If all you know about artificial intelligence (AI) comes from watching movies, the future of the sales department may look pretty frightening.
Whether it’s the maniacal robot HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey to more recent films like Ex Machina, AI tends to power robotic or Android-like characters whose main mission seems to be destroying the humans who created them. It may be hard to imagine the same technology improving the way reps find prospects, nurture leads, and close deals.
Nevertheless, AI is quickly transforming tools that small and medium-sized business owners use as were previous waves of IT innovation such as cloud computing, mobile computing, and big data analytics. In fact, expect to see more organizations begin to deploy technology like CRM that is already critical to their business, but baking in AI capabilities. This may provoke a serious discussion among your team, so be prepared.
Is it possible AI will reduce the need for human salespeople at some point?
This is where the movies and real life have little, if anything, to do with each other. It’s important that sales teams in particular be assured that AI is not meant to displace them but support them. The best way to do this is by making sure they recognize AI is not a concept out of science fiction but something that’s part of their everyday lives. This can be done in a few ways.
- Create a slide deck that showcases some of the places that AI may be working behind the scenes. This could include friend recommendations on Facebook and “People You May Know” on LinkedIn, most visited places itemized in a digital mapping application, or even those “You May Also Like” suggestions at the end of articles online. See how many other examples your team can cite. Suddenly AI will seem less scary and more like a helpful assistant.
- Have each member of your team think about where they might be considered a “regular,” whether it’s a store or restaurant, and what being a regular means. More often than not, the stories you’ll hear involve diligent employees anticipating their needs based on how well they know them. This is the same way the best AI works.
- On a whiteboard, ask team members to help create the “Ultimate AI Wishlist.” In other words, what do they wish AI could do for them—wash dishes, take out the trash, fill out reports? When they start thinking of AI’s possibilities they’ll be less anxious about the changes it will bring to their day-to-day work.
What will it take to get used to AI in the office?
All new technology brings about some change management. It was even true of CRM, when sales reps who were chained to their personal rolodexes had to get used to sharing and managing information about customers much differently. In the long term these transitions have a big payoff, but there’s an art to ensuring it goes smoothly. These should be among your talking points.
- Play “Remember when?” Ask the team about the first time they heard the word “cloud” in reference to IT or “wearables.” What can they recall about their assumptions at the time, and how did that compare to how things played out? What was once considered “disruptive” is now either taken for granted or so valuable people couldn’t think of going back to the past. Help them see the same will be true for AI in sales.
- Walk through the team’s daily, weekly or monthly activities. Get granular: Talk in particular about the things that tend to take up a lot of a rep’s time, such as reaching out via phone calls or e-mail to prospects who fail to respond. AI promises a more sophisticated way to bring the right opportunities to sales in less time, resulting in more meetings, quicker conversion, and ultimately a greater chance for reps to play to their strengths. That often includes the interpersonal skills that machines inherently lack.
- Create a team that will attempt to do some AI scenario-planning. Just as sales almost always involves sketching out how a product or service will enhance a customer’s operations in some way, let reps use their very human creativity to illustrate the best possible outcomes AI could help the company achieve.
What if AI doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to work?
No matter how fast an SMB grows, it would never move into a larger office without a lot of advance planning. Using AI should be treated with the same forethought. As with an IT project, failure to plan often results in frustrated employee expectations and lost time and money. It may be difficult to understand what steps need to be taken, but here’s are some starting points:
- Conduct a data quality assessment: Survey the team about where they find themselves digging for answers about customers, contracts, product information, or other issues. This may be the trigger for ensuring CRM practices are being maintained, or that information siloed in sales, marketing, and customer service areas needs to start coming together.
- Monitor mobile habits: Ask one or two reps to keep a smartphone diary for a week, jotting down examples of when they turn to their device, rather than their desktop, to get something done. Chances are the more mobile-first the sales team, the better they’ll be able to take advantage of the insight-on-demand that AI could bring. If there were ever a time to ensure you’re making the most of mobile computing, it’s now.
- Establish a feedback loop: The best way to avoid IT failures is to empower those using the tools to understand exactly how troubleshooting processes should work, what the mean time to an answer will be, and how to escalate the biggest issues. Internal social networking tools could be a great mechanism for this purpose.
Of course there will be other questions, but the answers are already available. To learn more, download AI for CRM: A Field Guide for Everything You Need to Know, an eBook from Salesforce.