Sales as a profession has been around for thousands of years, and as new technical advancements come to fruition, sales professionals are enabled with better tools to do their jobs. The past 30 years has seen a proliferation of new technologies that have enabled the B2B sales professional, e.g., the internet, email, cell phone and CRM. The latest innovation - Artificial Intelligence or AI - is at the peak of the hype curve, but the impacts for sales reps are less clear. Below is a brief (and I stress the brief) overview of the current state of AI, and a few of the benefits that are available now.
AI, Automation, Machine Learning, Deep Learning &Natural Language Processing
Let's start with the terminology. AI as a term was coined at the 1956 Dartmouth Conference. The field had a resurgence in the early 2010's due in part to the explosion of data to be analyzed (big data), and increased computing power. Machine learning is often confused as a subset of AI but is more so a field within the discipline, described as the 'current state of the art'. Deep learning is a subset of machine learning and is arguably the most cutting edge application of AI today. A few differences between machine learning and deep learning are:
- Outputs: machine learning produces number, whereas deep learning can produce any type of output (numbers, pictures, recommendations, etc.)
- Data and computation power needed: deep learning algorithms need a ton of data and GPU to produce accurate outputs - way more than machine learning algorithms do
- The type of data being analyzed: structured v. unstructured
- Training: deep learning trains itself and improves over time thanks to advances in neural networks which classify information in a brain-like fashion (you know the Google study where their algorithm accurately identified Youtube clips containing cats despite no training on what a cat was and continued to train itself to improve accuracy over time).
Okay, so AI is the overarching umbrella, machine learning is a field of AI, and deep learning is a subset of machine learning. A few more definitions...Natural language processing (NLP) is AI technology that allows computers to interpret the meaning and intent behind language - this is big for email segmentation and summarization so that we don't spend the average 6.5 hours per day combing through emails. More on NLP later. Automation is also often used interchangeably with AI, but more so refers to technology replacing low-judgement, repetitive tasks, whereas AI is used to replace or aid in cognitive-heavy tasks (tasks where thinking is involved).
Benefits of AI to a Sales Professional?
Productivity. Though Frederick Taylor's theory of productivity and efficiency are 100+ years old, the benefits of new technology often times focus on delivering increased levels of productivity. AI is no different. One example is text summarization. Salesforce's MetaMind team recently made advances in text summarization, which use NLP, to increase rep efficiency via summarizing lengthy emails into a few sentences. The benefit here is that sales can spend more time strategizing with a client vs. reading and combing through endless emails.
Opportunity insights. One of the more interesting benefits of AI for sales professionals is having AI analyze opportunity data. For example, Salesforce's Einstein analyzes opportunity demographics (size of the company, industry, deal cycle curation, number of products involved, size of the deal, etc), and then makes recommendations to a rep working opportunities in a similar demographic, instructing the rep on the suggested frequency of calls to make over the course of a week and on which days to call. The best part is that as the algorithm has access to more opportunity data, the accuracy of the insights improve.
Honing your skills. One application of AI is building profiles on how the top performing reps spend their day and identifies areas for a rep to improve. Again, because the application constantly learns, the profile of a successful rep could change from one month to the next. This is also huge for managers who can't be on every call with a sales rep but still want to provide valuable insights.
Lead prioritization and scoring. Like Steven Pressfield once said about writing, "it's not the writing that's hard, it's the sitting down to write that's hard." In the sales world, identifying who to call can be the biggest challenge of the day for some reps. Fortunately, AI helps build smart call lists based on the subset of your book of business who has the highest propensity to need your services now. Unlike legacy marketing technologies, the formula used to score the leads is based on an ever-learning algorithm that gets more accurate each day.
The above is merely a sampling of the benefits of AI to sales professionals, but the potential benefits of AI to the business world are endless. Would be curious to hear how AI is impacting your sales game. Until next time.
Ryan Warner is an account executive on Salesforce’s Financial Services team. Ryan also co-hosts the TR Talk Podcast, where co-host Tom Alaimo and Ryan interview leaders in their fields to learn how millennials can make an impact in today’s workforce.