IBM Watson at Your Sales Support Service

Michael Vizard
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IBM, like a lot of companies, has a mountain of product information that salespeople need to sort through every time a customer asks a question. In fact, most of what salespeople actually spend their time on is pulling all this information together in a proposal. Usually that involves a small army of sales support people, which results in the bulk of the time that sales staff actually spends working on having little to do with actual face time in front of the customer.

While that has been the reality of sales for much of its long history, IBM has embarked on a pilot project that could result in the first meaningful change to the sales process since the invention of the telephone. According to IBM CIO Jeanette Horan, the company is in the early stages of loading all the sales collateral into the Watson supercomputer that was the recent star of "Jeopardy!." The idea is that salespeople in the not-too-distant future will be able to query Watson using natural language to find the information they need for any given proposal. As Watson learns the lexicon of the company's product portfolio, it will even be able to make suggestions about how to optimize any given proposal. Given the rudimentary nature of search-engine technology today, this should dramatically improve the flow of relevant product information throughout the sales organization.

While this application of Watson technology is relatively simple, its effect on the sales process could be profound. While some companies may opt to reduce the size of the sales staff, the smarter thing to do is to use all the available sales resources to actually spend more time selling. One of the biggest limitations that any business faces is the number of customers it can touch given the size of its salesforce. Optimizing the reach of the salesforce is job one for most sales managers.

Of course, there will come a day when the customers themselves could just ask Watson directly for the information they want. But given the fact that it will be a long time before Watson learns to play golf or legally sign a contract, the average salesperson who actually spends time in front of the customer need not worry too much about their future, at least until Watson learns how to actually ask a question.

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