This content is part of the Essential Guide: CRM case studies: Customer relationship management in action

This is the year CRM AI remakes sales automation

You've heard so much hype about AI, collaboration platforms and analytics in the past three years. This coming year, you'll implement these technologies and enable more sales automation.

Cloud sales automation in your organization probably involves a lot of data migration between applications or migrating on-premises systems to an off-site cloud. Now that's all done. Buckle in and get ready to implement CRM AI tools and set up online collaboration spaces to augment those cloud CRM sales automation platforms -- and reap the benefit of those enabling technologies to drive sales and save time.

We consulted industry insiders on what CRM AI trends will be worth watching -- and integrating into workflows -- in the upcoming year. Their answers may not surprise you, but will validate plans for IT spend you've drafted for C-suite approval.

CRM AI automates routine tasks

Laurie McCabe, co-founder and partner, SMB Group: "Artificial intelligence and machine learning [ML] are changing the world -- and will change CRM. Just as cloud computing has lifted the technology burden of deploying and managing CRM off the backs of companies, AI and ML promise to lift some of the business burdens, powering CRM with better automation, insights and engagement capabilities.

"These technologies make computer programs smart by helping them to:

  • learn, predict patterns and spot anomalies;
  • recommend and implement new processes and activities;
  • converse with users to answer questions and provide analytics and insights.

"Weaving AI and ML technologies into CRM will help automate routine tasks. As the CRM system learns more about us and our customers' preferences and patterns, it will tailor interfaces and interactions to best meet our needs. They will also help us to more readily tap into customer information, so we can make better sales, marketing and service decisions."

Collaboration with context

Srivatsan Venkatesan, Freshsales CRM product head, Freshworks: "Collaboration with context will be the key theme for CRM in 2018. As lines within the workplace blur and everyone becomes a salesperson in some way, it is imperative that all your teams are always on the same page, thus bringing in the focus on collaboration features. These will improve the overall productivity of teams across the organization and will enable your sales teams to close deals faster.

"AI and ML will work together to provide insights from historical CRM and company data, or even external data sources across industries and verticals. These insights will play a major role in empowering sales reps and enabling them to [make] the right decisions to close deals faster.

"The definition of CRM is evolving now. Businesses are looking at better context by integrating sales, customer service, marketing, invoice management and more as core tools, or even within a single tool."

Situational analytics improve sales engagements

Mark Grilli, vice president of product marketing, Adobe Document Cloud: "The current state of CRM is about tracking, reporting and team productivity. End users have to adapt their work to the system of choice. The next wave will be about helping individual interactions be smarter. Which content, which answers, which sales plays are more likely to drive results against certain situations.

"Think of how baseball has changed in the past few years. Now, every manager has situational analytics that tell them what pitchers to use in what innings with what kind of batter, and even, in some cases, with specific players coming to the plate. This absolutely should also be what sales people should expect from their CRM as they work through their sales stages with their prospects."

CRM AI improves sales triage

Chris Benedetto, director of sales automation marketing, Pegasystems: "In 2018, we will see intelligent agents or chatbots used in large-scale production to conduct basic sales triage, such as information gathering, initial qualification and segmentation, and real-time response handling. These bots could also be used for internal sales teams that need to ask questions about sales best practices and processes.

In 2018, we will see intelligent agents or chatbots used in large-scale production to conduct basic sales triage.
Chris Benedettodirector of sales automation marketing, Pegasystems

"A simplified version of this capability is already in place with automatic email responses and basic sales/service FAQs that are online and found using text search engines and low-level natural language processing/word clouds. Yet a more advanced degree of intelligence can be injected into these simple rules- and event-driven processes with conversational bots that interact in real time with clients/prospects.

"By interrogating and processing chat requests and triangulating that request in real time with known client/prospect data, such as web behavior, demographic and other attributes, these bots can learn and conduct conversations for sales purposes.

"For example, given a known customer ID and part number, what's to stop a bot from generating a quote? As well, what's stopping a bot for internal sellers from sending and responding [to] emails to book common calendar time with a client/prospect?

"The largest challenge will be:

  1. defining the supported patterns of dialog;
  2. modeling the resulting decision/execution paths; and
  3. establishing the data and system integrations to back-end systems, such as pricing, product catalog, and SFA [sales force automation], to enable seamless, straight-through processing and alerting."

Relationship intelligence complements of CRM AI

Martin Schneider, head of corporate strategy, SugarCRM: "In 2018, you'll see AI-related technologies take over repetitive and mundane tasks to give sales reps more time to talk to their customers and prospects. AI will not only make the data within your CRM better; the real value is pulling in the oceans of data from outside the organization [to help] reps build comprehensive profiles of their targets. I believe this will lead to relationship intelligence becoming a category that is complementary, but somewhat separate from core CRM.

"The data is out there. The challenge is using it correctly. Sales reps will need training on how to best utilize this newfound goldmine without overstepping and violating privacy."

AI automates data entry

Will Moxley, senior vice president of Sales Cloud product management, Salesforce: "In 2018, AI advancements will continue to shape the evolving customer and sales representative dynamic. This intelligence-driven decision-making will become the expectation, helping sales automate data entry, identify potential opportunities and proactively determine the likelihood of closing a deal.

"It will be imperative that every SFA offering has a layer of intelligence in order to arm sales representatives with such data -- ultimately helping them move faster, sell smarter and close more deals."

Granular analytics improve channel sales strategies

Ted Dimbero, co-founder, Zyme: "Leading technology manufacturing companies rely heavily on financial rewards and other incentives for channel partners to drive sales. But uninformed incentive programs are unnecessarily costly.

"It's estimated that companies spend more than $1 trillion on marketing development and rebates for channel partners. This is an age-old, expensive problem that has plagued businesses for years. To better inform their incentive programs and reduce costs in the process, leading tech manufacturers have begun collecting and analyzing accurate, granular data to get better visibility into channel sales and related incentives.

"In 2018, I suspect this trend will continue and we'll see more companies leverage CRM data and analytics in new ways to address channel management challenges. For instance, automatically linking partner payouts -- both current and historical -- and partner claims to the appropriate partner accounts within Salesforce [can provide] channel sales and marketing teams with a unified view of partner performance within Salesforce CRM.

"Only by collecting, curating and enriching transactional data can enterprises turn disparate channel data into decision-grade intelligence."

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