When ranking the list of professions that are likely to be replaced by AI, sales is often way down on the list, along with chiropractors and preachers.

The rationale for such predictions are that sales is still considered a high-touch profession. A recent survey showed that in certain industries, people would rather buy from someone who is charismatic and fun even if that salesperson doesn't know their product well. Respondents preferred that charismatic-but-dim salesperson to someone who knows their stuff but is on the dull side. That seems to bode well for those fear who their job will go the way of VCRs.

Or does it? There's a new wave of AI startups that purport to use machine learning to automate much of the sales process, including prospecting and pitching. Those in sales shouldn't feel threatened by such tools though. Rather than take your job, AI will help you do it better.

AI for sales

Most sales conversations aren't archived so whatever transpires is lost forever. But startups like Gong and InteractiveTel are regularly recording those conversations and transcribing them to look for opportunities to sell or salvage an existing relationship. For instance, IntractiveTel, which works with auto dealers, might flag words like "unhappy" and "speak with a manager" in incoming calls. It will then send a transcript and an alert to a manager, who can intervene. Others, like Cogito (an OpenView portfolio company), use such data and machine learning to coach reps and agents to be more empathetic on sales calls. The promise of such technologies is that by looking at the data, best practices will emerge over time. For instance, Gong has found that top salespeople ask 10.1 "problem questions" per hour while average salespeople ask around 6.3.

Other AI-enhanced tools aimed at sales pros include Conversica, whose bot, Angie, sends 30,000 emails a month and analyzes the responses to find hot leads and homepage-based bots that lure visitors into conversations. There are also numerous AI-based personal assistants out there, including x.ai and Julie Desk that will schedule meetings on your behalf. If you have six meetings a day, Julie Desk promises to save you five hours a week.

IA not AI

The tools discussed above really fall under the heading of IA rather than AI. That is, while they use aspects of artificial intelligence to magnify their effect, they are really about intelligence augmentation - making humans better at their tasks - rather than replacing them at doing those tasks.

This is unambiguously good news for sales professionals because a salesperson's life is filled with administrative tasks. Sales pros spend an inordinate amount of time trying to contact prospects and then reestablishing understanding of where that buyer is in the sales process before they execute the conversation. Research shows that salespeople only spend about one third of their time selling. About 20% of their time is spent on administrative tasks.

AI-based tools then might be the productivity boon that salespeople have been looking for, especially if you can automate grunt work like scheduling meetings, filling out paperwork and making cold calls.

Well, maybe not the latter. Proponents of cold calling like Jeb Blount claim that they can achieve a 15%-80% contact rate with voice calls versus a 14%-23% open rate for cold emails.

Those rates make intuitive sense: Which would you prefer, a form letter that's been cut and pasted to hundreds of others or a personalized pitch, perhaps delivered over the phone with a real person on the other end? If the answer is the latter, then you understand the importance of the human touch in sales. Then you also understand why the day when sales are carried out by salesbots interacting with buyer bots is still decades away.

Published on: Aug 30, 2017
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