robot holding pencil
Repeat after me: technology will not replace salespeople PHOTO: Matthew Hurst

Every time a new generation of sales technology comes along, more salespeople disappear. From shore to shore, north to south, salespeople leave the profession in droves, eradicated by the ruthless efficiency of computers, software and increasingly smart machines. 

OK, none of that is true. 

While this argument has gained ground in recent years, what we've seen is that even as sales technology has been introduced, organizations need more salespeople, not less. 

Need evidence? Let's use U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers to prove the point: In 1910, the U.S. had 1,695,000 people working in sales. Compared to the total population, that amounted to one salesperson for every 54.4 people in the country. 

In 1970, when we had 5,677,000 salespeople, that ratio had dropped to 1:36.1. By 2000, with 8,855,000 salespeople, it was 1:31.9. Today, with 14,462,120 salespeople at work, the ratio is 1:22.3.

Anyone still want to argue that technology is killing sales? 

Even with the advent of game changers like the telephone, sales force automation, smart phones and productivity automation software, salespeople are doing quite well, thank you, both in sheer numbers and in the percentage of the population. 

Sales Evolves: From Order Takers to Value Sellers

The profession remains pervasive — but technology has a distinct imprint on how salespeople do their jobs. And the changes are coming faster than ever. 

I’ve already written about the exciting challenges posed by the Internet of Things (IoT). It will force salespeople to explain issues of data ownership and security, articulate benefits to the customer and weigh them honestly against benefits to the seller, and create and nurture relationships based on trust, even as it reduces the opportunities for contact between buyer and seller. 

In its attention-grabbing report “Death of a B2B Salesman” (fee required), Forrester Research argued that the advent of this new era would kill off one million B2B sales jobs. This isn’t exactly correct — the report itself pointed out that, in order to remain relevant, salespeople who served merely as “order takers” would need to evolve into value sellers. 

The need for sales talent is increasing even as the role is evolving. 

Filling in the 'Experience Gap'

But the IoT is so 2015. 

At Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference this year, the IoT, last year’s guest of honor, was a virtual no-show. Instead, the talk was all about the intelligent assistant, a technology that sales can interface with through voice and which uses some form of machine learning to help deliver useful answers immediately. 

We’re already seeing this in the form of things like Amazon Echo, Cortana and Siri; Saleforce previewed its own sales-oriented assistant, Einstein

The arrival of the technology should not come as a surprise. Almost 88 million devices with voice-activated functionality will be shipped this year, according to Strategy Analytics. That will rise to 347 million shipping in 2020, at which time some 970 million will be in use around the world.

And if the past is any indication, salespeople — the very people that the wags say the technology will replace — will drive these intelligent assistants into the selling process. That’s how smart phones, social media and even CRM (in the form of contact management software) became part of the sales landscape: salespeople experienced the power of the technology, and then noticed the gap between the technology-enabled experiences they had at home and the lagging experiences they had at work. That created an “experience gap"  — the wider that gap becomes, the more rapidly (and disruptively) it will be filled when conditions are right.

Assisting Sales, Assisting Customers

It’s not hard to imagine what this assistive technology could mean for a salesperson. 

Think of a spoken-word guided selling system in configure price quote; the ability to interact with sales management systems while in the car; the rapid generation of new types of reports based on criteria spoken to the assistant by a manager, then viewed on a screen. 

The next level would be the assistant as a partner: suggesting sales tactics, prompting the salesman about content the prospect should receive, or prioritizing sales calls based on deal stage, deal value and factors in marketing data that suggest likelihood to buy. 

These decisions are based on a dynamic set of criteria based on real-world business circumstances. When the framework the data exists in shifts — with changes in competitive products, customer behaviors, economic conditions, etc. — the patterns must shift as well. 

All of this requires access to data — and not a single data set, either, but a comprehensive collection of data covering all aspects of the buying and selling process. Customer data from marketing automation, performance data of the sales organization (including data about commissions, sales performance, quote generation, content performance and other data), external data about the market and even predictive data (such as the projected effects of changes to the sales process or product mix). 

This is no small technical challenge, but it will be mastered soon. And so, say the wags, here comes the next sales technology that will make the salesperson obsolete by ushering in a new era of technology-enabled customer self-service.

You Can't Get Answers Without the Right Questions

History doesn’t bear this out — and a realistic look at assistive technology reveals what is a more likely outcome. 

The technology can deliver answers, but only when asked the right questions. 

Anyone in technology sales can identify with the challenge of helping potential customers understand their real needs, or use the terminology that will help them connect with the right solutions. Without the application of a layer of human expertise — to define requirements, to translate jargon, to relate to the customer and to help craft the right questions — assistive technology won’t be able to deliver precise answers. 

Self-service is fine for some purchases, but especially in bigger-ticket deals, people want to buy from people. Humans with sales skills have the ability to sense uncertainty, skepticism and other human responses that no digital assistant can detect, let alone act on. 

The Real Driver of Sales Evolution

Instead of replacing salespeople, assistive technology will provide every salesperson with an assistant that helps them make decisions and arms them with content, upselling and cross-selling suggestions and access to content virtually instantaneously. It gives the salesperson rapid access to more precise and more personalized information for the customer, thus allowing the salesperson to deliver more value and deliver it faster than ever. 

Those two benefits play right into the real thing driving sales evolution — the customer experience. 

The ideal experience for buyers will combine the best of both worlds: rapid, precise provision of exactly the content data, pricing information and other knowledge they need as they need it, combined with the sales talent, soft skills and product understanding of the salesperson. 

In the coming age of the digital assistant, salespeople need the technology — but not as much as the technology needs the salespeople.