For years, sales professionals were considered a primary source of product information, providing recommendations and expertise that customers relied on to make purchase decisions. The advent of social media has changed that dramatically.

Between online reviews, blogs, social media, online demos, and other sources, many buyers have already made up their mind before they even speak to a salesperson. In fact, research firm Forrester found that buyers today might be up to 90% through their decision-making journey before they even reach out to the vendor.

In the conventional sales game, that's a problem. Modern sales pros must find new ways to become a part of that process earlier, to become part of the conversation before the customer has already made up their mind.

Social selling has emerged as one way to harness this new opportunity by engaging in a two-way conversation with customers and potential customers.

By interacting directly with audiences via what has become a preferred method of communication for millions, social sales pros can listen and respond to questions and concerns, and provide proactive, helpful information; all that helps to build engaging, trusting, and loyal relationships that ultimately spur sales.

Adding social selling to your marketing mix might seem like an overwhelming task. How will you keep up with engaging each potential customer?

With so many networks and potentially millions of customers to interact with, this could be a fulltime job—and for many companies, it is. But social selling goes beyond responding to posts and direct messages; it means tapping into that treasure trove of valuable customer data to find precisely the prospects you should be focusing on.

With the right strategy and a smart approach, companies of any size can harness the power of social selling to boost sales results, without adding to their already long To Do list, and without adding staff. Here's how.

1. Focus your efforts

Don't waste time trying to be everywhere all the time. Instead, determine which social networks your target customers use most frequently, what groups they belong to, and what their profile looks like beyond basic demographic information.

How do you find that information? Start by analyzing your best current customers: their social presence, the topics they're interested in, and common threads in how they describe their skills or job roles online.

Using Google or LinkedIn to manually search is one option; but, for a large customer database, manual analysis may not be feasible. In that case, social lead targeting tools can automate the process by helping you to first identify your ideal buyer profile, and then suggesting the social networks and groups where those ideal prospects "live" online.

2. Listen first

Social selling is very different from conventional marketing via traditional paid advertising, cold-calling, or email. Social selling requires a two-way conversation, which means the social sales pro must start by listening first.

By following conversations, identifying challenges among your target audience, and seeing how they interact with one another, social sales pros can gain a better sense of how to engage those target customers. What topics drive the most conversation? Do they respond to questions, participate in surveys, or share their opinions freely?

It also helps to identify those who are most active, most vocal and opinion leaders among their peer groups. Engaging those people as advocates for your product or brand can dramatically amplifying your message.

3. Speak carefully

When you do feel comfortable that you can offer something of value to the group, be careful that it doesn't come off as a direct sales pitch.

Engaging in social media requires that you first earn the group's trust, as many users typically view the network as "their" space, which you are privileged to join. Avoid abusing that trust by blanketing them with sales pitches. Instead, provide helpful hints, suggestions, and other educational tips beyond pure product sales. Once you've established credibility, carefully engage with potential customers by making a connection based on a shared issue or concern, or some other commonality.

Social lead targeting solutions can also help you bridge a connection outside of the social network—by surfacing current contact details that enable you to connect with prime targets the "old fashioned way" (via email or phone). Use the context you discovered online as part of your outreach to break the ice or introduce yourself, which will help generate a more positive response.

4. Be consistent

Social media allows you to express your brand's unique personality and to humanize the experience for your customers—to put a face behind the brand. In the days of auto-responders and automated phone trees, customers appreciate a personal response to their inquiry, and social media allows you to make that personal connection.

However, it's important to maintain the same consistent message and voice that your customers have come to know and trust, just as you do on your website, in printed pieces, paid advertising, and other customer-facing materials. Have fun, be creative, and provide helpful information when given the opportunity. But be careful not to throw your customers off with something that doesn't quite fit with their expectations.

5. Provide service beyond the sale

Don't stop interacting with customers once the sale is made. After the sale is when the social selling process can really pay off. By continuing the conversation—providing ongoing support, helpful hints, and other information—you can transform customers into an army of loyal brand advocates who will recommend your product to their social sphere both online and offline, thus continuing the word-of-mouth cycle that drives future customer acquisition.

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Social media has not only forced sales professionals to alter our tactics but also given us a tremendous opportunity to engage in meaningful and ongoing conversations with current and prospective customers. Social targeting technologies that help automate the process of social selling are enabling even "old school" sales pros to evolve in a smart, efficient way and maximize results.

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image of Ran Gishri

Ran Gishri is VP of marketing for Leadspace, a pioneer in social lead targeting. He has helped introduce social lead targeting to recognized B2B brands such as Marketo, Jive, Badgeville, and Stylesight, to increase sales and marketing ROI and optimize outbound and inbound lead generation.