Today’s guest post is written by Kieran Flanagan

In many ways, the advent of social selling has changed how we do business.

Gone are the days of faceless organizations.

Now, businesses rely on getting and maintaining the good will of their customers in order to make a sale.

How do businesses do this?

By harnessing the power of social selling and driving sales from the inside out. That is, entering its customers’ social circles in order to become a trusted brand for goods and services.

Let’s take a look at social selling and how you can ethically increase sales and engage with your customers.

What Is Social Selling?

To know you’re doing social selling ethically, you first need to understand what the term means.

Social selling, or social commerce, is using online social networks and tools to reach customers and engage them in a sale.

It’s a bit of a balancing act: Get it right and you’ve earned yourself a pleased customer who is likely to share his positive experience. Get it wrong and you’ve invaded someone’s personal network and abused his or her trust in a way they are not likely to forget.

How Not to Do Social Selling

Before we get into how to start social selling ethically, let’s take a look at what an unethical approach might involve.

Sales is and always has been, social – it’s about who you know after all – and web 2.0 means we have dragged the social side of selling back to the forefront of business. However, many companies end up breaking these new rules of engagement. Here are three trademark behaviors of an unethical social seller:

  • They lie about their true intentions in order to get inside its customers’ online circles.
  • They spam customers with unwanted fake offers.
  • They embarrass users by tricking them into condoning their products online.

How to Ethically Reach Your Followers and Drive Sales

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using online social networks to sell to customers. There’s just one golden rule: Do it on their terms.

Easy enough, right?

Here’s how:

Understand your audience’s frame of reference
To ‘do it on their terms,’ you need to know what those terms are. Today’s customer is more informed than any you’ve had to deal with before, so you need to understand where they’re coming from. In a world bursting with advertisements, customers simply want to find out about products from real companies – and they often turn to their social circles to determine which businesses are credible.

How do you make your business real? Stop hiding behind the corporate brand and let your customers know real people work for your organization.

For example, if you try to recommend something that’s receiving bad online reviews you’ll look disingenuous. But, talk honestly about a product’s weaknesses and you’re much more likely to make a real connection with a potential customer because you’re showing that your business is run by real humans.

Don’t have a one-track mind
You’ve just managed to get inside a potential customer’s online social circle? Well done. Now do anything except sell. The minute you look like you’re trying to make a quick buck out of a new relationship is the minute you’ll lose the trust and respect of your audience.

Instead, stay completely transparent about your motives and make sure you provide value elsewhere in the relationship. Ask questions unrelated to a sale and engage with your followers on a personal level. Bide your time and, when the right opportunity comes along, you’ll be able to make the kind of recommendation you’d make to your best friend – which will most likely result in a sale.

Stay up-to-date
Just like you keep your organization’s various social media profiles fresh, so should you keep your customer interactions ticking over. This doesn’t mean spamming your audience with your latest self-promotional blog post or sale, it means conversing in a way that leaves you better informed about where your customers are right now. When your customers see you are engaging with other people like them, they will want to jump in on the conversation.

Listen and be alert
The world of social selling doesn’t shut its doors at five o’clock Monday to Friday. If you want to engage your customers in their online social networks, you need to be there when they want you. This doesn’t just mean being there for the sale or the positive reviews. You need to answer questions, provide objective advice, and deal with any complaints as quickly and helpfully as possible. Then, when a customer wants to spend money, you’ll be the name that springs to mind.

Ethical social selling allows you to form more meaningful relationships with your customers. Word-of-mouth and social recommendations are more prevalent than ever, so entering your followers’ social world will help you become a trusted source for goods and services to them, as well as to their peers.

Kieran Flanagan is the inbound marketing manager for EMEA at Salesforce, which has just launched its social success site in the U.K. that aims to help businesses harness the power of social media for their business. You can follow him on Twitter @searchbrat.