“Can salespeople be replaced by AI in five years?” That was the topic of the poll on LinkedIn. My instinctive reaction was probably the same as yours – “Of course not.” Then, I did a little thinking before I answered. And I realized that, yes, a lot of salespeople could be replaced by AI – not in five years, but RIGHT NOW. That’s because their skills aren’t really any better than your basic chatbot – and therein lies a problem for those of us who care deeply about the role of the professional salesperson.
In 2011, Selling Power Magazine interviewed me as part of a cover story on the future of selling. I’ve always thought of myself as a very forward-looking person when it comes to our profession – but boy, was my crystal ball broken when I gave my responses to their questions, and I realized this when I looked back at the article. If you click, you’re going to read a pretty long article, but if you care at all about the sales profession and your role in it, you’d better click. I’ve written over 600 articles on selling and this might be the most important.
Here’s what I said. In response to a question about what the future of the sales profession looked like, I said, “Midline salespeople of tomorrow will be displaying the same level of expertise ten to fifteen years from now that the superstars display today, and the superstars will be on a whole new level. Staying on top will require a higher level of mental commitment.”
I was wrong, but I should have been right. I’ve written about this before, but if anything, the aggregate level of sales ability has declined somewhat in the twelve years since I made those comments. That’s because most salespeople of today spend less time and energy developing their skills. They find a level and stick to it. Midline salespeople are, at best, no better than they were in 2011. Some of the responsibility for this rests on the salespeople themselves, and much of it rests on CEOS and sales managers who don’t foster a culture of continual sales skill development. Are there exceptions? Yes. Absolutely – I’ve encountered some remarkable salespeople (although I don’t think that “whole new level” has happened). But they are exceptions. By and large, the aggregate sales skills at each level have remained constant.
When I was asked how the Internet is changing the game, I said, “The Internet can take orders and distribute content [thus taking up functions once designated to salespeople], but what it can’t do it discover customer needs. It can’t build relationships, and it can’t prospect on its own.” Well, I was wrong about that one, too. AI bots can do a rudimentary job of discovering customer needs at present, and that will only get better as time and technology marches on.
What about the other two components of what I said – relationship building and prospecting? Obviously, AI cannot build a true, interpersonal, face to face relationship. However, AI can do an excellent job of REMEMBERING what was said and has transpired (because it can feed directly into CRM systems) and from a business perspective, it can make excellent use of a customer’s time. That’s a threat to, but not a replacement for, traditional sales relationship building.
Can AI prospect? That’s a tantalizing thought, isn’t it? Most salespeople dislike prospecting (full disclosure – I’ve never been in love with it myself). I can envision a time when an AI bot is able to prospect through email, LinkedIn, and even the telephone. In fact, the technology for email and social media is already here, and I’m willing to bet that if the phone prospecting tech doesn’t exist yet, it will shortly. Imagine an AI bot that dials a prospect, engages in a voice to voice conversation using prospecting and sales best practices, and even sets appointments. Heck, take it a step further and imagine it doing so in the same voice as the real salesperson who would handle the live appointment. Or how about an AI bot that sets Zoom sales appointments and then carries them out in a hologram? This kind of thing would have been science fiction five years ago – now it’s a coming reality.
Don’t misunderstand me – I still think that a well-trained, skilled, passionate, and engaged salespeople can do all of those things BETTER – but too many salespeople are not well-trained, skilled, passionate, and engaged.
Now that I’ve told you two areas where I was wrong, allow me to tell you one area where I was right – or will be soon. When asked, “How do salespeople keep social media from being the tail that wags the dog?” I responded, “Social networking is a strategy for marketing promotions and relationship management. It is not a prospecting tool [OK, I was a little wrong about that]. A lot of those functions are going to slide down to the lowest-paid person who is competent to do them.” Given the level to which AI apps like ChatGPT write social media posts, I was right on target – ChatGPT is definitely cheaper than even an administrative person.
Where I went wrong, I went wrong for two reasons. First, I anticipated a higher level of sales skill development on the part of the average salesperson. Second, I didn’t see AI coming. Shame on me. Apps like ChatGPT have the capability of being game-changers, and they also have the capability of being harnessed (by skilled salespeople and managers) to increase the effectiveness of a company’s sales force.
How to avoid being replaced by AI
So if the answer to “Can salespeople be replaced by AI?” is “yes, it’s very possible,” then the question for we human salespeople is, “How can we avoid being replaced by AI?” Here’s where the wicket gets sticky, because this requires some serious engagement and effort on our part. Here’s a three-point plan.
- Get better at your job. The key for salespeople in this environment is to constantly learn, develop, add new skills, and shed old techniques that aren’t working anymore. Unfortunately, few salespeople do this. When I interview salespeople on behalf of my clients, I always ask, “What’s the most recent sales book you’ve read?” Ten years ago, I got a good answer more than half the time. Today, it’s rare that I get one at all – in fact, about half of the salespeople I interview have never read a book on selling. When I ask a follow up question about how they develop their skills, they answer that they really don’t. Sales is a profession of constant change and constant development, and if you don’t care enough about your profession to get better at it, you are replaceable. Don’t be that guy or gal. Invest in yourself. Read books. Read articles. Watch YouTube videos. Attend training programs. And then practice, practice, practice. Next week we’ll talk about what it really means to practice and learn sales techniques. Get better and do better.
- Embrace technology. Yes, this article is partially telling you how to combat a new technology, but those who do not embrace it will find themselves steamrolled by it. I’m constantly amazed when I see salespeople (and worse, sales trainers) fighting the use of tech like CRM. I have actually seen a “sales trainer” recommending that salespeople ditch the CRM and instead use paper note cards. The 1990s called, and they would like their mentality back! Today, salespeople must embrace and use tech of all types. CRM, social media, video conferencing, and IM’s are all tech that salespeople should not only be conversant with, but competent in. Not only that, you should be ready and anticipating the next trend. There’s a reason that I refer to “AI” in this article for the most part, and not “ChatGPT.” ChatGPT is but one AI app, and who knows whether it will be the most prominent in five years? Remember MySpace?
- Flip the script. We always like to think about the “Sales process,” and what we want from the process and what activities we will be performing to get there. I want to challenge you, and I’m taking this challenge myself. Stop thinking about “Sales processes” and instead think of the “buyer’s journey.” Think about the act of selling from the perspective of the person buying, evaluate the steps from the buyer’s point of view, and work to help them achieve what they want. It’s a change in thought and terminology, and as 2023 progresses, I’ll be helping you get there with articles, videos, and even training.
Make no mistake about my outlook. A great salesperson will always be better than AI. A good salesperson will always be at least as good as great AI. I’m a 100% passionate advocate for personal selling by human beings to human customers. If I sound pessimistic in this article, it’s because I’m concerned. But as I said, I’m here to help, and I’ll be doing so through the Navigator and through my YouTube channel. If you’re a salesperson, start reading, watching, and practicing. In the coming weeks, we’ll talk about how to practice and about how to view sales from the perspective of the buyer.
And if you’re a business owner or sales manager, I can help you, too. In addition to the free resources above, I can train your salespeople to be irreplaceable. I can help you hire great salespeople. And I can coach you to manage the very best sales team in your market.
The future might look spooky, but it doesn’t have to be. This is another challenge to our profession, and we can and will overcome it and be better and more valuable to our customers than ever before.