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  • When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Sales

It sounds like an episode out of “The Twilight Zone [Office Edition]”: Artificial intelligence (AI) is creeping into the workplace, doing all of the selling for us and putting hard-working salespeople out of a job.

Not so fast, caution many experts. The Singularity (when AI takes over) isn’t upon us and likely won’t be for some time. AI tools, however, are becoming more and more common, and sales, at least, is one area where those tools can help professionals work better.

According to the International Data Corporation, revenue from artificial intelligence will likely grow from almost $8 billion in 2016 to more than $47 billion in 2020. Most, if not all, industries will be affected, but banking and retail will invest the most in AI. CB Insights’ AI 100 (which it calls “the most promising private companies applying artificial intelligence algorithms across industries”) have collectively raised $3.8 billion in funding since 2012 and include nine companies working in advertising, sales and customer relationship management (CRM).

Suffice it to say that AI isn’t going anywhere, especially in sales. So, how is it making sales better, and what skills do sales professionals need to adapt to and succeed in this brave new world?

The Sky Isn’t Falling

“I’m not one of those Chicken Little people,” says Mike Kunkle, a sales transformation strategist and writer. He doesn’t believe salespeople should worry about AI replacing them just yet: “When computers can sell to computers…we won’t need the salespeople.” But until that happens, the human element is an important part of selling.

In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of 2,001 Americans, 65 percent believed that within 50 years, AI will “definitely” or “probably” do most of the work that humans do now. (Notably, 80 percent of them believed that their jobs wouldn’t change.) In 2017, McKinsey Global Institute research found that “fewer than 5 percent of all occupations can be automated entirely” using current technologies, but most jobs have “partial automation potential,” especially in tasks such as “collecting and processing of data.” More skilled employees won’t be out of work; they’ll have their work enhanced by technology.

“My preferred term is not artificial intelligence but augmented intelligence,” wrote futurist and Salesforce senior vice president Peter Schwartz in a 2016 blog post. “This technology actually makes the human salesperson much more capable by augmenting them.”

Changing Processes and Competencies

Earlier this month, Salesforce and IBM announced a global partnership leveraging each company’s AI (IBM Watson and Salesforce Einstein) to enable “an entirely new level of intelligent customer engagement.” For example, a sales rep’s Salesforce dashboard can use Watson to provide both numerical scores and written descriptions of prospects’ personality as well as business and network fit and financial health, using data sources such as social media posts, notes from Salesforce and emails. “It’s not about replacing human beings,” Brian Walter (Watson global industry lead for banking and financial markets) said in a Salesforce Live video about the partnership. “It’s about making the experts better.”

That’s the key to AI’s impact on sales: value. By automating processes like qualifying and initiating contact with leads, collecting information and preparing contracts, AI can free up sales professionals’ time to focus on, in Clara Shih’s words, “the human trust and relationship aspects” of sales.

A lot of the value AI brings to sales is in its data analysis capabilities. Many salespeople, says Steve Andersen (founder and president of Performance Methods, Inc.), “are drowning in data,” unable to turn information into actionable insights. AI will do that work for them, giving them the insights so they can act on them. What’s more, machine learning will enable platforms to provide reps with “just-in-time, relevant information,” helping them “have better conversations” with customers and prospects, according to Julie Thomas, president and CEO of ValueSelling. Yuchun Lee, CEO and co-founder of Allego, agrees, saying that AI will help salespeople "bring value to their customer relationships by more effectively accessing their organization's knowledge and experience."

There’s a small universe of data inside each company. AI acts as both a rocket, giving salespeople access to that universe, and a map, telling them which parts of the universe they need to understand. And just like astronauts require training to survive outside the earth, salespeople need training so they can develop the capacities to effectively navigate their new universe.

Technical skills will be important, as salespeople are expected to use their new tools. It will be important for managers to roll out platforms strategically and provide the training and coaching to support reps as they learn to use AI. As Christopher Tiné, chief product officer at Richardson, says, “AI will start to drive more powerful interactions between sellers and technology.” That means we need to train sellers on how to manage those interactions.

Other skills are critical, as well. “You’re going to see a lot more strategic thinking in sales,” says Andersen. “Not the word but literally the process” of being able to think and plan in strategic ways.

“The ability to research and interpret data and information” is increasingly necessary for sales reps, agrees Kunkle. “If I’m a sales rep and I’m working with an artificial intelligence that is helping score leads or point out trigger events or recommend approaches … [I need] to learn how to understand and interpret” that information.

The sales competencies that have always been important will still be important, too – maybe even more so. AI can take over some sales tasks, but there is still a level of understanding and relationship-building that only a trained sales rep can accomplish. Sales management skills, including strategic planning, coaching and supervision, are also still in the human purview.

Sales has indeed entered a brave new world of artificial intelligence, but it doesn’t have to be a dystopia. While automation will inevitably replace some sales-related tasks, AI is poised to augment rather than replace most sales professionals. With an open mind, the right tools and the training to use them wisely, sales organizations can work with intelligence without fear.

Taryn Oesch is an editor at Training Industry, Inc.

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