This post originally appeared in Forbes on June 20, 2018.
Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave: What’s the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do. I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.
-From 2001: A Space Odyssey
Lines like these gave people chills back in 1968, and HAL, the sentient computer, became the first pop culture icon to give artificial intelligence (AI) a bad name. This image issue continues to saddle AI to this day. And yet, despite all the sturm und drang (storm and drive) around AI, the preponderance of evidence indicates that AI is not inherently adversarial to humans; rather, it is helping humans become better at what they do.
A notable case in point: sales readiness, where AI is rapidly becoming a sales manager’s best friend. Why? Because it enables managers to coach their reps with far more precision and effectiveness. In the future, AI will enable them to put their reps in “virtual worlds,” where reps can sell to realistic digital buyers before ever setting foot in front of real ones. All of this helps establish a much higher level of sales readiness, which means reps are closing more and bigger deals.
[Related: Download our exclusive eBook, “The 4 Pillars of Sales Readiness,” to learn more about how to prepare your reps for any selling situation.]
Sound too good to be true? Well, let’s take a look at some areas where AI is making a big difference:
Knowing Who To Coach
An important part of sales readiness is identifying who needs coaching. Video has become a tremendous coaching tool for sales managers because they can assess reps – giving a pitch, handling a series of objections, etc. – without having to be in the room with them. However, in cases where managers oversee a large number of reps, it can be daunting if not impossible to review all the videos generated and submitted from a rep assessment initiative.
AI can help solve this problem. By running the videos through machine analysis, managers can identify reps who need more extensive and immediate coaching, based on pre-defined factors (e.g., ability to stay on message, eye contact, voice tone and inflection, emotions conveyed, speaking rate, etc.). This AI-powered analysis can rapidly cull a large corpus of videos down to just those where reps are not performing up to standards.
What this means is that instead of having to pore over, say, 100 videos, the sales manager can focus first – and most heavily – on the 10 flagged by the application before assessing the others to identify coaching opportunities. AI fills the role of “screener assistant” for sales managers – making them better at their jobs by enabling them to spend more time assessing and coaching reps who truly need help.
Knowing What To Coach
Knowing who to coach is only half of the equation. The other half is knowing what to coach. Since it’s impossible for managers to observe every rep on every sales call, coaching often takes on a “one-size-fits-all” flavor by default. That’s a big problem. If you were a baseball hitting coach and your only point of reference was the player’s batting average, you’d have no choice but to provide generic best-guess coaching. On the other hand, if you understood that the player has difficulty hitting curveballs and tends to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, you could cater coaching to those specific areas, and achieve faster and better results.
AI makes it possible, at scale, to gain greater visibility into reps’ strengths and weaknesses, so coaching can be customized accordingly. For example, AI can perform pipeline analysis to rapidly identify patterns – understanding where deals tend to get stalled with each rep. It may be that with one particular rep, deals tend to fall through when they’re with a certain type of buyer or against a specific competitor. Then, the manager could provide additional coaching on persona-based messaging and competitive differentiators, for instance – and even use the aforementioned video analysis to screen for specific phrases in rep presentations.
Once again, AI can provide guidance to sales managers so they’re more effective in their jobs. If AI can already tell sales managers who and what to coach, then what’s left to do? I’m glad you asked: because within the next decade, we’re going to see another major development in AI for sales readiness.
Being The Coach
The cold reality is that for many sales managers, coaching their reps will simply take a back seat to other priorities. Whether it’s a lack of time, a lack of ability or simply a lack of wanting to coach, many sales managers don’t coach. This means their reps don’t get coached. Nada. Nothing.
AI to the rescue! Leveraging cognitive analytics and machine learning, reps can submit videos of themselves for machine analysis, scoring and feedback. For example, reps can record themselves delivering the latest company elevator pitch. When ready, they can run the videos through machine analysis, instantly getting feedback on such areas as whether they covered all key topics, used the right words, relied on filler words (“um,” “you know” and “like”), made eye contact, projected confidence and connected emotionally in a positive way. While I am not suggesting that machines are a replacement for human-to-human coaching, machine analysis can augment what coaching a manager can do and provide at least some level of coaching where none might exist.
We can see from these examples that AI is actually an enabling technology. It enables sales managers to ensure reps receive the coaching they need, whether that coaching is delivered by a human or a machine. The AI-enabled future is upon us, and it should not be feared as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it should be embraced as part of the 2018 (and beyond) sales odyssey.
Grab a free copy of our eBook, “14 Hacks to Upgrade Your Sales Enablement Strategy, to learn tips, tricks and best practices for your strategic enablement and readiness initiatives.