The internet's biggest celebrities have long been raising the alarm bells about how AI will soon replace some of the most critical jobs in our economy. Jobs like sales, for instance.
Think about the last time you bought groceries. You likely went to the supermarket in person, got what you needed, and probably joined the self-checkout line, even though it seemed significantly longer than the cashier-operated checkout lines. We think it's more independent that way, but it's more so because it's private and the machine will never judge us for buying a 36-pack of toilet paper or extra bags of pasta. It's nice to know there's no chance of an eyeroll or an upsell.
But this doesn't mean we hate interacting with people. If we're buying medicine, we want to talk to a person—exactly because they can talk us through our symptoms and treatment. Even if they don't stock the thing we're looking for, they likely provide some emotional support and compassion that no AI ever can. That human-to-human connection is irreplaceable. And that human factor is one reason why retail giants like Aldi still don't have any self-service checkouts.
But, the truth is that people-facing jobs like sales, or pharmacy recommendations, are probably already heavily influenced by AI technology. This is likely to continue to grow in the future, but that doesn't mean that every store will be staffed by robots! As AI becomes more valuable to business, so will the humans it serves. So, while AI might take parts of our jobs, its not the parts of our job we're actually good at. (Unless you're really into manual data entry day after day after day...)
The role of AI in sales jobs
Today's CRM tools are well equipped with AI technology. LinkedIn's 2020 State of Sales report pointed out that 72% of sales representatives recognise that sales intelligence tools are critical to closing deals, and 61% of sales reps consistently use a CRM tool. There's such high-enthusiastic adoption because chatbots embedded in websites have made it easier than ever to collect information. Intelligence algorithms analyse that data within seconds to identify the best next course of action, a task that'd otherwise take hours for humans to perform manually.
Ten years ago, tech leaders predicted that AI would takeover sales jobs; instead, it's made salespeople more effective by automating many of the routine tasks they used to preform by hand. But AI isn't just doing things like initiating web chats on your website, sending out marketing campaigns, or tracking customer spend.
No, AI is revolutionising the job of sales. By giving users deep insights into everything from the best time to reach out, advice on optimising marketing collateral, or projections on staffing needs based on incoming volume, AI is helping salespeople communicate more effectively and successfully.
So, it's clear that, to quote Gartner's Chief Director Analyst Ilona Hansen, “AI augments sales staff, but does not replace them. [It] reduces administrative sales work, [giving] sellers more time to prospect, find new revenue, and upsell existing clients.”
It's important to understand what AI can and can't do in terms of the sales process.
AI in sales tools is incredibly efficient at identifying patterns in large datasets. This means it can predict user behaviour and suggest ideal responses. This information is gold for a salesperson trying to connect with their client; it gives them talking points and helps them collate additional resources. In fact, since 2018, there's been a 76% increase in sales organisations using AI, with sales reps saying AI's most significant impact is in understanding customer needs.
But it still takes a human to make the final decision; AI can give you a lot of information, but it doesn't have the deep knowledge about your business that your salespeople do, or the ability to weigh the consequences of a decision on your clients.
AI is the perfect wingman for a sales representative. It can often do many everyday sales tasks like scheduling appointments, collecting and entering data, fact-checking, analysing reports, and looking up information, but it can't walk in the shoes of a salesperson. AI is never going to know how to provide a meaningful response to objections that it hasn't been programmed into it, and that ability alone ensures that salespeople are here to stay.
A new type of sales
The more sales tasks that AI automates, the more the sales role will evolve. For example, 15 years ago, it would've been unimaginable for sales teams to collaborate with marketing teams on campaigns. They just didn't have the time or the technology. Now, as AI does most of the administrative tasks, businesses are realising the value of aligning their salespeople with their marketing team. Sales teams now have a stronger voice in executing email campaigns, handling social media questions, contributing to webinars and workshops, and even modifying their messaging style to correlate it to their marketing team's communication.
It's important to note here that the expansion of the sales role has also been accompanied by increased human involvement. AI isn't competing for the sales job, it's pushing reps towards a larger goal: letting AI perform the tasks it does best, so that sales reps can do the same.
The future of AI in sales
The most efficient sales reps use an AI-enabled CRM to improve their chances of closing a deal. Because we've already seen the positive impact of incorporating AI into sales processes, it's safe to say we'll be seeing even more AI down the line. Ultimately, AI means reps have fewer manual things to do, and can instead focus their attention on human-to-human conversations.
Salespeople won't become obsolete, but their need to perform certain tasks will.
So what happens to a salesperson who doesn't allow AI into their process? They'll likely lose their place to someone who can work with AI.
The way we buy and sell is changing constantly, and it's only giving salespeople more work to do. Sharing that workload with AI is a sensible and safe option, because at the end of the day, if you ask Siri what happens when a black hole evaporates, the most she can do is give you a search result with articles that address that topic. You still need a (REALLY smart) human to fully explain it, and even then, you might have a blank stare. However, the human, unlike Siri, will be able to see your confused look, and will (hopefully) start their explanation over.