We hear a lot these days about how artificial intelligence is the future of business, often in terms of crunching big data to personalize customer-facing services, answering calls in the call center or replacing jobs that could be automated instead. But AI will play a role in the sales division as well. In fact, according to a recent research report from Gartner-owned analyst firm Software Advice, 30% of all companies will employ AI to augment at least one of their primary sales processes by 2020.
In this specific context, Software Advice defines sales AI as “the application of dedicated algorithms to particular sales tasks” – for example, taking a sales call or email and providing a recommended next best action, all in natural language.
In other words, sales AI is essentially an automated personal assistant that suggests how salespeople prioritize their queues and calendars. AI can boost sales teams’ efficiency by analyzing historical data and comparing it to current metrics in order to provide recommendations regarding where the most time and focus should be spent.
And it won’t be merely be the province of the big multinationals – SMBs will also be able to apply AI to their sales processes. In fact, says Andrew Friedenthal, content analyst for Software Advice, there’s a good chance they’re doing it already and don’t even know it.
“Features like predictive analysis, customer personalization, prioritization and forecasting – all of which are staples of CRM and sales force automation software – are forms of AI,” Friedenthal told Disruptive.Asia.
However, he adds, that’s kid stuff compared to what AI can really do for companies with a more dedicated focus on leveraging AI – not just to improve efficiencies, but cultivate a competitive advantage over the 70% of companies that won’t have beefed up their sales departments with AI.
“What we’re recommending is that companies want to be in that 30% of bold, informed businesses who are using AI by 2020, and the best way to do that is to be using it right now,” Friedenthal says. “Even as other companies adopt and adapt to AI, if you’re on board earlier you’ll have a greater comfort level and a higher level of insight into which features are the most beneficial to your sales process.”
Don’t fear the AI
An obvious question here is: if AI is going to be so great for sales processes, what’s going to keep the other 70% of firms from adopting it? Friedenthal says it comes down to the usual suspects of fear and/or ignorance. “They’re either afraid that AI will be too complicated and expensive for them to use – it won’t – or they’re simply unaware how AI can boost sales teams and sales processes – it will.”
Friedenthal is also dismissive of fears fed by dystopian SF scenarios where AI will essentially become Skynet or something equally terrible. “Science fiction has prepared us to think of AI as the Terminator when really it’s more like Siri or Alexa; a helpful tool that can make certain practices easier, simpler and more streamlined. Sales AI looks a lot more like the kinds of software that sales teams are already using than it does Star Trek, so there’s no need to fear or be intimidated by it.”
One factor to keep in mind is that AI technology itself is still evolving, which means companies who adopt AI now will have to keep one eye on the future as new capabilities come down the pipeline that create new opportunities that might not even occur to us today. That said, Friedenthal says it’s relatively easy to future-proof your sales AI strategy against whatever evolutionary changes occur a few years down the line based on what AI can do today.
“Sales AI already has tools like phone integration, next best actions, prioritized call/email lists and email assistants, so in the near future those are likely to expand and integrate,” he says. “We’re likely not too far away from Siri or Alexa-like digital assistants focused solely on sales and CRM.”
Future-proofing your AI strategy
Meanwhile, he adds, the best way to future-proof is to remember that the future starts tomorrow.
“Right now, companies can begin deep-diving into their CRM and sales automation software for AI capabilities, and talking to their vendors about added AI functionality – or else exploring new software vendors who offer that functionality – so that they can be using those AI tools before they become industry standard,” Friedenthal advises. “In addition, they’ll want to make sure that they are achieving employee buy-in on those tools so that their team is already onboard when the next AI innovation comes along, allowing them to evolve and adapt along with the technology.”
For company execs concerned about the issue of AI ethics, Friedenthal says from a sales perspective, the issue isn’t really all that different in practice from the ethics of sales practices in general.
“An AI system isn’t too different from a CRM database, so the most important practice is to maintain proper security procedures regarding customer information,” he says. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; simply apply the same set of ethics that you would to the use of any new type of technology … though it couldn’t hurt to keep in mind Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.”