Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Sales

During The Virtual Sales Conference Digital Sales Enabler Robert Box hosted a breakout session on Rethinking Sales and the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence). Robert hosted the sales session with Sanchita Sur, Founder and CEO of Emplay Ltd and an expert in artificial intelligence design and chatbots.

Robert is a management consultant with Mercuri International and responsible for Mercuri’s artificial intelligence approach. Sanchita has approx 20 years of experience in enterprise performance management and sales consulting, building various advanced analytic solutions for global clients.

“We’d like to welcome you to this session on Rethinking Sales in relation to artificial intelligence. Our focus is on exploring how we can leverage and use AI in sales organizations and help us improve our sales performance.

During this session we’re looking at three main topics:

  • Why artificial intelligence is important for sales organizations and how we can take advantage of it.
  • Practical situations about making it real, how can we actually work with artificial intelligence in a practical way.
  • User cases, situations where AI is being used now.

If we think of the idea of why we’re actually considering artificial intelligence and why we need to rethink sales considering this, it reminds me of the quote by Henry Ford. He was asked if people were to ask him what they were looking for, they would tell him that they want faster horses. Again, this is used often with products and how to develop products, but if we think about sales organizations quite often, we’re searching for faster horses and not necessarily looking for new ways or better ways how to do it.

Chatbots, AI & Creating Sales Impact

With the invention of artificial intelligence, chatbots, and other approaches, there are new options available in terms of coaching, learning and development, and sales performance consulting that can help organizations become much better. It actually reminds me of another quote:

“AI is a core transformative way by which we’re going to be rethinking how we’re doing everything.”

Sundar Pichai,Google CEO

We need to rethink how we’re doing everything and to think about sales in terms of what we can do to improve sales and to make sure that we’re having the biggest impact.

What is artificial intelligence?

If we just take a typical day, you may not realize it, but you encounter artificial intelligence a lot. For example, when you wake up, you turn on the lights. The electricity was probably handled by a smart grid and there was an algorithm that was deciding how much electricity would be allocated to your area or not, for maximum efficiency. The majority of people look at their social media feeds. The algorithms are deciding what information, what news you should be getting. You get in your car, you drive to work. Now, everybody thinks of Tesla and cars that are able to drive themselves, but even the size of the cars and the ability for them to work with artificial intelligence. Even the traffic system, the lights were managed by that. The GPS to help you to get there had algorithms behind it. You get to work, you get behind your computer. Let’s imagine you’re tired of working, you want to go on a vacation. You open up your computer, you search for some airline tickets, and then you find out that the price was actually decided by an algorithm.

We can go on and on. If you talk about Siri or Amazon. For example, if you go to Amazon and purchase things on Amazon, most of us will realize that what has been shown to us is based on algorithms, based on our past purchases. Also, when you make the purchase there are artificial intelligence algorithms in the background that are checking to see if fraud is taking place, to see if the purchase was going on. Then you go home in the evening, you sit down to have a nice movie on Netflix. Also working on artificial intelligence.

It’s not science fiction

We could go on and on. From medicine to industry, to the internet, it is really all around us. I think there’s key points that come out of this idea that artificial intelligence is here and it is now. The first one is that it is a reality. It is not science fiction. These are things that are having benefits for you in your personal life now. Also, most of the time when we think about artificial intelligence, we think about Arnold Schwarzenegger and the terminator from the future who’s going to come to destroy the world, or we think about Sophia at the Dubai Exhibition, where she’s talking and having discussions.

In reality what we’re talking about are algorithms which are really just software that is designed to create things and do things better and faster. Now, if we stop there, then we’re really right back where we were with the Henry Ford quote, where we’re just creating faster horses. If we’re only trying to use it to create something that’s better and faster, that’s all we’re doing, but it can also be used to do things in a different way. That’s why we need to rethink sales how we can use this to leverage it.

Creative approaches in AI

If we think about it, it’s been quite creative. Artificial intelligence has solved things in unique ways that we haven’t thought of. For example, the game Go. It’s an ancient 3,000-year-old game from China. It’s a very complex, a very interesting strategy game. For a long time, it was considered to be the realm of humans in terms of the creativity in order to be successful at it. Recently, it was the DeepMind project with AlphaGo, where they were able to create an artificial intelligence algorithm that has been able to beat people.

What’s interesting is it was able to beat them because it used completely counterintuitive approaches and creative approaches to solve the problems, something that a normal player wouldn’t think of based on traditions. The DeepMind project with AlphaGo was able to create creative solutions, and those creative solutions lead to a much better outcome. I think the extra point, the one that–I said there are three points, but in reality, the fourth point is why AI can be successful, is it’s a lot of small gains in a lot of areas that can lead to incredible, interesting, unique results.

Applying AI to Sales

If we apply this to the realm of sales, and we can see that we have selection, we have opportunity management, a salesperson would maybe do some meeting preparation. They would meet the customer, they would then have the proposals, they would win the business, customer service would be interacting with them. Eventually, account managers would work to develop that business in a better way. Using that as an example, as a standard process and approach that we could use in sales, the questions to consider are:

  • How can artificial intelligence work in order to develop that into unique solutions that are faster and better ways how to do it?
  • Are your sales managers thinking they have the answer or do they know the answer?

The reality of rethinking sales, is that we have situations where we can have a better selection of customers based on actual criteria. By using artificial intelligence, we can select the right customers. Taking a look at the deals, we’re able to improve our understanding:

  • Do they have the right potential?
  • Are they going to be able to help us?
  • Is there sufficient data to help us in the meeting for the preparation, because a lot of times now, sales professionals are searching for information all over their organization?

The right templates, the right information from the CRM, putting it together into an effective way. Artificial intelligence can help us bring that together in a much faster and quicker way. We can then prepare the proposal using templates, using information available, and then customer service can be supported by artificial intelligence, letting them know what is the lifecycle, estimating using predictive analytics in order to help them.

The idea is that within this sales process, artificial intelligence can make multiple minor gains in order to help to answer some of the key questions that salespeople have been facing for a long time.

Small wins…long term gains

By using these minor gains, artificial intelligence can help us to understand some of the key questions that we are asking ourselves about our sales organization:

  • Are our sales professionals performing?
  • Which are the sales reps that are performing the best and why?
  • Are we working with the right products and the right product mix?
  • Do we have the right level of acquisition versus customer care?
  • Can we predict when our customers are going to be leaving and do something proactively in advance?
  • Are we working in a strategic way with our co-development?
  • Why haven’t those projects gone forward?

These are all evergreen questions that we can leverage artificial intelligence to enable us to improve our ability to get business. Hopefully, from the discussion on artificial intelligence in our daily life and how it might be applied in sales, you can see that this is something that is happening and could actually benefit us.

Four steps to implement AI within sales

Sanchita: AI means a lot to a lot of people and it can be a lot to understand. Where do we start? Where do we end? My goal is to help you understand the four simple steps with which you can start an AI program within sales enablement.

Sales enablement and sales process is not really different. A customer is always trying to learn, learning about your product, learning about the technology, learning about options, benefits, companies, and who’s teaching him? The salesperson. A salesperson, however, does not get all the customers together and lecture them. That’s going to be ineffective.

Customer challenges

The experienced sales professional researches their customer. Discovers their pain points. What are their challenges? Then proposes a personalized message to help them understand how to solve their challenge. Not just once, multiple times. Coaches and guides them through the entire decision-making process. Once the customer implements it, the salesperson doesn’t run away, they come back and ensures that the customer is successful. That’s the trick of a long term relationship of trust and sales. A sales enablement professional should approach sales learning in the same way.

Understanding the problem

Why are salespeople not performing? Why are deals not closing?

  • First, understand “where are they hurting?”
  • Second, go ahead and intervene in a personalized manner. If Rep A has a problem prospecting give them prospecting tools. Rep B may have a problem negotiating, train them on negotiation.
  • Number three, don’t do it once, reinforce it until the sales reps have built those behaviors.
  • Finally, after you have delivered your sales enablement interventions, do not run away. Look at the stats, show the impact that, “Yes, it is really improving.”

Tools that help you do this

Luckily, we have AI tools to do all of this, and this does not have to be difficult. There are tools that’ll auto-diagnose where problems exist. It can just take in data, run the models, and be able to guide you as to where are the salespeople not performing by sales individual. This will help your sales enablement initiatives to go ahead and focus and provide automated intervention to individual salespeople in a highly customized fashion. AI can also help look at the steps of performance and skills and be able to reinforce the right content to the right salesperson in the right time.

Finally, it goes ahead and reports the stats on what is the impact of individual sales interventions that have been taking place. This may sound all very intimidating, but the good news is, we already have models that can seamlessly integrate with your sales solutions, and give you all these recommendations highly accurately in time.

Reimagine sales…

Let me help you reimagine sales. How the selling experience could be if the salesperson had a conversational agent at their disposal. First conversation automation. What if a salesperson could ask, “My deal is stuck. What can I do?” What if the virtual assistant was able to ask qualifying questions, “Can you tell me a little more why your deal is stuck,” and take him through the coaching journey of reflecting on why his deal is stuck? The moment the salesperson starts verbalizing or maybe the customer does not have a budget yet, maybe the customer stakeholders do not have the authority yet.

Conversation and decision automation

The moment of virtual assistant is able to get those keywords, it is able to recommend the kind of training or sales process that the salesperson should be referring to. This is Conversation Automation, and AI makes it possible today. The next level of automation is decision automation. What if a salesperson could ask, “Which leads should I pursue?” “Which deals should I focus on?” “Which customers should I reach out to?” AI can look at various prioritization models and come up with recommendations, “Pursue this deal. This deal has a high probability,” or, “Deprioritize another deal because it is not going to close, and here are the reasons why.”

Information automation

AI makes it possible for salespeople to ask natural language questions and get content from multiple systems. Today, sales content is there in almost 10 to 12 different systems distributed everywhere. It’s virtually impossible for salespeople to go ahead and look for content. What they really need is a simple tool where they could ask questions in natural language and get answers. Not just documents, answers.

Finally, data query automation. What if salespeople could ask, “How many deals do I have in Q3 that is greater than 500k?” “How many customers do I have who have just announced the quarterly results?” Answers to these kinds of complex data questions are possible with AI. The good news is, there’s very little heavy lifting that sales enablement professionals will need to do. It is also possible to automate tasks where salespeople could just say, “Can you please change the status of my deal to one?” And the virtual assistant says, “Congratulations. It’s done.”

AI in use

I think when it comes to AI, there’s more questions than there are answers, and with it being so new, I think it would be interesting to understand some of the things around AI, for example, use cases. Where has this been used and what sort of impact has artificial intelligence had?

Sure. Robert, as you know, most of our clients are Fortune 500 clients. They have businesses in multiple regions, and they operate in multiple segments. It is very important to understand the patterns of success in individual micro-segments. What works in North America may not work in APG. What works in enterprise will not work in commercial, and therefore, this automated diagnostic was hugely successful in Fortune 500 client bases, where they were able to immediately understand the individual micro-segment level drivers of success and make highly personalized intervention programs.

Challenges using AI

When it comes to AI, there’s a lot of optimism, there’s a lot of interesting things, but the question is, where are some of the challenges? Where are some of the problems with AI, because it really seems too optimistic when you hear about what it can do?

We, as AI professionals, have to be really careful that it’s not a hype, and then we’re able to deliver the promises we are making, and we’re not over-promising. There are three major challenges in this space, and we have to be careful about it:

Quality of Data – Many AI programs fail because the algorithms are great, promises are great, benefits are definitely great, but the data is not clean. It’s very important to use that as a foundation to go ahead and diagnose the data and ensure that it’s clean. It’s not an excuse not to do AI, because there are tools and technologies that can remove outliers and clean the data because if it is sales data, it’d rather be clean because you’re reporting in the stock exchanges.

Manage the model – It is not a model that you can train and let it go, you have to manage the model. There are times where business realities change, new products are getting launched, and so the technology trends, the business trends are changing, and therefore you have to monitor the model, and what it is producing to ensure that you have the right time to go ahead and refresh and refine the data.

Train the user – In terms of what they’re seeing and how to interpret this. There are sales leaders that have spent a lifetime selling successfully without data, and it’s very difficult to go ahead and tell them that now I have a tool that is going to tell you how to run your sales organization. It’s not a turf war, they just have to see the data can help them scale from a 100-person company to over 200 or 2000-person company. It has to be a partnership with a lot of enablement.

Multiple approaches

That makes sense. The points mentioned around the data are extremely important. Often companies have multiple systems, they have multiple approaches, how do you see this, is AI just adding one more, or what are the advantages? I’ve seen for example, when I was discussing I was talking about in the flow of work. How do you see it?

Whenever we talk about a conversational learning or a conversational interface, people dismiss it because they think it’s yet another tool, but I have to just submit to them that this is one tool that goes ahead and eliminates many tools behind. An average salesperson is expected to touch about 10 different systems to make a sale. If you look at it, they have to use a research tool, a CRM tool, a learning management tool, a quote tool, or a contracting tool, they could spend a lifetime just learning about these tools that also continue to change.

Customer focused activities

They should only really focus on talking to the customer and doing customer-specific activities and not learning tools. A single conversational interface that just has a chat and makes it highly simple for them to interact in natural language is the answer to taking care of the tool fatigue that is in the market now.

The impact of AI on the bottom line

Another question that comes up quite often is technology for technology’s sake. When we look at a lot of projects, sometimes you get the feeling that it’s the newest technology people go after it because it’s interesting. What is the real impact? When we talk about bottom line, when we talk about sales impact, do you have some examples of projects that you’ve been working on, that we’ve been working on that you can explain what is actually the impact of using AI? What can it do?

As I talked about the diagnostic analysis, if you look at any of these large, fast-growing companies, they’re hiring 1000s of new salespeople and trying to quickly ramp them up to productivity. You would be amazed what are the real ramp numbers, it could be as high as 12 months to 15 months. Now, that is the kind of productivity drain a company’s paying for. Sales AI can go ahead and understand the patterns of success and be able to recommend to the new hires right on day one what the next 30 days should be.

They don’t have to learn 200 products. They only have to learn the top 10 products that are very specific to the industry that they have been assigned. This can immediately reduce the ramp rate. We can also tell them about the best product bundles so that they are off the bat trying to sell large deals. Similarly, they can also go ahead and direct them to the right customers so that conversion goes up.

We have been able to increase ramp performance by 50% in six months. That was a huge success, and we got lots of industry recognition for that.

Continuous development

Wherever I go ahead and implement AI solutions where it is very good at recommending what to do and how to do, one thing I get often asked, what do I practice? What about continuous development? I think there’s a couple of things that come out of that. One of them is how to actually make a change in the behavior.

This is what we see is important in any sort of project that we’ve done with AI is making sure that we focus on the change in behavior, and that it’s actually a change project because it’s not about the technology. It’s not about simply saying, “Okay, we have a new tool, and everything is going to be great.” It’s about changing the behaviors.

Account Planning

The other aspect that’s good about using the AI in order to approach is that you can use it in the flow of work.In other words, in the daily practice where you’re working on the practical tools, for example, account planning. They’re working with the account plan that they would work with their customers in order to develop what they would do normally, and they’re just getting the support from the AI. Very similar to what I was talking about earlier is that when you wake up in the morning, you don’t think about the fact that your electricity is being influenced by AI or that when you purchase something that your fraud-check is being influenced by AI. Very similar, it’s about the behaviors, what behaviors do we want the account managers to have?

What does implementing AI involve?

Then how can we influence that and give them a tool that will make it easier for them to do those activities? One of the other things that I think is interesting is what does it take from a practical point of view to actually implement something from AI? How long does it take? What does it involve? What are some of the steps to actually take something from a sales organization where it is now rethinking it into future-proof to making sure that it can really do something that’s amazing?

The diagnostics

It is always important to take baby steps towards our entire roadmap where your entire sales enablement could run on AI. The first is, of course, the diagnostic. This takes about four weeks, it’s a very simple process because we have automated models where you can just suck in the data, analyze and produce a report telling you why are salespeople are not performing and why are deals not closing. That is the simplest thing that we can start with. You don’t have to start coaching with AI, but it gives a very good understanding of what kind of interventions should you be planning for.

Customised sales training

The second step, of course, once you are really prepared and have made decisions based on data is to go ahead and operationalize data-driven coaching. Every sales person will get a different training recommendation based on the patterns of success and risks that you are seeing in the pipeline. This includes more than training, it will also incorporate activities they need to do, people that they can connect with, content they need to read, best practices that they need to follow. It’s almost a 70%/20%/10% of intervention and not just learning.

ROI analysis

Finally, I think ROI impact analysis is really important so that you know that you are headed the right way, and the models are working, and people are getting the benefits that you have promised. Therefore again, there are automated impact analysis solutions that can marry training data and sales results to show you whether the impact is there or not.

What’s important is can you measure it? Do you know that you’re being effective? A lot of times that used to be, do you know it or do you think you know it? With the impact analysis, you’re able to say, “Okay, we’ve got the data, we understand, we know we’re successful?” Or if we’re not, we know what to do and how to change it.

Key takeaways

Thank you for participating in this session. Some of the key takeaways are the fact that artificial intelligence is here. It’s happening, and it’s happening in sales. It can allow us to develop our sales, to develop our team, to work with sales enablement, but also to work with other parts of the organization to bring it together in order to create a differentiation, to create an advantage. The other thing that’s important is to think about innovation. A lot of times when it comes to innovation, companies will say, “Okay, we want to innovate, but we also want to see where it’s happened.”

Right now, when it comes to AI, there’s a lot of things that are developing. I think it’s important to really make sure that you’re measuring. I think that probably there’s more questions than there are answers.

Further information

I would like to welcome you to reach out to us on LinkedIn or social media, ask us questions, get in touch with us, because there are a lot of questions around AI and we’d be glad to discuss in-depth more about it.We think that this is a topic where we can really start to rethink sales and not just create faster horses. We can create something that’s different, something that can actually disrupt the way sales is being done, and improve and create differentiation for your organizations, for sales organizations all over in terms of leveraging these benefits that we can get from AI.


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