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Artificial Intelligence in business has become synonymous with a forward-thinking approach to all aspects of business strategy, from marketing to sales to finance. Many sales tasks that used to require team members to prepare spreadsheets and spend hours filtering and analysing data can now be streamlined by AI and automation.

In this post, we’ll explain how applications of artificial intelligence can improve sales team performance, show how AI software can change your team’s relationship to the sales cycle - for the better - and we’ll offer some notable artificial intelligence examples.

 

 

What is AI and How Does it Relate to the Sales Cycle?

When we think of AI, perhaps sci-fi movies and stories of the foundational research of Alan Turing still come to mind. However, in 2017, AI has become part of everyday business life, and its march into the business world shows no signs of slowing.

A study released in June 2017 projects that AI will increase business productivity by 38% by 2035. As Salesforce’s Senior VP of Product John Ball explains below, this has translated to improvements of 300% in lead conversion rate in an AI-integrated sales CRM, Sales Cloud.

 

Artificial intelligence is already key to the business strategies of all kinds of companies, including soft drink giant Coca Cola. Bernard Marr of Forbes reports that the company has dedicated a huge budget of time and resources to the research and development of AI sales and marketing technologies to produce strategies based on customisation and big data.

 

But sales AI is not just for huge companies with their own AI-dedicated research teams. In the context of today’s business, AI software from outside providers can bring automation and machine learning to all kinds and sizes of companies throughout the sales cycle.

Forward-thinking tech companies now offer automated solutions to a variety of industries – from hospitality to medicine to all kinds of retailers and beyond – which are capable of handling tasks that used to occupy time and slow down the sales cycle, such as basic online chatting with customers, managing and interpreting huge amounts of data in databases, and recommending next steps in sales, etc.

Streamlining these tasks to more tailored and better utilised CRM systems, better use of staff time and talents, and higher efficiency across the board.

By collecting, filtering, and organising data, continually adjusting its approach to the data, and making this data easily accessible, sales AI utilises more data than a huge team of analysts could manage - while achieving more effective, continuously evolving results.

Sales reps are freed up to use the insights gleaned from AI to put the human touch on sales communications with specific leads, and to close deals with the key information they need at their fingertips. Companies using artificial intelligence software call on this assistance at every stage of the sales cycle: from lead generation, scoring and nurturing to sales forecasting and activity logging to closing deals.

 

AI and Leads

Lead generation and qualification has traditionally been a time-consuming and cumbersome process for sales teams. As Alex Terry reported in CRM magazine sales reps generally spend 80% of their time qualifying leads and only 20% closing deals. Sales AI can flip these percentages around, as AI software takes on the burden of qualifying leads, using dynamic information and multifaceted analysis that creates a more complete, real-time picture of a lead.

Sales reps are then free to devote their time to nurturing the most promising prospective clients and customers. As Scott Maxwell from Inc. puts it, sales is still considered a “high-touch profession,” and the ability to interact with someone whose personality is appealing is still persuasive – even if the customer is not convinced the salesperson is knowledgeable.

The human touch, however, continues to get a boost from AI throughout the lead nurturing and sales pitch stages of the sales cycle. Sales AI provides customised pitch information, analytics and industry insights about the customer, cues as to how to communicate and which products to highlight, as well as streamlined scheduling and communications.

 

AI, Activity Management and Sales Forecasting

Once you have identified promising leads, AI products continue to aid your sales team in a variety of ways:

 

  • AI helps with sales forecasting:

What and when are your leads and current customers most likely to buy? This can be based on a variety of factors, from buying history to shifts in the customer’s own company structure, such as a merger or the dismissal of a top manager.

AI software can compile the data your company has, as well as gathering news in real time. And - as your customer interacts with the company - AI tools only continue to become smarter through machine learning, determining which information should have a higher weighting in forecasting and decision-making over time.

 

  • AI streamlines communication within your company:

We all know how tiresome running weekly reports for other departments can be. With AI software, team members from other departments can access real-time analytics and information without the drudgery of waiting for reports from sales, or generating a backlog of menial tasks for your sales team. This way, marketing and sales are in a better position to coordinate their efforts, and sales has more time to do what is most important - closing deals.

The successful music-identifying app Shazam has reported that having AI software as a single “source of truth” and removing the need for constant reporting has given 15% more time to analysts, who now are free to work on more complex analyses of trends.

 

  • AI makes sense of sales activity:

CRM information, sales team communications with customers, analytics data and KPIs can all be used by sales AI to give sales teams the most comprehensive image of the customer journey. AI software can even suggest what action sales reps should take next.

 

AI and Closing Deals

AI software compiles and analyses data about your leads and sales activities, up to and throughout the pitch to a customer. But what about after the pitch? What do you need to ensure you can close the deal? And how can you best respond when a deal doesn’t materialise?

With more and better information, as it turns out! Sales AI gives you the ongoing insights you need to understand when and why the customer is likely to make a deal, and what might be holding them back from moving forward - scanning your communications, as well as industry insights, comparable companies or clients, and business news.

Armed with the right information, you’re much more likely to approach a customer on the fence with the information or reassurances required to pull them down on your side.

 

AI and CRM

Once you’ve formed a relationship with a customer, sales AI can continue to help your sales team nurture the customer relationship, using solid data and streamlined communications. AI chatbots produce impressive results, offering customers quick and individualized answers - not just canned responses, but intelligently constructed communication informed by customer data.

AI customer service is quickly becoming standard best practice, allowing companies to dedicate fewer man hours to basic communications, and meet customers at a greater number of touchpoints on their customer journey.

According to Bernard Marr of Forbes, companies like Burberry are harnessing CRM AI to analyse the data that customers themselves provide, sending recommendations to sales staff in stores as soon as the customer comes in. They also offer chatbot assistance to customers through Facebook and send product information directly to customers’ smartphones by way of RFID tags. In 2015, the company reported a 50% increase in repeat business due to customer personalisation programs.

 

AI and Sales Going Forward

Sales AI clearly has a role to play in reshaping the sales cycle, and AI software is bound to take over some tasks from sales teams permanently. Gil Press of Forbes points to a Forrester report suggesting a 300% increase in investment in AI technology in 2017. However, sales reps are not going anywhere - their tasks are just becoming less drudging as the skill set they need evolves.

As Thomas Baumgartner of the Harvard Business Review argues, the sales reps of tomorrow will need more than just the traditional sales skills: they will also need to understand sales AI and how to maximise the efficiency of their interactions with AI software to achieve results. Which parts of the process should be automated? How can we get the right data into the hands of our new AI assistants? These are the kinds of questions that future sales teams will need to be creative and insightful enough to answer.

 

This post is part of our Navigating the Sales Cycle series. Download the e-book and discover the 7 steps to sales success