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    Will AI Really Help You Sell?

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    It’s almost the only thing people want to talk about these past few months: Artificial intelligence. ChatGPT and its many children and siblings have set the internet and our industry ablaze with speculation about what it means for us.

    It’s also set the sales technology industry ablaze with new point solutions and plug-ins and updates to existing software that incorporate AI and get ahead of the craze.

    If you’ve been following me for long, you won’t be surprised to hear that I worry about how all these new tools will contribute to point pollution, and lead to more and bigger Frankenstacks that don’t actually solve fundamental sales problems at all but just make our lives harder and more complex.

    There’s no question that AI can and will and already is changing the way we sell. The real question is HOW will it change the way we sell, and will it actually make us better? And make buyers better off?

    AI Is Not Magic

    I found this interesting article by Bill Schmarzo on Data Science Central about the importance of user intent in making AI effective. He explains that “there is really nothing magical about AI” - it is just a piece of technology that “will constantly seek to optimize and refine its operations based upon the variables and metrics” that its designers and operators give it.

    What makes it interesting and new is that it will “constantly seek to optimize and refine at a speed billions of times faster than the human mind.”

    This means that it can solve problems in a minuscule fraction of the time it would take a human operator to solve the same problem. It can incorporate billions more data points than a human could reasonably be expected to access or review. And it can present convincing results based on complex questions in a matter of seconds.

    But there is one important matter on which AI is not only not better than humans, it actually performs worse: Understanding intent.

    Why Intent Matters in Complex B2B Sales

    Schmarzo uses the example of a maps application to discuss intent. If you ask your maps app to take you from point A to point B, the application will make assumptions about your intent: Most likely, that you want to get to point B from point A as efficiently as possible.

    Modern maps are astonishingly good at this. They can even incorporate additional intent when you explicitly ask for it: I want to see scenery along the way; I want to avoid toll roads; I want to make a stop at a coffee shop; I want to get there as safely as possible.

    In this simple example, user intent can be specified by the user to the AI, and the AI can incorporate billions of data points to select a route that meets the user’s intent.

    However, the more complex the problem, the more difficult it is for AI to understand intent. For instance, imagine you have multiple people in the car for a road trip, and they each have different priorities: One wants a scenic route, one needs to take frequent breaks, another wants to drive past their old high school, and the driver has anxiety about road construction. A future version of an AI maps app might be able to incorporate all of these user intents as data points and create an optimal route: But only if it understands everyone’s intent.

    Complex B2B sales is not a simple journey from point A to point B with a few parameters mixed in along the way. By nature, it involves multiple stakeholders, differing priorities, complex problems, and often undefined risks and needs. And you can only address these matters if you are aware of them.

    While AI might be able to solve for all of the variables involved in a complex B2B sale (someday), what it can’t do is measure user intent unless we explicitly tell it what the intent is. And we can’t tell it what the intent is, unless we know it ourselves.

    AI Can Go Marvelously Right - Or Disastrously Wrong

    Thanks to its remarkable speed and ability to process a large chunk of the available information in the world, an AI can perform remarkable feats. It can make art, write poetry, perform instant analyses of complex global problems. It can respond with apparent empathy to human concerns, and provide “company” in the form of conversation that is nearly indistinguishable from human conversation.

    We can’t tell AI about buyers’ intent unless we know it ourselves.

    It’s also been known to flirt, to threaten, and to have awkward and troubling conversations that left users feeling “unsettled.” A reporter with the NY Times, Kevin Roose, reported on a conversation he initiated with Bing’s AI engine, in which the AI gave itself a name, confessed to a laundry list of dark crimes it could - and might want to - commit, and confessed its undying and eternal love for Roose. It left Roose disturbed, and prompted Microsoft’s CTO to respond that this was part of the AI’s “learning process” and that it was not ready for public use.

    With the enormous power and potential of AI, comes enormous potential for things to go disastrously wrong.

    Setting aside world-shattering effects that once belonged exclusively to the realm of science fiction, let’s take a moment to consider three reasons that AI might go “disastrously wrong” within your sales organization.

    1. You aren’t clear in your own intent for the technology, and think this at last will be the “silver bullet” you’ve been chasing
    2. Your salespeople aren’t clear about buyer intent, and the AI is left to run on its own assumptions
    3. You’re already not using the technology that you have effectively, and now you have one more layer of complexity and expense in your tech stack

    Your maps app won’t tell you where to go on vacation. It can guess, based on billions of data points, but in the end only you know what will make you happiest. Only you know the data points that reside inside yourself.

    Likewise, your AI can’t know the motives, the desires, fears, and plans of each of the stakeholders involved in a complex B2B sale.

    Until you take the time to design a sales strategy, process, playbooks, training, coaching and enablement that empower your sales team in HOW to sell, AI can only at best be a useful productivity tool. At worst, it can go terribly awry, spamming stakeholders with conversations and content that treat them like a commodity rather than humans and that can drive them away from the sale rather than toward.

    In Schmarzo’s words:

    “If we don’t properly and holistically define the variables and metrics that comprise our AI Utility Function based upon the user’s intent, then the probability that the AI model can go bad is very high… and it could go bad billions of times faster than the human mind could monitor, comprehend, manage, and correct.”

    At Membrain, we’re committed to applying technology to elevate the sales profession. This means that we pay attention to emerging technologies, while retaining our focus on what will actually help you improve HOW you sell. We are working with AI to discover how it can help us, and our customers and partners, while retaining a healthy caution and a keen focus on understanding intent.

    I’m curious: How are you using AI in your sales efforts today? Is it going well for you? What’s working and not working? Are you measuring its impact on your results? If so, what are you seeing so far?

    George Brontén
    Published April 5, 2023
    By George Brontén

    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