IBM’s Beck: Social Business is About Enablement, Not Control

Social business isn’t about tools and promises. It’s about giving people at every stage in the sales cycle the incentive to adopt tools that make their jobs easier and contribute to customer satisfaction.

Nigel Beck, IBM

Photo via NigelBeck.com

IBM started with that simple premise when it tackled the task of convincing its sales and marketing people to adopt a new way of doing business. Traditional tactics involved too much interruption and intimidation, which ultimately made sales people less successful than they could be, said Nigel Beck, IBM’s VP of Business Development for IBM Collaboration Solutions & Social Business in a speech to the SugarCRM SugarCon conference in San Francisco this morning. The challenge was to make social business a win for the people doing the selling.

IBM has been a leading adopter of social business principles, which Beck defined as “the application of social tools and culture to business processes and outcomes. It’s basically using social stuff to do work stuff,” he said. A key value of social networks to our daily lives is that they make it easier to find people who can help us get answers and save time, so why not apply those same goals to sales?

The social business initiative was organized around three key tasks:

  • Customer care and insight;
  • Workforce optimization; and
  • Product and service innovation.

The first goal was addressed by rethinking the traditional marketing process, which Beck characterized as “pushing messages down customers’ throats and then flogging the salespeople to pursue leads.” This approach leads to an over-emphasis on reporting, which distracts salespeople from understanding their customers so that they can keep higher-ups apprised of how the sales process is proceeding.

In contrast, a social business approach has marketing organizations getting to know customers. “They hang out where customers hang out, build relationships and help them become part of our family,” he said. “The tools help build trusted relationships.”

Sales people are empowered with tools that help them quickly identify resources within the organization that can help customers solve problems. When all those customer touches are documented, “the reports and graphs are generated in the background.” The pitch to salespeople is that they can spend more time making customers successful and less time doing paperwork.

The other part of the equation is supporting customers better. Beck wryly described traditional customer support as “the process of torturing customers to death. They need to find the right department and fill out the correct form and if they fill out the wrong form we delete it.” By stressing the role of sales as problem-solver – and by involving the community of customers in solving each other’s problems – support frustration is reduced.

Beck pointed to examples of customers that are adopting social business tactics in their own markets. Amadori is an Italian food processor specializing in poultry that created a network of micro sites that combine company and public information to answer common questions.

Omron is a global maker of industrial and consumer sensing and control technology whose European operation created a social portal to help people find answers or people who can help them.

From a management perspective, the key to social business change is to reverse the standard mindset, Beck said. “We’re making the transformation from managing the seller to enabling the seller.”


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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