It feels as if artificial intelligence (AI) has been poised to change the world for decades, with pioneers promising that a fully AI-enabled future is always just around the corner. But it's only in the last few years that real-world technology has been able to start catching up with the potential.
As a result, AI is now one of the most hyped and buzzed-about technologies in the world. But while we may think of applications such as connected cars, smart virtual assistants and transformations in industries such as healthcare and finance, the technology stands to benefit every aspect of our home and working lives - and the sales department is no exception.
Sales professionals could see their role transformed by the potential of AI, which stands to offer them benefits such as improved lead generation, better information on prospects and assistance in closing deals.
The rise of AI in the sales department
Salesforce predicts that over the next three years, adoption of AI in marketing and sales is set to increase by 139%, making it the fastest-growing area of investment for these departments. The biggest areas of interest include:
- Predictive intelligence (118% growth)
- Lead-to-cash process automation (115%)
One of the most common concerns about AI, and in particular areas such as automation, is that the technology will replace human jobs, but in fact, that may not be the case. Indeed,
World Economic Forum forecasts that, AI will displace 75 million jobs but generate 133 million new roles by 2022.
In sales, AI will be especially useful for augmenting existing activities rather than replacing current workers. The technology will take on many of the more time-consuming and complex roles such as data analysis, freeing up human staff to do the things that machines can't, such as making personal connections with prospects. After all, the old adage that people buy from people still holds true.
Taking the pain out of the sales process
Figures from Salesforce suggest sales professionals only spend a third of their time (34%) actually selling. The rest is taken up with tedious processes such as:
- Data entry
- Generating quotes
- Qualifying leads
- Other non-customer facing activities
However, this is where AI can offer some of the biggest benefits.
When it comes to generating leads, AI software can take much of the pain out of the process. By drawing on a wide range of data sources, this technology can use the latest information, past performance reports and known variation factors - such as seasonality - to build up detailed profiles of potential customers and categorize them by how likely they are to buy.
As well as greatly reducing the time it takes to qualify leads, the results are likely to be much more accurate. Even the most experienced sales professional will still not be certain how receptive a prospect will be when they make contact, but AI can take some of the guesswork out of the early stages of the process, ensuring teams don't waste time following up on prospects that are less likely to convert.
Identifying new opportunities
However, improving data-driven lead generation is just the tip of the iceberg. Another useful area for AI will be spotting trends and opportunities that may otherwise be missed. For example, AI-based programs can look at every aspect of your department's activities to identify what factors may affect your odds of success.
It may, for instance, be used to identify the optimum time for sending a follow-up email, or spot how long after the first contact you can afford to wait before a lead goes cold. Alternatively, it could identify what sales collateral is most effective when sent prior to a call. These may seem like fairly minor factors, but by adapting your strategy to take these insights into account, it can make a big difference to your conversion rates.
Closing the deal and building relationships
The role of AI doesn’t stop at identifying the most promising leads. It can also be useful at every stage of the sales funnel and beyond, ensuring that professionals are able to close deals and get relationships off on the right foot - thereby reducing the risk of customer churn further down the line.
Sales AI provides professionals with the information they need to understand why a customer may be hesitant and flag any issues that may be holding them back, looking at your company's communications, business news, industry insights and what your competitors are up to. This should equip sales teams with everything they need to convince wavering prospects to complete the deal.
You can also team sales AI with tools such as your CRM software. For instance, retailers could use this to provide sales personnel with personalized recommendations for recognized customers as soon as they walk into the store, or connect them to smart chatbots to share updates with prospects based on their interests.
The possibilities for AI in sales are huge, and those firms that embrace the technology could see the success of these departments skyrocket - provided they can harness the technology effectively and convince staff the tools are there to help them, not replace them.