IBMer: ‘Social Selling’ Is a Sales Process in Itself

It’s no secret that the factors that motivate salespeople to change the way they work have to be pretty simple: Help them spend more time selling and less time scrounging for information and telling managers what they’re doing.

So when IBM began to introduce the concept of “social selling,” it chose a test base of a few hundred salespeople and their managers to build a set of integrated systems that improved productivity and reduced administrative overhead. In a presentation to the SugarCRM SugarCon conference in San Francisco earlier this week, Gary Burnette, vice president of sales transformation at IBM, told how the implementation team at IBM succeeded in making social selling a coveted goal rather than another set of rules and reports.

“We didn’t think of it as social selling; we thought of it as improving sales productivity,” Burnette said of the pilot. “It was about returning value and time to our sales teams for their time invested.”

Familiarity Breeds Intent

The program began with the assumption that nearly every salesperson was already familiar with the value provided by Facebook and LinkedIn in their personal lives. The tools made it easy to find information and expertise by consulting friends. Those same capabilities could be useful as a formal part of the business process.


Download Gary Burnette’s Social Selling Presentation here


A key goal was to simplify reporting, an already distasteful task that becomes more intrusive as the end of the quarter nears. Management has a constant need for information about the status of different sales opportunities, and as a result “We’ve had sales people called out of client meetings to answer questions from upline sales execs,” Burnette said. Much of this information was locked up in Excel spreadsheets owned by individual reps. The only person who could answer a question was the representative on the account.

IBM built a sales force automation system based on SugarCRM, Websphere and Lotus Connections to enable collaboration and streamline visibility into the sales cycle. Cognos and SPSS analytics were applied to better qualify opportunities and improve forecasting. As a result, salespeople now know more about their prospects and managers have better visibility into progress against goals.

Opportunity reports were replaced with an “activity stream” approach similar to the Facebook timeline that enables salespeople to document the status of each opportunity on an ongoing basis. Management can peek into the status of opportunities at any point in the process and get the latest information. As a result, lag times have been cut from five days to almost nothing and report preparation has been significantly reduced because everyone has access to the same information.

“I don’t think most senior sales executives have any idea how many people are behind the scenes creating reports and forecasts,” Burnette said. “If managers are in collaboration with their teams the information is more accurate and less filtered.”

All members of the team can now apply social tools like tagging and profiling to identify and recommend experts who can help solve customer problems and closed deals. “The management team is helping the seller sell instead of asking why they aren’t selling,” Burnette said.

Critical Success Factors

A project this ambitious can’t succeed without support at three levels:  top management, brand managers and the reps on the street. The fact that new IBM CEO Ginni Rometty had endorsed the project before she even became CEO was a godsend, Burnette said. Also critical was involving users in the development of the dashboard. Nearly 800 sales reps gave feedback at every step. Brand leaders helped in strategic direction so that the most important information would be the easiest to find.

Social selling is now being woven into the mainstream of IBM’s business process, but adoption was never a sure thing.

“Becoming a social business is a transformational journey,” Burnette said. “The onus has been on us to translate these systems into something that has clear business value.” As word-of-mouth has grown, the new social selling process has taken on a life of its own. “It started with us deliberately selecting the people to participate, but now it’s ballooned to the point where people are saying, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”

Read more coverage of Burnette’s session.


This is one in a series of posts sponsored by IBM Midsize Business that explore people and technologies that enable midsize companies to innovate. In some cases, the topics are requested by IBM; however, the words and opinions are entirely my own.

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