The robots are taking over. In an age where you can stumble into your kitchen of a morning and ask a tiny grey box tell you what the weather will be like, it’s hard to argue with progress. Automation is certainly a good thing, but it takes no prisoners when it comes to jobs. From the switchboard operator to the ticket inspector, entire roles have been culled from the spectrum - more and more with each passing year. It’s enough to make anyone nervous. And with the sophistication and rise of artificial intelligence within the sphere of sales, we can’t help but wonder: Is the Sales Role Dead?
An interview with Martin Moran, Managing Director at InsidesSales.com
From the taxes automatically sliding off your payslip to the checkout machine at your local supermarket, an increasing portion of day-to-day existence is being taken out of the hands of human beings, and entrusted to a sophisticated network of equations. But, if you’re wondering where that automation could creep into the sales arena, you may be surprised to find out it’s already begun. And it’s gaining speed.
As you may have noticed, salespeople spend an awful lot of time on admin. Conservatively around 25%, according to InsideSales.com figures. It’s the small stuff: researching who to talk to, when to speak to them, determining the best mode of contact, and so on. And it’s that 25% that is increasingly being entrusted to, and taken over by, artificial intelligence (AI).
Martin Moran thinks it's time that sales admin was a thing of the past:
in the lead cycle, we can tell a salesperson if their prospective lead is worth their time, but we can also tell them a lot more. We can give them an optimal time of day to call, and whether they’re more likely to respond to a mobile or landline call, or an email.
“Let's say I call you, it rings but you don't answer, and I leave an automated voicemail. All of those transactions are tracked. And because it's a machine learning environment, as I give it new data about you, it learns a bit more, and becomes smarter and more accurate. That's the essence of machine learning.”
And once you’ve established your lines of communication, AI is there to help you identify where you’re most likely to close. Martin explains: “Further down the funnel we also assist with forecasting the likelihood of deals closing. It includes things like how often a deal's been pushed, a changing close date, or the last time a decision maker on this deal was contacted.
“It looks at the history of the salesperson – whether the salesperson tends to be pessimistic or optimistic – and builds profiles. From that profile, it can make a prediction of the outcome.”
Death of a salesman
But let’s zoom out for a second. To trace the issue back, we have to start with the first and most prominent threat to salespeople: the rise of e-commerce. When customers can increasingly do their own research, and shop around, who needs the middle man whispering advice in your ear?
In the age of the internet, everyone’s an autodidact. Customers are much less easily swayed. In certain industries where customers’ research comes into play, the role of the salesperson can be reduced to simply facilitating a decision that’s already, for the most part, been made. You’d be forgiven for thinking that salespeople’s days are numbered.
Martin unsurprisingly, reassuringly, disagrees: “There’s no truth at all; I’d argue the opposite.
“If I'm buying something low-value, that's relatively commoditised, I don't need someone to sell it to me, I just need a frictionless e-commerce relationship. That end of the scale is going to be fully automated and will only get smarter. And we'll all benefit hugely.
“But as you go up the stack, as sales transactions become bigger and more complex, then there will always be human intervention.
“I can understand a lot about a prospective client with AI but really, that only creates an environment where they’re happy to talk to me. It really comes down to the idea that I need to build the enduring relationship. As humans we place a lot of credence on trust. I still need to feel that I trust you. At some point I need to see the whites of your eyes; that can't be done by a machine.
“I don't think there's ever going to be a total replacement of the art of selling, so to speak. People are still going to buy from people.”
But as for what that person looks like, we’re still finding out. The modern salesperson, as we’ve explored elsewhere in this issue, is multi-talented and requires a diverse set of skills. The days of the field salesman, tearing up and down the M1 to shake as many hands as possible, are gone. So what’s left of those original sales skills?
It’s maybe the second oldest profession in the world, but at its heart the basics haven’t much changed.
Good salespeople are confident, and inquisitive. They’re certainly tenacious and persistent, and have a natural ability to engage people. But the approach, and the set of skills they have to employ, have to adapt to a changing landscape.
“In the olden days people would meet face to face”, says Martin, “and things like body language would come in to play a lot more.
The interesting thing we've seen now is that these inside salespeople are having to heighten their listening skill, and a whole range of telephony skills, which extends to video conferencing technology. That comes from not having the immediate personal interaction.
“Particularly on the phone you can't see for example if a person's sitting forward and engaged, or sitting back with their arms crossed. So you have to judge that with a better use of questioning, and draw more from their words and tone. There’s more honing of those techniques.”
It’s another traditional sales skill – perceptiveness – but given a lot less information to work with. Perhaps that’s the trade-off: vastly increased productivity and reach, at the sacrifice of the initial safety net of direct human engagement, at least in the first instance. The skill of the modern salesperson is not necessarily harder, but it’s certainly different and more nuanced.
And, that’s not the only thing that’s changed. The antiquated machismo that lingers on salespeople’s reputations from those long-gone days of fake smiles and aggressive closing, has made way for a radical new idea: empathy.
If there is an evolution in sales then it's becoming more towards account management. You're ending up with a longer-term relationship with the customer. You can't just sell them something and then run away.
So – we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Sales isn’t going anywhere fast. In fact, it’s been bolstered and augmented to mean that great salespeople can spend less time on unqualified calls and spreadsheets, and concentrate on what they excel at: engaging, productive human connection. The modern salesperson can start a conversation uniquely informed by machine-precise data, and bring the perfect solution where it’s most sorely needed.
It’s a simple increase in efficiency, and a shedding of mindless, laborious administration. So relax: the machines are on your side.