Why Salespeople Need to Develop “Machine Intelligence”

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is on quite a run, from Google’s AlphaGo, which earlier this year defeated Go world champion Lee Sedol four games to one, to Amazon’s Echo, the voice-activated digital assistant.

The trend is heating up the sales field as well, enabling entirely new ways of selling. Purchasing, for example, is moving to automated bots, with 15%–20% of total spend already sourced through e-platforms. By 2020 customers will manage 85% of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human. Leading companies are experimenting with what these technologies can do for them, typically around transactional processes at early stages of the customer journey.

For example, AI applications can take over the time-consuming tasks of initiating contact with a sales lead and then qualifying, following up, and sustaining the lead. Amelia, the “cognitive agent” developed by IPsoft, can parse natural language to understand customers’ questions, handling up to 27,000 conversations simultaneously and in multiple languages. And because “she” is connected to all the relevant systems, Amelia delivers results faster than a human operator. Of course, there will be occasions when even AI is stumped, but Amelia is smart enough to recognize when to involve a human agent.

As we learned from researching our book, Sales Growth, companies that have pioneered the use of AI in sales rave about the impact, which includes an increase in leads and appointments of more than 50%, cost reductions of 40%–60%, and call time reductions of 60%–70%. Add to that the value created by having human reps spend more of their time closing deals, and the appeal of AI grows even more.

Clearly, AI is bringing big changes. But what do they mean for sales — and the people who do it? We see two big implications.

The Sales Role Is Going to Change Completely

The “death of a salesman” is an overplayed trope, but the road ahead does mean significant changes for how sales work is done. The changes are primarily focused on automating activities rather than individual jobs, but the scale of those changes is likely to profoundly disrupt what sales people do.

We analyzed McKinsey Global Institute data on the “automatability” of 2,000 different workplace activities, comparing job requirements to the current capabilities of leading-edge technology. We found that 40% of time spent on sales work activities can be automated by adapting current technologies. If the technologies that process and understand natural language reach the median level of human performance, this number will rise to 47%.

Pity the parts salesperson, an occupation where 85% of all activities have the potential to be automated with today’s technology. Gathering customer or product information to determine customer needs, processing sales or other transactions, taking product orders from customers, and preparing sales or other contracts collectively account for approximately three-quarters of a parts salesperson’s time — and all can be automated. On the other hand, most of a sales manager’s activities, which involve strategic decision making and employee supervision and coaching, cannot be automated.

Sales People Will Need to Develop “Machine Intelligence”

Much of the focus on AI and automation has been on which jobs or tasks will be replaced. That’s understandable, of course. But it’s clear, if less explored, that sales leaders and reps will continue to be crucial to the sales process even as they adapt to working with machines.

The “human touch” will need to focus more on managing exceptions, tolerating ambiguity, using judgment, shaping the strategies and questions that machines will help enable and answer, and managing an increasingly complex web of relationships with employees, vendors, partners, and customers.

Machine learning and automation tools, for example, will be able to source, qualify, and execute far more sales opportunities than reps can keep up with. Sales leaders therefore need to develop clear escalation and exception protocols to manage the trickiest or most valuable situations, making sure a sales rep keeps a robot from losing a big sale.

While machine learning will continue to evolve, for the foreseeable future senior executives must point the technology in the right direction. They’ll have to think about a number of questions: What sorts of decisions should be automated? Which kinds of automation will help deliver on strategic growth goals? What are the legal and risk implications? How will vendor and technology relationships need to be managed and integrated to create the greatest competitive advantage?

There are implications too for the hiring and managing of sales reps. An empathetic personality will still be important, but beyond their relationship skills, reps will succeed based on their ability to understand and interpret data, work effectively with AI, and move quickly on opportunities. That’s a very different sales profile from the one many companies recruit for today.

Machines are already doing many sales jobs more effectively and efficiently than their human counterparts, and boosting customer satisfaction in the process. How sales leaders respond will determine what the future of sales looks like — and how well it works.

The article is written by Thomas Baumgartner, Homayoun Hatami and Maria Valdivieso on