High-Tech & Telecommunications

AI-guided selling is the future of sales. Is your organization ready?

By Kyle Heller

Nov. 29, 2021 | Article | 8-minute read

AI-guided selling is the future of sales. Is your organization ready?

Most commercial organizations began leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in the past decade as part of some form of digital transformation. This shift was in response to continuing changes in customer engagement requirements and preferences, a focus on multichannel orchestration, the need to engage with customers in a more dynamic and personalized fashion, the desire to optimize sales execution and productivity, as well as to capitalize on the expansion of available data and more advanced analytical technologies and capabilities.


Of course, the past few years have accelerated this trend, and the momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing. Those organizations ahead of the curve are now benefitting from their AI investments. Those who were slow to change must now quickly try to catch up. We believe that, to avoid being left behind, the next 12-18 months will be critical for commercial organizations to invest in AI as a commercial enablement capability.


ZS recently surveyed over 190 commercial leaders to better understand their organization’s current AI enablement capabilities and their plans for leveraging AI’s commercial capabilities over the next one to two years, with a focus on sales enablement and AI-guided selling.

The state of commercial artificial intelligence

When asked to evaluate their current AI enablement capabilities, about 60% of respondents rated their organization as “basic,” another 27% as “moderate” and only 13% considered their commercial AI capabilities as “advanced.” Strategies for developing this capability vary as well, with moderate and advanced organizations being more likely to have built this capability by augmenting their internal team(s) with investments in AI technology and leveraging consulting partners’ AI capabilities. 


Interestingly, while approximately 80% of organizations plan to increase their investments in the coming year, organizations with moderate or advanced AI capabilities also reported a greater acceleration of their investment compared to those with only basic capabilities. For most organizations in this basic group, it suggests they’ll be “left behind” as their competitors continue to outpace them.


The difference in capability and investment can also be observed at an industry level. In certain industries that report more advanced capabilities today, like high-tech, insurance, telecom and financial services, we observe greater levels of AI focus than in lagging industries, like industrials, med-tech and insurance.

Across the board, every organization surveyed reported currently leveraging AI to enable some part of their organization, with a majority doing so across at least two functional areas. When asked where their AI and transformation investment over the next one to two years will focus, there’s a clear and overwhelming focus enabling marketing and sales.

The future of sales: Artificial intelligence-guided selling

Given the significant investment in the AI enablement of the sales organization, we dove deeper into exploring exactly what participants are seeking to achieve. Interestingly, 72% of respondents said their organizations plan to deploy an AI-guided selling solution to better enable sales. Of this 72%, approximately 40% plan to do so within the next year, with a similar percentage of respondents planning to do so within the next two years. While there’s variation in the planned use of AI-guided selling, a majority of organizations across industries expect to have this capability within the next one to two years.


There are many benefits to an AI-guided sales organization, though the top three most commonly cited by respondents were improved win rate and deal size, accelerated sales growth and improved overall seller effectiveness. We’ve seen that there’s also a significant benefit to customer experience, as they’re engaging them in the manner that’s desired, and in employee efficiency and experience, as the selling experience is tailored to their unique set of customers and opportunities.

“72% of respondents said their organizations plan to deploy an AI-guided selling solution to better enable sales… approximately 40% plan to do so within the next year.”

While these were common across most industries and firmographic dimensions, there were a few subtle areas of variation across industries. For example, high-tech and industrial organizations were more likely to prioritize sales growth, win rate and deal size. Insurance organizations were more focused on sales growth and deal velocity. Financial services organizations placed a much higher weight on customer retention and health.

To achieve these outcomes, organizations plan on delivering several seller experiences as part of their AI-guided selling solution. Unsurprisingly, given the expected and prioritized benefits of an AI-guided sales organization, most organizations are planning on guidance around customer acquisition, penetration and opportunity advancement. And, while not identified as a core benefit, 57% of respondents also plan on enabling better customer retention and health as part of the solution. Unpacking these solutions at an industry level also gives insight into how these planned experiences link to the benefits.

When considering different AI-guided selling solutions, 27% of respondents identified seamless integration with other technologies as the most important factor, followed by ease of implementation (22%) and AI precision (15%).


Speed of deployment and having an intuitive UI and UX (both identified as important factors by 11% of the respondents) are also very important considerations for organizations. Given the complexity of achieving all these outcomes, it’s not surprising that more than half of respondents said they’d accomplish this by purchasing AI technology instead of trying to build or develop the AI-guided selling solution in house. Further, more than half also reported that they’d engage consulting partners to develop or implement the solution. These numbers are even more pronounced for those planning on deploying this capability in the next year.


When evaluating potential consulting partners and their services and solutions, respondents cited several important criteria. The most important criteria in selecting a consulting partner aligns very closely to their criteria in choosing an AI-guided selling solution—the firm’s AI and ML capabilities, followed by their ability to deliver a speedy implementation. Notably, respondents also highlighted two new criteria: the firm’s knowledge of how sales organizations work and its ability to manage change and drive adoption.


The importance of consulting partner capabilities at an industry level shows some meaningful variations as well. According to our research, industries with more basic and nascent AI capabilities today, like medtech and industrials, care more about a consulting partner’s ability to help the organization transition to and adopt AI capabilities. More advanced industries, like telecom and financial services, care more about landing AI in the sales organization or getting a third-party validation or perspective on best practices. Finally, more advanced industries, like insurance and high-tech, are focused on speed and precision when selecting a consulting partner.

The path forward and the barriers to overcome

The business leaders surveyed conveyed clarity and conviction in their need to deploy an AI-guided selling solution within their organization—and quickly. That said, they also identified barriers that presented challenges to making this promise a reality within their organization. The research echoes our experience with clients as well in that the biggest hurdles to overcome are getting cross-functional support from the broader organization (54% of respondents across industries identified this as a challenge), concerns about data quality or sufficiency (40% identified this challenge) and the ability to integrate AI-guided selling with other experiences salespeople use today (35% identified this).


While we recognize the validity of each of these challenges, we have observed many clients overcome them, successfully deploying AI-guided selling solutions within their organizations—and with significant impact on their top and bottom lines. There’s a recipe.


In committing to deploy AI-guided selling, champions must first align leaders around the importance and business value of AI-guided selling and the relevant performance metrics it will affect. Where this is done most effectively, organizations include a sense of empathy for the sales experience and the value this will bring from an employee experience, from ramping to retention. As the majority of organizations across industries deploy AI-guided selling, it will become an expectation and a core part of attracting and retaining top sales talent.


Another critical element to gaining buy-in for AI-guided selling is to avoid the trap of thinking of it as just “another tool.” Instead, it should be viewed as an integral part of the organizations customer relationship management (CRM) and sales enablement strategy and a significant piece of value that can be delivered in a single or integrated experience, enriching the sales team’s perceived value and adoption of CRM.


Finally, don’t let data insufficiency stop you. It’s rare for organizations to feel that their data is perfect, and so awaiting that too often means this will never happen. Optimizing AI-guided selling is a journey—one that may start in a more sophisticated form in certain spaces and a more heuristic-based form in others. Each of these things will generate insights as you observe them in action and will help you accelerate your path to an optimized solution down the road.


The promise of AI-guided selling is real and is coming rapidly. We believe strongly that investing in deploying this capability will be a critical success factor for organizations in the next 12-18 months. Those who do so will be equipped to sell effectively and efficiently in this new world, and those who don’t will likely be left behind. For some, deploying AI-guided selling may be a big initiative to achieve global impact out of the gate. For others, it may start small, with a single use case or an early experience team to gain buy-in and prove the value.


Most importantly, however, is simply beginning the journey to leveraging AI and guided selling in your organization to improve sales growth, retention, customer experience, salesperson experience and doing so in a seamless and integrated way that augments what you do rather than change it.

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