July 3, 2019

Selling Smarter and Faster with the Help of AI

By Henry Canaday

Artificial intelligence is sweeping through business markets, helping companies more easily spot market trends. Since the AI box contains so many useful tools – from natural language processing (to understand what people are saying) to machine learning (to detect significant patterns in both numerical and textual data) – it’s hardly surprising that AI is changing B2B selling, which involves so much collection of information about prospects and delivery of information to prospects.

There are many ways AI can help reps sell, and we are just beginning to understand its potential. Even in its early stages, AI is saving salespeople substantial time, making marketers much more efficient in supporting reps, shortening the sales cycle, and boosting win rates. Leaders in the AI revolution see these gains only strengthening as AI tools get better and sales forces learn to exploit their potential.

Finding Needed Information Quickly
Let’s start with a primary goal of all sales managers: getting new or under-performing reps up to speed quickly and efficiently.

Chorus.ai software analyzes phone calls, online meetings, and screen shares, recording these crucial contacts and automatically finding out what is working and what are the top reps’ best practices that should be shared across the sales force, explains Chorus CEO Roy Raanani.

This recording and analysis capability yields three important benefits:

  1. New reps, by being able to virtually shadow top performers closing real deals, can learn to sell faster. “They ramp up in less than half the time,” Raanani estimates. “New hires learn how to handle the competition, what to do with tricky objections, and how to position pricing as they ride shotgun with your best salespeople.”
  2. Best practices spread throughout the sales force – especially the middle 60-80 percent of reps who, though not newcomers, are not selling as well at the top 10 percent.
  3. The voice of customers comes to the entire company, including the C-Suite execs who set product, finance, and marketing strategies. Instead of wasting time listening in on random sales calls, these execs can now get Chorus alerts when a certain important topic, competitor, or market issue is mentioned in any customer contact. “An e-mail will summarize the five calls you can listen to on this subject,” Raanani says.

The Chorus exec emphasizes that Chorus is not merely recording calls and looking for keywords. It uses natural language processing to understand words in context and, thus, to analyze conversations. The software works well out of the box, but becomes progressively smarter as its AI learns to identify the different voices of people, separate out these different voices, and spot the common themes in each company’s sales conversations.

All this AI understanding makes it easy to navigate a recorded contact and quickly find the most relevant bits – with no need for programming by the client. “It learns the language of the business,” Raanani stresses. The analyzed summary of each contact is then stored in the CRM system with a link to the full recording. Chorus can eavesdrop on any call or presentation platform, such as Zoom, Webex or GoToMeeting, but cannot listen to personally-placed telephone calls.

Raanani says a number of companies now offer transcriptions of sales conversations, but Chorus has the only fully self-learning technology that understands these conversations rather than simply searching for keywords in them. As a result, companies such as Adobe, Procore and Zoom Video Communications have increased quota attainment and win rates by 30-50 percent using the software, says the Chorus CEO.

Next up is a nifty solution for directly helping reps sell better. Kiite uses AI to create sales playbooks and cheat sheets, explains CEO Joseph Fung. “It crawls through your knowledge content so reps have just what they need at their fingertips,” Fung says. The results are personalized by sales role (for example, for middle-market sales reps) and for the type of customer contact. They are then available in mobile devices on chat platforms such as Slack or on Web browsers.

Reps can also ask text questions of Kiite – pulling in information from their CRM systems, subject matter experts, and marketing materials. The tool constantly updates and tweaks its playbooks.

Kiite is thus like a personal digital assistant in a lot of ways, except it is tailored for sales and recommends the key things a rep needs to say and do at each stage of the sales process. And reps can ask questions anonymously, getting fast answers. Meanwhile, Kiite is learning the patterns of questions asked so it can improve its future playbooks and will help managers and marketers set priorities for developing new content. Largely, Kiite breaks down existing marketing content into the smaller bits reps need to see on their devices and use quickly while engaging prospects.

Fung explains Kiite quickly and easily puts important information in the hands of reps. He estimates the typical B2B rep today spends 40 percent of his or her time talking to prospects. Another 30 percent is spent just hunting for information, and that’s where his software saves time.

Implementing Kiite takes about four weeks, depending on how much information the system has to absorb. Fung believes it is suited to any sales force of a half dozen reps or more that is doing more than simply transaction-based selling.

Marketing – Organized and Just in Time
AI is also helping reps deal with the vast but often hard-to-tap resources marketing provides. Seismic’s AI tools are all about getting field reps the best possible content to sell, says co-founder and CTO Marc Romano. “Large organizations with complex products, processes, and prices simply have a lot of marketing materials,” Romano explains. His software aims to get reps the right content at the right time and personalize it.

CRM systems help suggest the right content to use based on success rates, and can also highlight new material that is working well. Seismic’s robust search capability helps find that content.

Seismic also customizes PDFs and other documents at scale for the specific customer contact after reps indicate who they are talking to. “It pulls data from the CRM system and indicates the products you should want to talk about,” Romano says. “Then it personalizes materials in 60 seconds.”

So Seismic uses CRM data to suggest documents for each customer contact, make recommendations on approach, indicate relevant case studies, and provide just-in-time information useful to each rep. “It’s all about not making reps search,” Romano stresses.

Seismic measures the effectiveness of sales materials in several ways. It aggregates data on what content is sent and how long prospects read each page. It looks at which email sections are read, and it evaluates how long prospects spend on particular content in online meetings. Then Seismic looks at outcome data, noticing whether using certain content accelerates the sales cycles or changes win rates. “It helps to understand, to recommend, to see what works,” Romano says. “It is not creating new content.”

The Seismic tools are ideal for sales forces of above 40 reps. These larger forces might have a hundred case studies available to their reps, but each rep may really be aware of about only 20. That is where Seismic can make a big difference.

Smaller companies can go live with Seismic in as little as five days, while larger ones may take up to a full quarter to install it. Results are available on laptops, smartphones, and other devices and are displayed in CRM systems.

Results have been impressive. For example, Blackbaud provides software and services for nonprofit organizations. Having acquired 17 companies in 18 years, its sales materials were unorganized, redundant, and often out of date. Seismic increased the visibility of content for sales reps and provided analytics for marketers. The company has increased its pipeline by 32 percent, and deals now close 14 days faster.

Illumina provides its customers $2.4 billion a year in genetic testing. With 70 content databases filled by 34 different marketing teams, only 12 percent of reps could find what they needed. Seismic integrated with SAP, Box, and Salesforce to create one source of up-to-date, on-brand, and compliant sales content.

And $8.7 billion-a-year SunTrust Banks used Seismic to cut by 92 percent the time needed to build customer pitch books.

Managing Your Contacts
Finally, AI can make a big difference in helping with the sheer volume of contacts B2B reps must make. Just to get through to prospects, salespeople must make a lot of emails, phone calls, and social connections, observes Chad Burmeister, CEO of ScaleX. “It’s a numbers game, and the numbers of contacts necessary to book a meeting are getting bigger.”

Reps need to do more dials, emails, and LinkedIn meetings, but a major challenge in doing all this is to personalize this outbound messaging for maximum effectiveness. That is where ScaleX’s AI approach comes in. Instead of customizing the email just for the addressee’s company role – CFO, COO, HR manager, and so forth – ScaleX personalizes the first two sentences for the individual who actually occupies this role. The software does this by tapping Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other Web sources for the most personal and latest information. For example, an introductory email might begin, “I see it is snowing in your area now. Hope you can stay warm,” Burmeister explains.

This sort of personalization yields double the open rate (partly because it gets through corporate spam filters) and much higher response rates. Burmeister says impersonal cold emails normally get about a 1 percent response rate, but personalized messages can get two to five times that rate.

More opened emails lead to more and better meetings. But, if reps try to personalize their outbound emails manually, it can take a rep four to five hours to get out 15 emails. ScaleX software makes this personalization possible at a much more rapid pace and high volume.

The second tool in ScaleX’s AI sales solution automates dialing from a call list. A click of a button enables reps to get through to 125 prospects per hour instead of perhaps 25 a day.

Finally, ScaleX has automated social outreach, enabling up to 100 LinkedIn connections or a similar volume of Twitter feeds per day – all highly personalized rather than generic in content.

The productivity impact is significant. “Traditional reps get about 50 touches per day, while we enable up to 500 per day,” Burmeister explains. And the overall result can be a doubling or tripling of the sales pipeline and ultimate business booked.

Burmeister acknowledges that some rival software makers do a piece of this automation puzzle, but stresses that only his company can speed things up – all while personalizing the messages – across the board. And ScaleX connects to CRM systems such as HubSpot and Salesforce.com, both by writing data into and reading data from these systems. He emphasizes that ScaleX automates the essential selling tasks that human reps do not really need to perform, leaving these high-value reps the time to do the complex talking only they can do, via phone calls or video conferences.

Patrick Donlin, CEO of Heartland IT Consulting, says using ScaleX’s personal touches on high volumes of prospect data enabled his company to connect with more buyers. He appreciates that Burmeister does the research on sales automation, enabling him and his reps to focus on execution. “Things change so fast, you need someone constantly learning what is new and advising the right approach,” Donlin says. He calls ScaleX “a valuable extension of our team.”

AI providers’ views are broadly consistent with the latest research on AI in sales, which shows even more uses of the new tools.

A recent Aberdeen Group survey of B2B companies revealed a surprisingly mature understanding of what AI means for sales, according to Omer Minkara, an Aberdeen vice president and principal analyst. Many execs see AI as enabling content management, and fully half see AI as built into their sales enablement platforms.

AI use cases vary and often depend on the sales platform AI is part of, whether it is Salesforce.com, IBM’s Watson, or SAP’s enterprise solutions. AI is now often used to detect hidden trends and correlations that indicate which opportunities are likely to close and to suggest the right message to send at each stage of the sales cycle to maximize the probability of closing.

AI also automates interactions on Websites – for example, asking visitors questions to both educate prospects and save reps’ time in collecting information about prospects’ interests. This helps shorten sales cycles and makes reps more productive. And AI is used in territory management and opportunity management. Generally AI still tends to be used for one-off sales functions, not as a combination of many uses with experts predicting AI will be able to handle more complicated problems over time as tools keep learning and strengthening their capabilities.

The Future of Sales AI
Aberdeen is seeing a huge appetite for AI adoption: It is among the top technologies companies are planning to incorporate in 2019. One reason is that 73 percent of surveyed companies are not satisfied with their ability to use account data to manage conversations with prospects – a key function that AI can assist with.

And more is coming down the AI pipeline. Chorus’s Raanani predicts AI for sales will take two future paths. First, it will take over specific sales tasks that lend themselves well to AI techniques, such as following up on emails and scheduling meetings. Second, AI will make reps more effective – for example, by virtual coaching, as Chorus already does.

Seismic’s Romano observes that AI is already pervasive, although not everyone is aware they are using it. Consumer AI tools like Siri and Alexa are not yet ready for B2B, but natural language processing is improving rapidly. Extracting meaning from text or other data is getting easier, and research on capturing data is accelerating. He argues AI tools will increasingly be able to suggest actions to improve sales results. “This is more than coaching; it will affect behavior by suggesting next actions.”

Burmeister believes AI has only scratched the surface of its potential in helping B2B salespeople. “We are just hitting the tip of the iceberg – like the Internet in 1997 before Amazon disrupted everything.” And, eventually, many AI sales tools may be bundled under a single offering.

But Kiite’s Fung cautions that the prospects for fully automated sales are so far in the future they are not real. He argues that AI should be used to augment sales reps and enhance their productivity. “The future is not robo reps, but super reps.”