How Important is Sales Technology? Not Very

Yesterday, I went to the Sales 2.0 Conference in Boston and came away with two general observations. First, the vendors of sales technology are hopeless clots at explaining why their tools are valuable. Second, the hype continues to outrun the reality, particularly when it comes to the use of social media in sales situations.

The first observation -- that the vendors don't know how to market their own stuff -- is based primarily upon the signage on the booths and the handouts available there. It seemed like the vendors were competing to see who could splatter up the most meaningless collection of techie-talk buzzwords.

Everyone was trying to explain what their software does and how it does it, rather than simply describing how their software helps people sell. Here's a typical example from a randomly-selected handout:

"Glance is the quick-connecting demo & support tool designed to help sales and service pros make the greatest impact on any call throughout their sales or support process. Glance is built for quick, on-the-fly conversations, unlike other complicated web meeting tools that can take minutes (or much longer) to launch."
The document goes on in the same vein for several paragraphs, ending with (surprise!) a list of features and functions starting with (surprise!) "seamless integration." Because, let's face it, sales people really care about that. Not!

Why not just say something like:

Sales pros use Glance to give presentations across the web, and keep track of what happens as a result. Our customers say Glance is easier and faster than Webex or GotoMeeting.
Seriously, why is that so difficult? It took me 30 seconds to write that.

Why all the double-talk and bob-debe-bo gobbledegook? I'm not sure, but I think it's because high tech marketers simply don't have the ability to think like the sales people to whom they're selling these things. All of them appear to have been trained to write in the Dilbert Pointy-Haired Boss School of Business Communication.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not down on Glance. It's a cool product. And, sad to say, its marketing materials are probably better than average. But, really!

My second impression is that there's a lot of wishful thinking floating around the Sales 2.0 world when it comes to using social media for selling. CRM guru Barton Goldenberg gave an interesting talk on the subject at the end of the conference, explaining how he's helping companies get a handle on this issue.

Even so, I'm deeply skeptical. In my experience, the contacts inside Facebook and Linkedin are of limited value because it's so easy to add "friends" and "colleagues." It's almost like it's a contest to see who can get the biggest number.

From my perspective, though, there are friends, and there are "social network friends" and the two are very different animals. A friend is somebody who will always take your call and who will do you a favor when you ask. A "social network friend" is usually just somebody who wanted to get on a list.

This doesn't mean that social networking services are not useful tools for B2B selling. They're useful for finding out about prospects on whom you might be calling, because they often present a job history.

However, social networking just isn't the same as going to a conference and actually meeting people face-to-face. Yes, it's more efficient, but it's not going to give you the kind of fast track in converting a lead to a prospect that you get with a real referral or a real networking contact.

What I find particularly disturbing is that many companies are participating in social media without bothering to figure out whether it makes financial sense.

For example, I recently had a conversation with one CEO who told me that: "All of our department managers are responsible for blogging once a month...to give our company an online personality in order to make a better connection with our customers."

However, while the guy was all gung-ho on the blog, he had absolutely no idea of whether there was an ROI... even though he was probably paying for 100 hours a month of prime manager time to keep the blog populated.

This is not to say that there's not some value in social media. Some companies, for example, use Twitter to preempt customer service questions or to tell customers of deals they might want to take advantage of. However, I've noticed that as twitter has grown, it's become more "noisy". I think it's inevitable that people will eventually tire of it, just as they're beginning to tire of Facebook.

There were two events at the conference that really drove this point home for me. The first was a one-on-one meeting that I had with Philip Styrlund, CEO of Summit Value. As he talked to me, he drew pictures on little cards explaining his ideas. Very low tech, and incredibly memorable. I have the cards right by my desk. I'll probably hang onto them for years.

The other event was a dinner conversation that I had with Tom Oldroyd, the senior Director of Marketing at InsideSales.com. We ended up talking about life, careers, religion, beliefs, our wives, children, etc. I feel like I made a friend rather than a business contact. That's never, ever happened to me online.

I'm rapidly coming to the belief that sales technology is mostly a distraction from the business of building relationships. I don't think they get built online. I just don't. Relationships happen primarily person to person and (sometimes, but more weakly) over the phone.

And that's a fact that all the high-fallutin' tech talk in the world can't disguise.

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