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Selling Skills, AI and the Future of Sales Enablement [Q&A with Jim Dickie]

Aug 23rd, 2018

What will the world of sales look like in 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?

Jim Dickie, Co-Founder and Independent Research Fellow at CSO Insights, sees a new breed of sales reps emerging – one with key business skills and AI technology at its disposal. And for sales enablement practitioners, these changing realities spell the need for a new approach to sales training.

“We really live in a frail ecosystem in the world of sales,” Dickie says. “Things happen in the competitive landscape, the customer’s world, political environments, and self-inflicted changes like launching new products or going into new markets. Sales enablement has to constantly be reassessing those things and their impact on the organization.”

Dickie spoke with Brainshark at length about the sales skills reps must start developing, how sales enablement leaders should prepare for the future, and how AI-powered tools (like Brainshark’s award-winning Machine Analysis solution) will affect the sales landscape.

Looking ahead, what will the “new definition” of sales rep success look like? Will it require new skills or new evaluation tactics?

JD: I think about the impact AI is going to have on sales forces and therefore sales enablement. It really is a game-changer. Miller Heiman Group has had me review 82 different AI-for-sales systems over the last 12 months, and in doing so, I found real-world examples of how AI is changing not only how we sell, but who is successful selling.

AI does two things. First, it reduces tedium. There’s AI out there that will schedule meetings for you. It will read your emails and tag them to the appropriate records in the CRM. Those are things that take administrative tasks off sellers’ backs.

But there’s also AI that provides insights that you’ve never seen before. For example, when an airplane engine manufacturer sells to Boeing, and those jets are then sold to major airlines, there are sensors in the engine that send data back to the manufacturer. Based on that data, the manufacturer can move beyond just selling engines. They can be selling preventative service agreements. They can be selling new product co-development projects.

That requires a level of ingenuity on the part of salespeople. We’ve got to start asking, “Is this person a critical thinker?” It’s not just about sales competencies. Sales professionals are going to need business competencies, as well. We’re going to have to find out who has those business competencies when we’re hiring people, and who we need to help in developing those. I want someone who can be successful today. But as AI becomes a standard part of the operating world for sales and business in 5 years, who’s going to be successful in that new information age?

What type of sales skills will reps need to develop in the future?

JD: They need to put the client first. They need to understand what customer outcomes are. They need to understand what shareholder value is for their customer, and the customer’s customer. They should be able to read a financial statement and a balance sheet as well as any CFO. They need to think differently. They’re looking at things from the perspective of, “What are all the other things we could bring to the table for our clients – besides the product we sell – that could bring them value?”

It’s not trying to be persuasive as much as trying to be collaborative and co-creative. [AI] technology will crank out analytics. AI will do the digging for the sales person. But they need to turn data into insights and then into action. Those are going to be the competitive differentiators.

Should sales enablement leaders consider adapting their strategies as a result?

JD: Is the payback for solving a specific problem huge or mediocre? Consider that first to figure out which problems you should solve. Then let’s work with the solution provider community on solving it, whether it’s onboarding, introducing new products, improving sales and marketing alignment, etc. Sales enablement is going to come up with the new policies and procedures for executing them.

Some organizations might put these things down on a list, and when they have their sales kickoff next January, they’ll deal with these things, bring everybody together and train them then. But that’s the old way of doing things. I’ve got to be selling at the speed of change. Therefore, I’ve got to be training at the speed of change. We really live in a frail ecosystem in the world of sales. Things happen in the competitive landscape, the customer’s world, political environments, and self-inflicted changes like launching new products or going into new markets.

Sales enablement has to constantly be reassessing those things and their impact on the organization.

Make sure that A) sellers are trained on those things, B) they show proficiency, and C) they’re actually applying those skills.

It’s one thing to train a sales professional on a new product. I want to make sure they’re actually making calls to try to sell it, instead waiting for everybody else to sell it so they realize it can be done.

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How should sales enablement leaders communicate the need for change to experienced reps, who might prefer a more traditional approach?

JD: That’s going to be a big issue. There are a lot of salespeople out there who have been successful and are not realizing how fast things are going to change. Bill Gates is famous for saying, ‘We overestimate the impact disruptive technology will have in the next two years, and we underestimate the impact it will have in 10 years.’ The two years figure is exactly where we are with AI for sales. There’s still a learning curve. But AI gets better by itself; it contributes to its own improvement, so the 10 years could easily be five.

I hate it when people say human beings resist change. When someone wins the lottery, I’ve never seen that person resist the check, even though that check represents change. We resist being changed. Whenever sales enablement is rolling anything out to the sales organization, the first sale they have to make is an internal one. The sales force has a right to say, “what’s in it for me?”

As you’re training, you better be in a position to show why someone should care. There will always be laggards, doubters. But if I’m an old guard superstar and everyone else starts selling more than me, or faster than me, you’ll get my attention.

This is not a passing wave. This is going to be the reality of selling going forward. Sales enablement needs to do everything it can to motivate people to embrace this new way of doing things. But some people just aren’t going to make the transition; that’s a fact of life.

How will AI augment sales reps in their jobs?

JD: IBM chairperson Ginny Rometty brought up this idea: is it artificial intelligence or augmented intelligence? She believes it will definitely replace some aspects of your job, but it will not replace your job as much as change it. AI can crank numbers like a big dog. It can compute better than any mathematics PhD. But AI does not have judgment. That’s where the two blend. AI is there to do the heavy lifting on analysis, and the seller must have the skill to provide the insight. That’s where the augmentation takes place.

That’s part of the seller education we need to do now. Even though AI may not be a major part of their lives for a couple of years, we must explain what is true and false about AI, and where it’s going. Once people have misconceptions about what AI is, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

How should sales enablement leaders prepare their organizations for the future?

JD: Sales enablement is really focused on the sales process. But the sales process is only there to support the buying process. The sales person can do everything in the sales process except for one thing: sign the order. The customer must sign it. We have to spend as much time understanding this whole concept from the buyer’s point of view.

We just did our first buyers’ study at CSO Insights. One of the questions we asked was, “what are the top 3 sources you turn to for product info?” Salesperson was 9th on the list; subject matter expert was number one. Why aren’t salespeople perceived as subject matter experts?

In the future, buyers want to feel like they’re looking in the mirror when they have a conversation with sellers. The seller must understand their challenges and goals. If you can do that, the salesperson moves up higher on that list of trusted information sources.

The transcript of this conversation has been shortened for length.