A recent Gartner report says that one of AI’s key roles will be discovering new revenue streams. An IDC study found that in 2018, spending on technology to improve sales processes and automation will reach $1.45 billion. Sales reps could be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous in a world where AI is taking on so many functions the sales team used to handle.
But in fact, the outlook for the sales profession is excellent for people who have the skills needed to succeed in an AI-driven economy. The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report [PDF] found that two job categories were expected to become “critically important” by 2020. One of the roles, data analyst, isn’t a surprise. But the other job that survey participants identified as critical is sales rep.
Specifically, the report identifies “specialized” sales jobs as a future-proof position. Before technology disrupted the sales sector, the ability to find new revenue opportunities was an essential skill, as was the intuition required to recommend the right product at the right time. But as AI points the way to new revenue streams and generates on-target recommendations, other skills are becoming more important.
So, will the robots handle all the technical stuff in the future? That’s unlikely — sales reps need a comfort level with sales technology and a basic understanding of how the tools they use work. But as AI and machine learning take over some of the analytical and process-oriented aspects of sales, companies will need reps with sharp people skills to engage customers. These four qualities will be in demand:
- Creativity: People who can think outside the box and identify new resources to solve intractable problems will be in demand in the salesforce of the future, just as they are now. A sales rep who can be spontaneous while delivering a presentation will continue to have an edge. True creativity is something that is exclusively human — at least for now. And whether or not machines ever develop creative abilities, an imaginative sales rep who can work with AI-generated data and recommendations will have a significant advantage. Creativity is also a quality that can inspire others, so creative sales reps will continue to make contributions to the sales team, regardless of how AI advances.
- Compassion: The ability to understand customers and empathize with their pain-points is another human quality that machines can’t yet match. AI is extremely good at analyzing large datasets and generating insights about where prospects are in the customer journey and what motivates them to buy. But that’s not the same as truly getting to know customers on an individual level and understanding their unique requirements, past experiences and current perspectives. Sales reps who have compassion go the extra mile to see things from the customer’s point of view. They can put themselves in the customer’s shoes when viewing sales material (noting ways to make it stronger) and build and sustain resilient relationships. That will remain valuable.
- Social Intelligence: While AI can analyze customer sentiment and provide valuable insights, it can’t understand human beings on a social level — only other human beings can. It takes a person with strong social intelligence skills to succeed in sales, including the ability to understand non-verbal cues, comprehend subtext, detect humor, and recognize sarcasm. Since some experts estimate that up to 93 percent of communication is made up of body language and tone of voice, it’s clear that machines won’t be able to effectively handle critical interactions with customers anytime soon. That means social intelligence will remain a highly prized skill for sales reps.
- Connection: People make connections with each other — it’s in our DNA. That simple fact is behind the persuasive power of advertising and the worldwide reach of social media. Making connections is a critical skill for sales reps now, and it will remain so as AI advances. The ability to intuit what makes customers tick, build a relationship and retain business year-after-year through personal loyalty is a great complement to the capabilities AI delivers, including product recommendations and target customer lists. AI can let the sales rep know which prospects are ready to purchase which product, but it is the sales rep who makes the human connection.
It seems like every modern sales organization is jumping on the AI bandwagon these days, and there’s a good reason for that: AI can make great salespeople even greater and transform average performers into sales superstars. But the human element will always be critical to forming relationships and generating revenue. Sales professionals should be comfortable working with technology, but they needn’t fear replacement by it.
Instead, sales professionals can view the AI revolution as an opportunity to form a new partnership. As in any working relationship, each partner should complement the other’s strengths and weaknesses. AI can analyze vast datasets and surface new insights faster than any human being could hope to do, but it can’t form person-to-person connections.
In an AI-centric economy, expect machines to take over functions that require deep analysis, such as creating the ideal list of target prospects and recommending the most efficient route to closing a deal. But salespeople with people skills such as creativity, compassion, social intelligence and the ability to form deep connections will always be an indispensable part of company success, now and well into the future.