Why AI Won't Replace (Great) Salespeople
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Recently, much has been made of the role that artificial intelligence will play in taking our jobs. From manufacturing to driving to fighting wars, AI’s ascendancy into the workforce elicits everything from celebration to consternation. Depending on who you ask, AI will save jobs, or create jobs, or will banish humans from the job market forever. While the singularity is a long way off, the anxiety has set in.
Salespeople are nervous, too. A million business-to-business salespeople are already in danger of losing their jobs to websites by 2020, according to Forrester. The basic sales jobs are already migrating to machines, with food orders taken by touchscreen and picked up at a counter, all the way up to AI recommendation engines taking people out of stores. AI and self-service have already come for many lower-level sales jobs, and sales bots continue to get more intricate. Heck, Carnegie Mellon built a poker playing robot that beat professionals.
It’s that last one that should give a B2B salesperson a real chill. Poker requires emotional intelligence, patience and thoughtfulness before you get to luck. If an AI can beat poker players, an AI could beat salespeople.
Jeff Bezos famously said (and I paraphrase) that he’s frequently asked what’s going to change in the next decade, but very rarely asked what’s going to stay the same -- and that’s what’s important, as you can build a business strategy around it. Sales is similar, sticking by six themes in my mind:
- Persistence and truly caring about helping customers solve their problems wins.
- Personalization and differentiation matter.
- Salespeople prefer to not do manual tasks (forms, notes, lots of clicking).
- There's an emotional component of every sale that can't be replaced by robots.
- Selling is competitive.
- Most people will prefer to buy name brands that are safe and trusted unless the newcomer provides a huge differential value and/or much lower cost.
These are also fairly consistent traits of humanity -- people appreciate being helped, being given special treatment, they hate doing busywork, they’re emotional and competitive -- and in the end, they want safety. That’s why AI will only serve as a force multiplier to the best salespeople, and yes, there will be some that win because they know how to use the best tools available to them.
Related: 7 Life Hacks to Beat Your Sales Goal
A Harvard Business Journal piece suggested that salespeople need to develop “machine intelligence,” touching upon one very key feature of the AI and bot-based future; that the “human touch” is what’s going to keep sales going. “Humans will need to focus on managing exceptions, tolerating ambiguity, using judgment, shaping the strategies and questions that machines will help enable and answer, and managing an increasingly complex web of relationships with employees, vendors, partners and customers.”
If you take a step back, we’ve seen a few iterations of this happen in sales already. Someone with the ability to manipulate anything from Google, LinkedIn, LexisNexis and other sources of information could source leads faster, anyone with great Excel skills could organize data quickly and CRM geniuses know exactly where their deals land. In the hands of an average salesperson, though, that’s not closing a deal.
In fact, I’ll just say it -- the database populators and smile-and-dialers of the world are going to end up losing their jobs thanks to AI. Not to AI, though. AI and bots reduce mundane tasks and free time for relationship building. Just look at Salesforce’s Einstein: a platform built specifically to automate, analyze and recommend next steps based on the data you put into the platform. We’re already at a point where we’re bogged down less by process and busy work, and eventually we’ll find ourselves able to have leads qualified for us, leaving the sales to the actual people.
“On average, sales reps spend 80 percent of their time qualifying leads and only 20 percent closing,” according to an article in CRM Magazine. “Qualifying leads requires advance research and many phone and email hours trying to hone in on a lead that can be turned into a sale. Though it’s unlikely robots could take the task on fully, what if this vetting process could be significantly sped up by a machine that engaged all inbound leads in an amiable, human-like way?” A writer at Fast Company wrote about Clara, an AI-based secretary, that came close to running his entire life for a week, intelligently rescheduling and suggesting locations, understanding the person and where they were. We can’t be far from eradicating the qualification of inbounds forever, leaving the thoughtful researcher and converser to close them along with their own outbound sales. Salesforce IQ’s automation saves on average 4.26 hours a week for customers in data entry alone -- that’s over nine days out of your life spent entering stuff into a computer.
While this may change in 15 to 20 years, AI and chatbots are far from being human. Unlike AI, we have an identity outside of our work. We make mistakes, we have things we love, hate, think about and get distracted by -- things that are relatable when we show them to customers. As trite as it is to quote David Ogilvy, he nailed it: "The worst fault a salesman can commit is to be a bore. Foster any attempt to talk about other things; the longer you stay the better you get to know the prospect, and the more you will be trusted."
That’s the crux of it. Artificial intelligence can operate almost as a secondary brain, automating data entry, analyzing a contact’s tone or simply telling us the right thing about them just when we need it. But, you can’t even teach a person to be interesting or thoughtful, let alone an AI. The future’s salespeople will be synthetic thinkers, taking knowledge from a vast pool of information that’s been analyzed and organized for them to create a solution not a sale. They’ll keep having conversations, thinking not of the sale but a meeting of the minds that creates one.
The emotive qualities of a beautiful, mistake-filled human won’t be replaced by an AI. Sure, we may be sitting there with Einstein filling up our CRM for us with Crystal telling us what a person’s like, but in the end, interesting, thoughtful and caring people are going to reap the rewards of an artificial future. They’ll just get to the best part of the sale first -- another person.