How to Use AI and Automation to Accelerate a Slowing Sales Cycle

Sales teams are under immense pressure as businesses navigate economic uncertainty and mounting customer expectations. They must do more with less and move quickly to close deals at a time when the B2B sales cycle has slowed. According to Demand Gen Report‘s 2022 B2B Buyer Behavior Survey, 55% of buyers say their purchasing timelines have grown, while 82% of sales professionals have had to adapt quickly to new ways of selling.

The result? Whiplash. I’ve heard this firsthand from conversations with peers too: Their sales team does all the right things and the business case is strong, but suddenly the prospect’s budget disappears overnight. Closing deals more efficiently and removing friction from the sales cycle have become the real difference-makers.

AI and automation can give companies a crucial edge over competitors by streamlining the sales process, which allows teams to close deals faster, provide a better prospect and customer experience, and ultimately drive more revenue. Here’s a closer look at how the B2B sales process has changed, and some ways sales leaders can implement these technologies strategically.

Fewer deals, slower cycles, higher scrutiny: The current state of B2B sales

B2B sales has undergone a seismic shift. A few years ago, sales teams could rely on inbound leads to meet their quotas. Now, budgets have shrunk and sales teams are expected to create their own deals. To add to the list, every deal is hitting the CFO’s desk, and more stakeholders are involved in the buying process — 60% of B2B deals involve four or more people. Amid higher levels of scrutiny, every sale must have a clear and strong business case. It’s not enough to list product features that promise productivity and time savings; your solution needs to deliver true ROI out of the gate. 

Buyers themselves are feeling the strain. With widespread tech layoffs underway, sales jobs are often among the first to be cut, meaning possible delayed communication from companies or leads getting ping-ponged from one salesperson to the next. If you’re not prioritizing the customer experience throughout the sales process, you risk losing trust or the prospect altogether. 

The upside: AI and automation can benefit both sales teams and prospects

In this environment, if you’re not the first to respond when a prospect is ready to engage or buy, you may as well be the last. There is no room for inefficiency. Sales teams must move quickly to convey bottom-line impact and get in front of the right stakeholders at the first point of engagement. Fortunately, AI and automation can solve this very real industry challenge. 

Automated lead routing and scheduling

Take the process of routing a lead and scheduling a sales call. It sounds simple enough, but anyone in marketing, sales or even CX will tell you what a massive pain point it is, and yet your inbound sales motion is critical. The common process is for a prospect to fill out a “contact us” form on your company’s website and wait (and wait, and wait) for someone to contact them. Behind the scenes, it takes time for marketing to qualify and route high-value leads with sales. Then sales needs to identify which AE should schedule a call and when to reach out. From there, it takes an average of seven emails to schedule each meeting in your sales cycle, according to Calendly data. 

Lost productivity and poorly managed leads cost companies at least $1 trillion every year, while scheduling delays often mean you have to keep pushing meetings out further or risk not having the right decision-makers in the room. Speed to lead and being able to schedule meetings instantly are a must.

With automated tools that integrate with those your go-to-market team already lives and breathes in — like CRMs, routing forms, lead distribution and data enrichment — a prospect can instantly book a meeting with sales during a time that works for them. Backend rules and logic can help sales teams route leads based on priority or availability; implement multiperson team scheduling for more productive, collaborative group meetings across the sales cycle; and trigger automatic meeting reminders so sellers can focus less on manual work and more on doing what they do best — selling. This means getting the right people on the right calls without scheduling mishaps. 

Ultimately, though, the true benefit is syncing sales and marketing teams’ work so both teams are driving toward the same funnel. By using these tools, sales teams can spend more time talking to qualified leads, companies glean more revenue dollars from their marketing spend, and customers can enjoy a seamless experience. 

AI-powered communication

Amid these changes is the very real impact of AI. Generative AI tools like ChatGPT have taken the world by storm — particularly the sales space. Many sales and marketing teams are already using generative AI to write copy, analyze deals and provide greater revenue intelligence. Of course, it’s a balancing act. Leaders must balance thoughtfully implementing AI with continuing to personalize the buyer experience to deliver the most value for their sales teams, prospects and customers.

Efficient communication is where the technology can really make an impact. Companies have new opportunities to incorporate AI across the lifecycle of communication with customers, while maintaining a human touch during key moments. For example, sales teams can use generative AI tools to research a prospect and quickly draft emails and follow-up notes, allowing them to move more quickly to the demo stage.

You can also use AI to personalize outreach. Instead of relying on the same few templates to create content, sales teams can use generative AI to produce personalized outreach quickly and efficiently. For example, generative AI can provide value propositions that are unique to a specific prospect and speak more directly to their business needs. 

Another valuable use case is helping revenue teams get smarter about where to spend their time. Today it can take RevOps teams weeks to analyze results, build scoring models and distribute accounts or territories based on both firmographic and proprietary data (i.e. company size and product usage data). AI promises to make this process nearly instantaneous by asking the tool to build a scoring mechanism based on all of your closed deals and to deploy equal and fair territories to the team based on the highest propensity-to-buy scores.

AI tools are additive to the work sales teams are already doing and will leave them with time for more valuable and strategic activities: holding impactful conversations with customers, better understanding their needs and providing solutions to their problems more quickly — in a nutshell, growing revenue. 

Work smarter, not harder

In a landscape where speed is everything, AI and automation tools can help sales teams close more deals and close them faster. From accelerating pipeline to converting leads more quickly, and speeding up the sales cycle and improving customer experience, these tools can help your team drive more revenue even in a challenging economic environment. 

Sales teams have a unique opportunity to up-level their roles and provide real strategic value to help customers solve their biggest challenges. Rather than spending time drafting emails or cold-calling prospects, they can use these tools to synthesize data and provide prospects with deep insights based on their business needs.

The key is to use the right technology — not just the default — that integrates with the rest of your sales tech stack and works across your revenue team. Doing so will enable sales and marketing to work cohesively to drive revenue and provide a wonderful experience for buyers and customers. 

Kate Ahlering is the chief revenue officer at Calendly, where she leads sales, sales enablement, revenue operations and partnerships functions. Most recently, she was the chief sales officer at Glassdoor, where she helped grow the company from less than $10 million in revenue to several hundred million and through a $1.2 billion acquisition. Previously, Ahlering held multiple positions in sales leadership at ACTIVE Network where she helped grow the company to more than $500 million in revenue and achieve an IPO. She is also a limited partner for Stage 2 Capital.

  • Originally published May 18, 2023, updated July 15, 2024