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AI isn’t the latest ‘quick fix’ for sales. It’s the future of a productive team.

For years, sales teams have been inundated with new apps and tools,  each promising to help them navigate radical changes in how customers research and buy products. Many sales people are fatigued by tech overload  – they’re disillusioned by past claims of countless new tools being the next ‘quick fix’, so it’s fair that they see artificial intelligence (AI) as yet another tool in their overflowing toolboxes. And, if they listen to some analysts, it’s even fair that they fear AI will take their jobs away entirely.

But new data from a global study of sales professionals, the third annual State of Sales report, shows AI is being used by high-performers to address major challenges that have been building in the sales profession for years – high-performing sales teams (the top 24 per cent that have significantly increased year-over-year revenue) are nearly five times more likely than underperformers to be using AI.

Ai is enabling and helping, rather than replacing, salespeople across the organisation ,  including inside and outside reps. The real challenge for organisations investigating AI is getting past any tech-induced anxieties, while defining the use cases that will work for them in the future.

 

Customer expectations have changed, and sales KPIs are following

 

To understand why AI can be so revolutionary, let’s first look at what’s disrupting sales teams’ day-to-day life: rising customer expectations. Seventy-eight percent of business buyers say it’s very important to work with someone who acts as a trusted advisor  – someone  who adds value to their business rather that just trying to sell to them. Today’s customers have more choice and buying power at their fingertips than ever before, and they expect unprecedented levels of contextualisation and personalisation.

New success metrics are cropping up in response. Customer satisfaction is now the most-tracked KPI among global sales teams. It’s also the top KPI in Australia and New Zealand, being tracked by 63 per cent of respondents (compared to 59 per cent whose success is measured on whether they attain their individual quotas), and those ANZ teams are also anticipating 130 per cent growth in the use of NPS as a sales KPI. While there’s not one universally accepted way to track customer experience, tracking satisfaction and NPS are steps toward customer-centricity.

But customer-centricity is an uphill battle for sales teams – the research also showed that most spend only one-third of their time actually selling and connecting with customers. Australia and New Zealand trailed the pack on time selling, spending 31 per cent of their time on ‘productive’ tasks, a few percentage points behind the rest of the APAC region.

Some non-customer facing tasks , such as  logging activities and getting quotes approved, are necessary. But today’s sales reps are so bogged down by non-selling activities and inefficient processes that 57 per cent globally and a whopping 70 per cent in Australia and New Zealand expect to miss their quotas in 2018. In short, as customers demand more engagement and more personalised engagement, the inefficiency caused by overloading our teams with menial tasks has left those customers dissatisfied.

 

Toss the menial tasks to AI

 

With the right strategy, AI can enable sales teams to keep pace with customers and elevate their position as trusted advisors. For example, by surfacing deep customer insights to increase the quality of personalised and predictive efforts  –  something that’d otherwise be too time-consuming (or just not possible).

Other customer experience factors fall outside the traditional sales purview. AI is particularly good at helping sales teams conquer these challenges by enabling a connected, data-driven approach to customer engagement. In fact, 57 per cent of salespeople expect AI to have a transformational or substantial impact on opportunity insights within five years, and 54 per cent say the same for account insights.

AI also holds the power to automate the very tasks that sales reps say limit their customer-facing time in the first place  –  for instance, automatically capturing critical customer data including call logs and calendar appointments.

The high-performing teams in our study are almost twice as likely as underperformers to prioritise leads based on data analysis. They’re also 1.5 times more likely to base forecasts on data-driven insights. This doesn’t diminish ‘soft skills’ such as listening and attention to detail, but shows how the best teams are using AI to supercharge their selling capabilities.

 

Sales leaders follow c-suite approval

 

The C-suite has started to trust AI to manage and guide their businesses; now it’s sales leaders’ turn to get on board. Australian and New Zealand sales teams are already ahead of their global counterparts in use of AI, with 31 per cent of ANZ teams using it currently compared to 21 per cent globally.

Sales leaders around the world expect their teams’ adoption of AI to skyrocket by 155 per cent over the next two years  –  a greater increase than any other sales technology. In fact, 54 per cent of sales teams believe they will be using some form of AI by 2020.

To get the most of AI deployments, sales leaders must clearly articulate to reps why the technology will benefit them, and encourage them to opt-in to a future in which using intelligence will become part of their selling DNA.
 

 

Take chatbots as an example of the uptake in and the power AI-powered sales tools give to reps. Chatbots can have entire preliminary conversations with customers and provide a quick, knowledgeable response. Customers don’t necessarily care if their response comes from a human or a bot, just as long as it gets the job done, and using bots saves the salesperson time while providing 24/7 care.

 

That bot doesn’t want your job

 

AI is expected to require increased headcount, not to cause job cuts. Those worried that AI will displace sales jobs should take confidence from our findings that sales, as a whole, remains a growing profession even while tech adoption scales up, and more than three-quarters of teams using AI have increased their numbers of sales representatives since 2015.

This shows how AI complements sellers, rather than replacing them. When it comes to sales, AI’s role is to ease the burden of manual, repetitive tasks, giving reps more time to be exactly what customers want: trusted, consultative advisers. And while this is a role that requires uniquely human skill-sets, reps will find it far less easier with AI-powered insights. By blending human ingenuity with data-driven insights – balancing EQ and IQ – salespeople can use AI to be the best they can be.

“I’d be more worried about being replaced by another salesperson who is empowered by intelligence than by a machine,” says Salesforce Chief Futurist Peter Schwartz, and I couldn’t agree more.

So, instead of fearing AI, salespeople need to let it take some work off their desks, giving them more time to engage with customers, get to know their needs and become their trusted advisers. And sales leaders need to walk side by side with their reps, enabling them to build the AI skills in AI that will secure both the reps’ future and the company’s.

Find out more about what separates sales leaders from laggards in the Third Annual State of Sales report.