Worried that the rise of artificial intelligence technologies will make the role of the salesperson obsolete? Maybe you should be, but not if you focus on what really matters where sales, and customer relationships, are concerned. Embrace A.I. and you might find yourself becoming an even better salesperson.
Over the past year, A.I. has taken the world by storm. In 2016, A.I. startups saw record highs in deals and funding, while tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google banded together to conduct A.I. research and promote best practices. A recent Bloomberg Terminal analysis even revealed that the number of companies mentioning "artificial intelligence" in their quarterly earnings has shot up from under 20 in 2014 to nearly 200 today.
While A.I. will improve the workplace (think virtual assistants), people worry it will also kill jobs. Manufacturing jobs have already been lost to automation, while self-driving cars and trucks are well on their way to replacing professional drivers. McKinsey reports that machines or robots can take over 49 percent of worker activities, such as stocking supermarket shelves, serving food at restaurants, and crunching numbers.
Even sales professionals, whose skill sets are in high demand, are fearful. Forrester predicts that one million B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce by 2020. If that prediction pans out, that's 20 percent of the B2B sales force, gone, three years from now. No wonder everyone is scared.
But let's be clear -- not all sales are the same. While some purely transactional sales positions will move to this self-serve model, jobs that involve selling "high consideration" products through a complex sales process will be enhanced, not replaced, by A.I.
Like other professions, sales involves some repetitive tasks that could be easily automated, and while A.I. will certainly change how we work, it will never replace all salespeople. In fact, it may actually make them better at their jobs. Here's why:
By automating mundane work, A.I. will save salespeople time
Automation is already starting to replace rote tasks, which benefits busy sales professionals. Calendly, for example, automatically schedules meetings and sends invites. This frees up salespeople's time for more important tasks that require critical thinking, such as crafting customized emails or teeing up a conversation with prospective buyers.
But let's take things a step further. One of the biggest challenges for sales professionals is prioritizing their time. Instead of guessing whether now is the best time to reach out, or keeping track of all correspondence with dozens of prospects, sales reps could rely on A.I. to determine when and how to take their "next best action" to move a deal forward.
Not all data is stored in computers
One of the most exciting possibilities of A.I. is its potential to analyze vast amounts of data. In the future, A.I. will seamlessly digest data and provide smart suggestions, such as prompting you to follow up with a prospective buyer after a phone call. We're already starting to see this kind of technology in its early stages.
For example, Salesforce's Einstein, a smart cloud analytics platform, learns your CRM data, email, calendar, social, ERP, and IoT, and delivers predictions and recommendations based on your goals. It can even suggest next steps if it detects a change in customer sentiment.
If selling enterprise software were as simple as processing data from a single source and spitting out the optimal decision, we'd all be toast. Luckily, it's not. Data that informs these decisions comes from all kinds of sources, including the human brain.
Great sales professionals can read the room, connect the dots, and make sense of the intangibles that make each deal unique. Statistics do inform purchasing decisions, but reason has its limitations. Other types of data that humans excel at -- like observing others' emotions and body language and reacting immediately -- still factor in.
Relationships still drive business
Enterprise sales is high stakes by nature. Deals often exceed six figures, and, on average, 6.8 people are involved in the buying process. This means several people's careers and reputations are on the line if something goes wrong. I've seen people fired over poor technology decisions or deployments. Unsurprisingly, risk makes people uneasy. That's why a salesperson's job is so crucial.
When it comes down to making a huge purchasing decision, buyers need to trust their sellers. They want to meet that person and ask questions; they want to make sure their fears, hesitations, and needs are understood. In an ideal buyer-seller relationship, sales professionals make their buyers feel informed, secure, and comfortable with the product. Emotional intelligence is therefore crucial to the process.
Because sales touches on deep emotions like trust and empathy, it's one of the biggest reasons salespeople will never lose their jobs to machines. Robots still haven't grasped natural language understanding, let alone the subtle nuances of emotions. Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri, for instance, rely on predefined scripts and are easily baffled by simple questions.
While A.I.'s ability to interpret language and emotion will definitely improve, it's unlikely it will ever fully replace the human ability to connect and build trust.
Over the past few years, machines have made great strides in becoming more human-like, from walking on two legs to understanding language. But humans are complex creatures who have evolved over six million years. By comparison, machines are in their infancy. While A.I. will take over some transactional sales positions, it won't replace sellers who manage intricate, multimillion-dollar deals involving executive stakeholders.
Many job functions that require human connection, like sales, just aren't that easy to replace.