Having spoken on the topic of sales transformation a couple dozen times during the past year at various conferences, sales kickoff meetings, and webinars, a two-fold question I kept repeatedly getting from sales executives was when will AI actually impact sales and how. My short answer to the first part of the question is to quote author William Gibson, “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.” Having reviewed over 100 AI-for-Sales (AfS) solutions, I found several that are already having significant positive impacts on sales performance. Answering the second part of the question: how, requires a much longer answer. So, for this column, let me start to provide some perspective on what AfS looks like, the ROIs it will generate, and why AfS needs to be part of a CSO’s strategy sooner versus later.
In March, 2017, the concept of AfS got a significant public awareness boost when Salesforce and IBM announced a strategic partnership with the two firms agreeing to deliver joint artificial intelligence solutions. The companies’ CEOs stated the objective was to enable a world where every business professional would have access to a cognitive system to augment their expertise. But more quietly behind the scenes, many companies, including Salesforce, had already been working on developing AI solutions. Fast forward to today, those applications are now field proven and currently allow organizations to address real sales challenges without the need to have a staff of data scientists on board to do so.
The Two Flavors of AfS for Salespeople
To reduce AfS functionality down to its lowest level, we see that it comes in two flavors. The first are applications designed to reduce tedium for salespeople. These solutions can be thought of as giving sales professionals a digital assistant to take over tasks like auto-populating data into CRM systems, coordinating the schedules of sellers and buyers to set up meetings, cleaning up and enhancing contact records, etc. The key benefit here is that they free the salesperson from doing those activities, so they have more time to sell.
But having more time to make more “average” sales calls doesn’t address the real challenge salespeople face today. What they really need is more time to make more “great” sales calls. That is where the second flavor of AfS comes in and focuses on increasing the ingenuity of salespeople. These solutions provide capabilities such as pre-scoring opportunities, so salespeople can determine if a deal is worth pursuing or not. They can also do detailed research on the account and the key stakeholders to provide sales professionals with the knowledge to effectively and creatively engage prospects. As the deal progresses through the sell cycle AfS can track the activities that sellers are having with buyers and analyze the actual conversations they are having and provide insights into buyer intent and sales effectiveness. These and many other capabilities are increasing the effectiveness of salespeople and optimizing sales results.
AfS for Sales Management
These technology advances are also changing how the game is played for the people leading sales teams. Starting with frontline sales managers, AfS is providing them with metrics on how deals are progressing (or not progressing) through the sales cycle. Leveraging these insights, managers can more proactively determine which salespeople need what type of help on what specific deals, so they can coach them more effectively.
Access to insights is then available to all levels of sales management above the frontline managers. Looking across all the sales teams, executive sales management can drill into macro trends, surfacing best sales practices from one geography or vertical industry segment that could be leveraged to close more business across the entire sales force. Machine learning can also start to surface unrecognized factors such as shifts in the economy, the competitive landscape, the political environment etc., that left undressed might negatively impact sales performance.
The AfS First-Mover Advantage
Our benchmarking has shown that a future where AfS transforms how we sell is already here. That reality raises a yellow (if not red) flag regarding the cost of being late to adopt AfS capabilities. Experienced managers understand the benefit of first-mover advantages. Take two competitors in a marketplace who both rely on an ad hoc sales process where “how to sell” is left up to each sales person. Over the past 20 years CSO Insights data has consistently shown that if one of those firms implements a formal sales process, they will outperform their competitor. But that advantage starts to diminish as soon as the competitor copies the move and implements a formal process of their own and catches up.
AfS is already changing the dynamics of first-mover-advantage. The driving force behind this is that over time AfS gets more effective by itself. A first-mover will see an increase in sales performance when they start to leverage technology to do lead or opportunity scoring, optimum pricing analysis, metric driven forecast management, etc. A competitor who waits a year to follow suit will also see an advantage when they finally decide to take on a similar initiative. But the first-mover doesn’t remain static. AfS keeps improving how a company operates. So by the time the second-mover catches up to where the first-mover was in terms of increased lead conversion or higher win rates of forecast deals, the first-mover’s AfS solutions have made them even more effective.
So where are we today? If you think that AfS is a futuristic concept, think again. The future is now. If you think that AfS only addresses automating tasks, think again. It is already improving processes and providing insights to do new things sales has never done before. And finally, if you think there is no impact for being late to the AfS party, think again. First-movers may well end up with an advantage that lasts much longer than in the past. The net-net of this; 2019 needs to be the year for AfS.
— Jim Dickie, was the Co-Founder of CSO Insights, a Division of Miller Heiman Group. He is currently a Research Fellow for Sales Mastery; an independent research firm that explores how companies are innovatively leveraging people. process, technology and knowledge to optimize sales performance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @jimdickie.