The coronavirus pandemic has changed how business sales work in a very short time span, with technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) becoming increasingly important. Before the pandemic, sales representatives spent almost half (46pc) of their time with customers or at customers’ work premises, according to a Gartner survey of 47 chief sales officers.
With such face-to-face sales impossible, the pandemic has accelerated many businesses’ plans to move online, says Geoff Webb, vice president of strategy at business technology company PROS. Mr Webb recalls one PROS customer who went from earning 10pc of revenue from e-commerce to 80pc within just three months.
This goes to show that investing in e-commerce has become incredibly important for businesses in the post-pandemic world. “We saw [digital transformation] plans that were probably laid out over 18 months becoming something that needed to be executed very, very quickly,” says Mr Webb. “That has really put the pressure on businesses to put their arms around the potential for e-commerce, to connect with buyers. It also means if they’re not doing that, their buyers potentially are somewhere else. That’s a real problem.
“The one thing that B2B businesses cannot ignore is the way that their customers want to buy things. In the B2B world, people want to have control. They want to be able to do their own research. Digital selling is a great way to let the buyer drive the process, figure out what they want themselves, then buy it.”
AI is helping businesses adjust to this rapidly changing world, Mr Webb says. Even before the pandemic, Gartner research showed that 14pc of global businesses had deployed AI, with a further 48pc intending to do so by the end of 2020. “AI helps you take out a lot of the assumptions and the ‘gut feelings’ that you get in traditional B2B businesses. It lets you look at a huge amount of information and extract from that patterns and trends that people may miss.
“In times like these when things are shifting really quickly, it can help you think about the whole sales process. What do I sell? What’s the right price? What volume should I offer through what channels?” Mr Webb advises businesses to listen to their markets and their customers, because what people want changed really fast a few months ago. This is where digital selling really comes into its own – giving businesses the capability to make rapid decisions based on real-time market insights. “If you’re a B2B business, you need to go where your customers are, you need to interact with them how they want to interact.”
In this new reality, AI is augmenting the role of salespeople, rather than replacing them, says Mr Webb: “AI can deliver insights on what’s going on that a person would miss. We see AI as being really important in doing analysis and listening to the market, listening to customer behaviour, and listening to other signals that are going on in the market and the supply chain. It could be as complex as rapid changes in global commodity prices, or as family as the impact of the weather forecast on customer demands.”
But salespeople can also add a powerful human element when working with the technology.
“The salesperson can add context, in terms of what’s happening in the rest of the world in real time and the essential element of empathy for a customer’s needs, in a way a machine can’t,” Mr Webb says. “It allows you to bring a tremendous amount of horsepower to solving the problems your customers are facing. And that is the sort of thing that can make customers say: ‘I’m never buying from anybody else. I’m coming back to these guys because they’ve saved my skin.’”
In other words, the use of AI technology allows salespeople to become a big differentiator for businesses by being highly informed and responsive when a customer has questions, concerns, or simply needs help making a complex decision. “It’s a surprising outcome,” Mr Webb says. “But adding all of this technology allows a salesperson to focus on the human aspect. It elevates their role. A really good B2B salesperson coupled with this technology is an extraordinarily powerful kind of melding.”
Businesses can really start to reap the benefits when they “join the dots” between different departments, rather than simply using a series of disconnected AI tools, Mr Webb believes. “What makes it really interesting is when you start to see the connections across your business. So it starts to become a process where you’re not just adding more individually disparate tools, you’re starting to build out a framework or platform of AI technology across your business that ultimately can start to bubble up more and more insight.”
Digital selling enables businesses to focus on meeting customer needs, and in the process, transform themselves, Webb says. “When businesses think about how technology can make them a better business, they shouldn’t start with how the warehouse runs, or how to shrink-wrap products,” Webb says. “Start with where your customers are; start with delivering value to the customer via digital commerce. I think that causes a ripple effect of transforming the business all the way through. Digital commerce has gone from something that was potentially a project to invest in, to being essential for business operations and business survival.”
Business survival depends on AI
Although it's no longer business as usual for companies across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has generated opportunities for sales functions willing to embrace artificial intelligence.
But how can humans and machines work together and augment each other's skill sets? PROS understands that technology is crucial for company resilience as we enter the new normal. Their range of AI-powered commerce software is designed to ensure your business is not just surviving, but thriving.
Go to pros.com to learn more about how AI can help drive sales for your business.