Artificial intelligence is more than a buzzword — it is a tool with incredible business applications. Two years ago, COVID-19 disrupted normal operations and expedited the need for digitalization and online buying. If those changes weren’t already a lot to handle, companies now also face the challenges of a growing labor shortage. In this new business environment, distributors cannot rely solely on traditional sales tactics and in-person meetings to do business. The shift toward digitalization and maximizing sales productivity is permanent.
The future of B2B success lies in AI technology.
E-commerce giant Amazon has utilized AI for years to analyze customer patterns and make better product recommendations. Because these recommendations are so accurate, they account for roughly 35 percent of Amazon’s total profits, making its AI platform a multi-billion dollar asset. Customer expectations have increased due to the personalized service they receive from B2C sites like Amazon. Although Amazon is primarily a B2C company, its successful B2B endeavor, Amazon Business, puts pressure on B2B businesses to provide the same level of service. Its success proves that distributors can effectively implement AI as well.
Between labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and fewer face-to-face customer interactions, many distributors find themselves in need of a radical solution to help them maintain profitability. With modern hardware capabilities sitting where they’re at, artificial intelligence can now be this solution. Distributors can use this technology to protect their business from disruption, increasing productivity and profitability across all sales channels.
Creating an Omnichannel Experience
Distributor data has traditionally been siloed by channel. For example, inside sales reps usually don’t share information with customer service reps (CSRs). In turn, the CSRs don’t convey customer support data to field sales. Self-serve buyers search and purchase items on e-commerce websites that sales reps and CSRs usually don’t see. Every channel owns customer information that, if combined, can create a complete picture of every account, including buying preferences, past purchases, reorder needs and support tickets.
Data silos hinder each channel’s ability to be integrated and consultative, resulting in fewer sales and missed opportunities. Creating an omnichannel experience through AI helps distributors avoid these pitfalls by integrating data from each channel, providing a holistic view of each customer. The AI then analyzes this combined data to provide valuable insights and make highly accurate projections.
AI can make your sales channels and sales reps more productive and efficient.
In this new sales environment, inside sales reps are more important than ever. Unlike outside sales reps, who are limited in the accounts they can visit, proactive inside sales reps can have up to 25 daily customer interactions. When equipped with the right tools, inside reps can be highly effective and consultative while incurring fewer costs per call.
Artificial intelligence can support sales reps in several ways, including:
- Better data – AI gathers data from every channel and gives sales reps a comprehensive overview of customer shopping preferences, sales histories and product needs. With omnichannel data, inside reps have access to critical information from eCommerce, customer service and field sales channels to better understand their customers and make higher-quality recommendations.
- Personalized upsell and cross-sell suggestions – AI analyzes customer and product data to determine patterns in customer shopping behaviors. With this insight, sales reps know what to ask, what products are due to reorder and additional products to pitch to make relevant and personalized product suggestions for each customer. With relevant suggestions given to the customer, distributors can increase order size and improve their overall margins.
- More time – AI automates manual tasks like data entry and account analysis so sales reps can spend less time on administrative duties and more time actively selling. With AI, inside reps can reallocate their time to interacting with customers, so every hour worked results in more sales.
- Account prioritization – AI helps inside reps between calls by analyzing and prioritizing accounts based on reorder needs, sales opportunities and churn risk. This tool removes the guesswork so inside reps can see a daily overview of who they should call and when.
- Catalog expertise – Sales reps don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of every product to be effective. Instead, AI search tools enable sales reps to find SKUs, including product information and related items quickly, so they can answer complex customer questions and make relevant upsell and cross-sell recommendations.
Outside sales reps are often tasked with managing a company’s largest accounts. However, because they interact with customers in-person, they need a different skill set than inside reps. They must be consultative, quick thinkers and product experts to be effective.
As with inside reps, AI can support outside sales by providing better data, eliminating manual tasks and allowing them to search for product information on the fly. However, there are several unique ways AI can help outside reps be more effective, including:
- Meeting preparation – Since outside sales reps can only visit a few customers each day, they need to know which accounts are the highest priority and how to sell to them effectively. With omnichannel data and holistic customer overviews, outside sales reps can quickly review essential customer information. This helps them know which customers to visit and what products to pitch to make better upsell and cross-sell offers.
- Route planning – Outside sales reps already use AI insights from tools such as Google Maps to plan travel to customer sites efficiently. Reducing manual work frees sales reps to focus on higher sales activities.
- Product searching – With AI-powered product searching, outside sales reps can find product details, new items and pricing information from their phones. They’re empowered to immediately provide customers with answers without having to wait hours or days for a product specialist to get back to them.
Your customer service department doesn’t have to be a cost center. With training, customer service reps can learn how to utilize their unique customer relationships to make sales recommendations. Rather than just solving complaints and processing reorder requests, AI-powered insights allow CSRs to offer helpful upsell and cross-sell recommendations while providing value-added product and pricing information. These types of interactions free up an outside sales rep’s time to visit another customer.
AI-driven tools enable representatives to be proactive rather than just passive order takers. Due-to-reorder models give CSRs a chance to contact accounts for reorders and be a true partner to each customer.
Harnessing artificial intelligence not only helps CSRs solve problems, it enables them to make better recommendations and improve the customer experience.
E-commerce is an increasingly important sales channel. More and more B2B buyers expect distributors to have high-quality websites with detailed product information, search options and online purchasing tools. Distributors who ignore e-commerce risk losing customers to competitors with a more convenient and personalized digital shopping experience.
AI can bolster distributors’ e-commerce channels by enhancing the shopping experience on their site and driving an increase in average order value. For example, AI can analyze your customers’ browsing behavior, past purchases and history with sales and customer service reps to determine what they’re most likely to buy. It then uses this information to curate personalized recommendations, such as “customers also bought,” “similar items,” “just for you” and “add to cart.” AI can also get search functionality to an optimal level, letting customers quickly find the products they’re looking for. Amazon uses similar features to drive a significant portion of its sales.
Distributors can also sell AI-targeted ad space on their site to manufacturers. This strategy helps manufacturers increase brand recognition and allows distributors to monetize their websites. AI-driven advertising enables distributors to add a highly profitable income stream to increase the profitability of their entire business.
The Final Word
AI increases productivity and profitability for distributors across all sales channels. With AI, distributors are more fortified for the next disruption — no matter what it is.
Benj Cohen founded Proton to help distributors harness cutting-edge artificial intelligence. He learned about distribution firsthand at Benco Dental, a business started by his great grandfather. He’s on a mission to supply distributors with an innovative technology they need to thrive in modern markets. Contact Benj at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit proton.ai.