topics that work best can reach even more people with a little bit of budget behind them, and thus will generate new leads for the sales team.

10. Communicate internally

Last but not least: Let your entire workforce know that you are pursuing a Social Selling approach. Communicate the most interesting contributions regularly internally. You will surely find some interested staffers who will help to spread the content, or who even might want to pick up your initiative in their own department.

An agency as your partner

Hotwire positions the experts of our client companies with highly relevant content in specialist, commercial and national media on a daily basis. The same mechanisms that lead to success in PR have proven of great value when it comes to developing and expanding the profiles of our experts in the social networks. We advise the management of well-known companies regarding the optimization of their profiles, create editorial plans for them and help to develop content for their channels.

We can accompany the introduction of a social selling initiative right from the start, work with the communication and sales departments and be their interface. Through workshops, we get the sales professionals on board and a high-quality content service as well as a monitoring with a focus on dialog possibilities complete the package.

Conclusion: Challengers who master social selling are THE modern sales stars

Dixon / Adamson have shown that challengers outperform their peers. LinkedIn has also looked at the impact of Social Selling in the context of a study in 2016. Here is an excerpt from the press report on the study:

"Those who use social media to better inform themselves about their contacts or establish a relationship with them are more successful, both in terms of achieving the sales targets and in terms of salary. [...] In 2015, 58 per cent of the interviewees reached their goals. Almost three quarters (72%) of the successful ones in this group rely on social selling. "

In summary: Whoever challenges their dialogue groups with highly relevant content and plays this content on the right social channels in a sustainable way has the best chances to become a sales star. High time to launch your own Social Selling, programme, don’t you think?

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This article was first published in German, June 6. I ran it through  Google Translate and took about 1h to make it readable – still, please  excuse any errors or flaws (and think about how good Google got since  they added machine learning to Translate… Soon, we’ll all be able to  publish flawless articles in Chinese.)

Image: © elanabsl, fotolia.com