By Sue Barrett, founder of Barrett Consulting.

Any business that doesn’t understand the power of social media and online marketing tools is at risk. The modern business strategy must now take seriously the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that social media presents. Whether we want to take part in this phenomenon or not, the online world doesn’t wait for you to get on board. It’s instant and has a wide and varied audience reach, arguably more so than any other media channel. It’s uncensored and customers, clients and employees can now all take a fast and proactive approach in shaping your reputation.

Customers are well informed due to the information they can seek online, and more than likely will know 80 percent of what there is to know about a product or service just through online avenues. Customers are becoming more involved in online communities, blogs, forums, and social networks to gather information and make buying decisions. They are using social media to build up independent knowledge, and compare and contrast information and opinions.

When customers are armed with more knowledge, they’ll be even more aware of your sales technique. Salespeople now have to ‘up the ante’ and need to be able to give the customer more than simply telling them about a product or service. It’s about listening and understanding what the customer wants and being able to directly meet that need.

Just as customers are now armed with information through social media, the salesperson must also use this to their advantage. A sales strategy should connect with social media, networks, blogs, etc to track the threads of customer conversations, opinions and ideas. This helps us understand our customers’ needs and deliver.

Through tracking customer problems and issues on social media platforms, we can better understand outside perspectives and opinions about ourselves. By listening we will see where our reputation lies. Just because it’s on the internet and not in a mainstream publication doesn’t mean damage to your reputation is avoided.

Businesses today should be acknowledging this feedback and acting as swiftly as they would in response to a negative headline in the newspaper. The customer is our most important relationship along with that of our staff. Their testimonials have the influence to bring sales through the door, or to force a businesses to shut their doors.

For a salesperson to provide valuable advice to their customers once more, becoming an online detective will need to be part of sales preparation, as well as following three fundamental points:

What information is out there? The answer to this is mostly likely everything a customer needs to know. However, is there something about your product or service that is not as prominent on the web? If so, be sure to address this, and most importantly, despite whatever is already out there, communicate this in a quick summary to your customer and move on. Don’t waste their time and yours by telling them something they already know.

What comments are being left? Follow what your customers are saying on popular forums and blogs. Is there a pattern? For example, you may find that there is an ongoing discussion about a particular component of your product. Before sales can be made, this needs to be addressed. Management also needs to listen to this feedback and determine what actions will be taken to rectify the situation and communicate this strategy to their sales managers.

Communicate to your customers that you know what is going on. Let your customers know that you know what’s being said about you. This tells them you are making the effort to really listen to their concerns, putting you in a more credible position for customers to listen to you in return.

Sales teams and businesses will need to invest time, resources, and money to learn how to interact in these emerging social spaces – but it doesn’t need to be overly expensive, and it is all worth the trouble. Salespeople will need to become leaders in their field of expertise once more and in this case we are now competing with the customer’s new best friend, social media.

Sue Barrett
BY Sue Barrett ON 28 September 2011
Sue Barrett is one of the leading female voices commenting on sales today. An experienced business speaker and adviser, facilitator, sales coach, training provider and entrepreneur and founder of Barrett Consulting, which provides sales assessments, sales consulting, sales coaching and sales training programs.

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