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We hear a lot about the wonders and dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) in the news, in popular culture, and in business. But what does AI mean for Sales Performance Management (SPM) in the near and long term?

We examined this topic in our webcast, Can AI Transform Sales Performance Management? hosted by the Sales Management Association in which Lily Scanlon, Principal in Korn Ferry’s Sales Effectiveness Practice, summarized the promise and challenges of AI for SPM and recommended what is realistic for most practitioners today.

What is AI?

If you’ve marvelled at the cleverness of Siri and Alexa in figuring out what you are saying, or Pandora and Netflix in figuring out what you like, or Amazon in knowing what you want to buy, you have experienced AI. AI is the ability for machines to reason, learn and act intelligently (don’t you wish humans could do that?).  

There are several specialized forms of AI. One of them is machine learning (ML). ML uses algorithms that enable a machine to learn independently. Machines are given massive amounts of structured, labeled data to use as examples, then go thru trials to find commonalities, learn, and adapt to achieve goals. An example is facial recognition. After analyzing thousands or millions of images of faces, the machine can use an algorithm to reduce faces to mathematical formulas, then can learn to recognize a face by its unique mathematical signature. You’ll note that having lots of data from which to learn is key.

Other forms of AI include neural networks which mimic the human brain’s network of interconnected brain cells in order to recognize patterns, learn, and make decisions. Deep learning is more sophisticated, using layers of algorithms and even more data to enable a machine to make decisions such as a chess move -- when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, that was deep learning in action.

One thing is for sure, all AI requires Big Data. Big Data means massive volumes of data, structured and unstructured, flowing in and out of networks, feeding and training the AI algorithms.

What’s the Potential Impact of AI?

So just how big might AI be? The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the value created by AI in sales and marketing alone will be in the range of $1.4 to $2.6 trillion for businesses worldwide. Yes, that’s trillion with a t.

According to the 2018 Salesforce State of Sales report, 21% of sales leaders say their organizations use AI today, and 54% expect to be using AI within the next two years.  At an annual growth rate of 155%, that makes it the fastest growing sales technology. And if you are worried that AI is going to replace sales functions, you can take comfort in the fact that companies using AI are more likely to be increasing sales rep staffing levels: since using AI, 76% have increased sales staffing, vs. 48% of those not using AI. 

The promise of AI for sales performance management is great. However, to remain competitive, sales leaders increasingly will need to adapt to the world of big data and AI. Successful leaders will need to understand the technology, know their data well, understand the risks and limitations, ask the right questions, and identify where AI is most applicable and where the ROI is the highest.

In coming blog posts we will speak to other aspects covered in the webcast: what exactly AI can do to impact sales performance, what kind of commitment is required, and how to realistically get the most value and ROI from the technologies available today. 


Watch the free on-demand webcast to gain insight into where sales technology is heading, and what can you achieve with the SPM solutions that exist today to help your sales organization become more effective, retain talent, improve sales execution, adapt quickly and compete in today’s market.

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