Artificial intelligence (AI) is trending in nearly every industry, ours included. AI promises to automate many routine functions, to reduce head count, and to help everyone work smarter. Salesforce released their version of “artificial intelligence,” dubbed “Einstein,” last fall, and have been touting its miraculous powers ever since.
According to its marketing, Einstein means “everyone can now have a data scientist working for them, with no data prep or model management required.” It sounds nice and the marketing department is doing a great job creating the hype around AI, but does it - and other solutions like it - live up to its promises?
Despite the big hype around AI in the sales space, most AI extensions of today are really just glorified data parsing and notifications engines. Its claim to be “artificial intelligence” lies in the fact that you don’t have to pre-program your preferences in advance, as the system will, to some extent, learn from your preferences as you go. Functions include notifying salespeople when a certain number of days have passed since they contacted a prospect, scoring leads based on data in the system, automatically import your email and calendar entries into the CRM and let salespeople know when a company they’re calling on is in the news.
Other “AI” solutions include virtual assistants, such as Charlie and Conversica, offloading the tedious work of booking appointments, automatic email nurturing, and picking up phrases in emails that could indicate a person who needs human attention.
These functions are extremely helpful to sales teams, but they are not exactly the knight in shining armor that many in the industry are claiming. Nor is artificial intelligence in general going to be a silver bullet for all sales teams.
While the promises of artificial intelligence are intriguing, there are two key reasons it is not going to transform the complex sales industry overnight – or even any time soon.
Like all other technology tools, artificial intelligence is only as good as its inputs. Consider what happened when Microsoft introduced an artificial intelligence Twitter bot named “Tay.” The AI bot was designed to behave like a young teen girl, and to learn from her interactions with others on Twitter to behave naturally. The hope was that, over time, her behavior would be indistinguishable from a “real” human Twitter user.
Unfortunately, what “Tay” “learned” from Twitter is how to be a foul-mouthed, Hitler-loving stereotype. Microsoft deleted her account and shut her down within days, before she could do more damage.
While we don’t expect AI offerings like Salesforce’s Einstein to start spewing racist diatribes any day soon, the point stands that AI is only as smart as what you introduce it to - and the people who programmed it. If your company leadership is expecting artificial intelligence to “fix” what’s wrong in the sales department, you’re expecting too much.
In order for AI to be useful, you first have to get the fundamentals right. Understand your customers, implement strong and relevant sales process and methodology, reinforce the right behaviors, and enable great coaching. When you implement these elements correctly, AI can be used as a powerful supplement to help you optimize your system.
Much of the hype around artificial intelligence centers around reducing headcount. The idea is that if your technology is smart enough, it can eventually replace the human beings on your sales team.
There is truth in this and we many sales jobs will be replaced by computers. Consider, for instance, the fast food kiosk that allows customers to quickly order what they want without talking to a human being. These kiosks are “smart” in the sense that they know what combinations of food people are most likely to order, and they walk customers through the process in a way that makes sense based on their selections.
With a little more intelligence in the machinery, the same principle can apply for helping buyers select the right product for their own needs.Just look at Amazon - a front-runner in the e-commerce space, taking out brick and mortar stores and industries one by one by using intelligent technology (and ruthless pricing policies). Amazon may not tout itself as AI, but it's certainly more intelligent than a lot of the technology being promoted as the latest gift to man kind.
The truth for complex B2B sales, however, is far different. While a well-designed AI may be an appropriate replacement for a salesperson who takes incoming calls and answers basic customer questions in a guided selling scenario, the technology is nowhere near being ready to replace the complex interactions required for a complex B2B transaction, in which there are multiple stakeholders, high perceived risk, and often long sales cycles with constantly changing conditions and company politics.
Complex sales, by definition, require a high level of trust in order to overcome perceived risk. Until we can get a Ex Machina, or Bladerunner level of intelligence from our machines, it’s unlikely that buyers will ever trust a bot in the same way they may a human. And by that time, the machines are likely to start demanding salaries. Both on the buying and selling side. We’ll have robots selling to robots. Maybe humans can serve as batteries by then, like in The Matrix :)
Despite my obvious skepticism about Salesforce’s claims and the general outlook for AI in the complex sales environment, I am excited about the potential for AI and AI-like functions in our industry. Our own product, Membrain, uses many of the same functions that Salesforce touts, the main difference being that we don’t charge $50 extra per month per person for it.
Our platform automatically helps score your leads based on ideal customer fit, sends coaching insights and notifications to salespeople based on progress and momentum in each sales project; pulls data from your email and calendar; identifies bottlenecks and constraints in your process based on performance across all your deals, and automatically analyzes win/loss data points that will help you improve your sales process and tactics. We've done this for five years, we just haven't called it AI.
In a future piece, we’ll take a closer look at how "AI" can help you transform your sales force, both with technology that is available now and technology we believe will be available in the near future. For now, if you’re thinking of investing in a new CRM that will help your sales team sell more effectively, check out our “How to Choose a CRM” guide for sales leaders and executives. It walks you through the nine most important questions to ask, to ensure you’re making a smart choice for your organization. It’s not all about AI :)
George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.
Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn