It’s not an exaggeration to say that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation pose existential threats to many professions—the number may be as high as 10 million, more jobs than were impacted by the Great Recession of 2008—and sales is no exception. In fact, Forrester predicts a million sales reps will be displaced by 2020.

And yet, like the doomed revelers in the film “Independence Day” who celebrate the arrival of aliens who promptly blow them up, many salespeople seem to be actually looking forward to the arrival of AI. Take Cien’s Global Study on the Future of Sales, for instance, which found that a full 88 percent of sales professionals expect AI to simply make their jobs easier in the next 10 years, not render their profession obsolete.

So what’s going on here? Where will the impact of AI most acutely be felt by sales teams? And how can savvy sales professionals ready themselves so they stay ahead of the change? Read on to find out.

Where AI is today

Studies suggest that early adopters of AI within the sales function are seeing impressive results—like 50 percent more leads and appointments, 60 percent lower costs, and as much as 70 percent less call time. And their success hasn’t gone unnoticed by leaders at companies that have been slower to adopt, which means that, wherever you work, AI is likely going to be coming soon.

The current crop of AI-based tools—like Salesforce’s Einstein and Complexica’s Larry—are essentially sales enablement and intelligence tools that augment sales teams’ efforts, empowering them with data and insights on everything from optimal outreach channels to the probability of a win. And that’s the way most enterprises today are approaching AI: with an eye toward automating activities, not replacing jobs wholesale.

Since an estimated 40 percent of the time that salespeople spend on sales-related work today could already be automated using existing technologies, expect to see AI have the greatest impact on administrative tasks, reporting, and other manual, low-value tasks.

For salespeople, that means a spate of “less”—less time spent matching product and customer profiles, cold calling, reporting, and so on. With less time dedicated to administrative tasks, salespeople can spend more time actually selling.
Obviously, all of that is a blessing. It certainly helps explain the enthusiasm some salespeople express for AI, and it may also explain why some research shows AI and automation can actually increase job satisfaction and bolster relationships among sales teams.

The Real Limitations of AI in Sales

AI’s footprint within the sales function is only going to grow. But don’t expect the core traits needed to sell successfully—traits like empathy, drive, intelligence, critical thinking, and communication skills—to disappear as a result. However, salespeople will need to pair those qualities with the ability to interpret data, leverage insight from analytical tools, and move rapidly to close opportunities.

In a world where AI-powered bot assistants like Conversica’s Angie can send 30,000 emails per month and dissect the responses to pinpoint promising leads, the point at which a salesperson even enters the equation gets pushed down the funnel—that is, closer to negotiations, closed deals, and dollars.

But as AI takes the drudge work off of sellers’ plates, salespeople will be expected to excel at the distinctly human elements of sales. That’s because AI-enabled technologies, for all their awesome computational power, will continue to struggle to understand context and reason out why things occur. Put another way, it would be difficult for AI to understand the rationale behind a prospect’s decision to purchase or not purchase.

Buyers, meanwhile, may use AI-enabled technology to compare services or pricing options between vendors, but they’ll still get value from salespeople who can explain how a solution aligns with their goals, solves their pain points, and what a successful implementation may look like.

What AI Can’t Touch: The Human Connection

In a world where 68 percent of B2B buyers say they prefer doing business online, rather than speaking with a salesperson, sales is already fundamentally different than it was ten years ago. And while ten years from now, things will look different, they might not look as different as you think.

Sure, Alexa is going to get better and better at recognizing speech patterns (and maybe even one day understand English spoken with a Scottish brogue), but it’s always going to be on you to show up at your prospect’s headquarters, shake hands with key stakeholders, and deliver your best pitch. In fact, doing so may be more important than ever.

As buyers themselves spend more time mired in impersonal online sales interactions, these tried-and-true “human touches” will feel like even more of a breath of fresh air—and could even be a key differentiator that could set you apart from the competition. AI can generate all the leads in the world, but it’ll never turn them into closed-wons on its own—you need the right inside insight to bring it all home. Sure, AI can help get your deal going, but can it tell you the particular purchasing quirks of a key decision-maker, or dish out the inside scoop on how to breeze through procurement?

There’s a reason why, at large enterprises, you often find top salespeople who aren’t all that heavily reliant on CRM systems. Why? Because inputting data feels to them like the antithesis of what they believe their job is all about: pitching to clients, building long-term relationships, closing deals, and generating revenue.

So, ten years out, don’t expect AI to have completely changed the enterprise sales playbook. On the other hand, as for those salespeople who already act like machinesas if their jobs were just about making as many calls as possible, for instance—their days are numbered.

Executive Summary

Artificial intelligence (AI) holds the promise of eliminating many of the mundane tasks that today occupy salespeople’s time—think of reporting on leads, researching prospects and the like. As a consequence, relationship building, and the power of “the human touch,” will become more important than ever. And of course, that means access to inside insights will matter more than ever.