I’m endlessly fascinated by what’s happening to the role of the salesperson due to social media adoption. Last year, I wrote about the top social sales people in the world, which tells the story of some of the most socially influential people leading massive change in the sales industry. Today’s buyers are socially savvy and incredibly difficult to reach by phone or email. Those in the know recognize the power of social media to reach prospective buyers on their terms early in the decision-making process.

However, one surprise remains – many sales executives don’t use social media themselves, and they dismiss it as a colossal waste of time.  As someone who has spent a lot of time in social simply listening – I cannot argue this. They argue that despite the hype, it’s impossible to distill the impacts of social media use on sales quota and corporate revenue.  Besides which, few people agree on the definition of social selling. Virtually everyone in B2B sales uses the Internet to some extent, and some would say that glancing through LinkedIn profiles qualifies as a social sales tactic – albeit a basic one.

So who’s right? What is the future of sales roles? How will seeking this type of talent change into the future?

To further the conversation, sales productivity platform provider KiteDesk today released a study that shows a definite relationship between social media prowess and sales quota attainment.  The survey of 524 salespeople was developed in collaboration with social sales thought leader Jim Keenan, and the results are interesting:

The most savvy sales pros are far more likely to meet or beat their sales quotas.  Seventy-four percent of salespeople who beat their 2014 quota by 10% or more say they have an excellent understanding about the use of social media for prospecting, nurturing relationships and closing deals.  They were over 6x as likely to exceed their quota than sales peers with rudimentary or no social media skills.

“Social sales ninjas came out on top, no matter how we sliced the data,” says KiteDesk CEO Sean Burke.  “Fifty-six percent of sales pros who met their 2014 quota said their social media sales skills are exceptional or better than most, while sales reps with little or no social media skills were more likely to miss their 2014 sales quota.” Meanwhile, the percentage of underperformers that lack social media skills increased steadily from 24% in 2012 to 36% in 2014. (Note: You can download The Impact of Social Media Usage on Sales Performance and Corporate Revenue here.)

“It’s not uncommon to hear the assertion that social media use and quota attainment are correlated, without a cause-and-effect relationship,” says Burke.  “and they make some valid points.  But the results of the study are pretty compelling.” Consider that in 2014, 64% of survey respondents reported closing at least one deal as a direct result of using social media.  That’s a 10% increase over 2012.  Fifty-four percent stated that social media works well or very well for attaining quota. Respondents were clear.

To validate the results, I turned to sales practitioners to give me specific examples of when social media use played a key role in closed deals. Here’s what they said:

  • Keith Weightman, an account executive at Bullhorn, Inc., “Recently, I connected with a VP who was part of my LinkedIn group. He reached out to thank me for inviting him to the group. This led to a warm conversation and 4 months later a $51k contract. What’s even more rewarding is I led a social selling session for our entire sales team in 2014, and following my example, a colleague told me she created her own group.  Within a week she was contacted by a potential buyer, which turned into an $11k contract. She couldn’t believe it actually worked and is now a diehard social seller.”
  • Alice Heiman, Founder & Chief Sales Officer of Alice Heiman, LLC, “I have a small business and we use social to establish our brand presence online, stay in touch with current customers, and build trust with potential customers,” says “The vast majority of my business comes from referrals. I have had about 10 leads from LinkedIn since January. Six of them were qualified and I am pursuing them. Last year I got two or three big sales from LinkedIn leads that totaled a third of my revenue.”
  • Carl Muhlstein, Managing Director, Jones Lang LaSalle, IP, Inc., “When news came out that StyleHaul had sourced another $6 million in equity funding, I tweeted my congratulations at them and suggested they look into creative new office space to house their soon-to-be growing workforce.  A few days later, they reached out to me seeking office leasing advice. A few months after that we had a signed lease in a building I represent.  All because of one tweet.”

Corporate support for social selling is growing but remains low. Despite the successes, the study reveals corporate support for social selling remains low.  Only about a third of sales professionals (37%) received social media training in 2014, compared to 25% in 2012, and 20% use social media tools internally to improve the communication channel for sales teams.

Sales trainer John Barrows chalks up the lack of C-level support for social sales to a generational gap:  “The generation filling the decision maker roles right now grew up pre-internet, and many of them see social media as a drastic waste of time, mainly because how they see their own kids using it.  The younger generations are the ones who have grown up with social media and can’t imagine a life without it. Unfortunately, since some of the decision makers still don’t really understand it or have a misperception of what it is and how it relates to business they are hesitant to invest money in it.”

On the other hand, business consultant Dave Stein contends there are legitimate reasons why social media is not for everyone.  “There are some highly–regulated industries (some B2B financial services markets, for example) where compliance with government regulations prevent “normal” social media communications. For example, sending and receiving messages only through LinkedIn’s facilities without copies of the messages going through the company’s regular (discoverable and archived) email systems is prohibited. Based on my experience, that definitely quashes many attempts at getting more social with your customers.”

If you’re going to invest in social sales, be sure to cover these topics in your training:

  • Jamie Shanks, CEO of Sales for Life: “Focus completely on finding, educating and engaging buyers online. There needs to be a concerted effort on learning prospecting and nurturing while educating the buyer with insights.”
  • Mike Kunkle, Sales Transformation Advisor:  “First, you need to decide where to play. I’d start by determining how many of your customers and target market are involved on social and on which platforms. You want to fish where the fish are. Whichever platforms you choose, start with learning how they work and developing a great profile. LinkedIn is the most complex profile and should be mastered. Next, HOW you participate matters a great deal. Social platforms have their own personalities and unwritten rules of the road. The training should include guidance from someone who knows them.”
  • Kjael Skaalerud, Major Account Sales & VC Partnerships, ADP:  “Helping reps to essentially brand themselves as thought leaders in their space is something that many social sales toolkits leave out – how can you educate the marketplace in an unbiased way, by perhaps posting content on LinkedIn? If you attend an industry event or conference and tweet your thoughts or takeaways, what does this demonstrate about you as a business professional? What factors influence the decisions of your buyers and how can you establish yourself as the expert they should turn to?  One could argue this aspect of social selling is more art than science, but it should nonetheless be incorporated in training so reps are at least exposed to those that do it well.”

Sales professionals from every generation should use the best tools at their disposal, and social media is no exception. When used intelligently, social media use can have a powerful impact where it matters most – in quota, sales performance and corporate revenue.

A version of this was first posted on Forbes.

Photo Credit: Santiago Consultores via Compfight cc