Small Businesses, Take Note: AI Is Ready for Prime Time
Having presented on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) for sales at more than a dozen conferences this year, I’ve encountered many misconceptions about the technology. A common one is this: AI is seen as a technology best suited for large enterprises but not a good fit for small and midsize businesses (SMBs). For those firms, AI is too expensive, too complex, too embryonic, requires data scientists to build useful apps, and so on.
But in taking part in an AI session at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference, two of my fellow panelists provided real-world examples of how AI is something any size firm can leverage to optimize sales performance. Their companies are both SMBs, but that has not hindered them.
Take the case of Jamie Dewar, CEO of Legend Boats; a firm that manufactures and sells fishing and recreational boats across Canada. Dewar’s initial foray into AI was prompted by the fact that he was receiving thousands of emails a month, all of which needed his attention. The challenge of managing those messages was taking him away from more important tasks. To deal with the problem, Dewar first hired a personal assistant to go through his emails three times a day and take over the heavy lifting for email management. The annual cost of this approach was $20,000-plus.
Dewar opted to replace his assistant by implementing Einstein AI capabilities contained in Salesforce Inbox. (As this was Dreamforce, both of these examples involve Salesforce products.) He did this not just for himself but his entire sales team. His group of “Memory Makers” (Legend’s name for its sales associates) particularly liked being able to get notifications when emails are read; create automatic follow-up tasks; track activities; schedule meetings; automatically create contacts; and prioritize emails.
Since that initial move to AI, Legend Boats is now using Einstein to handle lead and opportunity scoring. The company is also leveraging analytics, which now allows Dewar to get a 360-degree view of his partners’ activities, including boat orders, parts orders, and inventory, all in one management dashboard. As for the ROI from these new capabilities, Dewar had this to say: “We’ve grown revenue by over 65 percent in the last two years, and increased our revenue per Memory Maker by 21 percent.”
Another panelist, Drew Thornsberry, who is vice president of sales at Penrod Software, shared that he is using AI to optimize forecast management. Prior to this initiative, Penrod’s forecasting process was prone to generating surprises: At the end of one year, Thornsberry’s team ended up closing significantly more deals than forecast, and while this may sound like a great thing, it wasn’t. For each of those deals, Penrod had promised the customer a two-week start time to kicking off the project, so a higher-than-expected close rate created logistical challenges, to say the least.
To increase forecast accuracy going forward, Thornsberry implemented Einstein Forecasting & Opportunity Scoring. AI now provides him with an unbiased third-party assessment of each deal in the forecast. The system gives each opportunity a probability score of closing and the reasoning behind the score. Thornsberry can either accept that assessment or proactively react to it, with “proactively” being the operative word.
Thornsberry noted that with this approach, “we are now able to focus in on the deals we want to win, and also get out of deals sooner that we aren’t going to win. This is maximizing our selling time.” Since implementing these changes last May, Penrod’s average deal size has increased by 45 percent, the win rate of forecast deals has increased 48 percent, and year-over-year revenue is up 30 percent.
Since Dreamforce I have found other case study examples of SMBs successfully implementing AI solutions. Too expensive, too complex, and too embryonic are proving to be false assumptions. So as we move into 2019, at least starting to get educated on what AI can do for sales should be on every company’s to-do list.
Jim Dickie is a research fellow for Sales Mastery, a research firm that specializes in benchmarking case study examples of how companies are leveraging technology to transform sales. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jimdickie.