2. Literature review
2.2. Social media in a B2B sales context
Several authors have tried to obtain more insight into the reasons of success of an acquisition attempt (e.g., Walker et al., 1977; Weitz et al., 1986; Zoltners et al., 2008), and most of this research focuses on the antecedents of salespersons’ performance. Weitz et al. (1986) mention the capabilities of a salesperson, driven by knowledge and information acquisition skills, as important factors. More recent work stresses the adoption of information technology by the sales force (Ahearne et al., 2008; Schillewaert et al., 2005), and shows a positive relationship between the use of IT and sales performance mediated by the positive influence of IT on knowledge and adaptability of the salesperson. Moreover, Zoltners et al. (2008) show that data and tools available to the sales team are one of the drivers of sales force effectiveness and are seen as one of the high impact opportunities for sales teams by both practitioners and academics. With the recent rise of social media as a new data source, the use of social media within a B2B context thus provides new opportunities to improve sales force effectiveness. The (B2B) sales process becomes more and more influenced by the internet and more specifically, social media (Marshall et al., 2012). While Michaelidou et al. (2011) mention that that the adoption of social media by B2B companies is slower compared to the B2C markets, the usefulness of social media in a B2B context has already been recognized by several scholars. Giamanco and Gregoire (2012) suggest three stages in which social media can be used. These stages are prospecting (i.e., finding new leads), qualifying leads, and managing relationships. In the first stage, sales representatives use social media to identify potential buyers. In the second stage, the quality of these leads is examined using information available on social media (e.g., ‘Does this person have the authority to buy?’, ‘Do they have a budget?’ (2012). Finally, social media can be used to manage the relationships with existing customers. The social media they refer to are LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Similarly, Rodriguez et al. (2012) identified a three step process using social media: creating opportunity, understanding customers and relationship management. It is clear that these steps are linked to the previous ones and the main difference is that the relationship stages are expanded over several categories. Creating opportunity embraces both the prospecting and qualifying stages of Giamanco and Gregoire (2012). Moreover, these authors show that social media usage has a positive effect on the results of prospecting and qualifying activities (Rodriguez et al., 2012). Finally, Andzulis et al. (2012) state that social media can and should be integrated into the entire sales process.
119 These papers share the common idea that social media are important in a B2B selling context. They posit ideas and frameworks and elaborate on how salespeople can identify new prospects, on how they can use social media to identify the good prospects and how social media can be used to start or maintain the relationship with the customer. Social media are recognized as a tool to make the sales process less costly and more effective and are seen as an extension of traditional customer relationship management (CRM), leading to Social CRM activities (Rodriguez et al., 2012; Trainor et al., 2014). By building rapport with the prospective customer, the accuracy of the sales process is expected to increase.
While the papers mentioned in the previous paragraph have in common that they highlight the importance of social media, they also share some limitations. Most of the papers focus on identifying and qualifying procurement officers of prospective companies. This is a generalizing view on the sales process, which may not always be suitable. First, while the focus on individual members of a DMU is necessary for complex products and buying organizations, Homburg et al. (2011) indicate that the customer orientation is dependent on the standardization of the product, the importance of the product and competitive intensity. Thus, this suggests that such a degree of customer knowledge is not required for certain products or markets (Verbeke et al., 2008) and would even lower overall sales performance in these cases (Homburg et al., 2011). Second, in many cases the prospects or leads are delivered by the marketing department (Sabnis et al., 2013) based on lists from specialized vendors, which reduces the need to identify prospects based on social media. Moreover, the process of identifying and qualifying leads is a very time consuming process, in terms of searching and evaluating the available information. Sabnis et al. (2013) mention that there are already a lot of competing demands on the sales representative’s time. Verifying social media profiles of generated leads would thus not be probable either, and the literature does not mention whether or where social media can otherwise help to solve this issue. All in all, we feel that the current qualitative focus on social media in the literature ignores important opportunities, related to the big data nature of social media.
With this research, we aim to overcome these limitations and take a different view on the use of social media in the sales process by looking at social media as ‘big data’ (Baesens et al., 2016). We will focus specifically on the ‘qualifying’ stage of the sales process. First, we focus on company characteristics instead of specific buyer information by using companies’ social media pages. This approach is justified by the standardization of the product of the B2B company studied, Coca-Cola Refreshments USA (Homburg et al., 2011), and the fact that we
are dealing with bars and restaurants in which the DMU is mostly restricted to one person (the owner). Second, we use an automatic approach to collect and process information, eliminating the manual screening of social media profiles and thus freeing up time for other activities. Third, we determine the usefulness of social media to reduce the prospect list to a greatly reduced list of leads, which are worth pursuing by sales representatives. In sum, we move social media use in a B2B context from a purely describing, qualitative view to a data-oriented which uses information systems to collect, clean and analyze the data based on machine learning techniques.