Technology is accelerating faster than ever before. Although this rapid acceleration has its benefits, this continuous improvement and innovation across a broad spectrum of industry groups also creates challenges in many careers. A recent example can be taken from advances in the way online giants, like Amazon, have evolved their warehouse operations. Through the use of automated machinery in their warehouse facilities, the work load previously serviced by thousands of human workers is now all but redundant. From Amazon’s perspective, they have been able to drive a five-times increase in warehouse throughput while simultaneously reducing labor costs. Such aggressive job displacement driven by automation can kick start a conversation centered around other job roles that are affected by this rapid technological acceleration.
Being an inside sales rep (ISR) with World Wide Technology and continuously building on the trends above, it is only natural to question my own role and its potential to be disrupted and re-defined by enhanced automation. The article below explores my opinion on whether inside sales positions will follow a similar path to that of Amazon’s warehouse operatives and if automated intelligence and inside sales can co-exist.
Could automation be the future of inside sales?
Firstly, it's important to understand the role of Inside Sales and the responsibilities of an ISR at WWT.
The ISR role has evolved over the years with a steady increase in tasks. There is a perception that inside sales representatives purely create quotes for customers. However, in most companies there is far more to it than just that.
Quote to cash
Receiving a customer purchase order is by no means the end of the lifecycle of an order at WWT.
A vital first step in a purchase order is ensuring that there are no issues from an invoicing or billing perspective. The invoice needs to be accurate and accepted by the customer. After all, if the customer can't pay the invoice, the revenue won’t be recognized. A fundamental part of the process, right?
Bearing this in mind, communicating with the finance teams is critical. ISRs often resolve a variety of problems that might surround an invoice to ensure the customer can process and pay within the agreed payment terms and avoid an unwanted financial backlog.
Detailed and timely communication is critical between the customer and the finance department, with inside sales reps acting as the focal point between the two. Therefore, it’s extremely important for us to be pro-active in following up these processed purchase orders (POs) with finance. This step can be easily forgotten or pushed to the bottom of the priority list, but absolutely shouldn't be.
Wouldn’t it be great if this process was automated?
When you consider the variety of factors and details on every customer PO that we receive, it’s unfortunately a tall order to move toward automating the invoicing process. Details that vary from PO to PO include: the value-added tax (VAT) rate of the specific country/region, the currency we need to use and the entity we need to bill, just to name a few.
Relying on a computer to learn all these unique variants isn’t impossible by any stretch of the imagination but we’re still far away from perfecting the art. For now, ISRs are very much a necessity in this respect so that these differing elements can be controlled and managed in real time.
Another key responsibility of an ISR is to build and sustain relationships, both internally and externally. ISRs collaborate with several internal teams and colleagues, including account managers, partner managers, engineers and finance to ensure open actions impacting the customer are resolved effectively. Equally as important is maintaining a solid rapport with the customer, as this is vital for any possible success within a client-facing role.
But as a re-seller, there are further relationships to manage too. Having the ability to communicate effectively with our partners and vendors is key, whether over the phone, by email or face to face with the distributors we're aligned to.
How can you replace this vital part of the role with Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
In short, you simply can't. Strong relationships between the customer and consumer will drive a company in the right direction, so it would be an error taking away that human interaction and replacing it with technology.
But although there may not be room for RPA to help in that sense, there are certainly other areas of the role it can have a positive and advantageous impact on.
Based on research and analysis carried out by Aberdeen Group, companies that use sales automation achieve higher conversion rates of 53 percent and an annual revenue growth rate of 3.1 percent. In another small survey of just under 1,000 individuals, more than 90 percent said they would be in favor of automation and thought it would improve sales performance and processes.
Selling hardware can be simple if it’s a case of supplying the customer with monitors, phones or headsets, but at WWT we pride ourselves in offering unique and bespoke solutions that are tailor-made for the customer’s needs. Building a solution using various OEMs and making the complex simple is our unique selling proposition and is a vital part of what we offer thorough our integration centers.
As an ISR, we are building complex configurations and quoting the customer daily. Can we really trust technology to build this for a customer when there are so many elements involved?
No, probably not as it may likely require various communications with a pre-sales consultant to distinguish precisely what sort of solution the customer is looking for. This human interaction allows the customer to completely understand what they need rather than going ahead and ordering without researching properly.
How is automation being used today?
Let’s take McDonald’s as an example, where automated machines are already installed globally, and ordering is a simple process. When you walk in to a store today, there are touch-screen computers available to place your order. However, ordering a meal at McDonald’s is a lot simpler than providing a bespoke hardware solution to a bank. Debating whether to “supersize” the meal is about as complex as the experience could be. The available options will always be limited and basic. Automation works here because the meals are already pre-built within their system for the customer to order and collect.
On the other hand, eating at a fine-dining restaurant would be a much different experience. In this situation we are paying for a service that we wouldn’t encounter at a fast-food chain. The waitstaff can provide specific recommendations based on our preferences, and therefore the options become a lot more versatile.
So how can automation help ISRs?
Rather than argue whether the future is automation or an inside sales team, I strongly believe there is room for both to work together, providing a better overall experience for our customers.
Generating quotes and processing purchase orders can be time consuming, but both are within the remit of an ISR, at least at WWT. This is where automation can be incredibly valuable, particularly for the simple hardware sales that I mentioned previously. There are some parts that customers will consistently order, such as a specific headset. These repeatable, run-rate purchases are easy to automate.
Continuing using the McDonald’s fast food analogy: the introduction of self-service screens has allowed them to capitalize on the repeatability of ordering simple items. They can provide customers with a method to select simple products in a way that is intuitive to them (i.e. putting products into a basket). There is then a level of automation which kicks off back-end kitchen processes to start producing the menu items chosen. It’s a win-win, where the customer gets to order what they want, when they want and in a way that is easy for them to use, and McDonald’s can re-deploy their servers to do more complex and value-add tasks.
This successful self-service model is one that WWT has capitalized on already with a tool called Pivot which allows the customer to place orders instantly for simple hardware solutions or basic pre-built configurations. Having this in place allows the ISR teams to focus on the complex configurations that require attention to detail. But additionally, it will mean the ISRs can concentrate further on improving the external relationships, freeing up time for them to meet with partners and customers face to face.
I believe we’re only scratching the surface of the benefits we could see using RPA both within inside sales but also at WWT as a whole. Pivot is just the start of what will be an asset to us, but it’s important to find the balance between when automation works and when it doesn’t.
To learn more about how our Pivot tool is being used today and the way in which we execute our sales operation with and without it, please feel free to connect with me.