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Social Collaboration's Big Payoff: Increased Sales

OpenTable example shows success with sales collaboration requires focus and discipline.
The marketing organization also winds up being better aligned with the true needs of field sales thanks to seeing "real life, real time experiences from the field" represented in the Chatter stream, said Dodson.

One of the keys to success with Chatter has been getting people outside sales -- in functions such as marketing, operations and engineering -- to use it, Dodson said. Otherwise, sales representatives wouldn't be able to get answers to their questions for marketing, operations, or engineering through Chatter. Particularly with large customers, the OpenTable sales process can include addressing technical issues of software integration, which is why engineering needs to be in the mix.

If you make your sales team alternate between a social tool and email, depending on what they're asking and whom they're asking, "it's never going to happen," Dodson said.

Employees sometimes complain that social collaboration effectively gives them a second inbox they need to check, in addition to their email, but the OpenTable field sales team doesn't have that excuse. "Any communication with the sales team has to happen via Chatter, so there is one inbox for them," Dodson said.

He did admit that his own communications habits are more mixed, partly because he has to be in communication with people in other business functions whose habits do not revolve around Chatter. Also, even though Chatter supports private conversations, he said he was never comfortable with it as the right tool for communicating with senior sales managers about unsettled issues of strategy or compensation. "If we're having a conversation we want everyone to understand and reference, that's when Chatter is where we go," he said.

Social collaboration can also be overdone, to the point where it pushes out one-to-one contact and leaves sales people feeling alienated, Dodson said. A good leader needs to know when to take his hands off the keyboard and pick up the phone or meet with someone in person. On balance, though, the effect is overwhelmingly positive.

"For me as a sales leader and my direct leadership team, the real advantage is this gives us more insight, more of a window into what's happening in real time in multiple markets in the field," Dodson said.

The most important lesson of the OpenTable example is that capturing what he calls the "real life, real time experiences from the field" paid off with a greater accumulation of sales intelligence for management, marketing, operations, and the field sales team itself.

"In most companies, there's a black market for sales intelligence," Miller Heiman's Galvin said. "It's the informal knowledge network that exists within and among sales people every organization."

The salespeople who are most successful know who to call to learn information not published in any official market analysis document or secure an extra discount that is not on any price list. While these back channel connections might make a few individuals look good, they subvert the goal of making the entire sales organization more effective, Galvin said.

As new employees join a company, it can take them a long time to build up connections and crack the internal knowledge networks. The question social collaboration poses, he said, is "what would happen if we took that black market and made it a public market?"

Sales people are more willing to collaborate than the stereotypes about cutthroat competitors might suggest, Galvin said. Although there are settings where lone-wolf competition between sales people prevails, these days there are far more environments where sales people are highly interdependent on each other, succeeding or failing as a team, he said. Business-to-business sales is dominated by complex deals where producing a winning proposal requires input from many people, each of whom has a different expertise.

That's certainly the story I've heard from consulting organizations, such as KPMG (finance and accounting) and CSC (systems integration). Social collaboration has taken root there as a means to gather input for a proposal from more people and do it faster than before, winning more deals as a result.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+. His book Social Collaboration For Dummies is scheduled for release in November.