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Why AI Won’t Replace Your Salespeople Anytime Soon

By David Jacoby

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In the sales profession, industry thought leaders and analysts periodically shine a flashlight on a particular technological tool and wonder whether salespeople or sales behaviors will be replaced by it.

This happened in the early 2000s when email marketing technology was first being adopted by large sales organizations. The promise was that this technology would, among other things, eliminate the need for salespeople to prospect. Of course, that didn’t happen. As everyone’s inboxes got flooded with similar sounding “canned” marketing emails, it turned out we still needed humans to generate authentic and engaging messages that prospects would actually respond to.

This happened again in 2011, when Selling Power founder Gerhard Gschwandtner predicted in a Sales 2.0 Conference keynote address that 15 million sales jobs would become obsolete by 2020 thanks to technological advances (including social media) that were driving new and dramatic shifts in buyer behavior.

And now that we're officially living in the era of artificial intelligence (AI), which has brought us Siri and Watson, I’ve noticed a resurgence of dire pronouncements about jobs disappearing as technology powered by AI replaces humans. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking have all predicted that AI is a long-term threat to workers.

Anyone driving a car or truck for a living should justifiably be concerned about the recent rapid advancements in autonomous driving vehicle technology. But what about technology’s ability to replace salespeople? A 2015 research report from Forrester, “Death of a (B2B) Salesman,” predicts that one million sales jobs will disappear by 2020, largely due to the proliferation of self-service e-commerce shopping options. 

The Truth about AI Versus Salespeople

Again, such messages can sound alarming. And, while it’s true that now is a time of rapid technological advancements, I don’t believe that machines haven’t taken over—and we probably have a long way to go before they do.

If you dig deeper into the Forrester report, for example, you’ll see that the authors outlined reason to hope for growth in the sales profession. Forrester predicted that sales jobs that require simple skills (e.g., order takers) are in the most jeopardy. Such jobs will either no longer be needed or will be fully replaced by technology.

The Importance of Human Selling Skills

On the other hand, the sales profession is going to need consultant-type salespeople more than ever: Forrester predicts a 10% growth rate in consultant roles by 2020. And let’s remember that this particular role is fundamentally grounded in human skills, including:

  • High emotional intelligence
  • The ability to build rapport
  • The ability to inspire trust
  • The ability to creatively solve complex problems

This is why you see a high demand for salespeople who have skills to sell in a complex environment. In Silicon Valley, tech companies can’t hire salespeople fast enough. Last year, Peak Sales Recruiting reported that, since 2010, the demand to recruit sales jobs (senior-level and above) has risen by more than 15% in the San Jose area.

There is no question that technology has made many sales jobs (e.g., retail) obsolete. But there are many sales jobs in industries that didn’t even exist 10 years ago.

Salespeople and Technology: How Can They Work Together?

The idea that salespeople are doomed to become obsolete is based on narrow thinking about how automation works. Just because you can automate a single aspect of a job function, doesn’t necessarily mean you can automate the entire job. We've seen this happen as people with advanced selling skills have leveraged technology to help them work more effectively and efficiently.

When it comes to AI, we’re still on the ground floor. For example, large data sets in CRM systems combined with AI are helping salespeople target who is highly likely to buy, and deliver meaningful insights to those buyers. So far, technologies have either eliminated basic functions or tasks or made salespeople more productive and valuable. 

The True Impact of Technology on the Sales Profession

As technology-based sales enablement tools get better, salespeople have to get better.

Ultimately success will be amplified for salespeople who have the best skills and understand how to use technology to enhance those skills. Several years ago, for example, the difference between a top performer and average performer might have been the number of dials a salesperson could make in a day using a phone book and a telephone. With automation of those dials, the winning salesperson is not the one who makes the most dials—the winner is the salesperson who can figure out how to uncover customer needs and offer value to the customer during the actual phone conversations.

If you’re a sales leader, you should think about how you can leverage technology to enable your sales team to give buyers what they want, faster. Maybe that might include a more focused marketing message, solutions to problems the customer can’t figure out, better recommendations for upgrades or strategic decisions, or a faster relay of communication or information.

Ask yourself how you can ensure your sales team is trained in areas that make them more like genuine consultants than mere order takers. To build a great sales team, you’ll need people who can inspire trust, solve complicated problems, and build strong relationships with customers.

With each new generation, we see a renewed fear about technology tools and the implications they hold for our future. Instead of panicking that machines will replace them, however, sales professionals should develop and enhance their skill set so they can succeed in an environment where customers are struggling to deal with constant change and too many choices. Salespeople who work hard, become consultative experts, and leverage technology to their advantage will rise to the top of the sales profession.

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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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