To take a closer look at how AI is remodeling the landscape of B2B sales, we hear from Stephen Messer, co-founder of Collective[i] on episode 35 of AI at Work. Collective[i] was born out of a trend that Stephen observed in his previous company - LinkShare - a pioneer in the field of performance-based marketing and affiliate links.With websites, LinkShare could predict with a very high accuracy how much revenue would be generated. On the flip side, Stephen tells us, they had 50 commissioned sales professionals, who “were unable to actually predict any dollar amount accurately that they were going to close.”
“That became the foundation for Collective[i], which is just short for Collective Intelligence,” says Stephen, “but our goal was to figure out, why is it that we were not able to figure out how to get our sales team to be predictable, to know what they're doing, and help them grow.”
Collective[i]’s model has been described as the “waze for sales” by the Wall Street Journal. When companies join, they are contributing their data, which collective[i]’s algorithms process in order to learn across everybody how the best deals are won. By studying sellers, Collective[i] is able to come up with recommendations on who to talk to, based on the opportunity you want to go after. “It feels uncanny, but it’s actually really easy to do because no one’s given up any confidential data,” says Stephen. “We just learned from everyone else in a blind way.”
The advantage of this AI-enabled approach is clear: those in sales can focus their time entirely on selling. The traditional CRM technology’s constraint of necessitated time for logging leaves it lagging behind.
AI: A better way to approach sales
There’s a lot of room for growth in the way most people approach sales, says Stephen. On average win rates are typically only 10%, which means 9 out of 10 people who wanted to do business with you walked away.
A commonly used sales technique is finding a champion - someone within your client’s organization who will advocate on your behalf when you’re not there. Actually, “champions are the worst thing you can do,” says Stephen, “In other words, all these people are thinking about, why am I doing this for you?”
“But if I know that five people will be involved in the deal, why not multi-thread it? Find a reason that works for all five of them, then find a connection to all five of them, and have those people all give them something they all want so they all come to the conclusion right around the same time where they're all familiar with your product,” he says, “You're actually helping them solve a bigger problem and you're actually getting into the meat of what they care about not looking for the champion to try to win it.”
Thoughts on the future of AI
AI has many exciting future directions. Stephen shares his thoughts with us from three perspectives: that of an executive, a founder, and an engineer.
As an executive, Stephen finds the competitive advantage that AI can lend simply unparalleled. “I love those types of opportunities because the early adopters get such benefits that the middle and late adopters can never get caught up,” he says, “Those are markets where I don't need to get a lot of customers to really dominate a market and then everyone else has to follow. As an executive, that would make me thrilled.”
“Now the flipside is, I don't want to be the middle or late adopter,” he says, “Because if I wait, and I don't learn how to use this technology, I am trying to figure out how to catch up on the heels of it but I'm not getting ahead, I'm trying to get back to par. And that means I'd never get my market share back. So that's Nokia trying to come up with their touchscreen device, after Apple had completely eviscerated their business. And you might argue a flat screen that's touchscreen isn't that big of a deal, except there's no Nokia left, that matters. So these are things that you want to pay attention to.”
From the perspective of a founder, Stephen says he as never seen a technology where the value of what’s created is so dramatic that almost nothing can come close to it. Businesses that are so disruptive that an entire industry’s value chain can be wiped out in five years and the client is grateful. Five-year goals that were beat at year three. That’s the potential that AI has to offer.
Lastly, from the viewpoint of an engineer, Stephen points out that it takes a very different skill set to work in AI, one that is almost counter to the old engineering. So, he says, “this is the time to learn early.”
Collective[i] is a great example of how AI-powered businesses have the potential to completely transform the way we approach things like marketing, sales, customer service, production, and so much more. Stephen’s account of AI’s distinct advantages makes it enticing to consider - how can I leverage AI in my work?