The Distribution Blog

Business Intelligence vs. Artificial Intelligence in Distribution Sales

July 21, 2023

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Imagine having to tighten a screw using a hammer. Sounds impractical, right? You'd naturally reach for a screwdriver, the tool designed specifically for the task.

In recent years, distributors have faced a similar, but not as clear-cut tooling decision – artificial intelligence or business intelligence in distribution sales. Both can help distributors make data-driven decisions for sales success, but which is the best tool for the job?  

Business intelligence and artificial intelligence sales tools have some similar features. This can make it hard to figure out which one is better for your business, especially with all the buzz about how AI can change your sales process. If you know the differences between these two types of smart software, you can pick the one that will really help your business stand out.

What Is Business Intelligence (BI)?

BI software takes the data distributors collect and creates user-friendly graphs, reports, or other data visualizations to help you understand trends and make business decisions. For example, a BI platform can graph the order history for a customer or the percent growth of a product category. Business intelligence tools present the information to users so they can analyze it to identify issues, spot trends, or discover new opportunities.  

In the distribution industry, BI provides key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that enable businesses to monitor and assess their operational efficiency. For instance, BI can help determine which products sell well in specific regions, allowing distributors to focus their efforts. It can also assist in demand forecasting and supply chain optimization, resulting in better inventory management and reduced costs.

Reporting is a central function of BI software. With reporting, a BI tool can pull from disparate sources and visualize it in a graph or chart that gives company leaders information on the current and past state of their business.

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a technology that uses computer algorithms to solve problems and perform tasks the way human brains do, but much faster. AI goes beyond data collection; it analyzes data to uncover valuable insights, such as what customers might be at risk of churning. AI systems can learn from data, recognize patterns, make decisions, and adapt to changing circumstances.

In the context of distribution sales, AI-guided sales tools like Sales AI cut through the noise of your transactional and customer data to arm your sales reps with actionable insights to engage the right customers. For example, if the AI tool identifies a customer who hasn’t purchased recently but historically purchased every month, a sales rep can proactively reach out to save the business.

The more data AI has to process, the faster it learns. Since distributors have years of transactional data, they are well-positioned to use AI solutions to sell more. With AI-generated insights about who to call and what products to suggest, sales reps have a roadmap for success. For example, Proton’s Sales AI looks at what products similar customers purchase and how often to provide reps with Sales Plays personalized for every customer interaction.

How Distribution Sales Reps Spend Their Time

Business Intelligence Versus Artificial Intelligence: What Do You Need for Distribution Sales?  

There are beneficial business intelligence use cases in distribution, such as visualizing historical data to help with human decision-making. However, BI doesn’t analyze the data or offer insights – it’s up to the sales rep to figure out what action to take.  

To illustrate, let’s see how BI and AI tools would support a sales rep who is preparing for a call and looking for new sales opportunities to grow an existing account.  

Business intelligence: With a BI tool, the rep can view a customer’s purchases by category. It’s on the rep to figure out what to do with that information and contextualize it. If a customer is spending $3,000 in the “Tools” category, is that good? Is that bad? The rep has to figure out what that means in the context of other customers.

Artificial intelligence: AI software prompts the rep that a customer is underspending in “Tools” by $5,000 compared to similar customers. AI then suggests a few products within that category that a rep might consider bringing up with the customer to win more wallet share.

By mirroring how humans think and reason, AI software can suggest courses of action based on the data it analyzes. You’ve probably heard how AI platforms automate specific business functions. These self-learning tools allow the software to do more than capture data and make it visually appealing. Instead, an AI platform can react to the data by predicting future trends or suggesting a course of action based on those trends.  

Both BI and AI platforms are data-driven, but BI is a backward-looking tool. It uses data to accurately reflect what has already happened with compelling visualization.  

AI looks forward and analyzes data to give end-users a precise prediction about what will happen. Artificial intelligence software suggests actions sales reps can take based on that data. Sales reps aren’t data analysts, and the time they waste trying to make sense of the data is time they aren’t spending building customer relationships.  

AI software allows sales teams to sell in a data-driven way without having to analyze data themselves.  

Proton Sales AI: Why Choose a Proactive Tool to Connect with Your Customers

AI-driven software like Proton delivers 10x return on investment for distributors because our customers improve efficiency and grow sales by guiding their sales teams to sell smarter not harder. By prioritizing accounts by revenue potential and churn risk, highlighting categories buyers are underspending and products your customers should be buying from you, identifying accounts that are due to reorder, and product cross-sell and substitute recommendations, Sales AI gives your sales reps all the insights they need to personalize every customer interaction without any hard coding. With an ROI report within the app, you can see Proton-attributed revenue and the sales impact of our tool.

Distribution sales are complex and ever-changing to respond to supply chain snafus, the latest rebate potential, and to move certain products. Making these shifts quickly is hard when you have a product catalog of multiple thousands, if not millions, of SKUs, but not if you have machine intelligence that moves at the speed of the internet.  

Proton was purpose-built for distributors. Other AI-powered sales tools were designed for B2C and generalized. Distributors have unique problems and massive quantities of products and data. Having an AI platform designed specifically for your needs is the only way to go.  

We never limit the amount or type of data we accept; the more data you have, the more we can do with it. Having an AI tool means we are always “learning” from a distributor’s data. Distribution business intelligence solutions, and other more simplistic forms of analysis, won’t get better over time.

An AI-driven platform like Proton takes the guesswork out of the sales process, giving your reps concrete options for which products to offer and which customers are low-hanging fruit. A BI platform misses all the intuitive support that comes from an AI.  

Curious to learn more about how AI tools are different from BI tools? Explore the differences during a demo.

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