Nowadays, advances come quickly and dramatically. “The last 12 to 18 months brought more changes to the sales process than the previous five years,” states Dustin Deno, senior vice president of global sales at Showpad, a sales enablement software provider. As a result, sales teams need to be aware of the seismic market shifts. To thrive, they must adopt digital technology, embrace social media selling, and take a stand on social issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the sales process significantly. As social distancing rules went into effect, companies needed to develop new ways of interacting with and servicing customers. Virtual interactions replaced face-to-face meetings, which had been sales’ traditional cornerstone.
Moving forward, companies will need to support a hybrid model with some sales interactions face to face and others virtual. “Virtual selling started out as a Band-Aid (employees buying web cameras and talking from their living rooms), but eventually enterprises started to get good at using it as a sales complement,” explains Brent Adamson, a distinguished vice president at Gartner.
Aware of the transformation, companies are now even investing in television-quality production studios, equipped with multiple cameras, green screens, and high-quality sound systems, and having potential customers dial into professional-quality virtual presentations.
FOR SALES, A DRIVE TO DIGITAL
In addition, how goods are bought, sold, and serviced changed dramatically. For many retailers, the in-store shopping experience was significantly overhauled. Customers ordered their merchandise online and picked up it up at the curb rather than in the store. To make the transition, sales departments invested in digital technology and tried to create frictionless interactions. They did so in staggering numbers. Companies accelerated the digitization of their customer exchanges, supply-chain interactions, and internal operations by three to four years, according to a McKinsey Global survey. The share of digital products in their portfolios accelerated by an astounding seven years. Many organizations are still trying to assimilate the mass influx of digital functionality, which comes in many forms.
Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a key part in digital transformation. With new web tools and the growing functionality of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, companies collect more information about more processes (marketing, sales, customer purchases, customer service) than ever before. Consequently, the volume of the world’s data is expected to grow from 33 zettabytes (1 zettabyte equals 1 trillion gigabytes) in 2018 to 175 zettabytes by 2025, a compound annual growth rate of 61 percent, according to International Data Corp.
But often, organizations do not know how to harness the information. Despite all of the recent technical advances, more than 50 percent of sales representatives expect to miss their quotas.
Rather than continue to fly blindly and invest in solutions that do not deliver results, a growing number of companies are turning to AI to ferret through information and present relevant content to employees, partners, and customers. AI’s potential impact is vast and evident in every step of the sales journey, so adoption is projected to increase 139 percent in three years.
AI IMPROVES SALES FORECASTING
Forecasting is the backbone of sales. Sales teams must conduct thorough analyses of the metrics they use to justify their investments and assess their performance. AI enhances forecasting precision. “Traditionally, outbound marketing looked for a needle in a haystack, so the more calls made, the more likely they would find it,” says Showpad’s Deno. “With AI, companies can focus their efforts much better and generate more leads in less time.”
Increasingly, AI recommendations guide the sales process. A simple example is listing suggestions to customers based on their recent purchases or similar purchases by like-minded personas. Such systems have become more sophisticated as vendors have collected more data.
Now, AI improves lead scoring and even determines which prospects have a higher chance of conversion, saving time, reducing resources, and improving results.
A few other areas are also gaining traction. Prescriptive AI selling recommends next best actions, such as what content to send next to a prospect, while predictive insights reveal statistically relevant indicators about sales process steps.
SALES AUTOMATION GAINS GROUND
Another area where digital technology and AI are having an impact is sales automation. The goal here is to offload mundane functions from employees so that they spend more time on the creative elements in the sales process and less time just keeping the system running.
About 40 percent of sales tasks can be performed by AI. On the simple side, the software streamlines note-taking and appointment setting, allowing employees to focus more on nurturing leads and closing deals. More complex applications include CRM systems that automate customer outreach, remove friction from webform data capture, set up drip campaigns, visualize sales pipelines, and link contacts to email.
In addition, AI technology is enabling enterprises to offload customer support tasks. For instance, chatbots are at the center of new conversational customer experiences and rewriting rules that were based on procedures that often started with a cold call and included face-to-face follow-up meetings. Turning routine tasks over to machines has many potential benefits:
• chatbots reduce service calls by 30 percent;
• 52 percent of consumers are more likely to make repeat purchases if the company offers support via live chat;
• 79 percent of companies say live chat has had positive results for sales and revenue;
• 47 percent of consumers would be open to making a purchase completely from a chatbot; and
• even B2B sales organizations are creating self-service, digital buying experiences and following their customers’ lead: 43 percent of B2B customers prefer to not interact with a sales rep at all, according to Gartner.
But companies need to be cautious because their desire to automate might go too far. Forcing customers to avoid sales reps puts pressure on individual buyers, who often cannot distinguish nuanced differences among products. Also, the vendor does not have an opportunity to reinforce its strong selling points. As a result, the regret rate for those customers preferring a rep-free experience is 23 percent higher than for customers who interact with a sales rep, according to Gartner.
“Companies need to mix automated and human responses,” says Gartner’s Adamson. The company representatives complement and support the digital experience rather than sit outside of it. They use technology—diagnostic tools, customized benchmarking data, and solution configuration guides—to interactively help customers dive deeper into their options and close deals.
Varying levels of human interaction are needed at different stages of the sales process, according to McKinsey.
Consider the following statistics:
• 76 percent of B2B buyers find it helpful to speak to someone in person or on the phone when they want to purchase a completely new product or service;
• 52 percent of purchasers want to speak with someone when they are in the process of buying a previously purchased offering but with a different set of specifications;
• 15 percent want to speak in person when they want to buy the same service or product; and
• 4 percent of buyers prefer to always communicate digitally.
Therefore, companies need to ensure that they balance digital communications with human interactions. A carefully designed, richly immersive digital experience where sales reps accompany automation seems to work best. In other words, rather than seeking to engage customers either through humans or digital, companies need to engage customers simultaneously through both options.
SOCIAL SELLING’S MAJOR IMPACT
The rapid, unprecedented rise of social media made social selling essential for businesses today. Companies that have a profile on any of the social media platforms already engage in social marketing and selling, whose potential benefits are many:
• active online engagement builds a brand and results in improved visibility and recognition;
• ideally, better visibility comes with more leads, a nurturing environment, and eventually more sales;
• 31 percent of B2B professionals said social selling helped them build better relationships with customers;
• 70 percent of businesses say referrals are faster to convert than any other lead; and
• 39 percent say it reduces contact time.
The challenge is developing strong business practices for this channel. Many businesses lack such insight. “If you look at the customer journey today, marketing will have numerous conversations with a potential client before they ask for any sales information,” explains Debbie Qaqish, a partner and chief strategy officer at the Pedowitz Group.
Businesses need to integrate their two departments to present a clear message and monitor customers as they move through the buying process. New business processes are evolving to meet this need. In select companies, the quotas are the same for marketing and sales teams, forcing employees to work together since their compensation is based on collaboration, Qaqish says.
DEI MOVES UP THE SALES LADDER
Traditionally, companies focused on high quality or low pricing to entice customers to purchase their products. The dynamics have shifted dramatically recently. Broad geopolitical themes and stakeholder expectations around topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are driving dramatic change.
“In the last year, social issues became top of mind,” explains Hearsay Systems’ chief customer officer Matt Newman. In fact, 95 percent of chief marketing officers believe their companies should take the lead in finding solutions to key societal and cultural issues, according to a survey by Gartner.
Customer viewpoints are driving the change. “Gen Z all want to work for and buy from companies that stand for something,” Qaqish says.
Indeed, 44 percent of consumers report that their highest expectations of companies are for them to ensure their own policies and practices align with a cause, and 24 percent of consumers say one of companies’ top two priorities should be donating money to a cause. But many companies are a few steps behind these market changes. Only 37 percent of CMOs report aligning with a cause and 46 percent report making donations to causes, according to Gartner.
To successfully lead in this area, Gartner recommends that CMOs take the following actions:
• Spearhead efforts to ensure company policies and practices reflect the ideals of target consumers, especially as it relates to DEI.
• Take a leadership role and implement a process for monitoring and engaging with societal issues.
But there are potential problems with social campaigns, among them alienating some current customers. Political beliefs vary, so any political slant could turn off some customers. In addition, groups on social media monitor what companies do as opposed to what they say and are quite willing to loudly call out companies whose talk seems hollow. Consequently, businesses need to understand both the benefits and risks of taking a stand on issues and have a solid grasp of brand values and a crisis management plan in place before touting their positions on societal issues.
Sustainability is a related area of emphasis that also has a positive impact on sales. In the chocolate, coffee, and bath sectors, for example, revenue for companies making sustainability claims grew twice as fast as their counterparts. “Sustainability initiatives are quickly becoming table stakes, an issue that every company needs to include in its marketing and sales initiatives,” notes Hearsay Systems’ Newman.
Developing a sound sales strategy has long been a challenge because markets often shift quite rapidly. The pandemic spurred acceptance of digital technology, and AI is playing a larger role in that process. Moving forward, integrating social themes into marketing and product positioning seems destined to become a key to whether customers buy a product. So successful sales initiatives will be based on companies’ ability to understand the dynamic market changes and adapt their strategies accordingly.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering speech technology issues for more than two decades, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @PaulKorzeniowski.