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  • June 28, 2024
  • By Dan Gottlieb, vice president analyst, sales practice, Gartner

Benchmarking Generative AI Adoption in Sales

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Without best practices for integrating generative artificial intelligence (genAI) into the B2B space, sales executives struggle to make confident decisions. Chief sales officers (CSOs) need to develop a clear vision for incorporating genAI into sales. As organizations move into production in 2024, CSOs are learning that genAI and large language models (LLMs) have complex challenges.

This will have a direct impact on the success of adoption and thus how genAI will affect or improve top- and bottom-line sales results.

With 87 percent of sales leaders reporting a top-down push from CEOs and boards to implement genAI, CSOs are expected to guide the sales organization in this transformation. However, CSOs are identified as key strategists in only 14 percent of companies. This suggests CSOs are often seen as recipients of support for implementing genAI but are still expected to generate a plan.

CSOs need to develop a clear and proactive plan for genAI integration to drive sales outcomes and temper expectations and invest strategically in genAI literacy so they can overcome the most common genAI adoption challenges, enabling more agile implementations. Here, we will show you how to do so.

First Movers Are More Mature GenAI Planners

Sales organizations planning for genAI fit into one of two camps—first movers and fast followers—with notable differences in steps taken for genAI planning. First movers demonstrate a comprehensive approach to collaboration, get the right experts involved by proactively planning for AI operations talent, and develop intentional guidelines for employees. Fast followers are less likely to take the same intentional steps, a recipe for frustrating results. CSOs must help manage the change required for AI readiness, starting with their own willingness to learn how the technology works.

Navigating GenAI Technology Decisions: Build vs. Buy

CSOs face a complex decision when deploying genAI: choosing between purchasing ready-made products or building custom solutions. Ready-made products from vendors may be suitable for core sales functions such as autonomous prospecting and AI sales assistants, offering rapid deployment and proven effectiveness. However, custom-built solutions, often led by IT genAI committees, could provide corporate competitive advantages or meet specific regulatory, branding, or equity considerations, despite the risk of misalignment between IT genAI committees and immediate sales team needs.

First movers and fast followers differ in their technology strategy. While first movers are more likely to build applications because it’s relatively easier for IT teams to implement them compared to other technologies, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the superior approach. Buying genAI from vendors (new vendor relationships), chosen by 48 percent of first movers and 53 percent of fast followers, allows for integration within existing frameworks, requiring a deep understanding of the technology and the sales organization’s unique environment.

Hard ROI of GenAI? Not So Fast

CSOs looking to leverage genAI should initially focus on productivity gains rather than direct revenue growth. These productivity improvements can serve as leading indicators of ROI impacts such as cost reduction, improved profitability, and revenue growth. Therefore, CSOs need to have a higher tolerance for these indirect benefits over immediate ROI at the start.

Around 40 percent of sales leaders expect genAI to primarily benefit revenue growth and profitability. However, they should shift these expectations toward the impacts of productivity, better decisions, and efficiency to see hard ROI benefits over time. Improving productivity can come from making employees more effective in their roles: enabling them to do more activities, do those activities well, and do them with fewer resources. For more advanced sales organizations, measuring productivity is clearer when applied to processes with clear metrics, such as improved pipeline conversion rates.

Temper Expectations for GenAI’s Impact on Sales Org Design

GenAI’s immediate impact on jobs will be to augment specific tasks rather than entire jobs. However, sales leaders are ready to reassess their organizational structure to optimize human resource allocation in an AI-enhanced environment. Job reductions due to genAI will be limited in the next two to three years, with exceptions. We are still years away from an environment where AI is so deeply integrated that sales teams can confidently operate with fewer resources.

Sales leaders anticipate that genAI will reduce headcount across the organization. However, these figures represent sentiment rather than concrete planning numbers. The anticipated impacts raise questions about balancing AI integration with the human elements of sales strategy, quota accountability, and customer engagement. The journey toward this future involves not just technological adoption but also cultural shifts, training, and strategic planning.

Six out of 10 sales leaders plan to hire for dedicated genAI roles using their functional budgets. These dedicated resources are expected to navigate the vendor landscape, influence internal IT peers, establish data governance, act as change agents, and mitigate risks. This aligns with Gartner’s prediction that by 2025, 35 percent of CSOs will resource a dedicated “genAI operations” team as part of their go-to-market organization. The approach to fulfilling these roles is less about hiring new positions and more about identifying and promoting internal talent who possess a blend of automation expertise, sales technology experience, and a willingness to learn on the job.

Implementation Challenges

CSOs can overcome challenges in implementing genAI by investing in genAI literacy, addressing gaps in understanding how genAI works and improving implementation agility.

The top challenges sales leaders face when implementing genAI can be grouped into three themes: frontline sales adoption; talent limitations; and data, ethical, and privacy concerns.

  • Frontline sales adoption: Frontline sales adoption is a significant challenge, with best practices for genAI use being elusive due to the technology’s nascent and rapidly evolving nature. Overcoming employee resistance and integrating genAI into sales workflows requires continuously educating and enabling sellers as well as demonstrating genAI’s value.
  • Talent limitations: Talent limitations present another challenge. Only 28 percent of sales leaders see a limited talent and candidate pool as a challenge to implementation, suggesting a lack of recognition of the need for talent that combines domain expertise with AI proficiency.
  • Limited data, ethical, and privacy concerns: Only 30 percent of sales teams identify data protection and privacy concerns as a challenge, which could indicate an optimistic view of genAI’s benefits over its risks or a gap in understanding potential issues. The nature of sales work, which often relies on synthesizing unstructured external information, may lessen data protection and privacy concerns as genAI’s ability to process and summarize vast amounts of external information could reduce reliance on sensitive internal data.

Without best practices for integrating genAI into B2B sales, executives struggle to make confident decisions. CSOs can use insights outlined here from Gartner’s Generative AI 2024 Planning Survey to inform decisions on strategy, use case selection, resource allocation, and expected return on investment.

Dan Gottlieb is a vice president analyst, sales practice, at Gartner. He writes about sales technology and covers a spectrum of topics related to AI for sales, generative AI, and seller-buyer engagement. Gottlieb combines over a decade of sales experience with creative thinking to collaborate with clients. His collaborative style invites clients to convert Gartner’s research into actionable insights that yield scalable, repeatable growth.

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