The technological revolutions of the past – steam-based mechanization, electronics, information technology – are being surpassed by a new fourth era of transformation enabled by smart machines. Think about how much light bulbs, computers and mobile phones have transformed the work of sales professionals. Now imagine that same dramatic shift forward, but on steroids. The light bulb switches on and off intuitively based on your movements, saving energy; and the PC anticipates your schedule and answers emails for you, for example. How businesses respond to the challenges and exploit the benefits of smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be a key determinant of success going forward.
We are singling out AI as perhaps the most disruptive technology fueling this radical transformation. Artificial intelligence is the rapidly growing field of computer science focused on creating intelligent software tools that can replicate critical human mental faculties. The range of applications include speech recognition, language translation, visual perception, learning, reasoning, inference, planning, decision-making, and intuition.
For sales professionals, there are numerous opportunities and risks associated with the AI revolution. The quality of leadership will be the best determinant of how much help or harm AI does for a business.
What AI means for the sales profession in the next five years
The power of artificial intelligence to gather massive amounts of data, analyze, interpret, draw inferences, and make predictions has applications in every industry sector and activity. For sales, this means a new power tool and new leadership priorities.
So, what do sales leaders need to understand and pay attention to as their organization embarks on the AI journey?
Deep and narrow AI. Artificial intelligence opens up huge potential to go deep and apply AI across the sales function – handling or supporting every activity – through to narrow applications such as doing in-depth analysis of customer data to predict likely future behavior. Sales leaders will need to address key questions here such as: does it make sense to automate outbound sales calls and inbound customer enquiries with chatbots, or to use AI assistance to improve the capacity of human salespeople?
Many firms are now using their best sales staff to train these AI tools to do routine sales work – freeing up the sales experts to focus on more demanding and complex customer opportunities. Leaders will need close familiarity with staff and customers alike to know the extent to which AI could enhance sales operations. Close contact with the cultures and communities being served will help determine when to use artificial intelligence or humans. Sales positions could morph into roles more similar to behavioral scientists in the sense that they’d be looking for valuable patterns that data analysis fails to detect.
Hierarchies disrupted. While the IT department should be highly involved in adoption of artificial intelligence across the business, there are strategic decisions which will involve input from numerous departments. The increasingly technological direction of business and sales means that everyone in sales needs to be kept up to date with the latest tools, so investment in training will be paramount. In some cases, the customer and the salesperson may need to work together to train the AI how to interact effectively. Teams might have to orient their new robotic co-worker to their voices, movement and preferences. Because of its smart nature and ability to learn, AI is a surprisingly relational technology – its abilities will depend on what people teach it.
A very human workplace. The growing impact of technology in sales for potentially every business will require the right mix of people and AI. Sensitivity to roles being encroached by AI means leaders helping workers see the technology as a tool, not a threat. Where there is the potential for replacement, then honesty and support are required for those who might lose their job to AI. Encouragement of personal growth on the job is going to be critical to good management.
New skill sets. Customers are being acclimated to the constant analysis of their own data to sell them things. Being able to analyze freely available information based on social media profiles, for instance, means that sales people may no longer size up a lead, but AI does. Sales in the age of AI means understanding the customer in new ways, which may go beyond superficial online activities to assessing their lifestyle and social media profile. Salespeople may be confidants and therapists for future customers, helping them reveal needs they didn’t even realize they had.
Striking a fine balance. Careful decisions about which sales roles and functions to automate should guide AI strategy in business – a simple “bottom line” approach will compromise the human element and could erode the firm’s uniqueness over time. It will also be important to show compassion and support to employees displaced by new technology as well as support healthy relationships in workplaces populated by both man/woman and machine.
The leadership challenge
Overall there is a good deal of promise that AI tools will play a leading role in the future of sales in business. The challenge is for sales leaders to play more than a supporting role.
By this we mean, don’t walk in blindly – it is easy to get wrapped up in the AI hype and neglect its pitfalls. The biggest pitfall to avoid is allowing technology to set the pace and neglect the human element.
Counterintuitively, we propose that relationships will matter more – not less – as we cede more business workings to AI. Sales, a people profession, will be on the front lines of this leadership challenge.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn