At a recent conference, I noticed that many distributors viewed AI as a purely digital phenomenon and were split on how the technology affected salespeople; either AI did not apply to sales teams, or it was going to replace them entirely. AI does have a big impact on inside sales, but not in either of those ways. It does not replace sales reps, but instead supercharges them. I’ve watched AI-assisted sales reps outperform unsupported reps by a factor of ten, and in this article, I’ll explain how.
The Sales Challenge: Customer Knowledge versus Customer Exposure
When distributors structure their sales networks, they are essentially figuring out how to balance each team’s depth of customer knowledge and breadth of customer exposure.
Outside sales are on one end of the spectrum. These reps travel from site to site, working intimately with each customer. They are very effective at selling to whomever they meet with, but they can only work with a few customers a day. On the other end of the spectrum are customer service reps. These reps work with tons of different accounts every day, but they struggle to close additional sales since they barely know the customers they talk with.
Inside sales reps are in a uniquely challenging role because they are positioned somewhere in between these two extremes. They work with lots of different customers, but they are still expected to have enough knowledge about each customer to make targeted sales.
Salespeople anywhere along this spectrum can boost performance either by increasing customer knowledge or upping customer exposure. For inside sales, AI helps to do both.
AI Increases Profitable Customer Exposure
Inside sales reps need to know which accounts to call on and when. Traditional CRM’s cycle reps through different accounts to maintain regular contact with each customer. This is a better system than just calling at random, but it is nowhere near optimal.
Each account has its own unique purchase preferences and buying cycles. Some customers prefer to be called more or less frequently. Others, especially those that deal with perishable or expendable goods, make reorders at very specific times. Sales are missed when reps cannot account for the differences between accounts.
AI tracks data from all customers and predicts when customers are at churn risk, due to reorder items, or ready to buy new products. AI-supported CRMs can then use these predictions to regulate rep workflow. This way, reps can contact customers when they are primed to make purchases.
AI Enhances Customer Knowledge
To increase sales, reps not only need to know when to reach out to customers, but they also need to know what to sell.
Inside reps manage a lot of accounts and so don’t know their customers as well as outside sales reps do. Even if they have access to each account’s purchase history, it is difficult for a busy rep to translate a list of old purchases into a prediction about what the customer will buy that day.
Some inside sales teams skip the guesswork by assigning certain discounted items or best-selling products for reps to pitch to every account. However, even if reps are selling the best item for any account, that item still won’t be the best fit for every account.
AI-recommendation engines solve this problem by analyzing tons of complex data fields to figure out exactly what item each customer is most likely to buy. Order history, customer profile, location, time, and intent data are just some of the categories that can help AI make accurate predictions about what customers want.
When inside reps have access to this sort of recommendation engine, they basically acquire a synthetic knowledge of each account. They’ll learn exactly what their customers are due to reorder and what new products they might buy. If they’re using an AI-backed app as they sell, they can even input the customer’s feedback to execute optimal upsells and cross-sells on the fly.
AI can’t and won’t replace sales reps because there is no way to automate the contextual knowledge and communication skills that human reps bring to the table. However, AI-assisted sales reps dramatically outperform unsupported employees, and generate as much as 13x revenue per product pitched.
The AI-Assisted Rep
AI may be a digital technology, but its effects are profoundly human. It’s a tool that helps inside sales reps know which accounts to call, when to call them, and what to pitch once they’re on the line. This sort of AI-enhanced rep provides personalized customer service to each account and generates tons of new revenue for distributors.
Inside sales reps should not fear that AI will replace them. Instead, they should look forward to gaining a very effective new tool — especially if they’re paid on commission.
This article was originally published with the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors here: