Artificial Intelligence finds it’s way into business through sales

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By Ron Miller

Artificial intelligence (AI) had a coming out party of sorts in 2016. Even though it has been in development for decades, this year, with the perfect combination of cheap computing power and access to increasing amounts of data, it seems AI’s time has come.

Its first foray in business has been directed at making salespeople more efficient at every level of the sales workflow. If you think about it, it makes sense to start with the part of the company that drives revenue. Certainly the vendors recognize that, says Alan Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research, who is working on the impact of AI on work.

He sees humans struggling with information overload. As we gather ever increasing amounts of information, it requires machine processing power to help make sense of that growing pile of data. “AI is hopefully going to help alleviate that by filtering information and automating tasks,” Lepofsky said.

It’s certainly having an impact in the startup community. Just this week, we saw Conversica, a company that has built a virtual sales assistant on top of artificial intelligence underpinnings, land a $34 million investment. The tool takes advantage of natural language processing, an inference engine and natural language generation — fairly sophisticated AI technology — to undertake initial email contact with sales leads.

Meanwhile Tact, a company started by a CRM industry veteran, raised $15 million to apply intelligence to the planning and execution part of a salesperson’s day. Using AI, it aims to help sales staff work in a more logical and efficient way, rather than be slaves to their CRM tools.

Even as companies like these try to help salespeople work smarter in various aspects of the sales process, the CRM industry took to artificial intelligence in a big way this year with companies as diverse as Salesforce, Oracle and Base coming out with CRM tools to not just record sales interactions, but drive more sales with built-in intelligence.

Traditionally, CRM has been a place to build a record of customer interactions, but AI lets it be more than that, says Vanessa Thompson, SVP of customer experience insights at Bluewolf, a consulting agency that works with Salesforce customers.

It’s about using the power of that platform to be a better salesperson, and giving them more time to spend working with customers and closing sales. “For a salesperson to predict where to spend their time or take next best action — they need the right data at the right time. They have to take data from every data source and they have to have a cognitive platform in place to evaluate that data to make decisions,” she explained.

We are also seeing intelligence being applied to customer service with the increasing use of bots to handle initial contact with customers. The idea is to have the bot deal with simple tasks, handing off more complex interactions and requests to human operators to handle. This week, Salesforce released LiveMessage, a tool for incorporating messaging apps in their Service Cloud platform, combining the use of bots and live customer service agents.

Sales and customer service could just be the beginning. Over the next several years, we’ll likely see AI moving deeper into every aspect of the business as companies look to use the power of the computer to augment and enhance their employees.

The Essential Guide to Writing a Business Plan

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” If you’re starting a business, you should have a business plan regardless of whether you’re bootstrapping it or looking for outside funding.

The best sorts of business plans tell a clear story of what the company plans to do and how it will do it. Given the high failure rate of startups in their first year, a business plan is also an ideal opportunity to safely test out the feasibility of a business and spot flaws, set aside unrealistic projections and identify and analyze the competition.

A business plan doesn’t need to be complicated, but for it to serve its purpose and set you up for success, it must be clear to whomever is reading your plan that you have a realistic handle on the why and how your business will be a success.

To get you moving in the right direction, here’s a guide on how to write a business plan.

Overall tips
There’s a lot of advice in the infosphere about how to write a business plan, but there’s no single correct way. Your approach depends on your industry, who is reading your plan and what the plan is intended for. Are you trying to get funding? Sara Sutton Fell, founder of FlexJobs, a job site for flexible telecommuting jobs, says her business plan was an initiator for more in-depth conversation with potential investors. “A plan does help to see if investors and entrepreneurs are on the same page with general expectations for the business,” she says.

A business plan serves many purposes, but there is universal consensus on the following when it comes to your business plan:

Have several versions tailored for specific audiences: “One of the mistakes that inexperienced business owners make is not understanding who they’re writing the plan for,” says David Ciccarelli, a small business owner who got consultation from his local Small Business Association (SBA) when he was starting his company, which connects employers with voiceover talent.

Your plan is a living document: Tim Berry, the founder of a business planning software company Palo Alto Software, took his company from zero to $5 million in sales in its first three years. To do so requires frequent review and close tracking, says Berry, who met with his management team every month to review the plan versus what actually happened — and then to revise. “There is no virtue to sticking to a plan if it’s not useful and responsive to what actually happens,” he cautions.

Be realistic about financial estimates and projections: “When you present a plan to bankers and financiers, or even to your employees, people will get way more excited about what’s real rather than some huge thing that’s never going to happen,” says Ciccarelli. So present an achievable sales forecasts based on bottom-upwards information (i.e. how many units per month get sold in how many stores) and stop over projecting profits.

Writing your business plan is about the process and having a blueprint: Your business plan “reflects your ideas, intuitions, instincts and insights about your business and its future,” according to Write Your Business Plan (Entrepreneur, 2015). The plan serves as a safe way to test these out before you commit to a course of action. And once you get your business going, the plan also serves as a reference point. “I still print the document,” says Ciccarelli. “You’re capturing it in time. If you’re changing it all the time, you kind of don’t remember where you were last year.”

Back up any claims: Follow up your projections and assertions with statistics, facts or quotes from a knowledgeable source to lend your plan credibility.

Presentation counts: Reading any long, text-heavy document is hard on the eyes, so format with this in mind. Consider formatting your text pages into two-columns and break up long passages with charts or graphs. Arial, Verdana or Times New Roman are standard industry fonts.

Writing your business plan isn’t busy work or a luxury; it’s a vital part of the process of starting a business and arms you with information you need to know. So, let’s get into what information goes into your business plan.

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Why ‘GRIT’ May be Everything for Success

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So many things go into making a successful entrepreneur, it can be a fool’s errand to attempt to figure out what is, or is not, essential.

Related: 3 Ways to Motivate Yourself When You Just Want to Quit

That’s because so few entrepreneurial paths overlap. Some high-achieving entrepreneurs have multiple Ivy League degrees while others never finish high school. Others may work for years on a single idea, while another group will start dozens of unsuccessful ventures until one finally hits.

So, yes, there may be no single, truly indispensable element of entrepreneurship. But one thing is pretty close: When you talk to and work with enough entrepreneurs, the main theme that emerges is persistence. Some researchers call it grit.

I’ve even known people who have called it stick-to-it-ness. Whatever name is used, the idea is the same: the tenacity to not throw in the towel.

Omer Shai, the CMO of, summed it up well. Wix is a company which has helped millions of people start their own online businesses and projects, so Shai has had some experience with grit. He said: “Starting something isn’t enough. The ability to persevere and be resilient after that something has been started is the true stamp of an entrepreneur. It’s the people who stay the course and continue to invest in developing their enterprise beyond the starting point that should be the model for successful entrepreneurship. ”

In entrepreneurship, grit is an “outlier” skill or attribute because it may just be the one skill without which failure is pretty much assured. In other words, it’s possible to succeed in business or the workforce or as an entrepreneur if you’re not creative. Or if you don’t collaborate well, or have not really learned to be adaptive and flexible. All three are important parts of an entrepreneurship mindset.

But if you are not at least modestly persistent or stubborn, and you tend to quit easily, you’re done — even if you are creative and collaborative and adaptive. Lack of grit is the entrepreneurship killer.

What also makes grit so important is that, unlike other things you often hear about why entrepreneurs succeed, grit is a skill that can be learned. People can learn to be more resilient and less impacted by setbacks.

Related: 10 Quotes on Persistence to Help You Keep Going

That grit is a skill sets it apart from other things entrepreneurship talk focuses on: luck, good connections and family support. That’s not to undercut the importance of other factors, but if you weren’t blessed with a strong and supportive family network, that’s not something you can find on your own.

Grit, however, can be developed. The skill of grit, in fact, is such an important thing, and such a big topic among academics and practitioners, that just one TED Talk on the subject has registered almost 6.5 million views. That talk by Angela Lee Duckworth has become so popular — both inside and outside of entrepreneurship — that she’s a bona fide VIP celebrity on the topics of success, innovation and persistence. The truth is, she was expert on these topics before that TED Talk. She’s just better known now.

Thanks to Duckworth, and others, the importance of persistence and determination is also now better known.

And that’s a good thing. Elevating the importance of grit for success is essential because, unlike something like communication skills, grit is a difficult thing to practice: You can never be sure how far from success you are, so it’s a challenge to measure improvement. And there aren’t really many good exercises to prepare you to be more, um, gritty.

Instead, one of the best things we can do to instill grit and persistence in future entrepreneurs is to stress — over and over again — how important it is.

We need role models in and out of business who’ll talk about their failures and setbacks and, in doing so, underscore the precious nature of grit. Ranking what’s really indispensable for entrepreneurs might not be possible or even helpful. But, if it were, my sense is that grit would be pretty near the top of any such list. Even if you are not an aspiring entrepreneur, grit is an attribute that will help turn any goal you have into reality.