Sales Performance in a Digitalised and Increasing AI Environment
Or how to undertake an intensive initiative to increase revenue and margins, reduce cost, with minimal disturbance, in the context of digitalisation?
The question “How effective do you think your sales organisation to be?“ is only rarely answered with precise statements. Adding to this, the unknown parameters of our increasing digitalising world render an answer even more complex.
The “Digitalisation” and “AI” are to be found in most article headings and content. While strong media currents are outlining the major loss in physical contacts of our society and the logical trend of replacing all human contact channels through artificial ones, we believe that human interaction and relationship will strongly prevail and play a competitive role in commercial interactions. This will specifically be the case when the sales model is a relationship based one, not a transactional one. As such, organisations need strategies, which will help them optimise sales skills while automating all other activities which are not essential to closing the deal and which will liberate time to do so. According to a McKinsey Global Institute’s recent study “Skill shift: Automation and the Future of the work force”, the strongest skill growth demand will be in the technological skills, social and emotional skills (leadership, management skills and creativity). The social and emotional skills are specifically the ones our experienced and highly skilled sales staff use on a systematic basis to ensure a high performance level and outstanding results.
If you look into sales driven organisations, a large portion of the selling is now achieved through intelligent digital marketing and social networks. No doubt that the trend will continue in this direction. Nevertheless, while we are aware that digital and advanced technological skills will be the most in demand, we focused our research mainly on the human behaviours that we will need to reinforce in order to benefit from and maximise the use of this technology, being “good friends” with our new AI.
Most sales organisations work well below their existing capacity and performance. This statement has been widely confirmed by the Columbus Management Group. Based on projects in a wide variety of industries, Columbus Management has indeed evaluated that the average sales performance is only at 40-55% of available capacity. Most companies are satisfied when they benchmark themselves against peers and find that they are above average, but ignore the full performance an organisation could have if the sum of the parts where to be aligned harmoniously and a continuous focus on added value processes and activities where to be ensured. At the same time, the tools, data, and analytics used to evaluate sales performance are becoming dramatically more sophisticated. Analytics are making the process far more effective and efficient. Companies need to embrace this change.
The world has indeed gone social, so should we all. All selling channels are increasingly using social networks to sell, advertise and communicate. These ensure more transparency on what we want our clients to know about us, in order to attract their attention and interest. Digital selling is a new efficient and important channel – digital marketing skills are part of the skills needed in the sales team and organisation. So what remains left for our sales teams? What are the behavioural skills expected to boost sales?
While Columbus Management Group continues to bring support to sales departments in all types of organisations, typical “classical” reasons why the sales performance of an organisation is found not to be at its best level can be summarised in the points below. On the one hand, the bad news is that organisations should be doing much more (skills, preparation of sales visits, growing the network, following up on results, delighting the customer,…), on the other hand though, the good news is that the room for improvement has never been as obvious and tremendously high: sales people have never had so many resources and information available to apply the needed improvements.
1. Customer facing time is not optimised
• Excessive time for admin and travel time due to lacking back-office support, automation or planning
• Insufficient meeting preparation leading to repeat visits
• Lacking standards or insufficient skills to achieve clear objectives for "face to face" time
2. The utilisation of the CRM system is fragmented
• Revenue data is not always aligned with information from Marketing or Finance
• Reporting and KPI‘s are either overly complex or not very meaningful
• Performance tracking for the individual/team/market is quite often misaligned from the most value adding sales activities and results (especially when considering the lifecycle of a sale)
• Lack of accurate sales planning (Market, prospect, coverage, call, visit, weekly plan, daily routine)
• No unified database for customer information, history, trends, issues, etc and as such no or poor utilisation of possible AI advantages
• Missing or ineffective forecast and insufficient management of the sales pipeline, sales cycle, offer cycle, commercial terms, margin analysis
3. Sales or management competence of the individuals is underdeveloped or not consistently applied
• Follow-up by management is not effective, they receive reports but do not use these for systematic feedback to sales staff
• Sales-Meetings are not well executed, time is wasted and decisions/actions are not defined, implemented or followed-up, especially regarding the interaction with customers and related to market requirements
• The quality of customer visits is not managed and is therefore often quite poor. This is not addressed in the sales training or trained wrongly, additionally the Sales Coaching System is often weak
• Due to habit, sales staff repeatedly visit the same customers and omit new potentials as these are harder to convince
• Insufficient coaching and tools to ensure that training content and skills are reinforced and utilised in daily work
• Sales staff is not sufficiently focused and trained on listening to and questioning the client (or internal partners) and spend most of their time talking with each other
• Insufficiently developed account or segment strategies and poor execution of these strategies.
4. Cooperation/communication with the interfacing departments is insufficient as an integrated/digital workflow is rarely implemented
• Insufficient alignment between sales and marketing on markets and products/solutions
• Lack of transparency in responsibilities leads to poor product introductions or a concentration on the wrong products (market adequacy, complexity, poor margins)
• Product management and R&D is not in touch with market needs and sales has not put a mechanism in place to transmit market/customer information and needs
• Sales does not accept any responsibility after contract signature
• Other functions (project management, engineering, sourcing,...) are not involved in definition of requirements or information transmission before contract signature.
Let’s add the full usage of current AI and our digitalising world to this equation. Improving the utilisation of the CRM system and KPIs, optimising the customer facing time, putting in place a better coordination and communication behaviour and systematic, being well prepared before facing the client (information and knowledge has never been easier to find - sales representatives need to be better prepared). This can all be achieved through better preparation and support given by the supervisor, with a constructive and effective follow-up and consideration of results.
AI in CRM
Does anyone want to be putting emails and communication notes into the CRM system when they could be on the phone or working on a high-level face-to-face meeting? Of course not. This is where the assistance of AI in sales really shines. Let AI automate activity logging, identify high-priority emails, and create new contacts. AI will liberate time for sales teams to spend appropriate quality time with the RIGHT customers.
AI and account management
Finding out what is a good deal and what is not – There is nothing worse than chasing down a deal only to have it end in nothing. AI can not only classify what a good deal or account looks like, but also predict which solutions and discounts to offer customers based on previous successes. Sniffing out a good deal is definitely something sales representatives can learn over time. But why wait when AI can get it done for you right now? Then you can just focus on the right things to go out and get the deals you can actually get done.
AI and forecasting
Letting “AI” predict and improve your forecast – AI can give an honest outlook on the quarter, predict what teams will bring what in. No more sand bagging. Looking at past transactions to make a new deal – no need to go back and read through all of the past deals that were lost or won. AI helps having and analysing all of that information at our fingertips. For instance, AI can automatically synchronize — and natural language processing can review — all of the calendar entries and emails as part of the millions of data points it uses to make potential recommendations. All those data points are what we use to find the right lead to call or to close a current deal. Knowing which lead to call - Machine learning identifies patterns to determine which leads are most likely to be converted into a deal. It’s looking at many, many things, from the geography, size of a company, and titles, to engagement such as signing up for a trial or downloading a white paper. This is dynamic; AI is the helper to do this in real time.
Leaving AI to AI and acquiring the new skills needed for Sales people – Sales management needs to play the big role
AI vs new skills, new behaviours
Sales people will then need to excel in adaptability, social and empathetic skills, putting the client in the centre of the equation and making the client genuinely feel it. Sales people need to be put through crash courses and coaching where they experience and feel the empathy that the client world is waiting for. Sales teams and individuals need to master and apply social and emotional skills; these skills as well as the creative ones are the only way organisations will differentiate themselves. Artificial intelligence will not detect the unsatisfied, annoyed or angry client (at least not yet) – our sales teams need to develop sensitivity on these aspects and anticipate the client’s emotions and needs. Sales managers need to be sales coaches more than ever. AI enables knowledge and technicality to access all levels. Transferring the right behaviours for sales representatives to become the real active listeners clients need, this is where sales managers have their role to play.
AI vs collaboration
Collaboration is becoming the way - In today’s digitalised world, working in a more collaborative way will mark the difference – not only do younger generations function that way, but collective intelligence is one of the strengths which AI will not be able to copy. Collaborative interaction and work is the future. Sales teams need to meet up, exchange ideas, share experience. Organisations need to work as an integral part of a network, not as a sole contender in the market.
How Columbus Management Group intervenes with clients:
Columbus Management Group has helped organisation in identifying these gaps and implementing actions and AI jointly to fill the gaps, tackling the dynamics of sales and the related needed behaviours and skills.
1. By going back to basics and doing a bottom-up and participative analysis of the detailed work content with key members of the organisation and validating the conclusions with all levels and areas, Columbus‘ unique approach creates a dependable base for sustainable improvement. This approach provides a holistic method to link each element and activity in sales to its turnover and margin enhancement, identify the support areas and processes in which digitalisation can thrive and to link the performance and productivity of the individual and the organisation to the strategic targets of the company.
2. The Buy-in of the employees is critical, which is why all levels of the organisation will participate in the project co-implementation approach. Implementable actions, the best-in-class solutions are jointly determined and all areas and levels are coached together in order to ensure the consistent development of the improved work method and routines. The ownership of the changes by the employees is the first step in the progress to sustainability. In this process Columbus provides the improvement methodology, the digitalisation experience, the cross-industry expertise and the resources to help with the workload, whereas employees provide the detailed knowledge of the existing organisation and processes, their creative input for improvements and their sense of realism.
3. During the development and implementation phase progress and results are monitored and discussed on a weekly basis, to keep possible deviations or delays to a minimum. This is done with the core project participants, the key staff or area managers and the client project leader. On a 3-4 weekly basis the steering group, comprising all key management members for the areas in the scope of the project, will review progress, results, necessary decisions and actions, to ensure that the project has the visible leadership and management support it needs in order to be successful.
4. The different generic steps of the implementation process are customised to the specific needs of the areas in scope. For every phase, specific milestones enable the tracking of progress and results in the weekly progress and steering meetings. Actions and solutions are jointly developed and validated by management in all the key areas, to ensure that the change management approach and ownership by employees is ascertained. Parameters and criteria for AI and digitalisation solutions are jointly defined and the selection and implementation process is done together, every step of the way.
5. The competitive advantage Columbus has is to be found in the expertise and experience of the staff members we contribute to any project. All of our consultants have an experience of at least 15-20 years in consulting, in digitalisation or in the industry, which ensures a much higher credibility with our clients’ staff. Additionally we provide mixed teams, with some members coming with industry experience, others with functional or digital expertise and the third with psychological and change management methods.
6. It is the systematic injection of the change management approach, through among other
• transparent communication from the start,
• applied psychology to anticipate any patterns of resistance to change,
• professional coaching for key staff members or specifically challenging personalities which ensures that while our common initiative may fundamentally change the way the organisation works, our clients’ employees will still be able to concentrate much more on their operational responsibilities, than if such initiatives were done with others or through internal efforts alone.
It’s time to transform the sales force by merging the emerging new trends with the still powerful, traditional sales force levers of customer targeting, time on task, and messaging. Organisations need to re-train, re-deploy, re-learn, hire new skills, contract flexible skills or release those skills which are not needed any longer.
Columbus Management’s added value is in the accelerated implementation of your operational strategy and digitalisation with sustained benefits. Our core business is the realisation of measurable results, implemented in close partnership with your own teams, through strategy definition, process optimisation, technology implementation and change management to bring the desired competitive advantage.
Our staff members, with a minimum of 10 to 15 years of industry experience, are specialists in integrating with your existing structures, while challenging the development of your resources. Their professionalism, competence and integrity enable us every day to achieve our goal, of realising strong customer loyalty through the systematic value creation of the joint initiatives across many different industries.
Founded in 1999, Columbus Management today operates in Europe and internationally with offices in London, Frankfurt, Miami, Sao Paulo, Montevideo and Hong Kong. We specialise in guiding and implementing complex projects. Today Columbus Management stands for:
• More than 100 professional individuals, with very low employee turnover
• An annual growth of more than 20%
• A revenue share of more than 70% with repeat clients
Our clients rate our singular focus on implementing results, generating a minimum 300% payback and a net positive cash position already during the project, as well as our exclusively experienced staff and therefore the ability to hit the ground running as some of the main criteria to select us.
Additionally, our network of over 400 experts, contributing cross-industry knowledge and providing our initiatives with the specific expertise required for the industry sector and improvement focus, permit us to work in most sectors and cultures.