It's not just about companies reaching customers. It's also about bringing up the next generation of sales players.
In a world where customers "Google" buying information and trust their friends on Facebook and Pinterest for brand recommendations, companies need to reposition their professional sales teams in the field or expect more strikeouts.
Even as Facebook prepared to make its stock market debut last week, a major advertiser -- General Motors -- said it plans to stop advertising on Facebook because its ads on the sites are having little impact, the Wall Street Journal reported.
That's a sobering development, especially considering that 39 percent of companies surveyed by McKinsey Quarterly in April are listing social media as their primary digital tool to reach customers. The total is expected to rise to 47 percent within four years.
But it's not just about reaching customers. It's also about bringing up the next generation of sales players who are more intuitive about social media.
Today's college graduates know how to influence customer conversations across a range of platforms in real time. This change-up in business-to-business sales strategies needs to happen within selling organizations to strengthen the bench and drive more wins to the top line.
St. Catherine University is one of 12 universities across the country that gather annually with 3M to assess the spring training of their "farm teams" -- students majoring in sales who are also sales and marketing interns every summer. We review new sales models and trends to stay ahead of the game in a dynamic marketplace.
Consider these trends:
•Sales territory sizes are growing while sales organizations are becoming flatter. With a higher ratio of sales force to sales manager, there tend to be fewer joint calls, less face-to-face coaching and more self-appraisals. Management style is changing from control to facilitation. This bodes well for the next generation of sales reps coming out of universities who crave constant guidance and support yet want to figure out how to get the job done on their own. What's more, social media can play a role in mentoring all sales reps to maintain team connectedness.
•Productivity of sales reps in the field is based on targeting customers with the highest return-on-investment while other customers move toward inside sales and customer service support. An effective social media strategy can respond to buyers' comments at a personal level through a solid customer service model. As prospects request marketing material or samples, this next generation of sales reps think of social media solutions, such as directing them to a Pinterest account that creates an interactive experience.
This shift is spawning a trend toward stronger inside sales as a feeder system into field sales and other parts of the organization -- a good spot on the roster for sales grads.
•As more knowledgeable customers move through the decisionmaking process, in-person conversations have moved to customizing solutions and bringing new insights into the sales process. Customer conversations have more impact than all other reasons for customers to buy, including loyalty, price, brand and products.
"How you tell your story is just as important as what your story is," said Tom Ries, director, 3M's Sales Center of Excellence.
A key aspect of 3M's approach for creating customer impact is teaching via a delivered message choreography.
However, before in-person conversations take place, it's now possible to leverage social media to understand what customers are talking about, learn about their product experiences and pass along information to challenge the customer's broader, more strategic thinking.
At the recent Frontline Conference, one intern team's business challenge was to enhance sales for two 3M brands using social media. Students had fewer than 48 hours to develop, design and present their solution to a review panel.
"Our intern team used new and innovative ways to create a buzz for 3M products, both mature and those that have not yet hit the market," said Daniela Castellon, a senior in sales. "We recommended viral videos, Facebook campaigns, online competitions, and text-based mobile marketing campaigns to interact with users through text alerts, targeted promotions, coupons, real-time polling, sweepstakes and more."
Those of us who teach today's millennial generation know all too well their high job expectations. Companies like 3M see that graduates are more prepared for entry-level sales positions but grapple with how to manage their expectations for rapid career progression.
Ongoing performance feedback, mentoring and increasing responsibilities with defined goals are important elements for retention.
Remember: This generation's grasp of social networks and engagement drives them to achieve faster goals and faster rewards. Companies should consider how to reposition their sales strategies to take full advantage of this new generation and create more sales wins in today's social media world.