Can B2B sales be automated, and can bots make sales reps more effective? Oracle CX updates spark the next generation sales debate
- Oracle's latest CX innovation update raised questions about "next-generation B2B selling." And is there such a thing as an "intelligent" bot, or automated B2B sale? Time to hash it out with Oracle EVP and GM Rob Tarkoff.
One tradeoff of "true SaaS" enterprise software? Keeping up with the pace of new releases and functionality.
Granted, few customers would go back to the days of getting software updates every two to three years via team-wrenching upgrades, but as plenty have told us, it is an adjustment.
That pace of functionality keeps blogger/analysts on their toes as well. Working through Oracle's Customer Experience February 2021 updates,
I found way more content than I could possibly cover on my call with Rob Tarkoff, EVP and GM, Oracle. So I gravitated to "next generation B2B selling." Why? Because I've been venting spleen on that myself of late (B2B selling in 2021 - give me industry expertise over the flawed pursuit of hyper-personalization). So what does Oracle have to say about it? As Tarkoff told me:
Let me take it up a level, and start at a problem statement that Larry Ellison made when I did the Oracle Live fireside chat with him, which is that CRM has increasingly become a tool that managers use to forecast business, and enforce compliance with forecast standards - but it's not something that helps reps perform.
"CRM often sits in a silo"
So what's holding CRM back from supporting today's reps? Tarkoff continued:
One of the problems is CRM often sits in a silo, disconnected from all the other processes that reps depend upon to be successful. How effective are we at our advertising campaigns? How effective are we at direct marketing through known channels, email marketing, SMS message marketing - any of the things where we know who our customers are, and we want to make them aware?
When we have prospects, and we want to just create buzz, how do we tie the marketing and advertising flows much more closely to the sales flows? And how do we think about the quality of the experience that a rep puts in front of a prospect, as part of the job of a more engineered system?
How does Oracle aim to change that? One focus is what I call proper automation - automating the right things, without mechanizing the prospect. As Tarkoff puts it:
Everything we're building is with that vision in mind: that the front office, and in particular, the front office for a b2b seller, should be a lot more automated.
But that automation should also be "intelligent," pointing the sales rep to next best actions:
Some of the things we're doing with Workspace, some of the things we're doing around creating more predictive and prescriptive flows for a sales rep, is to enable them to better onboard, to better highlight where they ought to be spending their time - what their logical next best action is. Those are all things that we're doing to improve the life of a seller.
But here's what bothers me: applying what I consider to be B2C sales automation tactics to B2B. On the B2C side, I can see how scaling automated triggers based on preferences can be effective. But with B2B, the potential collateral sales damage of annoying a decision-maker with automated triggers can be costly indeed - in opportunities lost.
Sometimes a machine-generated "personalized outreach" falls unbelievably flat, leaving the impression not of personalization but that the vendor doesn't really know me at all. I'm all for automating transactional sales processes (example: making car sales signatures and insurance signs offs easier, something the pandemic economy has yet to solve). You can sign me up for "next best actions" a salesperson can act on.
But isn't B2B about helping the salesperson offer a human touch to the customer - and the right resources at the right time?
Debating the B2B versus B2C sale
However, Tarkoff rejects a flat distinction between B2C and B2B:
B2B is a much more considered purchase, certainly at the high end, but you have to divide B2B into its sub-markets. For your high volume B2B, which is likely to have a low-cost product, but I need to have a human touch or human interface, I can automate a lot more of that.
Renewal selling. A lot of companies have renewal reps, or inside reps that are tasked with renewal. There's not a lot of art to a renewal. It's really about understanding the metrics of: how our customers are using the product, and what level of ease and enjoyment are they getting? What interaction beyond use of the product is indicated? Are there areas where they might be interested in other potential bundles, pricing concessions, or expansion opportunities? A decision engine is much more valuable, for sure, immediately at the low/volume end of B2B sales.
Okay - but what about the more complex B2B sales?
When you get to the really high end, we think we can take less of the variability out of territories performing well. If they have good reps, today there's enough data you can gather about what makes a good rep. How do they run their cadence, their deal flow?
Tarkoff's team found you can use that data on high-performing reps to drive content assets - assets the entire sales team can use.
There's a way to codify the practices that make a good rep, and expose that to everybody. And you do that through a predictive engine that says, "I've looked at the data, and I've seen what successful reps before have done." Here's a suggestion; here's a logical next step; here's a piece of content that has performed super-well, like a reference story. Or maybe, by industry, this is the highest-performing asset.
So don't leave it to the rep to just decide what reference story they know and can articulate the best. Pick the one that's highest-performing, and then give the rep a learning path on how to tell that story.
Tarkoff agrees: automating sales must avoid a mechanized result.
At the core, you can make reps more productive - if you design the system, properly, even at the high-considered purchase stuff. But it can't be a mechanical "throw a bunch of stuff at a prospect," who might be stressing because they're taking the proposal to the Finance Committee at their company. It's like, "You can keep advertising to me, but it's not going to accelerate my internal finance decisioning.
But maybe we have information about pricing or contract terms that might help overcome the objection that this prospect is facing. And how do you make sure that's available to somebody? Well, you put it, you put it in the system, you make it an input, and something that you derive some intelligence off of.
My take - on dumb bots versus smart ones, and sales automation versus collaboration
I couldn't resist pestering Tarkoff about an AI bone of contention: dumb bots - in particular, the invasive chatbots most vendors (ab)use on their web sites to fast track sales prospects, at the expense of anyone else's experience. This was provoked by the prominent "digital assistant" language on Oracle's latest Customer Experience Innovation updates, as in: "Oracle CX Sales Mobile now includes an embedded, AI-guided digital assistant to help you get more done, even when you're away from your desk."
Tarkoff is confident I'll be impressed with Oracle's digital assistant, which he says is "a superior execution model." I'll bite - why? Because, explains Tarkoff, Oracle's digital assistant is powered by "a series of embedded dialogues by industry, and really understanding and training on industry vernacular and industry terminology." Well, that sounds like a good bot throwdown challenge - I'll do a follow-up piece once I've seen that for myself.
Tarkoff also says that the April/May timeframe will be a big one for Oracle CX updates, with a number of "headless experiences," and basically almost-new products, built with Oracle's Eloqua sales, service and advertising engine.
As for our debate on B2B selling, I'll concede Tarkoff's point on low-end B2B sales being a different animal. On the high end of B2B, I believe there is still an art to renewal. The same for upselling and nurturing deep user adoption. Vigorous adoption is the only real defense against competitor encroachment. In turn, as I've written, I believe this calls for a major sales culture change, away from "golf course relationships" and the gift of gab, into the role of the salesperson as industry advisor.
We didn't get into that aspect on our call. But my views aren't incompatible with what Tarkoff describes here. I can't argue with automation and "intelligent" prompts - if they help a sales team take advantage of the most effective sales offers or content assets. As long as the perils of poor trigger design in B2B are reckoned with, and personalization tech doesn't overreach and make a fool of itself.
Tarkoff agrees: we need a more collaborative sales approach. But even here, he believes potent resources like customer references can benefit from some degree of automation into the sales process. But customer references have long been an effective sales tool. Now you don't walk away from enterprise projects. You build on them - or the customer leaves you, either all at once, or piece-by-SaaS-piece. That gets back to my view on opt-in communities, which are vastly superior to AI when it comes to truly understanding your customers or prospects.
Here, Tarkoff offers words of collaborative wisdom for sales teams:
It's references plus communities for sure... Personal relationships in SaaS are much more important between development executives and buyers, as much as they are with sales executives.
Because if you're a buyer, and you're making a multi-year commitment, you want to understand, "Do these people seem like they have a system for producing innovation on a consistent basis? I'm going to be upgrading my functionality every quarter... And so do I trust that they have good processes, that they understand where the market's going, that they're going to be innovating on a trajectory that I care about?"
No arguments from my side.