AI’s role in Sales and Marketing


“What happens when new and fast-improving technologies create opportunities to unleash untapped sources of revenue, some of them long trapped by market inefficiencies?”

That question kicks off the new book “Pivot to the Future” by three thought leaders from the consulting giant Accenture. The authors, Omar Abbosh, Paul Nunes and Larry Downes, refer to this untapped revenue as “trapped value.”

“Technology is increasingly creating the tools your competitors are using to build new digital products and services that target and release latent demand and serve unmet needs. If you don’t get it before others, you may find not just your future growth disrupted, but today’s businesses as well. That disruption may happen quickly or slowly but, either way, it’s likely to have already started,” the authors state.

Predictions for the impact of AI, the authors state, suggest a doubling of the economic growth of developed countries between 2017 and 2035, potentially adding $7.4 trillion to the U.S. economy alone.

AI’s Infancy

AI has arrived, but it’s mostly been implemented by consumer goods and services companies to personalize marketing messages, enhance their knowledge of customers, manage inventory and increase customer loyalty. There’s no reason it can’t have equally powerful impacts on B2B sales and marketing, but it’s in its infancy, experts say.

“AI is the future of all sales, but it hasn’t gone from 0-1 yet in the B2B space,” says George Kocher, CEO of Brand North, a digital marketing and growth consultant. “Most companies are leveraging data and analyzing it with computer learning to better understand their sales and marketing efforts. Sales and marketing hasn’t fundamentally changed yet due to AI, but the direction and places to focus those efforts has.”

Businesses increasingly understand the importance of having access to data across multiple sources, agrees Krishnan Venkata, chief sales officer at LatentView Analytics. The fast-growing digital analytics firm helps companies predict new revenue streams, anticipate product trends and popularity, improve customer retention rates and optimize investment decisions.

B2B companies are making significant investments in solutions that ensure they have access to data across their prospect base. These investments include technologies and platforms that ensure prospects are tracked in a B2B world. It also includes solutions that connect customer touchpoints and guarantee that this data is being collected for analysis.

“We have a long way to go,” Venkata says. “While the adoption of AI for B2B marketing may be nascent, I believe we will see significant progress over the next five years because of the investments being made in data and technology.”

CMO research from 2019 found that 54% of B2B marketer respondents said they do not use or have not tried AI. While B2B service companies are the top user of AI for content personalization (62.2%)—and B2B product companies use AI for augmented and virtual reality, facial recognition and visual search more than any other business types—B2C companies dominate when it comes to using AI for most marketing activities.

Why AI?

What are the incentives for B2B companies to invest in AI (other than their competitors may be doing so)? Companies that use AI will be able to predict demographic compatibility, track consumer movement, foresee purchases and offer excellent customer service. According to Geoff Birnes, senior vice president of Atrium, an AI data analytics consulting services company, using AI, businesses will not only communicate with individuals directly, but also transform the information gathered from them into a framework to help serve them efficiently in the future.

Birnes offers three ways the technological advancements in AI will reshape sales as soon as this year.

• Sales will rely on data and insights more than ever before. The level of insights that AI provides has incredible value for sales reps that are increasingly expected to be trusted advisors to their customers. Customers, in turn, will be more informed through self-service methods, than any other point in history. The trend in sales over the next decade will be to harness data as a strategic asset and to derive valuable customer insights that are easy to understand and quick to action.

• CRM will become more predictive. AI is a force multiplier for CRM, those we talked with said. CRM will become more predictive and the early adopters will fundamentally change the way they think about a business process, says Birnes.

“Today, business processes are largely static paths to help workers navigate the chaos of a large organization. Often those processes do not keep pace with the state of business and market needs, therefore, companies continuously go through expensive transformation programs. We see this happening roughly once every four to five years, even for organizations that have been on a CRM like Salesforce for 10 to 15 years. The opportunity is for companies to adopt data-driven processes, where predictive and prescriptive analytics drive next-best action from the first contact all the way through the customer lifecycle.

• AI and machine learning will play a larger role in forecasting. One of the first places Birnes has seen AI take root is forecasting. Companies have been using statistics for decades to assist their forecasting efforts. But often these expensive, time-consuming, efforts were led by small back office teams. The benefits of such efforts could not be operationalized at scale. That has all changed in the last two years and will continue to progress.

“What is most important about the maturity of AI-enabled forecast tools over the last two years, is that we can explain our predictions and make them actionable to a broad array of workers, from sales reps to channel managers to sales operations. Forecasting has emerged as one of the most popular AI use cases and I expect that to continue for the next few years,” he says.

What AI is not

In their book, Abbosh, Nunes and Downes emphasize that AI is not about replacing humans with machines, as many headlines have screamed. “Humans can thrive in situations where there is little or no data, while machines excel in those where there is lots of information,” they write. “Business require both capabilities. In the missing middle, the two can come together, enhancing the nature of work for humans in the process.”

Pivoting to the missing middle means human skills such as empathy and communication will rise in importance, while others like administra tion will decline. Humans can develop, train and manage AI applications, enabling those systems to function as part of true human and machine partnerships. Machines can augment human capacities by processing an analyzing the vast amount of data that businesses can collect.

AI and improved customer conversations

The notion that AI will enable workers with technology rather than replace them is supported by Drew D’Agostino and Greg Skloot, the president and chief operating officer respectively of Crystal, an app that uses AI to reveal people’s motivations, communication styles and other behavioral traits. For sales and marketing professionals, one of AI’s biggest benefits will be improving the conversations they have and messages they present to prospective customers. Or, as the subtitle of D’Agostino’s and Skloot’s new book, “Predicting Personality,” states, “using AI to understand people and win more business.”

In the global, hyper-connected knowledge economy, salespeople, marketing professionals and their managers are chasing after the same thing—successful conversations, D’Agostino and Skloot state. Technology—email, instant messaging, social media, etc.—has created as many challenges for sales and marketing professionals as it has provided benefits, including a massive clutter of messaging.

“It’s a hyper-connected, hyperskeptical world,” the authors state. “The winners are the people and organizations who understand their audience better than anyone else.”

D’Agostino’s and Skloot say that machine learning combined with the massive amount of data that is available to analyze makes it possible to map out how people think and behave at scale. They call the technologically enhanced ability to better understand customers and prospects Personality AI. It can provide insights about a person’s behavior without a traditional personality assessment, which opens up an entirely new world of possibilities for communicating and interacting with others. The authors say the benefits of Personality AI include:

• Accelerate trust and openness between people who are speaking to each other for the first time.

• Help professionals write emails in a style that their recipients read and enjoy, rather than ignore.

• Allow for understanding the relational dynamics that two people are likely to experience when they work together.

• Match people with roles and tasks that are well-aligned with their personality and give them energy.

Automated coaching

Howard Brown, CEO and founder of ringDNA, a sales acceleration platform that helps businesses scale revenue and growth using AI, says his company has introduced technology that analyzes sales conversations and creates reports for sales managers that identifies which reps need help and where they need it. The product, called ConversationAI, was introduced last year after nearly five years of beta testing.

ConversationAI monitors reps’ sales calls and scores them based on best practices, such as listening more than talking and asking open-ended questions. It frees up sales managers, who otherwise would listen in on the same calls.

“AI is about humanizing the sales experience, not automating out a bunch of sales reps’ jobs,” says Brown. “It’s about pattern recognition across your sales and marketing efforts with the goal of surfacing patterns so you can focus your attention on those that need help or areas of the business that can improve. It’s like having a team of analysts on board 24/7 and providing insights so everyone can be more effective.”

Right message, right time

On the marketing side, AI can help companies deliver the right message at the right time, says Venkata.

B2B marketing works best when companies have a medium to long-term vision for brand building and influencing customer perception. Conversely, salespeople are generally incentivized to focus on the bottom of the funnel where they can close deals. This can lead to short-term thinking. The ideal scenario for the marketing and sales relationship is when marketing engages audiences at the top of the funnel and ropes in the sales team at the right time to take the engagement the last mile. This is where AI can help marketers tremendously, Venkata says.

“With the vast amounts of data available across multiple sources and technologies, marketing can effectively engage with prospects with relevant content in a timely fashion and then involve the sales team once the prospect signals an intent to buy.”

Examples of how this would work in B2B involve the same principles that have driven success in the B2C world. AI can play a critical role in B2B marketing by helping companies understand the purchase decision journey and identify the “moments of truth” (i.e. when a prospect is open to engage or buy).

B2B sales are usually complex because there is limited volume and variety of data to analyze. This is where AI can help tremendously to uncover hidden patterns, dominant paths to purchase, and the moment when a casual prospect becomes engaged.

AI also can help provide guidance on the best strategy for sales and pricing in a B2B context. Salespeople have traditionally relied on intuition, experience and their conversations with prospects to determine the best sales strategy. AI can help provide insights from past wins and losses and provide invaluable recommendations to the salesperson.

B2B marketers can leverage AI in many other ways including identifying anomalies and predicting trends throughout the buying cycle. Additionally, things like AI-powered email marketing and chatbots can help B2B teams improve ROI by automating conversations that significantly increase customer responses, Venkata says.

The necessary adoption of AI

As machine learning and big data journey into the new decade, enterprises continue to search for that “leg-up” to boost them past their competition. While AI and the technology behind it have been a critical development over the last decade, many enterprise-level businesses have yet to adopt systems that will ultimately help their businesses become smarter, more efficient and more profitable.

Brian Byer, vice president and general manager at Blue Fountain Media, a digital marketing agency, says as the capabilities and learnings of AI systems grow, those who have functioning systems in place will continue to reap the benefits at the expense of those who do not, including a piece of the predicted $2.9 trillion in business value and 6.2 billion hours in worker productivity. “By 2030, there will be a substantial performance gap between AI frontrunners and non- or partial-AI adapters, represented by an approximate 20% decline in cash flows of those who chose not to input AI technologies,” he states.

What steps should B2B sales and marketing teams take to implement AI into their strategy? The Gartner report recommends selecting a pilot program that will have a significant impact on sales. Areas to focus on include making sales processes more efficient, automating processes and using AI to make product recommendations. Involve sales representatives who will embrace change and determine upfront how you will measure the value of the project.

“By eliminating and streamlining tiresome tasks, AI gives time back to both marketing and sales, putting quality leads in the hands of reps far faster, while eliminating the finger pointing between marketing and sales about lead qualification and handoff,” says Brian Kardon, chief marketing officer at Fuze, a cloud-based communications platform. “With that extra time, marketing can focus on strategies to support sales, and reps can focus on crafting engaging messages and preparing for calls and meetings backed by insights so they can fill the consultative role for buyers.”

Marketing and sales professionals should stop worrying about AI replacing their jobs and instead embrace the technology that can alleviate the tedious administrative elements of their jobs. Doing so, Kardon adds, frees them to devote their unique human talents and energies to sussing out deal complexities, applying creativity to vexing buying situations and cultivating relationships that lie at the heart of business success. “Simply put, AI can eliminate the monotonous drudgery and busy work so people can focus on what they do best.”