Whether you're a sales manager or sales rep, chances are you've heard of social selling. At first glance the trendy phrase is intuitive--selling via social media channels. But while the definition might be straightforward, understanding how to effectively use social media to generate leads and make sales is a much more crafted, considered process.

As a business's operations and overall presence become more digital in nature, so do sales activities. More of the sales process happens online versus in person than ever before. This transition isn't exactly replacing the art of making things happen, though. Selling is still about relationships and knowing how to influence and persuade people to action. Social media is just a new frontier where salespeople can foster and activate those relationships.

By now sales reps should know the first step to social selling is to create quality profile pages, especially on LinkedIn and Twitter. Make connections to establish a strong network. Partake in the digital conversation. But these are only introductory steps at best. Below are a few tips to help you go well beyond that level.

1. Make initial connections on LinkedIn

What's the key to sales and networking, regardless of whether or not you're online? Making strong connections. Beef up your LinkedIn connections as much as you can on your own, but don't be afraid to ask a colleague (or old coworker, boss, friend, even uncle!) to make an introduction on your behalf to a prospect you're trying to connect with online. As long as the introduction is genuine and personable--not overtly promotional--it actually works.

It's also important to note that LinkedIn is not only great for making those connections, but setting up first touch points. For example, if you're having a difficult time reaching a prospect over the phone, simply view their LinkedIn profile. Our sales reps have great success with this tactic, as the LinkedIn page visit alert gets the sales rep's name on the prospect's radar and increases the likelihood of a returned call. Of course, a short message and/or connection request can also work well in cases where you're looking for something stronger than a page view.

2. Find shared interests and backgrounds

Before you begin pitching people over LinkedIn, or even communicating via Twitter, take the time to do your homework. Did you go to the same college, grow up in the same area, or know some people in common? Look for similarities that could open a relevant conversation that's unrelated to your business. Find meaningful information on your prospect that might establish a personal connection. Then begin your outreach online by citing that shared interest or background.

If you don't have a shared connection, you can also just leverage any information that the prospect is likely to be passionate about. For example, it's almost time for March Madness, and most people who went to large universities have great pride in their alma mater. Find out if any of your prospects attended one of the schools in this year's NCAA Tournament, and open your introductory pitch with a line about the upcoming games.

3. Audit your LinkedIn appearance

Most people on LinkedIn display profile pages indicating they're looking for employment. Create a profile instead that cements your expertise. Let contacts identify your online presence as belonging to a thought leader, not a job seeker.

4. Become part of ongoing Twitter conversations

On Twitter, make sure you're able to keep up with discussions and respond to industry-related posts in real time. Don't publish tweets solely featuring your own thoughts, either. Have conversations, and retweet regularly. For every tweet you publish, there should be at least three tweets that come from other sources, such as those mentioning or linking to trending articles, good quotes, or interesting statistics. Communicate with prospects and clients, comment on hot topics, or even share some of your sales team's fun personality with more casual posts.

5. Don't limit social selling to prospecting

At its core, social selling certainly helps sales reps identify and pitch new leads, but social media channels can impact sales throughout the entire process. For example, say a contact has started to fade or become increasingly less responsive. Retweet them, or comment on one of their LinkedIn posts to get back on their radar. Social media channels offer another touch point between sales reps and those key decision-makers.

6. Automate social media monitoring in sales, too

It's a misconception to think that monitoring social media chatter is a function only for marketing departments. Sales reps should always monitor social media streams around their contacts to track conversations and engage accordingly. This can be helpful for staying in touch with prospects and staying in the loop on what's happening in client organizations.

Social selling isn't a replacement to the traditional sales process; it's a complement. By leveraging social media channels optimally, sales reps can foster more relationships and close a lot more deals.