Social Media’s Impact on Product and Service Selection- and Why Personal Interaction is Still Important

Social media is not a trend of the present; it’s the future of business. No one is debating that fact. But that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice good, old-fashioned personal interaction with your prospects and customers. Think of the social and personal as complementary to one another, creating a more complete package.

It’s no secret to anyone in business that social media is here to stay. Whether in business-to-consumer (B2C) or business-to-business (B2B) environments, social media is an integral part of the sales cycle.  That’s right, social media is not just about building brand awareness. More and more purchasing decisions are being made as a direct result of companies’ activities online.

Case in point: here are some highlights from a LinkedIn-commissioned study by Forrester Consulting and Research Now:

  • 73% of IT decision makers have engaged with a vendor on a social network
  • 3 out of 5 say that social media influences their purchasing decisions
  • 58% make these purchasing decisions because they trust their peers on social media

According to Michael Weir, Head of Category Development for the Technology Industry at LinkedIn, “It’s no surprise that [IT decision makers] are heavy users of social networks. In fact, 85% have used at least one social network for business purposes.  What’s surprising is that 73% have engaged with an IT vendor on a social network – underscoring the value of the channel for IT marketers.  Even more revealing is the fact that social media is now a critical source of influence across the entire decision making process, not just during the initial research phase.” (Salesforce)

And according to another study, this one by JPL Integrated Communications, 54% of B2B buyers said they “followed group discussions, conversations or threads to learn more about their purchase.” But the respondents clarified by indicating that they “avoid direct contact with vendors over social media. They want objectively credible information, not a sales pitch.”

So where should one’s social media emphasis lie? It should be two-fold.

1. Post relevant, industry- or product-related case studies, reports or general information; in other words, content is king.

Potential purchasers should be able to engage with your brand via social networks without feeling like they’re being sold. You know that feeling you get when you walk onto a car dealership lot? You can see the sales guys jump up and trip over one another to get to you. Then they follow you around, hovering, when all you want to do is just look? That. You don’t want that.  Potential customers should feel free to browse what you have to offer, talk to others who have already purchased from you and come to conclusions without you breathing down their necks.

2. Constant monitoring

You should have at least one person continually monitoring your social media accounts, if not a team of people. And not just to update. You want to interact with your followers. Interact, not sell! (See number one.) If someone posts on your company’s Facebook page, there should be a timely and friendly response. One of the worst social media blunders is to have stagnant accounts where customers’ and potential customers’ comments and concerns go unnoticed. Because that’s poor customer service, plain and simple.

But more to the point: Your social media presence should not trump traditional, personal interaction. It should complement it.

While more and more purchasing decisions are in fact being made online, your customers and prospects should have a real-live person, in-person or over the phone, to discuss their particular needs.  This is especially true in some B2B scenarios, where complex engineering or technical situations are critical.

For instance, an engineer designing an aircraft engine isn’t going to spec in your part simply because he interacts with your company online. He should have a good feel (read: brand awareness) for your company, and hopefully have been given all of the technical information he may have needed, but at the end of the day, he’s going to want to speak with an actual person, probably R&D and sales, to get to the meat of his product needs. The same is true for a vast array of highly technical, engineering-based industries.

That’s where the good, old-fashioned personal interaction is always going to be needed. Whether you have the sales force to cover your prospects and customers, or you turn to highly-trained telemarketers to help move your targets through the sales cycle, personal contact is key to ensuring a successful outcome for all involved. 

Social Selling

There should be no distinct line between your company’s social media activities and sales activities. Instead, imagine a seam, where both parts are sewn together to make your unique brand. Even B2B enterprises can benefit from social selling– the use of social media for listening, customer engagement and internal collaboration- culminating with personal interaction.

The good news for sales organizations is that social selling isn’t a clean break from traditional selling; it’s an evolutionary step forward. Social sellers do not have to abandon email, phone calls or face-to-face meetings. Instead, their time on these traditional channels becomes far more productive when supported by deliberate use of social media. Social selling eliminates some of the most wasteful parts of the traditional sales process (like cold-calling) and enhances the activities that good salespeople already do to create wins and drive revenue. (Social Selling in B2B Sales)

Also, consider this from Lori Wizdo at Forrester Research, regarding today’s B2B marketing (and while you’re reading it, notice how today’s marketing and sales professionals are more closely aligned than ever!):

Engaging, throughout the customer’s buying cycle, requires completely different thinking.  B2B marketers must nurture prospects for months or years before they turn into sales opportunities, so it is critical to know how you are connecting with each buyer at each interim stage that buyer goes through.

When prospective customers interact with companies they expect more — more personal, more relevant and more timely communications. Marketers need to constantly and automatically evolve their programs based on how their buyers react to their marketing messages.  Behavioral marketing is no longer an option — it’s table stakes.

Stop thinking about campaigns and start thinking engagement.  Marketers who continue to build campaigns, and make offers, around products and product features will be perceived as “tone deaf” to the multichannel customer. Customers will engage with marketers who meet their needs – their changing needs – for different information and options during the buying journey. Marketers who continue to “go to customer” with product-centric campaigns and offers risk becoming irrelevant.  (Forrester)

The bottom line:

Social media has created a more empowered customer who knows more about your company than you think. Closing the sale, however, still comes down to personal contact.

Continuous Innovation

“Drive thy business, or it will drive thee.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

If you’ve been in business, particularly of the industrial variety, over the past several years, then you are familiar with the term continuous improvement. There are many variations on the CI theme, including Six Sigma, Kaizen and Lean.

Continuous Improvement (CI) can be defined as:  an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes. Whether the goal is “incremental” improvement over time or “breakthrough” improvement all at once, the delivery (customer valued) processes are constantly evaluated and improved for efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility.

To break it down further, here are some additional definitions:

Six Sigma– Six Sigma is a highly disciplined approach that enables a company to focus on creating and delivering nearly-perfect products and services. The underlying idea being that if you can measure how many “defects” you have in a process, you can systematically figure out a way to eliminate them and get as close to “zero defects” as possible.

KaizenKaizen (pronounced ki-zen) is Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” and refers to a philosophy or practice that focuses on continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering and business management.

Lean The core idea of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources. A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.

Many of the most successful and profitable companies in the United States are disciples of CI, including Motorola, GE, AT&T and Pella.

“One example of the way continuous improvement has improved our processes is the implementation of “just in time” (JIT) manufacturing — meaning that Pella Corporation does not carry a large inventory of products in stock. Instead, we build them “just in time” to meet our customers needs. This reduces costs — savings we pass on to you.”- Pella

Continuous Innovation?

Continuous Improvement and innovation are not interchangeable, but they are complimentary.

According to Robert E. Cole, from the University Of California-Berkeley, “This discussion begs the question of just how useful is the common categorization of continuous improvement versus innovation. The common assumption is that continuous improvement is small scale and that innovation is discontinuous and large scale. Yet, there is no logical reason to associate the term innovation with large-scale discontinuous change. Consistent with a dictionary definition, innovation is best associated with creative solutions, and these can occur at a small as well as a large scale, and can be more, or less, discontinuous. Put more bluntly, there is plenty of innovation that occurs in the course of continuous improvement.”

While the drive to maximize shareholder value has never been in higher gear, sometimes businesses are faced with an unfortunate side effect: disruptive innovation (innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in the new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.)

From Clayton Christensen, Similarly when Toyota was making rusty little subcompacts, it made no sense for General Motors to go after the subcompact market, when the profits they could get on bigger SUVs and pickup trucks made all the sense in the world. Toyota just made their products better and better, until eventually customers who used to [buy] bigger General Motors cars could now buy cheaper ones. Now Toyota is making the best in the world, while at the bottom, the Koreans, Kia and Hyundai, have stolen the low end of the market. It’s not because Toyota is asleep at the switch. They have to decide, ‘Should we go down and compete against Kia? Or should we go up and compete against Mercedes?’”

In response to the issue of disruptive innovation, most of you are probably aware of the new term that has popped up in the past few years: continuous innovation.

Continuous Innovation can be defined as the ability to combine operational effectiveness and strategic flexibility – exploitation and exploration – capabilities that have traditionally been regarded as antithetical. (International Journal of Technology Management)

Continuous innovation is seen by many experts in business to be the answer to disruptive innovation- although some also say that the former is not possible when a company’s main goal is to maximize shareholder value.

One company that has turned the naysayers’ objections on their ears is Apple.

“‘Anyone familiar with Professor Christensen’s work will quickly recognize the causal mechanism at the heart of the Innovator’s Dilemma: the pursuit of profit. The best professional managers — doing all the right things and following all the best advice — lead their companies all the way to the top of their markets in that pursuit… only to fall straight off the edge of a cliff after getting there….’

“Yet firms like Apple [AAPL] have been able to achieve continuous innovation and customer delight by setting aside maximizing shareholder value.

‘They [Apple] can do it because Apple hasn’t optimized its organization to maximize profit. Instead, it has made the creation of value for customers its priority. When you do this, the fear of cannibalization or disruption of one’s self just melts away. In fact, when your mission is based around creating customer value, around creating great products, cannibalization and disruption aren’t “bad things” to be avoided. They’re things you actually strive for — because they let you improve the outcome for your customer.’”

Jumping Off the Cliff

Letting go of the long-engrained value of having a laser focus on increasing shareholder value in favor of continuous innovation can be extremely hard for some companies. Externally, it’s a tough sell to investors; internally, it’s equally as difficult to get executives on board. That’s why continuous innovation can be nearly impossible to implement, let alone sustain.

From Forbes: “The inexorable shift from shareholder value to continuous innovation and customer delight will not be an easy transition for many companies: they will perceive it as too risky. However the much bigger risk in the medium term is not making the transition: by failing to get on a path of continuous innovation, the firm subjects itself to the more serious risk of disruptive innovation, which leads inexorably to corporate death.”

The bottom line: Most companies already engage in continuous improvement activities. Almost all have probably implemented some sort of innovation initiative.  Those that don’t subscribe to continuous innovation do so at their own peril.