Artificial intelligence is one technological advancement some still enjoy with a slight dose of caution, for others it has been an integral part of daily life for years. There’s no way around it: Innovative technologies which help us optimize and shape our everyday lives are here to stay. Some common examples of everyday tech which utilize at least some degree of artificial intelligence include...
Navigation systems which deliver real-time traffic updates
Fitness apps, your own pocket “personal trainer”
Smartwatches, the mobile "cardiologists" right there on your wrist
Nutrition apps which automatically count calories and calculate your daily needs
And these are only the widest known examples of personal tech which have carved out a niche within the growing array of assistant apps. Through countless small optimizations, you can streamline your daily routine without much effort at all. For example, checking traffic reports prior to your morning commute lets you know right away whether it makes more sense to take the train instead of drive. Not only does this get you to work faster, but also frees up time during your morning commute you can use to get a jump on small work tasks right away or enjoy some free time to yourself, such as listening to music or reading your favorite book, for example. On the way back, a smart notification reminds us that we haven’t yet reached our daily goal of 10,000 steps. But we’re in luck - the weather is ideal for an evening run. And while jogging, be sure not to forget your smartwatch. This clever device measures your pulse to determine the exact speed at which you can burn the most fat - after all, it should be worth it! Once you get home, it's time to hit the fridge to claim your reward. Here, too, you’re not alone - tips on what to eat and how to prepare the perfect meal are at your fingertips - all without a private chef. Nutrition is the key to a healthy lifestyle. And that, after all, is what many strive for - a perfect work-life balance which allows us to succeed and enjoy free time all to ourselves.
Self-improvement tech solutions and optimization of time within our private lives via AI-powered tech are in full swing. As a veteran sales expert, I began asking myself the question relatively early on: "Why can't this be applied to work time?" In essence, shouldn't you try to optimize time on the clock before you make your free time more efficient? That's what we're going to take a closer look at in this post: AI-driven optimization of work processes in B2B and SaaS sales.
Sales Automation, But at What Price?
By nature, the sales process in the B2B and software sector is a rather complex and time-consuming process. It isn’t uncommon for sales managers to have to be in contact with more than 100 potential customers at one time. Plus, sales managers are also responsible for convincing each and every customer that the software they’re selling is exactly the right solution for the customer's challenges.
On the bright side, sales is for the most part a relatively standardized process. And where there is a repetitive process, there is potential to optimize it. Just like the daily drive to work where - with the right tools in hand - you’re prepared for whatever comes your way.
And where the potential to innovate exists in the business environment, solution seekers are usually not far away. These range from providers who specialize in locating leads on the web (Wufasta, ocean.io, hunter, etc.), tools that enable the documentation of all customer contacts in a CRM (Salesforce, Pipedrive, HubSpot, etc.), all the way to fully automated control of sales activities using sales automation software (LinkedIn Sales Navigator, HubSpot, etc.). All of this is nothing new and has existed for years in B2B sales, especially in the software industry.
Despite the versatility of the tools available, constant complaints from the industry surrounding sales productivity still persist. B2B companies alone lose $1 trillion each year due to low sales productivity and poorly managed prospecting. You're in "a lot of conversations" but a quarter of all forecasted deals alone don't end in a final decision. And here we’re only talking about the deals that were believed to have great potential. This in turn means that many sales managers waste a lot of time with prospective buyers who can never become customers. So why do they do that?
Bottlenecked by a Lack of Experience - is “Guided Selling” the Solution?
Similar to driving a brand new car off the lot which possesses a completely revamped set of driving capabilities, characteristics and features, new sales rep hires often lack the experience and tacit knowledge to be able to correctly assess and react to complex situations quickly. To stay within the scope of the analogy, sales leads often even rely on novice drivers because the demand for employees is enormously high and continues to rise. In Berlin alone, almost 2 thousand startups were founded last year, almost 50% of them in the B2B sector. In turn, the demand for sales managers is growing rapidly. Many companies resort to sales newcomers and/or rookies. And even the experienced colleagues usually have only a few years of professional experience in this environment. The software industry is simply still very young and, above all, dynamic.
In recent years, I have seen numerous sales managers come and go. Some showed up out of the blue and were quickly crowned the new superstars; others took their time to study their colleagues carefully. Some of these initial superstars found themselves back on the bench relatively quickly. For some of the more careful and cautious new sales managers, the third year was the year things started to take off. All of these experiences show that there is no one-size-fits-all plan, approach or method for guaranteed success which all employees follow. Far too many factors play into each individual sales process:
Is the timing right?
Is there good chemistry between contacts?
Am I talking to the right contact?
Is the customer's industry doing well right now?
I can think of hundreds of additional factors that can directly influence the odds of securing a successful outcome within a sales process. However, knowing all of them and having them at hand in the appropriate situation is still a major challenge for many. And now think of the majority of sales employees who still lack this knowledge due to a lack of experience - this simply leaves much to be desired.
Through extensive personal experience acquired over the years in numerous sales positions - in particular throughout my last role as Head of Sales - I’ve come to recognize what a difference it can make when I closely accompany processes and can incorporate my experience in decisive situations (discussions with Purchasing, the CEO, etc.). Unfortunately, this type of hands-on approach to the position also often means that you don't have enough time to be there for all salespeople to the same extent, which is why such solutions primarily serve as a brief exchange of experience. However, these joint customer meetings have ultimately led to a demonstrable increase in productivity and more deals down the road.
In order to further optimize the qualitative component within the sales process alongside the quantitative (sales automation) and thus noticeably increase the sales reps’ productivity, continuous guidance (leadership, instruction) in B2B sales could play a decisive role. What would such an optimization look like? Foremost, such an innovation would integrate a comprehensive support system which guides reps from every point of contact all the way up to the signed offer via the best possible means - that is, all without losing the customer's interest.
Experts Call it “Guided Selling"
In order to maximize closing potential in each individual sales process, knowledge and experience of veteran colleagues should be combined with new trends in real time. This is exactly what the future will be about. AI will become the secret ingredient enabling the software to make a direct recommendation for the best plan of action as if it were to access the knowledge base and expertise of the head of sales without his or her presence.
The globally recognized market research institute "Gartner" even predicts that by 2024, 51% of sales teams will be using an algorithm-based sales approach or at least plan to do so. Current changes to the way we work due to the COVID-19 pandemic will also play an important role here as more and more employees make the switch to remote work. This trend will be irreversible post-pandemic. This inevitably underscores the need to think about how to reach your employees remotely and how to convey the knowledge or information previously casually passed along or disclosed on a daily basis within the office. And this is where Guided Selling comes in: Through the use of artificial intelligence, sales teams will be able to make the right decisions at the right time - and all within a fraction of the time.
How will Guided Selling Play such a Vital Role, and Why Now?
2020 was a year of change for all of us in an unprecedented situation. As work from home became the new norm, new tools were needed to do so effectively. We became experts in video conferencing and sent mailings with personal greetings - often in the form of short videos. Many familiar rules of the sales game have changed. Some fundamentals of certain practices are being challenged. Selling strategies and techniques that worked before have since lost their impact. Yet, employees are expected to sell as if nothing has changed. In reality, however, a lot has changed both in sales and on the customer side, and new communication strategies have had to be deployed virtually overnight.
Some companies have managed this better than others - a handful of companies have even been able to realize significant increases in sales. During this time, quite a few sales managers/managing directors looked to exchange their experiences in order to find out what the new recipe for success looks like. How does successful sales work in the business world of today? It’s here where Guided Selling will make a decisive impact when it comes to quickly sharing traditional insights alongside completely new success factors with the team. Taking things a step further, AI Guided Selling, i.e. AI-supported guidance in sales, will become the new gamechanger. Sales AIs will be able to hone in on the key factors of success (the X-factors) from a multitude of information along a sales process. These success factors will then be implemented at the right time and in the right place as recommendations for action. This will be the new instrument in sales that the managing directors and sales managers and their team leaders have been waiting for - I'm sure of it.
AI Guided Selling will be the new Gold Standard
AI Guided Selling will be the new authoritative norm in sales tech which will lead to improved forecasts and ultimately to a noticeable increase in sales productivity. Yet, utilizing AI Guided Selling isn’t as simple as a push of a button once you’ve optimized a few internal procedures - AI takes into account the big picture on a grand scale. And the big picture is made up of thousands of small insights (data) that need to be maintained and interpreted at the same time. This extends all the way to large-scale benchmarking across all decisive criteria, which then results in a target-oriented Next Step. Of course, this is completely tailored to the respective performance profile of each individual Sales Rep, including consideration of the contact person. You can think of it like driving a vehicle through difficult to navigate areas, while also taking into account the fuel level and real-time changes in traffic patterns.
You can also compare the prospects of AI Guided Selling to the sports world. In similar fashion to a sales manager, the coach of a soccer team also plays his or her team against the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. In addition, there are coaches for each specific position, sometimes even for individual players, to train individual skills and maximize performance. In the end, just as in sales, everyone pursues the same goal: You want to win - whether it be a game or a new customer. Through AI Guided Selling, it will be possible to strategically align and play to each sales rep’s specific strengths and weaknesses within any sales situation - just like a striker who is well aware that the opposing goalkeeper will jump to defend the right corner of the goal 75% of the time.
The above example clearly demonstrates that AI Guided Selling should include both recommendations for action based on experience which take into account global contexts as well as individual training packages suitable for each respective step in the sales process. The result aims not only to increase overall productivity noticeably, but also sustainably. Gartner also came to this conclusion in the report "Optimize Sales Execution With Artificial Intelligence for B2B Guided Selling" published in the summer of 2020. The report adds buyer signals - that is, the analysis of sales conversations and other communications (such as mailings, etc.) - to the list of further input factors. The use of such insights undoubtedly represents another exciting component, which, however, is not yet possible to evaluate in Europe and especially in Germany due to current data privacy laws.
In addition to the four levels mentioned, I would like to add another, quite essential source of input in my view: the sales rep. Because at the end of the day, it’s the sales reps which AI Guided Selling will help close more deals. Therefore, all of the above components should also be optimally aligned with the needs and capabilities of each individual sales team member. Generic sales playbooks are not enough; each sales rep must know his or her individual strengths and weaknesses. This is the only way to actively expand individual skills and apply them directly within the sales process. This, of course, all while taking into account the complete experience of the entire sales team, just as if they were always available for consultation - like a state-of-the-art navigation system for deals.
And it’s all thanks to AI Guided Selling Software!
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