Academic studies have raised awareness about how intelligent software can displace workers from their jobs. Among others, sales occupations were reported as highly likely to be automated. However, it will be wrong to assume all sales occupations will be equally affected. The reality is that business deals that require sales-related skills such as creativity, persuasion and negotiation will still require human intervention. So rather than threatening to substitute the sales force, intelligent software represents an opportunity for sales organizations. An opportunity to maximize sales productivity and accelerate opportunities through the pipeline.
In a previous article, I explained the concept of artificial intelligence and described how software robots have spread into client-facing functions including sales organizations. Now it is time to take the next step and look at the consequences of their impact on sales organizations. Two different views have been expressed by researchers: robots as substitutes and robots as complements to the sales force.
Software robots as substitutes
Based on rigorous studies, a group of researchers believe that robots are highly likely to replace workers. In fact, they envisioned a future were several sales occupation will no longer require human intervention. Sales occupations that involve selling generic and standardized products and services were ranked at the top of the list given their high probabilities of being automated in the future.
Of course, by now, we are well aware that standardized products and services can be sold without the need to involve a sales person. Results from a recent study "Företagens använding av IT 2013" revealed that web sales accounted for 5% of total sales turnover in Sweden. Further analysis of the difference between B2B and B2C, showed that the share of web sales relative to total turnover was higher for B2B than for B2C purchases.
Software robots as complements
On the other hand, there is a brighter side to the discussion of robots and the impact on employment. The alternative is to view robots as a complement. People that hold this view claim that intelligent robots will most likely complement rather than replace jobs. This is likely to be common among occupations that demand skills such as creativity, empathy, judgment, persuasion and negotiation. In that sense, B2B sales reps that specialize in selling complex products and services are not likely to lose their jobs due to automation. One reason is those occupations require higher levels of creativity, persuasiveness and negotiation skills in order to close deals. Moreover, they demand frequent collaboration with buyers and with other members of the sales team in order to win businesses. Instead, they can expect a rise in the usage of robots to increase sales force productivity and efficiency.
In general, substitution is expected to take place among transactional sales organizations whereas the view of robots as complements is more likely to be seen among the remaining sales organizations. This belief has been shared in implicit terms by professors at Oxford University. The gap between the highest and the lowest probability – see table below – implies that sales forces of generic product and services (yellow and green) are more likely to be automated than others. The table suggests that the question of whether robots will replace or complement the sales force depends on the nature of the sales tasks involved in the occupation. In other words, it depends on the sales logic.
An opportunity rather than a threat: the positive outweigh the negative aspects
Should we be worried about robots then? I certainly believe we should not. Of course, as with anything, there are some perceived negative consequences. However, in most cases, the positive largely outweigh the negative aspects. It will be naive to assume robots are only a threat.
Instead, sales leaders should acknowledge that robots also represent an opportunity to be more competitive. Regardless if robots are a substitute or a complement, the reality is that the usage of robots is likely to lead to a rise in productivity and efficiency. Can you imagine the gains from being able to accelerate sales opportunities through the pipeline?
Where in the sales process do robots add more value?
So, how can this opportunity be exploited? The first step is to identify the stages in which robots can add more value. We will dive deeper into the details during the upcoming seminar. For the purposes of this post, I have divided a typical sales process into three stages: Lead Management, Opportunity Management and Account Management.
Recent developments suggest that robots can add more value during early stages of the sales process. Tasks that include information sharing and qualification can be perfectly handled without human intervention. In certain industries, even the task of price negotiation can be done automatically and in real-time.
In general, the tasks of capturing attention, nurturing interest and engaging buyers are best executed by robots. The rising importance of integrating Marketing Automation and CRM tools support the proposition that robots add most value during the early stages.
On the other hand, when the opportunity moves forward through the sales pipeline, the need to involve the sales force increases. Sales reps add more value than robots after the lead has been qualified as ready to buy. It is during the later stages of the sales process that creative, persuasive and negotiation skills become crucial to win deals.
In other words, the value of robots decreases as the opportunity moves through the pipeline. Conversely, the value of sales reps increases as the opportunity moves through the pipeline.
Seize the opportunity - join forces with robots
In conclusion, I have shown how intelligent software is an opportunity for sales organizations. There is no doubt that robots and the sales force can work together during a single sales process. While robots can increase productivity by accelerating opportunities through the pipeline, the sales force increases effectiveness by securing the business gets closed.
To exploit their potential, sales leaders must drop the idea that robots are a threat. The reality is that despite improvements in artificial intelligence, certain aspects of the traditional sales process will still require human intervention in 20 years. After all, the ability of sales reps to carry conversations in a persuading way, to find creative ways to keep the sale moving forward and to negotiate with buyers will remain outside of the scope of robots. Instead, sales leaders must acknowledge the potential productivity gains from working side-by-side with robots.
Ph.D. Markus Ejenäs, ProSales Institute