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Will Artificial Intelligence Terminate Your Salespeople?

Will Artificial Intelligence Terminate Your Salespeople?

May 30, 2018

Watch out! Artificial intelligence from the future is reaching into our world to replace genuine intelligence. Look for cybernetic organisms (“cyborgs”) not only capable of interacting convincingly with human beings but programmed for adaptation as they gather data. Remember the movie, “Terminator”? Talk about machine learning.

Among the jobs allegedly targeted by these Terminators are those held by your salespeople. Various dire predictions claim that automation is going to render professional sellers unnecessary. Is this true? I haven’t had a Kirby vacuum, Encyclopedia Britannica or Fuller Brush “man” knock on my door in a long time, so some sales jobs have changed over the years.

I suppose now that robots have replaced virtually all production workers in factories, the sales people will be next…but wait. Robots have NOT replaced people in final assembly operations, at least not yet. Elon Musk recently admitted that the robots Tesla put in place to build the infamously-delayed Model 3 sedan actually slowed production and he’s replacing them with – get ready – human beings.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” Musk said in an interview with CBS. “Humans are underrated.” This may have surprised starry-eyed futurists but it came as no shock to Volkswagen, GM and other companies who have similarly scaled back robotic final assembly operations and restored flesh-and-blood technology.

Automotive assembly would seem to be the ideal place for robots to excel: millions of repetitive operations, critical requirements for precision and no spontaneity or insight required. Program the machines, turn on the power and you get…chaos, that’s what.

It turns out that even in this environment where variation of process is the enemy, you still need the judgment and adaptability of bipeds topped by vessels of gray matter. Even if you have to pay them benefits, put up with their mercurial temperaments, flaws and inability to work 24x7, people still outperform robots in many production environments. Probably not forever, of course – I’m sure someday robots will truly displace nearly all humans in high-volume factories. But not in the near future. 

So forgive me if I’m skeptical when I hear people predict the demise of the sales profession thanks to new technologies. It’s hard to imagine a job less like a production worker, more relationship-based, more subjective, tougher to quantify and thus more challenging to “program” than a sales position. Maybe someday purchasing people and systems will advance to the point where sales people aren’t required, but I suspect my hypothetical grandchildren will be the ones to worry about that.

Interestingly, the ultimate digital competitor, Amazon Business, has hired a bunch of sales people. They call them “Customer Advisors,” and many of them came from other distributors. The company is also hiring sales managers. Here’s an excerpt from an active job opening they have for a “Regional Sales Leader”:

"This leader plans and delivers quota, builds and develops accounts managers (who we call customer advisors), implements prospect acquisition and customer growth campaigns, and fosters voice of customer feedback. The ideal candidate will have experience building sales teams from scratch, growing sales teams, consistently delivering multi-million $ to $1B quotas, executing sales strategy and tactics, and developing cross-functional relationships."

Among the preferred qualifications is “knowledge of procure-to-pay processes and procurement systems” and “distribution sales experience.”

Doesn’t this sound exactly like a sales leader job posting for any other large distributor? That’s because in distribution, sales people still matter – and likely will for a long time. So while some technology gurus predict the end of sales people, the most technology-enabled distributor is aggressively investing in them. 

However, technology changes on both the buying and selling sides of the equation mean you must also invest to improve your company’s sales effectiveness. Sometimes that means hiring more people and sometimes it means investing in your ability to get the most out of your structure, processes and people. I believe that networking with other distribution sales leaders is critical and I suggest you get the input of experts via consultants or training to ensure you understand state-of-the-art practices.

One way to do this is to attend MDM’s upcoming Sales GPS Conference. On June 26-28, we’ll bring together about 100 distribution leaders and experts in Denver to share the latest thinking in how to coordinate and drive the most profits from your inside and outside sales roles. This conference was a sell-out last year and you can save $200 by registering before Friday. Check out www.salesgpsconference.com for details and to register.

Many good distributors are actively hiring sales reps and working to make them more effective. They’re not worried about technology replacing account managers anytime soon, but they know the roles have to adapt to new conditions. To paraphrase Mark Twain: the death of the salesman has been greatly exaggerated.

As always, I’m interested in your feedback. Feel free to comment below or email me at ian@mdm.com.

© 2019 Gale Media, Inc.

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