In today's world, artificial intelligence (AI) is getting more powerful and more prominent in the sales process. What does that mean for professional salespeople? There used to be an occupation called “switchboard operator” – now there isn’t. Fifty years from now, will there no longer be an occupation called “professional salesperson”?
We say no.
AI is defined as “the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions.” And it seems to be everywhere today. If you’ve ever gotten a recommendation from Amazon, and then purchased a product based on that recommendation, you have experienced an AI-supported sales process.
Will AI have an impact on transactional low-ticket sales, like that book you bought on Amazon? Sure, because a purchase like that carries very little potential downside and doesn't require a lot of interaction. But most professional salespeople face far more complex situations than that.
When dealing with a buyer, or a group of buyers, who are getting ready to make a significant investment of time, resources, and attention, we find they go through a series of phases. There’s the curiosity phase, the investigation phase, and then the engagement phase. AI certainly helps buyers who are in the curiosity phase, because it allows them to learn a lot about the selling organization at any point in time, 24/7, without the so-called “pressure" of a conversation with a salesperson. (A true professional will create a conversation that does not pressure the buyer during the curiosity phase, but let’s leave that aside for a moment.)
A certain amount of the investigation phase – though not all of it – can be conducted with the aid of AI. But as you go into the engagement mode, the salesperson is still essential, and human interaction is the key factor for both sides.
Once you move out of transactional mode, you will find that people still buy from people, and AI or no AI, they're going to buy from people they like and trust. That will never change. Consider the following things that you as a professional salesperson can do, but a machine cannot.
Read between the lines. A machine interprets only what a person types, clicks, or speaks into a microphone. Sometimes the people typing and clicking and speaking will say one thing, while perhaps thinking something very different. We've all been in situations where a buyer said something, but we knew – based on tonality, body language, and our own experience in dealing with people who had similar issues – that what we were hearing was incongruent with what was really going on in that person’s world. So we knew how, when, and why to ask a tough question, and then wait for the answer. Only a professional salesperson sitting in front of a buyer knows how to do that.
Support the multi-person sale. You and a colleague are sitting in front of multiple buyers. You’re answering questions coming at you from different directions, each with a separate agenda and a separate set of expectations. At times, you’re going to ask your colleague to take the lead. At times, you’re going to take the lead. Or maybe you’re going to reverse a question – meaning respond with a question of your own – and say something like, “Hey, that’s a great question – you must have asked that right now for a reason. Do you mind if I ask what that reason is?” And at some point you’re probably going to ask someone in the group for his or her opinion on a specific issue and start a special kind of dialogue – one that builds consensus, commitment, and action. This is coalition-building. It’s leadership. And saying that a machine will ever be able to take over this part of the professional salesperson’s job is like saying a machine is going to take over the task of managing a professional sports team. I’ll believe it when I see it! Selling to and within a team is a uniquely human domain, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Connect the dots. Think about the times you have moved the sales process forward by highlighting key takeaways from past conversations with busy stakeholders who had forgotten them. Think about the times you brought up something you had learned about a part of the buyer’s business that he or she didn’t even know about. Think about the times you raised an issue or shared a story that redirected the conversation, captured the buyer’s attention, and uncovered emotions that changed the whole dynamic of the relationship. Think about the times you were talking to a buyer who made a remark that sparked a thought about something you did with a previous client, and as a result of that you shared a third-party story that pointed you, and the buyer, toward the solution to an important problem. When you did all those things, you were helping the buyer to connect the dots. That’s something that does not happen in a transactional sale, and it will never happen in a “conversation” with a machine. Only good salespeople can do that.
Yes, AI will continue to affect the way buyers purchase low-ticket items, and it will continue to affect their buying experience before they reach the engagement phase of more complex sales. But once buyers are engaged about a purchase that really matters to them, professional salespeople will be just as important as ever. That’s not going to change.