Social selling, social business, social employees and other hype

social employees

It’s always interesting to see the parade of buzzwords march through the old blog reader. Just reading headlines day by day is a pretty good way to watch the waves of social media buzz crash on the shore!

Here are three “trends” that I believe are severely over-hyped. I am NOT saying they are without value. I am saying that a lot of the buzz is being generated by over-simplified guru-speak that is out of step with business reality.

1. The social enterprise

Let’s say you walk into France one day and announce that they need to be more like Russia. No more wine and cheese. From now on, it’s vodka and caviar.

That change is not going to take place, at least not for a long, long time. I submit to you that it is no less difficult changing the culture of a large, established company than changing the culture of a large, established country. And for most companies, becoming a “social enterprise” will take a significant cultural change.

The curse of Zappos

The biggest mistake the field of social media marketing ever made was elevating Zappos to a god-like state of social enterprise nirvana. To be like Zappos … well … you need to BE Zappos! Not many companies have that kind of company culture or leadership, do they?

On paper, the idea of integrating social business into every aspect of the enterprise is intoxicating, especially for people chasing consulting dollars. But it is probably the hardest thing a company can do and at the end of the day, this is not a marketing issue, it is an HR/change management issue.

I had the pleasure of working with an amazing team at one of America’s biggest companies trying to move to “social enterprise.” These folks followed a model path to cultural change. They invested in training. They incorporated rewards for individuals and departments leading the change. They had metrics in place aligning their work to corporate objectives.

Crash and burn

In a sudden corporate realignment, the team leading the change effort started reporting to a new VP, a long-time employee steeped in the traditional company culture. In less than a month, the social enterprise effort was disbanded. Two years of investment … dead. Back to business as usual.

It didn’t matter if it was the right thing to do. It didn’t matter if it was making progress. The company culture usually overwhelms good intentions in the end. To truly make the change, the effort has to be actively sponsored by the CEO and I have seen cases where even that is not a guarantee of success.

“Social business” sounds good in theory but it is very difficult to achieve in practice.

2. Social employees

Another attractive idea is unleashing the power of employees to serve as social media advocates of your brand. Again, not a concept without merit, but a “trend” that is over-hyped as low-hanging fruit within reach of any organization.

One of the iconic beacons for social employees is the company Whole Foods. I recently attended a talk featuring one of their business leaders who illustrated the practical limitations of socially activating their work force:

1) The majority of their employees are young, minimum-wage workers who may only be in the job a year or less. Is the high cost of training and monitoring these employees worth the potential risk to the brand?

2) Even skilled employees were found to be abusing the system. They might be posting company content on a social channel but then staying on the channel during business hours to chat with friends and family. The challenge of preventing abuse was overwhelming and expensive, the executive said.

There is probably no company with a more social-friendly culture than Whole Foods. But even in this case there are practical limits to what might make good business sense.

Activating employees is far more complex than training or “trusting” them to do the right thing.

3. Social selling

I was recently brought in to help support a “social selling” strategy for a Fortune 100 brand. They had already spent thousands of dollars of social selling training but saw no results and little adoption over a year. In fact, their sales were declining.

I dug into the data and conducted employee interviews to identify the problem.

Sales professionals told me they never bought into the program, citing the fact that their customers were passive social media consumers, if they were on there at all.

Turns out they were right. Research showed their competitors were dramatically increasing their spending on personal selling and it was working. What was going on here?

The surgeons strongly bought based on face-to-face relationships. The data confirmed this, the employees confirmed this, the competitors were capitalizing on that, but the division was too eager to drink the social selling Kool-aid and wasted a lot of time and money.

Like any change in strategy, start with the data, not a tactic.

Now in case you’re skimming this article, I want to emphasize again that there is vast potential in all of these ideas. But these atre usually risky, complicated change efforts and that reality is grossly under-represented by the fluffiness on the blogosphere right now.

What’s your take?

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