Has social media made your sales team obsolete?

Customers have access to more product information than ever, thanks to the Web. How can marketers keep up? By providing top-notch customer service.

Maybe it’s true that video killed the radio star, but has social media snuck up and killed the salesperson?

Jim Farley, vice president of global marketing and sales for Ford Motors, seems to think that on some level, social media has killed the salesperson as we know him or her.

Here’s what he had to say:

“The role of the salesperson has changed dramatically over the 20-plus years I’ve been in the industry, and it has reached a tipping point…

“Technology has changed the process of customer education… just consider how much a shopper can learn about a product (or brand) on their own, before they even speak to a salesperson.

“They can find information about a business on the internet, examine products via video, and even read candid reviews about previous buyers’ likes and dislikes.

“This has forced salespeople to find a new role.”

All my fellow marketers should put away their torches and pitchforks, however, because Farley’s advice is far from as blasphemous as it seems.

Customers have access to more information

What he means to say is what many social media marketers have known all along: The game is different these days because businesses must be able to sell to customers who potentially know “everything” about their business.

Gone are the days when a car salesman was in total control of informing a customer about the product. Today, many customers will go to a website like Edmunds or TrueCar, gather feedback from their friends and acquaintances through social media, compare local prices via a Google search, and come in incredibly informed on what they’re about to buy.

Farley would even argue that the social Web has hindered even the greatest salesperson in this regard:

“In the past, highly skilled salespeople could sell mediocre cars. They served to prop up weak brands. That doesn’t happen today.”

This shift in the role of the typical salesperson has had an impact far beyond selling cars, however.

Customer service is a spectator sport

In 2011, nine in 10 American consumers said they were willing to spend more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service (a 10 percent bump from 2010).

The correlation remains positive: The more informed customers seem to get, the more emphasis they place on the buying experience.

What’s a salesperson to do?

How to sell to customers who know everything

Consider these statistics on the importance of brand loyalty to the newly-informed customer:

  • Seventy-eight percent of customers have bailed on an intended transaction because of a poor experience. [source]
  • In 2011, 86 percent of consumers quit doing business with a company due to a poor transaction or service experience (as opposed to 59 percent in 2007). [source]
  • On Twitter, more than 80 percent of customer service related tweets are negative or critical of the brand in question; a majority of customers expect a reply in less than an hour. (Unfortunately, most companies fail to deliver.) [source]

The question, then, is this: What additional role must salespeople fill in order to sell to customers who seemingly know everything—and who aren’t afraid to voice their opinions—about the brands they do business with?

In today’s world, it seems as though the best salespeople are a cross between problem solvers and concierges.

A great salesperson needs to deal with this newly-informed audience not only by assisting customers in becoming informed about the benefits of the product, but also by creating a personalized experience that eliminates the headaches of the typical buying process.

With customers coming into your “store” (websites obviously included), salespeople must now have the ability to act as project managers who can help prevent mistakes and get customers to their desired goal as smoothly as possible.

Similarly, brands need to pay attention to the customer experience both during and after purchases.

Eighty-one percent of the companies who place a strong emphasis on the customer experience outperform their competitors. (Amazon leads the charge.) There’s a shift across all industries in favor of brands with great support, stress-free service, and a sales department that helps customers find what they’re actually looking for.

Has social media really made your sales team obsolete?

I can answer this without a doubt in my mind: no.

Smart marketing and well-written copy are as important as ever. Customer acquisition will still be the responsibility of salespeople and marketers.

What social media—and the social Web at large—has done is empowered customers like we’ve never seen before. And with this new power, priorities have shifted in favor of an incredible customer experience, which has proven to be something consumers are willing to pay more for.

When information is abundant and instantly accessible, it’s easier for customers to find an alternative than deal with any hassles. Getting a customer into your “shop” isn’t enough. A memorable experience is one of the few things left that you can utilize to create loyal customers.

With these kinds of incentives, the idea that customer service is the new marketing is no longer a turn of phrase with too much hype. It’s the reality.

Gregory Ciotti is the marketing guy at Help Scout. A version of this article originally appeared on Convince & Convert.

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