AI seems to be infiltrating all parts of business. We asked a panel of presales superstars their thoughts on the current and future states of AI.
Moderated by Don Carmichael, the panel included:
Their answers were insightful, challenging, and encouraging.
How are people using AI right now?
This isn’t some faraway science fiction future. AI is already being used in many organizations.
Adam Freeman pointed out, “AI isn’t a new thing. How long has Alexa or Siri been around? That’s normal artificial intelligence that’s been around us for a long time. What’s happening is that the generative and the large language models are now coming mainstream and it’s bringing new use cases.”
If you or your boss used a program to analyze recordings, give coaching, or predict future revenue, you were using AI. Julie Hansen recommends using caution, “I think we can get into danger when we start over coaching people in the moment. Before we completely change our strategy, we should consider if we’re talking to the AI or are we talking to a human?”
ChatGPT is a form of AI that everyone has been talking about. It’s not being used exclusively for business as many people have found uses for it including creating meal plans or travel itineraries. In the B2B world, ChatGPT has been employed to help increase employee product knowledge.
Sara Jones says, “We’re testing having ChatGPT in a “Ask the SME Channel” slack channel where people from all areas can ask questions about a product, a customer, or the sales cycle. It takes a lot of human time to monitor that channel and put the answers back out, which ChatGPT eliminates the need for people to supervise.”
Julian Lywood-Mulcock PhD said, “AI isn’t an absolute. It’s something that we should work with, it’s a companion for whatever we determine it should do.” His Post Sales team uses a slack bot that responds to pretty much any question that the post sales organization asks, but they’ve put guardrails around it to ensure the answers have been verified.
AI Uses Right on the Horizon
AI is being developed in ever evolving ways, so there’s many things to look forward to.
For Adam, it’s tools that help remove the boring tasks that bog down many sales engineers. “I think the harmonization of the tools we use everyday together with AI powering those repetitive tasks, those tasks that take 80% of the stuff that we never include as requirements on a job description but have to as part of our day-to-day. If we eliminate those tasks through AI, we can get back to where we create real values for our organizations and more important content for our buyers.”
Sara is also looking forward to time saving elements of AI tools, but also what those time saving elements can lead to. “What if AI could help us with discovery? Let’s say we reduce 50% of the time we normally spend on those types of queries, then we can get a full 30 minutes of quality time during discovery sessions because we’ve spent so much time with AI up front that has given us a wealth of information. Now you’ve only got five or six targeted questions that you need to be asking.”
It’s not only how quickly AI completes tasks, but how and why we’re using AI. AI will make some tasks faster, but we need to think about whether these tasks should be done automatically. Julian thinks, “This really boils down to this overarching esoteric question: should we be looking at product versus process? Is the product better because I used AI or is it better because I actually came up with a better solution? I think it’s more about how we utilize the tooling and how that becomes part of that product, the outcome of the thing you’re doing versus the process.”
As we move forward, there’s no way we can fully predict everything AI will be able to accomplish, but we can look to recent disruptions in the market that had a huge impact.
Julie says, “When we all had to go virtual during the COVID-19 Pandemic, that was a huge change. It was a terrible reason we had to do it, but it accelerated us a decade ahead of where we would have been. I’m just excited in the sense of like we don’t really know where this leads but I am hopeful it does too many good things.”
AI Concerns and Risks
As always with new technologies, there’s questions about the ethics surrounding the ways people should use them. Even one of the main AI developers at Google had reservations about the concept of AI in general and how to let humanity use it safely.
Sara says, “I think there is a huge danger that AI tools can be used for the villainous side. I think it’s up to the companies that are building this stuff and working for it to stay on top of this.”
Some of the rules surrounding AI may develop naturally as more organizations use AI with their customers.
Julie says “What I thought was very interesting is the types of regulations the head of IBM’s AI ethics department talked about. She had a list of like 4 criteria that she thought would be good to adopt and one of those was that the customer should never be tricked into interacting with AI. I think that’s really important to keep in mind because we’re all in sales, and in sales, credibility is our currency.”
But ultimately, many of the tools we use now in current cyber security strategies are likely going to be helpful for mitigating risks with AI. Adam thinks, “We should be doing very simple things like using password lockers and updating passwords more regularly than we do. Just generally maintaining our good cyber security levels.” He also cautions against oversharing on social media as it’s an easy way for information to get leaked. “I think it’ll make us more private, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
We really have to consider the human side of dealing with AI. Phishing attacks are so common for one reason: they work! So how we deal with AI risks will come down to how we deal with ourselves.
Julian says, “We have to be realistic that these things will happen, but it’s how we respond to them and how we then utilize the learnings that will be important. 9 times out of 10, the attacks aren’t the same. It’s the same umbrella attack, but the specific way they got in or the specific mechanism they used differ. It’s understanding and being cognizant of the teams that are working on these things. AI can work in both ways. It’s not just a threat in those environments, it can also help us identify threats. There’s a balance to be had that we can utilize AI to to actually be part of the solution.”
Can AI be a Buyer Enablement Superpower?
Buyers want to be in charge of their buying journey. Not only are they conducting most of their research before ever reaching out to a vendor, they want to be able to see actual demonstrations of the product on their own time. There’s already types of automation that can help with this, but where will AI take it?
Sara thinks that this is already being used somewhat during customer research. Right now, Google is probably the first place customers look for potential vendors, but that might change.
Sara thinks, “Buyers are gonna be so much more intelligent about everything that they are evaluating from a text stack point of view because they can ask AI to give them the information before they even start externally having conversations. It’s a little bit scary because of how much they’re going to learn about us as organizations before they start engaging with us. We can potentially be missing out on opportunities and never know because they did all of the research internally beforehand.”
Adam adds onto that, “I think the generative aspect of it will change things the most. We believe in the power of video, so we brought video into our business to change the buyer journey. How long before we get generative AI for a video that says create me an automated product demo, show me how I add a new customer into my finance system? Could the customer end up creating their own interactive demos by typing in a command prompt they want to see in your solution? That’s where I think it will end up in time.”
Customers have largely moved away from wanting lots of in person interaction during the buying process even in B2B, but that doesn’t mean that AI will be able to fulfill every portion of the buyer’s journey.
Julian says, “There’s a perception that maybe AI’s gonna own the buyer journey. Maybe for a segment of customers that’s perfect. That’s exactly what they want, but I think that it’s not an absolute. We need to be realistic about what kind of buying journeys are supported by AI. I think there are definitely other specific journeys where it’s like that is gonna absolutely take off with particular types of audiences and other nuances they look for.”
How to Stay Relevant
No matter your feelings on it, AI is here to stay. And that is a scary reality for a lot of people. Julie doesn’t think that sales engineers will disappear as a profession simply because AI is more widely adopted.
Julie says, “Like with any technology, we have early adopters and we have late adopters. We’re going to see the same thing we saw with this virtual revolution. People saying, ‘I’m not gonna really change anything because I hope this goes back to normal.’ I think embracing it for your job, especially in technology, is sort of a requirement.”
But, even as things change, there are some things that will never go away. One of those things is how we as humans interact with one another.
Sara says, “I absolutely think that our job is critical and isn’t going anywhere, but I think our profile will change with AI coming into it. The things we do and spend more time on will definitely change. I still think the fundamental rule ‘People buy from People’ will never go out of style. That’s where our sales engineer role becomes even more critical is mapping and helping our customers make sense of all the technology of everything that’s been output to them by our technology via AI.”
AI is still in its infancy in a lot of ways. Julian says, “Until we have a momentous breakthrough moment where there is something amazing being solved by these solutions and then I still view it as just another AI tool. It’s just another thing that is either producing an outcome more quickly or helping me do my job more effectively. I think you need to consider how you are using AI. Are you delivering? Are you building AI? Or are you just an end user of it?”
Even though the future is never certain, we can guarantee that those who truly love the presales profession will never walk away from the thrill of the deal. As Adam puts it, “If you ask anyone who’s a solution consultant what their most favorite deal was, I highly suspect it wouldn’t be one where they had the best product. It’d be the one where someone trusted you as a presales professional and that got the deal over table. They really felt like you made a difference in that deal. Ultimately, that will determine the outcome of how we use AI because we as presales people crave that rush. Once you’ve had it, you want it forevermore.”