By Kevin Scott, head of Sales Solutions, LinkedIn EMEA

Social media and the Internet has had a huge impact on the way we consume and share information and changed the way people make decisions, from the entertainment we consume on Netflix, to choosing holiday destinations on TripAdvisor.

This impact is now becoming undeniably apparent for business-to-business (b2b) sales and marketing professionals. The traditional model of marketers telling people what they want, then sales people telling them why they want it, and taking the order, is less effective now buyers are more actively doing their own research. Today, 90 percent of b2b decision makers never respond to any form of cold outreach, while 75 percent of them use social media in their decision making process.

Sales professionals that fail to engage with and make the most effective use of social media will miss out on a lot of opportunities. Likewise, companies that don’t take steps to align sales and marketing will miss out on their greatest hidden asset: the collective networks of their sales people. Since we officially launched Sales Navigator last year, three main best practices have emerged that separate good from great when it comes to companies embracing social selling:

Build relationships in a social world

The typical b2b sales opportunity involves at least five key decision makers, who are at least 60 percent of the way through their buying process before they ever talk to a sales person. Helping buyers reach a decision now requires sales professionals to understand and map complex relationships, which are often more subtle than formal hierarchies. For example, in a typical company, 40 percent of people with influence over IT purchasing decisions work outside of the IT department.

Understanding how buying decisions are made within an organisation is now much easier due to the insights available through social media. Social sellers are using these insights to discover opportunities for warm introductions; a much more human and five times more effective way to engage contacts compared to the traditional and much-loathed cold approach. For example, sales professionals at online payments company PayPal have used LinkedIn to build new relationships by identifying prospects that have worked at the same company as them in the past, or even played hockey for the same club. This creates a rapport that can help build trust very early on in the seller-buyer relationship.

Aligning sales and marketing

Social selling really comes into its own when there’s close alignment between sales and marketing functions. However, alignment doesn’t just mean the marketing team agrees to a social selling programme in principle; real success is seen in organisations where marketers are systematically feeding outbound sales teams their hottest content to share online. Marketers have an important role to play in using their communications expertise to drive adoption and highlight best practices, and provide broader guidance for sales teams to stay authentic online whilst they are representing their company.

Ingrain social selling into the sales team

Encourage your sales team build a robust social presence, stay authentic, and use their time on social media to share valuable content and perspective. This will establish your company and salespeople as experts; ensuring social selling becomes your most effective driver of inbound leads and revenue. Having a complete and up-to-date social profile is one of the best ways to make sure potential customers discover you as they’re conducting their own research. We know from LinkedIn data, for example, that member profiles with a profile photo are 14 times more likely to be viewed.

LinkedIn’s Social Selling Index is the key indicator of success for a growing number of companies looking to transform the way they sell. The Index measures a range of factors from engagement to profile completion that we know are a big part of how effective sales people can be on LinkedIn. Each member of a sales team then gets a personal score that they can track over time and use to compare themselves to their peers in their company.

Social selling paves the way to the future of sales. It should be no surprise that warm, informed, and personalised introductions make prospects dramatically more receptive to sales approaches compared to a cold approach. As simple as this sounds, it takes a focused effort and a shift in culture to realise the potential success. An increasing number of companies are already well on their way to achieving this, and killing the cold call on the way. Those slow to react may find themselves just as obsolete.