Source: HBR.org/ Doug J. Chung, Isabel Huber, Cuneyt Kayacan, Philipp Landauer, and Varun Sunku
In this article, we examine sales automation’s benefits, how it can be applied to standard processes, and how to adopt new processes to improve your team’s ability to sell. We also detail five key principles for building and executing on your sales automation strategy.
Faced with profitability challenges, a global consumer electronics firm decided to restructure its business with a focus on optimizing costs, sales productivity, and customer satisfaction. To achieve these goals, the company automated customer and product master data, disputes and claims resolution, stock replenishment, and discount management. The firm also deployed automated web-crawler tools to improve competitive intelligence-gathering. With buy-in from leadership, the company was able to reduce the cost of select processes by 15% in only three years.
A recent McKinsey study shows that more than 30% of sales activities can be automated to improve efficiency and effectiveness. However, lack of awareness of automation’s potential, inadequate tracking, return on investment (ROI) concerns, and delayed delivery challenges are hindrances to adoption. Many organizations that have overcome these challenges have still struggled to meet automation project targets, with only 50% reporting project success.
At the other end of the spectrum, companies are pioneering sales automation with inspiring results. Using five prominent technologies — machine learning (ML), robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing/generation (NLG), smart workflows, and cognitive agents — companies are reducing costs, improving customer service and scaling operations.
In this article, we’ll examine sales automation’s overarching benefits, how it can be applied to standard sales processes, and how to successfully adopt new processes to improve your team’s ability to sell. We will also detail five key principles to consider while building and executing on your sales automation strategy.
The Benefits of Sales Automation
A European telecommunications firm turned to an IBM Watson-based chatbot to improve its customer service operation. The firm leveraged user-behavior analyses and usage-pattern predictions to improve processes based off data from customer interactions with the chatbot. The telco used its findings to improve its outreach and enhance its Customer Value Management (CVM) function. The program has contributed approximately 10% of total activations, with 6% margin improvement. Approximately 26% of calls are now fully managed by the chatbot with no human intervention. The initiative has reduced costs while improving efficiency and customer satisfaction.
In addition to improved service, sales automation can improve accuracy and consistency by eliminating human errors and streamlining processes. It can boost scalability by allowing flexibility to grow key activities while sustaining execution quality. Customer coverage availability increases via the use of RPA and virtual agents and traceability expands, which improves audits and root-cause analyses.
Here are a few examples of how automation functions within each stage of the sales process:
Pre-Sales Improvements: Automated web crawlers collect market and competitor data to analyze and predict, for example, an industry’s total addressable market (TAM) and a customer’s present and future potential. AI allows organizations to better project market trends by region, which can be used to automatically update sales frontline quotas. Organizations can use advanced analytics to automate and systemize sales-call plans. RPA and ML tools can automatically detect bottlenecks and their root causes in the sales process and help sales-funnel management. ML tools can automatically generate call-lists and guide salespeople to call the right customers with the appropriate topic at the right time.
Sales Improvements: NLP-based tools can decrease request-for-proposal (RFP) response time. RPA and ML tools automatically analyze and export pricing schemes. Automated workflows can optimally accelerate discount/rebate setting and management. ML tools can generate insights on actions and behaviour associated with high closing rates. Billing workflows in turn are automated via RPA-based account receivables and payable management (e.g., invoice generation and processing).
Post-Sales and Sales Operations Support: RPA- and NLP-based tools allow the automation of customer feedback and behaviour analysis, enabling call centers to improve customer satisfaction and first-call resolution (FCR) while freeing up full-time equivalent (FTE) capacity. RPA and ML tools can identify customers with a high probability of churn and auto-generate promotional offers to retain them.
Planning Your Sales Automation Strategy
To successfully deploy enterprise sales automation, companies need to plan the process in advance. Depending on the organizational maturity level, process mapping, and IT landscape, as well as the company’s capabilities, we’ve mapped three routes that can yield an optimal result for each use case:
- Organizations can fix and automate processes by first lifting the procedure to best-in-class before starting to automate.
- They can automate first and fix later by finding quick solutions with existing capabilities to overcome key pain points followed by process optimization.
- Or they can fix and outsource, which involves improving the process and then shifting to external service providers.
The consumer electronics firm and the telecommunications firm applied the fix and automate approach. It is comprised of the following three steps:
Step 1: Redesign and simplify the customer journey. Eliminate unnecessary processes and outputs by removing unneeded approvals, data inputs, and reports. Then simplify forms and policies through the mapping of current and ideal-state processes and triage them based on complexity.
Step 2: Standardize policies and processing logics for triaged processes. Organizations should capture existing best practices and ideal-state processes to codify in standard operating procedures. They should reduce the number of reports by consolidating customers’ requirements and standardizing the format.
Step 3: Shift individual activities to customers or service providers. Organizations should transfer some activities to customers by providing self-service digital portals. They should also identify service providers who can take over simplified and standardized processes.
Executing on Your Strategy
As organizations pursue sales automation, most start the journey with a highly fragmented IT landscape characterized by complex legacy applications and high maintenance costs. Typical IT development/implementation thus involves a trade-off between fast-business impact and consistent architecture. There are three potential approaches:
- Start-up approach focuses on fast business impact and leads to excessive cost for maintenance; is typically not extendable.
- All-in-one approach targets overall integration and leads to excessive development cost.
- Stable island approach is a more recommended approach as well as a pragmatic midway, which balances impact and consistent architecture yielding viable end products. “Stable islands” is a stand-in term for viable end products.
Successful automation leaders typically leverage a “stable island approach” enabled by process redesign, agile practices, capability building, value-capture plans, and responsive IT support. The importance of the process design cannot be overstated, as automation is most effective when combined with an agile process redesign. Most organizations skip this step and fail to realize the full benefit of sales automation.
Five Principles for Sustained Sales Automation Success
We have identified five principles for a successful sales automation journey by dissecting the journeys of organizations that have failed and succeeded at this process.
1. Thorough Process Re-Design. Carefully examine the sales process to insert value-adding activities and eliminate non-value-adding ones. Automating inefficient processes only transfers the inefficiency from humans to algorithms, often magnifying the inefficiency. The global consumer electronics firm invested up-front to understand the “as-is” sales process and worked with experts to create the “to-be” process.
2. Emphasis on Capabilities in Contrast to Deadlines. Sales automation can offer consistent productivity improvements, but also can become unsustainable if implementation outpaces capability. Invest in tailoring your automation’s capabilities, building to the needs of each key role. The global consumer electronics firm tracked skill development at a person-by-person level rather than being overly fixated on development timelines while building its automation center.
3. Clear Value-Capture Plans. Some organizations pursue “small value” quick wins and miss bigger automation opportunities, while others take a cost-myopic view and ignore value from improved quality, speed, and flexibility. It is critical to prioritize the right use-cases while using action plans with clear milestones and timelines to guide implementation. Both the European telecommunications player and the global consumer electronics firm ensured that their automation business cases were rooted in hard data and communicated guidelines around testing, acceptance, and release with specific action plans.
4. Responsive IT Support. IT plays a critical role in educating and training frontline workers, supporting automation planning, and ensuring security clearances. The global consumer electronics firm formed a development team within its sales function to create automation solutions fully in-house. The operations teams across Europe worked with the automation team to create success. This reduced external vendor involvement and enhanced custom solution flexibility.
5. Agile Practices. A dual operating model of agility combined with automation mitigates implementation challenges. Such an operating model could iteratively deliver end-products via multi-deployed teams with shared KPIs while embracing experimentation and development via coaching and feedback.
Each sales automation journey requires its own unique planning and optimization. Use the techniques and principles we’ve provided as a guide to help explore your team’s journey, while making sure to carefully adapt and modify as needed. No matter how you choose to employ sales automation within your organization, it would benefit you to begin researching and planning today.