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How AI Can Turn Sales Reps Into Full-Catalog Product Experts

AI can map the products you already have, without a detailed and painstaking master data project. This makes the sales rep look good and allows the customer to get back to work. It’s all part of an omnichannel experience for the customer, says proton.ai's Benj Cohen.
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When you think about search, you typically think about plugging an item into a search bar online. Customers, meanwhile, have historically leaned on their field sales reps as the human equivalent – a go-to for product information – and they usually expect quick answers.

A sales rep may walk into a customer’s office, and get asked whether the distributor offers a product from a competitor. The catch: That product is private label, or branded by and exclusive to that competitor. That sales rep now has to figure out, on the spot, what the substitute for the product is out of the tens of thousands (or potentially more) of SKUs available to them.

It’s not an unusual spot for a sales rep to be in. Reps get called and texted all the time with unexpected questions from customers around item intelligence, including product attributes, substitute products, product complements and application. Many of the questions are technical:

  • Which dental composites are good for patients with a peanut allergy?
  • What’s the cure speed of this adhesive?
  • What are the regulations in the U.S. for heat shrink tubing in this application?

While B2B buyers are flocking online to search for and buy products, most still want to consult with a human. In a McKinsey survey, 76% said they still want to speak with someone when buying a completely new product or service. A little more than half prefer speaking with someone when buying a previously purchased product or service, but with different specifications.

It’s impossible for field sales reps to be experts on every SKU in your warehouse. When a rep can’t answer a question from a customer in a timely fashion, however, that hurts the customer experience. Good reps will tell the customer they’ll get back to them, and then frantically text or call the manufacturer’s rep to get the information they need. Or they may even tap into Google. Bad reps may not follow up at all.

In the time it might take to get the answer, that customer may go somewhere else – online or to a competitor – because they needed the answer right away. You may not even know you lost the sale.

A Go-To Resource

But AI has sales reps’ backs in improving customer experience and cutting the time required to get them what they need. An AI-powered semantic search of PDF sell sheets, documents, product description and attribute data will get the sales rep an answer in a fraction of the time – 15 seconds. AI can map the products you already have, without a detailed and painstaking master data project.

This makes the sales rep look good and allows the customer to get back to work. It’s all part of an omnichannel experience for the customer: the ability to interact with your business on any channel consistently and seamlessly. It’s also a great example of how technology like AI can enhance the in-person sales experience and not replace the B2B sales rep.

Gartner reported that organizations deploying AI grew from 4% to 14% from 2018 to 2019. One of the key areas of adoption is in what Gartner calls augmented intelligence, or people and AI working together. This includes applications that reduce errors and support routine work, being more efficient with automation and, of course, improving customer interactions.

Using the underlying technology that powers search, sales reps can locate products, find substitutes and speak with confidence knowing they can answer just about any question the customer throws their way.

As distributors evolve, they must maintain valuable rep-to-customer relationships while improving their technological infrastructure. With AI-powered item intelligence on the go, reps can leverage these interactions into better customer experiences.

Benj Cohen founded Proton.ai to help distributors harness cutting-edge artificial intelligence. He learned about distribution firsthand at Benco Dental, a business started by his great-grandfather. Later, while studying applied math and data science at Harvard University, Cohen saw an opportunity to bring his two worlds together. He’s on a mission to supply distributors with the innovative technology they need to thrive in modern markets. Learn more or contact Benj at proton.ai.

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