Hands up if you still think Artificial Intelligence or AI is a Spielberg film, and has something to do with Robotics? Until quite recently, it really didn’t occur to me that AI Artificial Intelligence had anything at all to do with selling. So should we be using AI in Sales?
But first I will explain why I might take this view. You see when I started selling ET had just been released on the big screen, and the Space shuttle had not long started its missions into the final frontier. I enjoyed watching films such as the Star Wars and Star Trek, but on the whole I have never been a fan of Sci-Fi. It just doesn’t float my boat.
Do great sales people need technology to sell successfully?
When I started selling B2B in 1987, I had a car, my note pad, pen calculator and my product catalogue. The only phone I had free access to was on my desk in the office and I was expected to spend 80% of my time out on the road meeting between 6 to 8 clients a day. At that time mobile phones were only for yuppies working in the City of London! That was the total extent of the technology available to me.
Back then I had to cold call like crazy to get in front of people, which definitely honed my face to face communications skills, but did little to help develop an interest in technology. The sales numbers when I started were all about personal activity and the only marketing we had was the shop front of the stationery company I worked for and a monthly mail out of the special offers. Much of which probably never got anywhere near the decision makers.
Having said all this, for many years I was highly successful at using just a few simple tools. Even when I started using computers to store sales information and to communicate with clients, I never really considered something so far advanced as AI becoming part of my world.
I guess this is why I have struggled to see the logic in computers doing the thinking for real live people. Probably explains why, until recently I have virtually by-passed the whole Artificial Intelligence thing, without giving it much thought as to how it could help me to sell more successfully.
Technology like AI in sales is the future
Fast track to today and there is so much support for sales people to help them sell. For many years technology has been replacing a lot of tasks that a sales person would normally do themselves.
• Email reducing the need to print and post sales communications via post.
• Sophisticated data and calculating tools such as spreadsheets to display the information in a more digestible manner, rather than relying on pen, paper and a calculator.
• CRM software tools that join together a broad set of applications and actions, using complex behind the scenes process flows to replace simple record cards in plastic boxes.
• Electronic forms to easily and quickly create proposals and reports, instead of a small army of sales support teams.
• Social media, which from a sales perspective has enabled a less pushy approach to selling successfully compared to the door to door cold calling I used to carry out on a daily basis.
There are some fabulous tools out there to help everyone from solopreneurs to multinational corporations, speed up the sales process to become a lot quicker at selling more successfully.
Then alongs come AI for sales people
When I first put some thought into considering the benefits of Artificial Intelligence with regards to selling, I was more than a little concerned. To be honest I still have my reservations. AI is good for sales people, but if this type of technology starts to help sales people to think, then I wonder how much they will become dependent on the technology to do more of their work for them?
Will their customers benefit from the calculated thinking of a software program as opposed to the flexible and creative thinking of a professional sales person?
Will AI create lazy sales people?
Ignoring these questions I then tried to focus on the positives. I think that the potential for AI to turn even good sales people into great sales people, is enormous. Increasing their sales effectiveness by speeding up both the sales process and their decision making process has to be a good thing.
Then the devil jumped back up to my shoulder and reminded me that AI in sales relies on one very important thing.
If you have bad data going into any system then don’t be surprised if the answers you get back will simply not deliver the goods.
It started with CRM
It is the same thing with customer relationship management tools, which many see as a precursor to AI in sales. Sales people can be notorious for incorrectly updating their CRM, if they update it at all!
Now I am a big fan of using a customer relationship management tool of some kind, and it really doesn’t have to be expensive. There is a misconception that all CRM tools cost money, but for those who have been in sales a long time know that a simple record system and diary is all that you need. I admit to having CRM software for automated marketing to my online learning customers, but for corporate clients I use a combination of excel spreadsheet and my Outlook calendar.
Simply put, a CRM tool automates a company’s sales process and shares it with the right people in a timely fashion. Therefore, it is incredibly important, though not essential that every sales led organisation at least fully understands how their sales process works, before they go out and spend money on a CRM or indeed any kind of sales technology to help speed up the sales process.
Management influences the affect of AI in sales
This is when management starts to influence the use of Artifical Intelligence in the sales process, just like it does in my business. Currently I cannot justify the high cost of a CRM that meets both my online client needs and those of my corporates, which is why I have only fully automated one part of my business.
It is about the ROI in terms of purchase, implementation and ongoing costs associated with using AI technology and how that impacts the sales function’s performance.
Most businesses look at the cost of the licence fee, but what about the cost of implementation. Or dragging sales people away from prospects to show them yet another new tool that promises to save them excessive time and effort, can hugely impact the bottom line. Then the ongoing costs of additional training for new starters, or even those who fail to grasp what is expected.
Open book reporting
Then if sales people do utilise their CRM in the way they have been shown, are we sure that they are actually entering all the information the system needs to make a correctly calculated decision. Let’s face it most great sales people always keep a little something up their sleeve for a rainy day. It is what many sales directors rely on at the end of every quarter and most certainly year end!
The other big concern I have is how the growing use of technology will affect the communication skills that the new generation of sales people will need. Technology cannot completely substitute a B2B sales person, so businesses will still need to ensure that everyone in the sales function has the communication skills to influence the sales process in their favour.
In August 2018 Chief Economist for the Bank of England, Andy Haldane said that due to AI, many more jobs will disappear in light of the fourth industrial revolution. Those focussed on skills including human interaction, face-to-face conversation and negotiation would be likely to flourish. However, are the upcoming, technology advantaged younger Y and Z generations supported to develop their personal communication skills to take advantage?
Overall, AI is increasingly going to play a significant part for every business. Those sales people to benefit from AI will be those who wholeheartedly embrace technology, but ensure that they remain excellent conversationalists.
People buy from people. Not from machines.
Make sure your sales people respect the power of the data and information at their disposal. More importantly, businesses need to educate not just their sales people in the art of conversation, but anyone who connects with their clients.
Remember, that is what great sales people will do. Ignore the negatives surrounding AI and embrace it and also improve the way they communicate.
If you are struggling with CRM and the way your sales function uses it then we need to talk. Your customers will thank you for it!