Looking through my feeds, today, it seems people are fixated on ChatGPT and similar tools. More importantly, people are asking the question and taking surveys on the topic, “Will AI replace sales people?”
I guess, having so many years working in selling and with sellers, these questions provoke a bored yawn. Been here, done that……
While before my time, I suspect people asked, “Catalogs replace the need for…” or “Will the telephone replace the need for door to door sales people….” or “Will email replace the need for….” or “Will the web replace the need for …..”
We seem to miss the fact that, even in B2B, self serve has existed for decades, ordering through phone, email or other means has existed for decades, EDI has existed since at least the early 90s.
Each of these represented things that used to bee critical elements of sellers jobs/roles. But as better ways to deliver these things arose, the job of sellers has changed and evolved.
As we look at virtually every job, the nature of the jobs have changed, profoundly. What people on manufacturing lines do has and will continue to change. New product developers jobs have changed, finance, HR, marketing, operations; all have and will continue to change. Everything we look at, in our societies continues to change and what people do in those roles evolve along with it.
Will AI replace sellers?
Of course, and it should! Many of the things sellers do, can be better accomplished with these technologies. No surprise! It serves both our customers and our own companies better–more effectively and efficiently. Transactional buying has been in the process of being increasingly automated for decades. And it will continue to enable customers to do more and more “self serve.”
Will it reduce the number of jobs for those dedicated to transactional selling? Of course it will, and should. Just like the number of door to door sellers was reduced, though not eliminated.
But we are asking ourselves the wrong question when we ask, “Will AI replace sellers?”
We need to ask, “How will AI change the job of sellers?”
We begin to look at this by looking at things that AI is currently very weak at. It’s actually bad at giving us answers to complex challenges. Or rather, it cannot discriminate between good/high quality answers and garbage. Where will customers get help with this? We’ve actually known this as a huge issues for years, as we have moved from a deficit of information available to buyers to an overwhelming abundance of information, the need to help customers navigate this, choosing those things that are most important to them, their situation, at a moment in time. Currently AI just exacerbates this for customers. So the need for sellers as sensemakers will skyrocket in the coming years.
AI is weak at specific situations, it’s strength is in looking at trillions of data points, arriving at conclusions and observations that have never been possible. But it’s very weak in understanding the specific situation a customer currently faces. Where will customers get the knowledge, expertise and support in understanding what is best for them in the current situation.
AI isn’t good at ambiguity and uncertainty, yet this is the reality of the change opportunities our customers face.
AI isn’t good at reconciling differences in views and opinion, helping groups align around the best solution for their circumstances. AI doesn’t help guide a team through the process of reaching the best decision for the group.
AI isn’t good at inciting people to change, to help them recognize the opportunity and need to change. In helping build their confidence to change. In fact, sometimes, AI may tend to reinforce the status quo–all is dependent on the inquiries people make, the “prompts” they provide in seeking answers. It doesn’t correct them if they are making the wrong queries. We know that AI is indifferent to giving fantastic answers and insight or very harmful/dangerous insights. Where to customers get that help?
We know that buying is deeply personal and human. Logic and right answers don’t prevail, but that which makes people feel more confident does. Then this becomes even more complex as more people with differing hopes, fears, experiences, agendas are trying to make a very complex decision.
There are a lot of things that AI is currently better than people. And this will improve. The need for certain types of selling roles will become less important—and it should.
But the issue is not whether AI will replace sellers, rather how will AI change what and how we work as sellers? What new skills and capabilities do we need to develop? How do we leverage AI to help us do those things? What things do we need to stop doing, because AI provides better alternatives? What are the things our customers need to help them change, that AI can’t provide?
One could argue the need for the “number” of sellers will decline with the advent of AI assisted buying. As I keep mentioning, virtually all the transactionally focused selling roles will and should disappear. Again, this is not new, we’ve seen this evolution for decades.
But our worlds and those of our customers are increasingly complicated, complex, uncertain. They are filled with new and different risks. The rate at which things change is accelerating. And AI is not helpful in dealing with this. People with great curiosity, critical thinking/problem solving skills. Those who help customers through collaborative conversations, gaining consensus, developing confidence, sensemaking, and deep caring, are critical in helping our customers (and our own organizations) address these issues, change, and grow with confidence.
And since virtually every organization will be facing these issues, the demand for sellers who can provide this help will skyrocket.
We need to stop wasting our time asking questions like, “Will AI replace sellers?”
Instead, we need to understand how the jobs of sellers change, how AI may help sellers perform differently, and what it takes to equip sellers to step into these new roles.
Sellers, will be in much greater demand in the coming years. But we need to understand how selling changes, and how we implement those changes.
But, we’ve been here before, we’ve done this before, we can continue to do this. But we must ask ourselves the right questions in order to do so.
And we need to stop wasting time on the insanity of resisting the opportunity we have by worrying about AI replacing sellers.