The Future Of Sales: Is it Artificial Intelligence?
5 December 2019 Sales Intelligence
How AI will impact the future of B2B sales profession, and what salespeople can do to become irreplaceable
A few decades ago, automobile factory workers believed that there was no way a robot would ever be capable of doing their job. With all of the complex systems, electrical wiring, and thousands of small parts inside each vehicle, it was inconceivable that a clumsy machine could ever replace the nimble humans that worked the assembly line.
Yet, in the 80s and 90s, that’s exactly what happened.
Photo by Lenny Kuhne
As a result, thousands of automobile factory workers were left searching for a new job. Those who remained were the ones who learned how to work with the robots, while the low to mid-level producers were forced to find work in other fields.
These trends have only increased at a rapid pace in recent years, and they show no signs of slowing down. McKinsey research suggests that as many as 45% of the activities individuals are paid to perform today can already be automated with technologies that currently exist. In the United States, these activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages.
How AI and automation are rapidly changing the sales profession
The sales profession is far from being immune to these trends. AI-powered chatbots, self-checkout machines, software trials, and e-commerce tools have already made it possible for many customers to gather all of the information they need and complete the entire buying cycle without ever interacting with an actual human salesperson.
“…as technology automates more and more of the selling process, companies will start to rely on salespeople less and less. At first, they’ll hire low-cost, customer service professionals. But, as AI is applied to the qualifying and presentation phases of the sales process, products will sell themselves.”
– Peter Caputa, CEO, Databox.
According to SOTI’s Annual Connected Retailer Survey, 73% of shoppers surveyed indicated they would rather use self-service technology than engage with a human sales associate — a 10.6% increase from the previous year.
In response, Amazon is now opening physical “Amazon Go” retail stores where customers can walk in, pick products off the shelf, and simply walk out without ever interacting with a self-checkout machine, let alone a human sales associate or cashier.
Amazon Go Store in Seattle, Photo by Sikander Iqbal
Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology uses sensors and cameras to automatically detect “when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When you’re done shopping, you can just leave the store. A little later, we’ll send you a receipt and charge your Amazon account.”
It’s safe to say that if your day-to-day responsibilities include lots of repetitive tasks, such as data entry, answering basic questions, scheduling meetings, giving presentations, taking orders, or qualifying leads, you should probably be worried.
However, it’s not just low-level jobs that will be impacted. The McKinsey report referenced earlier also states:
“Our work to date suggests that a significant percentage of the activities performed by even those in the highest-paid occupations (for example, financial planners, physicians, and senior executives) can be automated by adapting current technology. For example, we estimate that activities consuming more than 20 percent of a CEO’s working time could be automated using current technologies. “
The truth is, our world is undergoing massives changes spurred on by rapid technological advancements, and these changes are happening faster and faster with each passing year. The B2B sales profession is no exception.
The type of B2B salesperson AI can’t replace
While sales jobs that mostly consist of low-level, repetitive tasks are at risk of being automated within the next few years, demand continues to increase for salespeople who have the skills to sell complex products in complex sales environments.
Forrester predicts a 10% growth rate in “Consultant” roles by 2020. This role depends heavily on human skills, such as:
- High emotional intelligence
- The ability to build rapport
- The ability to earn trust by demonstrating domain knowledge
- The ability to creatively solve complex problems
Photo by nappy
These are the very same skills that the McKinsey’s report referenced earlier also cites as being the most important to develop in order to remain irreplaceable in a world powered by AI:
“Capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotions are core to the human experience and also difficult to automate…
Consultants leverage technology to navigate complex sales environments
While these “Consultant” skills are critically important to develop, it’s the salespeople who also rely on technology to help them efficiently navigate complex selling environments that will end up thriving.
Peter Schwartz, SVP of Strategic Planning at Salesforce, predicts that “within five years, basically every salesperson will have an intelligent assistant that will use intimate computing to deliver rich context around every step of the sales process, from initial contact to closing.”
This should come as no surprise. The B2B sales profession has already seen massive changes in the past few decades to incorporate new technology, such as smartphones, email, the cloud, social media, e-commerce, online chat, etc.
We have already seen that the salespeople who were open to adopting these new technologies were the ones who ended up thriving, while those who resisted were left behind. It’s no different today.
“The sales function will evolve due to AI, voicebots, and chatbots. Low-level sales functions will be absorbed into these technologies. And higher-level sales roles will gain access to more real-time information from the expanded use of these tools. Sales performers will be unafraid of AI and will use these technological advantages to be better armed than their peers.” – Darren Trumeter, CEO, Trujay Group
Rather than being replaced by robots, B2B salespeople who continue to take advantage of new technologies will be able to quickly gain deep insights on their customers, automate low-level tasks, and free up more of their time to spend on the personal, human connections that will continue to be the basis of every sales relationship into the foreseeable future.
Peter Schwartz goes on to emphasize this point:
“I’d be more worried about being replaced by another salesperson who is empowered by intelligence than by a machine.”
4 steps to futureproof your B2B sales career
There are 4 steps we recommend taking in order to futureproof your career, and ensure you are in the minority of B2B salespeople that won’t just survive the rapid changes coming your way, but take advantage of them in order to advance your career and ensure your long-term success:
1. Leverage data to give customers exactly want, faster than ever before
The biggest key to success in the future of B2B sales is to always be thinking of ways you can utilize data to worker smarter and more efficiently.
There’s a mountain of data out there just waiting for you to collect and harness to conduct smarter outreach, retain your most important customers, and close more deals. Artificial Intelligence allows you to quickly sift through all of this data to derive valuable insights that can help you better understand your customers and serve them in exactly the ways they desire most.
Photo by Franki Chamaki
“In the next three-to-five years, the sales function will be completely based upon artificial intelligence. The large amount of data CRMs entail will be managed by AI, as it can process huge amounts of data without batting an eyelid — much faster and more efficiently than any human could ever hope to.”
– Eric Quanstrom, CMO, Cience
Being a Consultant means that you use this data to find out what objectives your customers are trying to achieve, what their challenges are, and what suggestions you can make that will help them achieve their desired outcomes as quickly and effectively as possible.
2. Become an expert to better serve and educate your customers
“I hope people like me continue to raise the importance of formal continuing education within the sales profession, in the same way it’s applied to corporate roles like finance, legal, HR and IT.”
– John Kauffman, CEO, Lammaore USA Inc.
Photo by Pixabay
A Consultant doesn’t just ask the right questions, but they also have a wide base of knowledge they can draw from to not only help customers make the right buying decision, but also assist them in navigating all of the complex challenges in the buying process, and beyond.
These challenges include securing buy-in from stakeholders, adapting to different budgetary and time restrictions, implementing and customizing the product to meet the customers’ needs, and encouraging adoption among the end-users of the product.
Being able to make educated recommendations and guiding customers toward the resources and assistance they need separates you from the large pool of B2B salespeople who are content doing the bare minimum.
3. Take advantage of new sales technology
If you aspire to be a Consultant, but have yet to adapt to the new digital tools customers are already using in the buying process, such as social media and online chat, you have a lot of catching up to do.
“As new technologies and messaging platforms have emerged, buyers have become less likely to conform to the seller’s preferred communication channel and more likely to choose their own. Sales pros who’ve adapted and become more fluid in channel-switching have become better positioned to win business than some of the ‘old dogs’ who can’t learn new tricks.”
– Chris Handy, CEO, ClosedWon
Photo by Austin Distel
In addition, you should be looking for all of the ways you can automate redundant, time-consuming tasks so you can spend more time actually selling. These tasks include:
Activity tracking and data entry: While data can power smarter, more personalized customer interactions, collecting accurate and complete sales activity and customer interaction data remains a challenge for most salespeople. Fortunately, Sales Force Automation (SFA) tools have become extremely helpful at automatically handling all kinds of mundane, tedious administrative tasks. ZynBit, for example, is an SFA tool that works transparently in the background to automatically record and track all sales activity data, freeing you up to focus on more important activities, like attracting, delighting and retaining your customers.
- Data analysis: Artificial Intelligence gives you the ability to automatically group customers based on a myriad of factors beyond just demographic data (company size, role, age, location, etc.). For instance, you can utilize specific behavioral data (such as interests, past purchases, browsing history, etc.) to create entirely new customer segments that you can then tailor your marketing and sales efforts.
- Predictive forecasting: Another important capability sales teams get from using AI is accurate sales and revenue predictions. Unlike optimistic goal-setting, AI-powered algorithms that power tools like Clari can now relate your current transactional and customer interaction data (emails, meetings, phone calls, etc.) to actual sales outcomes in order to predict future revenue to an extremely high degree of accuracy. When leaders can accurately forecast what revenue will be and spot risks early, they can use that knowledge to allocate resources, train, coach, and manage the workforce more efficiently.
- Pipeline management: Behavioral and transactional data can also allow you to segment leads in your pipeline based on how profitable they are likely to be and which products similar customers buy most often. You can then use this information to provide highly-relevant recommendations, speed up the sales cycle, and focus on the most profitable opportunities first.
- Guided selling: 62% of high-performing salespeople expect AI to transform Guided Selling (ranking the potential value of each opportunity and suggesting next steps) over the next few years, according to Salesforce’s State of Sales report. AI tools such as Salesforce Einstein allow your sales team to engage with customers more effectively by giving them smart suggestions on when to reach out to each customer, on which channels they prefer (phone, email, text, video chat, etc.), and which products will resonate with them the most. Einstein promises to “increase efficiency with AI-powered advice displayed right where your employees work — give suggestions for cross- or upsell, make recommendations to decrease attrition, and more.”
4. Be human
“The best way to fend off the robots is to determine the skills and traits that are irreplaceable, hone in on them, and improve upon them whenever you can.”
– Sophia Bernazzani, HubSpot
Fortunately, AI is a long way from being able to give sophisticated answers, ask intelligent questions, or understand complex human emotions and subtle nuances in human language.
According to a Rain Group study of buyers, the top four attributes of a top salesperson mentioned are:
- Educated me with new ideas or perspectives.
- Collaborated with me.
- Persuaded me we would achieve results.
- Listened to me.
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator
Human relationships still drive business. This is especially true in complex selling environments that involve multi-million dollar deals, strict budgetary and technical requirements, difficult challenges, and multiple executive stakeholders.
While customers today are doing a large bulk of the research on their own and are contacting salespeople later in the buying cycle, when it comes time to make a large purchasing decision, nothing replaces a human touch to build trust, calm fears, and reassure customers that they are making the right decision. Customers still want their needs to be heard, their frustrations validated, and their complex questions answered with dedicated care and attention.
Because of this, it’s more important than ever for B2B salespeople to be able to combine deep knowledge and expertise with a heavy dose of compassion, empathy, and listening skills.
Death of a (B2B) Salesman?
Photo by Ryoji Iwata
If you’re still worried about the rapid changes AI and automation will have on the field of B2B sales, the truth is, you should be. It is inevitable that these new technologies will affect every industry in significant ways.
However, it is important to remember that this has always been the case. Just because new technology is becoming a bigger part of your job as a B2B salesperson doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
“There are so many think pieces about how AI will replace salespeople, but I think it will simply thin the herd. The future isn’t “death of a salesman,” it’s “death of a lazy salesman.” The best salespeople will embrace it and automate their lives to spend more time closing.”
– Chris Fago, cloud security specialist, RedLock
Commit yourself to lifelong learning, be quick to adopt useful, new tools, and continue cultivating the customer relationships that are vital to your company’s success, and you’ll never have to worry about being replaced by a robot.