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Back to the Future: AI and the Role of Sales People

By David Jacoby

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Last week I saw the future. Google demonstrated its amazing new Duplex technology that allows Google Assistant to make phone calls on your behalf and have natural, human-sounding conversations. Watch the demo here and listen to the Google Assistant first call a hair salon and book an appointment, and then make a reservation at a restaurant.

I was blown away by Googles’ Duplex technology, and it is obviously a major step forward in the ability of computers to understand and generate natural speech. This will dramatically improve the customer experience in communicating with automated phone systems. But what are the implications for the sales profession?

Is the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution finally catching up with the sales function? Not so fast.

Flashback to the early 2000s when I also thought I saw the future. I was working with a technology company on comprehensive sales consulting project. The director of marketing was excited that the company had just implemented a new email marketing system. Imagine, he rhapsodized, you could now send out 1000s of marketing emails and track the results! I also got carried away with excitement. Sales reps would just have to sit back a wait for the leads to come pouring in—the ROI will be staggering.

Then reality hit.

Many of the leads produced from these email campaigns were unqualified and ended up wasting the sales team’s time. Email open rates started to decline as prospects’ inboxes were getting flooded with emails from numerous other companies adopting similar systems. Furthermore, prospects started adopting defensive measures to block these emails included new spam filtering technologies as well as getting the government involved (i.e., CAN_SPAM Act).

Today, for most sales organizations, email marketing is one part of an overall lead generation strategy that includes numerous approaches and a significant amount of human intervention.

So, what about Google’s Duplex technology? 

As I have previovusly blogged, I don’t believe that AI is going replace sales reps, although it will likely replace or enhance certain selling and customer service functions. For example, one functions where Google’s technology can be a major “force multiplier” is appointment setting. Imagine how productive an account executive can be working together with an AI-powered assistant that handles all the basic cold calling work.

But just like my email automation example, the payoff this new AI technology may be lower than people think. If a human prospector can realistically make 70-100 calls per day, why can’t an AI-powered virtual prospector make 700 -1,000, or 7,000 -10,000? 

At first aggressive sales organizations will push the limit of these technologies; after all more calls are better than fewer calls. But soon, new call screening and blocking technologies will emerge as will new regulations to protect prospects from the coming AI-powered deluge of calls. The net effect will be to blunt the advantage of these new technologies.

Google’s Duplex technology is a stunning example of what AI is capable of today. Over the next several years, sales organizations will deploy similar AI technologies, looking to improve sales performance.  Nevertheless, the reality of implementing new sales enablement technologies (including unforeseen consequences) frequently produces lower than expected ROIs.

Ultimately, the sales profession shouldn’t fear AI.  Sales reps and AI will most likely live side-by-side with AI replacing certain routine selling functions, such as cold calling. This will free sales reps to focus on what they do best, applying insights and problem-solving skills to buyer problems.

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About David Jacoby

David Jacoby
As a Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group, David helps large B2B sales organizations improve sales performance. Previously, David was a Principal at Linear Partners, a sales consulting firm providing sales strategy, sales operations, talent management, and interim management services to emerging growth companies. In the past, David has served as Vice President of Business Affairs of Xylo, Inc., where he was responsible for the Company's business development, sales operations, legal affairs, and financing activities.

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