Artificial Intelligence In Sales: Is It Worth The Investment?

The International Data Corporation (IDC) recently released its Worldwide Semiannual Cognitive Artificial Intelligence Systems Spending Guide, which predicts that spending on sales process recommendation and automation will reach $1.45 billion this year. David Schubmehl, research director at IDC, noted that: “Interest and awareness of AI is at a fever pitch. Every industry and every organization should be evaluating AI to see how it will affect their business processes and go-to-market efficiencies.” This warning is as relevant to sales leaders as much as anybody.Unquestionably, the Challenger Sale is the most fashionable approach to sales in today’s market.

My own experience supports this. An increasing number of my clients are looking at “sales process recommendation and guided selling,” or artificial intelligence (AI)-driven sales enablement, to give it the more standard industry term. They see it as a way to consistently replicate successful sales outcomes and streamline the sales process. While I haven’t played a role in their buying decision, I have experienced firsthand the impact of less-than-optimal implementations, the pros and cons of the software, and the advantages and potential pitfalls for sales leaders who invest in it.

Construct a new sales standard 

Unquestionably, the biggest advantage of this new technology is access to a standardized sales model. While the name might not sound exciting, it is arguably one of the most important enhancements to the sales process since the wide-spread adoption of CRM 15-plus years ago. As the name suggests, it enables organizations to construct a sales model based on how it believes their ideal sales opportunities should be constructed to achieve business goals, not just how they have been constructed in the past.

As sales leaders live through one of the biggest changes in the way business to business (B2B) customers engage in the buying process, this has the potential to be huge. Implemented correctly, the model even has the agility to reflect the needs of different sales channels and buying habits across industries or regions. Implemented incorrectly, it just reinforces old buying habits and fails to move the dial in a positive manner.

A highly qualified sales assistant

With the standard model setup complete, intelligent built-in tools then guide sales teams through the buying process:

Intelligent content management serves up recommended content to build engagement, appease concerns and deliver relevant proof points. In this way, the sales rep begins to anticipate the needs of the buyer, even before the buyer themselves.

Opportunity verifiers act as guardrails to improve the operational efficiency of the sales process. They steer salespeople toward analyzing their own deal pipeline and remedying missed or overlooked steps without hand-holding from management. As a result, when managers do get involved, they invest their time adding genuine value to the sales process.

Wrapping all this together is AI’s ability to analyze how close each deal is to the standard model and rate it, so that effort can be directed toward only the most winnable deals.

In this context, the power of AI to enhance the sales process is clear. It acts like a highly qualified assistant, intelligently learning from real-time sales activities, refining the standard model and recalibrating associated content and behavioral suggestions. It gives sales leaders the ability to put customers at the center of the sales process, assisted by sales reps loaded with the insights, skills and knowledge they need to respond to the ever-changing market or customer demands. It also provides them with the guidance needed to consistently replicate the most successful sales journeys. No reliance on historical data, no lengthy setup, just constant incremental sales processes and outcome improvements.

The individual steers the final outcome

So far, the advantages seem pretty compelling. Like a Formula One car will get you around a track faster than a standard vehicle, modern sales enablement platforms will undoubtedly accelerate deal overview, reduce time to deal closure and improve selling outcomes.

However, just like in F1, the vehicle can only do so much. The skill and knowledge of the individual still steer the final outcome. Despite dramatic changes in the way people consume information and make their buying decisions today, the age-old adage that “people by from people” still rings true. Soft skills, like emotional intelligence and empathy, remain key components to the sales cycle. Therefore, any fear that AI will eradicate the role of salespeople remains unfounded.

However, while sales enablement software can’t replicate human intuition and emotion, it can play a supporting role in developing those skills.

The best AI-driven sales enablement platforms now include the ability to serve up just-in-time learning and coaching material tied to job role and function. By building learning content into the software to support the sales models they advocate, organizations can ensure colleagues get role-specific, tailored learning paths built into the fabric of the sales process.

Even better, intrinsically linking sales and learning ensures that the learning and development investment is always tied to business outcomes. A commitment to reinforce these new skills by coaching from the sales manager ensures the skills are honed and become second nature. In this way, the Formula One car (AI) and the highly skilled driver (sales reps) are united to deliver the ultimate performance.

So, Is AI creating an uneven playing field?

There is no doubt the B2B sales playing field has changed forever. For those not yet in on the action, the advantage AI sales enablement can deliver certainly might seem unfair. Yet, the performance-enhancing promise of AI is available to all.

The key to success is in the setup and training that goes on behind the scenes as much as how your team uses it on the field. My recommendation: Implement quick, improve fast, and watch your team gain the podium position you need to successfully deliver upon your sales strategy.

Mark Savinson is Chief Operating Officer at Strategy to Revenue, the award-winning sales enablement consultancy. This article first appeared on Forbes.com

 

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