Jemma has had a successful day at the trade fair. She has chatted to hundreds of potential leads, with her pockets literally bulging with business cards. Now comes the laborious task of typing the information on them into the company’s CRM system. It ends up taking the best part of a day.

But it doesn't have to be like that, this can all be done in a matter of minutes. Jemma can instead take a picture of each card with her smartphone and the information is automatically uploaded to the CRM system. What sounds like an easy enough gadget is – to all intents and purposes – an example of AI transforming salespeople’s activities.

This example is not the only AI application in sales. In fact, AI technologies now mean it is possible to enhance the whole sales funnel. Let’s start at the top of the funnel and work through some of the AI tools rapidly changing the face of sales departments.

1 Generating leads

As well as automatically transferring business cards to the CRM system, some companies use AI to crawl the internet for new leads. Algorithms, using natural language processing, screen which companies are similar to existing customers that are already in the CRM system. The algorithms then automatically extract the contact information and store it for the sales staff.

2 Qualifying leads

Traditionally, qualifying a lead means meeting a potential client or phoning them up to find out if there is a possible match with their needs. This sizing-up of who is best to approach can now be done automatically by AI, which is able to give each lead a score.

After characterising a lead across several dimensions, based on historic data of similar leads AI tools can produce a judgement on the likelihood of the lead being converted to a customer. A tool like this has been built from scratch by a team of data scientists at a German machine manufacturer and is bespoke to them, but I expect other companies will be working on their own versions.

The generation and qualifying of leads can also be done through marketing automation. This is typically done by a white paper or report attracting internet users, who have to give their details and email address to download it.

As soon as their details are entered, they are saved to the database and then the marketing automation takes place, with AI giving each entry a score according to how purchase-ready they are. This score, which goes up and down according to the lead’s behaviour, determines the type and chain of automated emails they will receive.

Do they open the emails? What do they click on? What do they look at on the company website? These interactions will determine the type of emails they receive. And once that score reaches a certain level, then they're called up by a member of the sales team.

Indeed, the automated emails do not only contain offers of products or services, but valuable content aiming to build a relationship and finding out what the potential customer is interested in via what they click on. Knowing when to send these emails is optimised by AI to maximise the likelihood of them reading the emails.

AI can also make sure the content customers receive is tailored to their interests and even location. For example, when I visited Malaysia and briefly visited the website of a company that tracked me via cookies, they proactively emailed me a content report about the Asia Pacific market.

3 Identifying needs

Once you have a qualified lead and want to sell to them, you need to understand what they are after, what their needs are, and then find the right solution for them.

This is where recommendation engines are used, similar to those employed by Amazon and Netflix, which suggest new products or films based on your behaviour.

Cookies track customers’ behaviour, and then based on their characteristics, previous purchases and what other customers with similar attributes bought in the past, AI can calculate what the sales force could potentially cross-sell to them.

To go even deeper into customers’ needs, tools like Crystal and JOYai reveal what the personality profile of potential prospects is. Once it has the customer names it scans social media channels to make a statistical prediction on whether they are an extrovert or introvert, conscientious or inattentive and so on. This produces a customer profile, which sales staff can use to personalise their offerings of services or products.

4 Presenting solutions

Once you have identified the prospects’ needs and identified which solution might satisfy these needs, AI can help by presenting the right argument at the right time.

For example, Showpad is a sales enablement system that tracks which documents salespeople show to customers and at which point in time. It then works out what is the most successful sequence, recommending it to all the sales reps and enabling them to push the right document at the right time.

Also, many companies are now using VR or AR to provide solutions and sell products, whether it is John Lewis allowing you to visualise a host of sofas in your living room, or a hairdressers trying out new styles on your photo.

5 Negotiating

AI is now being used to predict what price potential customers will be willing to pay. Based on the characteristics of the customer, AI can statistically work out the probability of each price, so firms can adjust the offering according to the budget they calculate they can extract.

Also, there are AI solutions available to deal with complex contract negotiations. With complicated deals involving a lot of money, contracts are sent back and forth between the customer organisation and supplier with details on all the specs.

These contracts can cover hundreds of pages, but how do you know whether the customer or the supplier has changed something without highlighting it? AI can now scan these contracts and rapidly find any changes made.

6 Building relationships

Chatbots, which are essentially driven by AI, are increasingly common. They can be used to build relationships with potential customers and create a friendly personality for the brand.

National Geographic went a step further and created an Albert Einstein chatbot so visitors to its website could engage with the legendary scientist. It helped to pull in many more viewers for its new TV show Genius.

AI can also help to lower customer churn rate – that is, the number of customers discontinuing from a company's subscription. Specifically, AI can predict the probability that a customer will stay or leave the company several months in advance. The company can then initiate retention measures for customers with a high churn probability.

In addition, sales staff can now be given real-time coaching to improve their relationship with a client. The off-the-shelf solution Cogito, analyses the human voice to give advice on how to engage with a customer.

It follows the conversation and then flashes up tips to the salesperson, such as to “speak slower” or “ask more questions”. Thus, AI helps improve the emotional intelligence of salespeople.

While all this is going on, AI solutions like Chorus update your CRM system at every stage, even listening in to phone conversations to add notes to each customer relationship.

With around a third of sales staff spending more than more than one hour a day on data entry or other manual tasks, AI has the potential to not only boost their performance but brighten up their days as well.

These examples highlight that AI is fundamentally transforming sales by informing salespeople to make better decisions and automating actions to make life easier for them.

Notably, at this point in time, AI mainly enhances salespeople’s capabilities to better serve customers rather than replacing them altogether. Thus, far from threatening sales jobs, AI could not only allow skilled sales staff like Jemma to do what they are really good at - building relationships and developing value with quality leads - but help improve their performance.

Johannes Habel is Associate Professor of Marketing and teaches Marketing Analytics on the MSc Marketing & Strategy and International Marketing on the Undergraduate programme. He is also the Course Director of Digital Transformation of Sales.

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