Customer service is a big cost center for distributors. It doesn’t have to be. Customer service (CS) reps speak with buyers and decision makers every day. Each conversation is a sales opportunity, but one that CS reps aren’t equipped to take advantage of. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can change this by empowering customer service to make orders, instead of just taking them.

Distribution remains a people-first business, even as more of their customers shop online. A recent report on the future of B2B sales growth shows 96% of buyers still want to talk to sales reps before making purchases

The report also notes that distributors will need good data analytics and machine learning will be critical to drive future growth. Distributors don’t need good sales personnel or good AI, they need both. More precisely, they must use AI to make salespeople more effective.

Call centers and the CS reps that staff them are uniquely well positioned to help drive revenue growth. While inside sales reps have to fight to reach decision makers — people with the final authority to make purchases — CS reps only have to pick up the phone.

But if CS reps get so much face time with decision makers, then why don’t they sell more? Why is customer service a cost center instead of a direct source of revenue? Well, for one simple reason: CS reps don’t have the tools, expertise or mandate to make sales.

Managers need to change the priorities of CS reps to emphasize sales. Call center workers today are told to complete customer requests and nothing more. They passively take orders, answer questions and handle returns. They don’t pitch products.

This should be expected given that CS reps are unfamiliar with their customers and therefore lack the knowledge or confidence to make strong pitches. Whenever CS reps pick up the phone, they’re meeting a client for the first time. Without the established relationships or deep customer knowledge that sales teams have, people in customer service don’t know which products to sell. But new AI-powered tools can change that.

AI-powered recommendations can give sales reps products to pitch to customers in a few keystrokes. When decision makers call in, CS reps with AI-powered recommendations can access the digital record of a customer’s previous actions — everything from past purchases, returns or even other customer service calls — and, crucially, an AI-generated set of recommended products to suggest. 

AI recommendations are enough to give CS reps a practical understanding of all customers — even ones they’ve never talked with before. This AI-enhanced understanding of each caller’s preferences allows CS reps to turn each incoming phone call into a sales opportunity. 

Taking an order? Why not recommend another item and cash in on a cross-sell? Fielding a question? Why not offer to assist in the re-order of previously purchased items? Handling returns? Why not attempt an up-sell?

These strategies work in real business. When using our AI systems, customer service centers have enjoyed a 20% lift in average order value. These distributors didn’t need to hire new reps or rewrite their rules, all they needed to do to get 20% more from every order was to give existing staff better tools. 

These call center sales are especially profitable because they generate purely incremental revenue. CS reps are already taking orders and arranging shipments. Any additional sales made by AI-assisted CS reps are simply added to the shipment the customer has already asked for. It sounds like alchemy: distributors can increase revenue and profitability while keeping CS rep wages and shipping costs the same.

CS reps have something that all salespeople want: a dialogue with customers. Inside reps struggle to get that access, and buyers themselves — a demographic that wants a conversation before a purchase 96% of the time — appreciate talking to reps. While current output may be low, call centers can be a source of immense profitability. The ingredients, data and customer access are there, waiting and ready. All that distributors need to bring it to fruition is the right AI to give customer service the intelligence to act.