The Future of B2B Sales in a AI-Driven World
“Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” –"Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller
Consumers have lived with increasingly distant sales relationships for some time, as they make more and more of their purchases online or in big-box stores.
The same is not true for business sales. Complex products, high price points, and a belief in the power of individual relationships have all helped keep business-to-business sales relatively old-fashioned. Many B2B transactions would still be surprisingly recognizable to Willy Loman, the doomed salesman in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play.
Indeed, the B2B sales representative has proven a remarkably resilient part of the economy. Even as all kinds of middlemen went away on the consumer side, a lot of B2B transactions are still driven by people.
But is time running out for the Willy Lomans of the world? For the millions of people still in B2B sales – 4.5 million in the U.S. alone, according to an estimate by e-commerce researcher Forrester – advances in technology may soon change their lives dramatically. A recent McKinsey & Co. study estimated that about 40% of the average business sales rep’s work could be performed by a machine with current technology alone – and if bots that understand natural language reach median human performance, that number could rise to 47%.
“There is a big fundamental shift going on in how sales are initiated and carried through that involves much more automation and technology than one-on-one individual relationships,” says Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist and user experience consultant based in Edgar, Wisconsin.
Preparing for an earthquake
Some analysts argue that we need to prepare for an enormous shakeout, as automation and e-commerce makes most sales roles redundant. Others believe that the pessimism is misplaced, and that automation will mostly make B2B sales reps more efficient than ever. But nobody arguing against the notion that a digital revolution that will affect every link in the sales process is underway:
Lead generation is one part of the business where reps may soon be in the passenger seat. LeadCrunch, for instance, will take a list of your best customers and sift through millions of data points to find prospects that resemble your winners. Result? LeadCrunch claims their leads are sometimes three times as effective as leads from more conventional lists.
Currently, about 60% of every sales rep’s day is spent on various kinds of record-keeping, according to a Salesforce.com study, but maybe not for long: “Most routine things such as making appointments, providing order information, and updating the purchase order will be fully automated,” predicts Jagdish Sheth, a professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta and noted corporate strategist.
Sheth, an optimist, argues that the use of tools such as Salesforce.com will free reps for more valuable work. “This will increase the sales person’s time for less routine things such as new product demonstration as well as desk research on client’s past purchase history and anticipating the future demand by each SKU as well as timing of the future orders,” he says.
In the grand bazaar of B2B sales, where key decision-makers are courted like royalty, relationships are often a decisive factor – but here too, human beings may soon have help.
A variety of systems are now being developed, including Cyrano.ai, Gong.io, and MindMeld, capable of monitoring sales talks, offering suggestions about where to take the conversation next, and even interpreting the emotions in the voice of the person at the other end of the line.
Some of those kibitzing-bots are also able to draw larger conclusions from all those conversations. Gong.io, for instance, has found out in the course of its research that the best sales people tend to listen a bit more than they talk (57 of every 100 minutes, to be precise).
Even so, Bala Shankar, Singapore-based author of Nuanced Account Management: Driving Excellence in B2B Sales, is skeptical about the degree of automation possible. “It’s not like the ATM machine giving out cash instead of the cash clerk. It’s not as simple as that,” he says.
The next generation
At the same time as machines get better at talking (and listening) to people, people are getting cozier with machines. Today’s buyers reportedly spend only 17% of their time meeting potential suppliers, compared to 18% researching offline, 22% meeting with other members of the buying group, and 27% researching online, according to Gartner, the global business research and advisory firm.
This preference creates two challenges for sellers. First, they will need to upgrade their websites to enable people to do more for themselves. “The buyers have a very high expectation of how far they should be able to take the buying process online and automatically without a particular human involved,” says Weinschenk, the behavioral psychologist. “It really has to be fast and seamless.”
Second, sellers will need to fill any gaps between how customers experience their brand online vs. offline. “We worked with a company that had a real disconnect between their brand and the way the chatbot worked,” says Weinshenk. “Their brand was all about being very casual, very friendly, but their chatbot was kind of formal.”
Once reps are freed from clerical work and other operations, they will be able to focus more of their attention on advising their clients and providing more tailored solutions. “The sales person will become a more valuable asset. He or she will be asked to do more strategic thinking and draw up a strategic plan in collaboration with each customer account,” Sheth says.
This may also mean that the rep begins to spend more time talking to people within the company. “In some cases, the sales person may be elevated to key account manager and therefore, focus as much internally to coordinate different functions and products as he or she spends time with the customer,” Sheth explains.
Already, companies are concentrating more resources on their most valuable accounts. The most effective sales teams focus on 40% fewer accounts than they worked on a few years ago, according to Gartner. These more focused reps are also more likely to work together as a team, anticipating the needs of their clients.
This additional focus may in turn lead companies to make more investments not only in artificial intelligence, but the organic variety.
“There was a period when a sales training program was more about customer relationship management, but that’s likely to change,” says Shankar. “Customers are likely to value higher-order expertise – their strategic input and business transformation advice, much more than the [rep’s] general demeanor.”
In fact, this may be happening already: McKinsey has found that 48% of fast-growing young companies “invest significant time and resources in sales training” compared to only 22% of companies stuck in a slow-growth mode.
This should be good news for reps — provided they know their subject very well. “It’s a golden opportunity for the more knowledgeable sales people,” Shankar says.
Time to hit the books, Willy.