Why AI Won't Replace (Great) Salespeople
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.
Source: Kyle Porter
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.
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.”