AI in B2B lead generation: the search for intelligent life

Along with the Internet of Things, 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other nascent technologies, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a cornerstone of the 4th Industrial Revolution. 

AI has evolved from the whimsical, yet engaging Cortana, virtual assistant to the Master Chief of the Halo Xbox gaming franchise of my youth, to be something far more real and indeed powerful. It’s touching all aspects of our business and personal lives from scientific and pharmaceutical discovery, enhancing manufacturing processes, to understanding financial risk and managing debt. Or as IBM puts it – “AI has moved from science fiction to business fact.

Much has been written and said in praise of AI and its myriad applications – and rightly so. But I want to explore if AI will revolutionise B2B sales, and is it ultimately a usurper of humankind in this space?

The evolution of sales

Data – its collection, storage, verification and classification – lies at the heart of B2B and B2C sales and marketing. Fundamental to the ultimate success of any campaign is the accuracy and richness of the data held on potential customers, with insights into their needs and intentions. In theory, this should enable agents to target their out-bound pitching far more accurately by tailoring propositions to a buyer’s needs – thus, improving campaign performance and delivering more personalised customer journeys and experiences.

Digital transformation has been on the agenda for B2B sales and marketers for decades – and has only been accelerated in recent months as a consequence of Covid-19. Firms reacting quickly to the “new normal” have had to identify new ways to communicate with customers and stakeholders – with the result of considerably boosting digitisation processes.

As a consequence of this acceleration, AI is fast underpinning companies’ CRM systems.

A hitherto dormant class outside of the lab, AI is rapidly emerging as a high growth and high value category with a number of potential applications in B2B sales.

AI can be used by sales leaders to forecast demand; to better understand customers through analytics; it can help agents focus on the best prospects; and automate routine sales activities like setting-up meetings.

AI solutions – fit for purpose, but is this enough?

There are many vendors and AI applications in the B2B sales space – which include analytics, lead generation and predictive scoring, chatbots, automation, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and account-based marketing (ABM). 

Analytics vendors like Qymatix and Zilliant help to deliver insights about customer’s likelihood to buy, and those who might defect. They may also identify cross- and up-selling opportunities, price intelligence and lead scoring.

WotNot is a chatbot that claims to be able to start the conversation with prospects, ask relevant questions, offer value, and deliver qualified leads to sales teams.

People.ai and Expert Systems use NLP technology to track prospects and customers across multiple accounts and ensure that the right contacts and activities are matched correctly in the CRM. 

Cognism is built to target customers and improve lead quality with real-time data, while Leadfeeder automatically scores leads and alerts agents when companies visit client websites. 

Affinity claims to be able to help agents identify prospects that are best suited to make the crucial introductions to infuencers and decision makers. And AI-powered ABM tools can help sales agents target the right prospect. 

And that’s only a quick taster of what’s out there.

OK. That’s a lot of great stuff that can only make the lives of sales and marketing a lot easier – and revenue officers a lot happier. Right? Maybe…

The human touch – the authentic and really intelligent bit

The key question for me is  – are these amazing technologies interoperable – or rather, does it all glue together? Can I get a fully joined-up AI solution from one vendor? Or at least – can easily integrate one or two and get the full value that I am looking for? It would seem not, and there isn’t a single overarching offering that truly answers all the needs of B2B sales teams today. 

That’s, of course, because the algorithms that power AI applications are only built for a single purpose. As yet, AI can’t multi-task. To put it another way, AI designed to beat Garry Kasparov at chess can’t do something a lot easier like play noughts and crosses.

Clearly there’s a need for varying degrees of customisation of ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions. But even with perfect customisation I passionately believe there is no digital solution that can fully replace people.

Simply, the two can and should co-exist.

My company BNZSA is a leading European marketing agency that specialises demand generation for some of the world’s most recognised IT brands. We have a team of more than 160 who are experts in delivering qualified, sales-ready leads. We invest heavily in our sales representatives who are all native language speakers and can deliver client campaigns in 14 languages across EMEA. We invest in technology too!

Our teams cannot succeed without state-of-the art technology to underpin, assist and enhance their human touch. But we always need to customise. For instance, we are building our own CRM platform because no CRM on the market allows us to capture the depth of data we need. Within the CRM is our customised AI – adapted from Expert Systems’ Cogito.

Cogito is made for text analysis and translation to speech. It was the best solution for our multi-lingual international team – but we did need to pop open the bonnet and make some tweaks to turbocharge the engine’s performance.

To be brutally honest, when we started on our AI vendor assessment, we found that all the solutions on the market fell short in one way or another.

What we learned

Happily, with a bit of work – the Pimp My Ride bit – we now have AI embedded into our CRM to really deliver tangible benefits. 

First and foremost, our AI ensures full regulatory and legal compliance around issues like GDPR. It also ensures the we operate to the highest ethical standards. Yes, ethical AI really is a reality.

At the same time, we are enriching the information we hold on contacts by dynamically searching for and feeding in public information – like companies’ financial statements, business development announcement and deal histories. This means that we know a contact who has recently made, say, a significant SAP investment isn’t a viable lead for a competitive Oracle solution.

Our AI enhances and speeds-up targeted client campaigns because its natural language capability is constantly gathering unstructured data from our campaign activity and turning it into useable insights.

This in turn improves campaign targeting and efficiency. That is to say that we can spend more time focussing our campaigns on buyers who are likely to be in market and less time manually processing data or even worse – using a campaign scatter gun approach.    

The human / AI interface also improves our overall offering to clients as what we learn in executing Campaign A continually improves the database thereby enriching Campaign B, C, D etc.

Well informed sales teams make for a better prospect experience, which in turn has the softer, but no less important consequence of maintaining and maybe enhancing client reputations – while quickly and effectively delivering qualified leads to in-house sales teams.

In conclusion

• AI vendors serving B2B sales and marketeers must practice what ‘we’ preach. Vendors need to be more responsive to our needs and provide us with rapid, low touch customisation.

• For AI in the B2B space to truly work, it’s essential to find the right blend of automisation and human intervention. One cannot cancel out the other. People and machines can and should co-create campaign success together.

• Never forget that people ultimately make it happen. Don’t over digitise at the expense of the human touch – however sentient our artificial friends become.