AI in the Field: The Secret to Success in Outside Sales - Modern Distribution Management

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AI in the Field: The Secret to Success in Outside Sales founder and CEO Benj Cohen discusses how artificial intelligence can help outside sales representatives engage with customers more effectively.
Despite the emphasis on digital, outside sales reps are still crucial to B2B buying relationships. Benj Cohen explains how AI helps reps along the way.

As someone who grew up in the distribution industry, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges outside sales reps face without the right technology to support them.

I recently shadowed a field sales rep on his rounds visiting customers. This rep has worked in the field for years for a large U.S. lubricant distributor. Despite his experience and sales prowess, he shared with me the tedious process he dealt with to check on the needs of his customers.

I watched as the rep physically inspected the lubricant barrel by kicking it to determine how full it was and whether it was time to place a new order, a process the sales rep referred to as “kicking the drum.” The problem with this method is that it’s time-consuming and doesn’t accurately predict when a customer will likely need to place an order.

During this shadowing trip, there were several wasted stops. Many customers had fully stocked shelves and full lubricant barrels — they didn’t need anything ordered. While visiting customers might benefit the ongoing relationship, it reduced the time available for the rep to visit customers with higher revenue potential – those who were actually due to reorder products and make a sale.

It was clear that there was room for improvement in this process, and that’s where AI could make a big difference. When AI analyzes all of a distributor’s important data, including customers’ past purchases, online browsing activity and product information, it can provide sales reps with insightful recommendations to inform how they spend their day, who they visit, and what they sell. If the rep I was shadowing had been using this AI-powered software for distributors, he could have easily skipped the stop where the customer was fully stocked, saving time and energy for more promising prospects.

Top 3 Ways AI Can Help Distributors

Ready to replace kicking the drum with a more reliable strategy? Good news! There’s a better way to save time, make sales and delight customers. Distributors can use AI to streamline and optimize the field sales process.

1. Find Hidden Sales Opportunities

During another one of my shadowing sessions, I followed an outside sales rep we’ll call Gary. Gary used AI to highlight customers who were browsing products online without buying them.

At one point, Gary’s AI-powered mobile app bubbled a customer to the top of his call list. This customer had browsed an expensive piece of dental equipment on the company website. Gary admits this was something he wouldn’t have thought to ask the customer about. But because of the AI-powered insight, he gave it a shot and ended up closing the deal.

AI-powered sales software makes it possible for outside sales reps to know everything about a customer right when they need it. They can simply use their mobile device to see customers’ browsing history, past purchases and other interactions with the organization’s sales team.

2. Close Wallet Share Gaps

AI does more than unlock one-off sales opportunities; it can identify entire product categories where customers underspend.

Jim, another outside sales rep I spent a day with, leverages the power of AI through his mobile app to prepare for customer visits. In one instance, the app pointed out a customer with a $70,000 shortfall in spending compared to similar customers, specifically in the “wire” category.

When Jim arrived on site, he asked some probing questions and discovered the customer was purchasing wire from a competitor. After asking about pricing, Jim promptly submitted a proposal to become the customer’s sole wire supplier. Ultimately, Jim was successful in reclaiming the business and boosting the customer’s spending with his company.

3. Increase Customer Engagement

Being engaged and proactive with customers opens the door for better conversations, new sales opportunities and more satisfied customers.

When shadowing John, another sales rep, I learned that AI greatly enhances customer engagement. Instead of arriving on-site without a game plan or wasting time asking repetitive questions, John has engaging conversations that stem from the AI-generated recommendations that surfaced on his mobile app. He credits AI with helping him sell more. In fact, sometimes, he sells products unrelated to AI-generated recommendations. Simply being engaged and proactive with his customers opens up the door for better conversations that reveal customers’ needs and sales opportunities. With AI, reps like John can arrive at a customer site with a personalized plan, focusing on meeting their unique needs, resulting in higher sales. AI enables reps to make customized product suggestions, identify untapped sales opportunities, proactively replenish customer supplies, and more. This leads to a more consultative sales approach, delivering satisfied and actively engaged customers.

Achieve Outside Sales Success with AI

Distribution-specific AI provides outside sales reps with a wealth of knowledge, including information about:

  • Categories customers are underspending
  • Products customers should be buying but aren’t
  • Items that customers are due to reorder

With these insights, outside reps can be true consultants to customers by helping them get the products they need when they need them and responding to stockouts with alternate products. Higher service levels and an improved customer experience drive customer loyalty. With the right technology at their fingertips, your sales reps are ready to stay ahead of the competition.

It’s time to kick the “kick the drum” process to the curb (see what I did there?) and adopt AI-driven technology to empower your outside sales reps.

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