• March 1, 2018
  • By Jim Dickie, partner, CSO Insights

3 Things to Keep in Mind as AI Comes to Sales

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I recently had two different types of encounters with artificial intelligence (AI) that served as reality checks of my own on what needs to happen to successfully leverage a new sales technology. The first was when I took part in Salesforce.com’s Annual Analyst Summit. This is a unique chance to interact with 50 other researchers to compare notes on where technology is going in terms of sales, marketing, customer service, and so on. The conversation revolved around what is possible today and what new things are just around the corner. I left the two-day meeting on a Friday energized by the new roles AI can take on to minimize tedium in sales and foster ingenuity in how sellers collaborate with buyers.

The following Sunday I flew out to do the keynote on the future of sales for a Fortune 100 firm. Here I was interacting with a conference hall full of sales professionals, and my session profiled a number of advances that will be affecting their lives in 2018 and beyond. But the discussion during the Q&A quickly moved from technical innovations to the cultural impact of AI—its effect on people.

I left that event with a clear understanding that if we unceremoniously drop AI onto sales organizations (as too many firms did when CRM was first introduced), we could miss the chance to fully realize the power AI can wield in redefining how sales organizations function. To avoid that lost opportunity, let me offer three things we need to consider in getting ready for the AI revolution that is coming to business.

The first thing companies need to realize: The initial sale they’ll have to make with AI will be an internal one. There is a fair amount of distrust and fear surrounding AI, and this apprehension is inevitably causing salespeople to wonder, “If I embrace this, will I be working myself out of a job?” Starting now, companies need to share how AI is going to augment what sales reps do and place them in a position to be more valuable to their clients than ever before. Once they understand this point, employees will be much more likely to support the culture shift that is coming.

Second, we need to rethink sales training. AI will surface a wealth of metrics and data about the stakeholders with whom reps are engaging, the challenges in the customer’s marketplace, new ways for how sellers and buyers can co-create new solutions, etc. The challenge is ensuring we have sales teams that can effectively leverage those insights. So in addition to ensuring sales professionals have sales competencies, they will also need to be educated on new business competencies as well.

Third, AI will redefine not just the role of the salesperson but also that of sales management. Managers will have access to a whole new set of metrics on not just the members of their teams but on buyers as well. AI will enable them to coach and mentor people in a far more individualized way than ever before, and we need to ensure that managers have the knowledge and skills necessary to make use of that power.

A lesson from the past is worth revisiting. Business strategist Jessica Keyes once observed that “technology does not beget a competitive advantage any more than paint and canvas beget a Van Gogh.” That will once again hold true for AI. Make no mistake: AI is coming to sales. But its impact on sales success will depend on more than just the technology itself. It will also be heavily influenced by decisions we make, or fail to make, right now.


Jim Dickie—independent research director and cofounder of CSO Insights, a Division of Miller Heiman Group—specializes in benchmarking CRM and sales enablement initiatives. Reach him at jimdickie@icloud.com or on Twitter @jimdickie.

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