The idea of automation holds a unique and confounding place in the public consciousness.
The Cambridge Dictionary holds two definitions of automation:
1. The use of machines that operate automatically, and;
2. The use of machines or computers instead of people to do a job, especially in a factory or office.
Definition No. 1 at a first glance sounds relatively innocent. We are surrounded by machines that operate automatically or with minimal input every day – traffic lights, coffee machines, the spam filter for your emails – things we rarely give a second thought to.
However, definition No. 2 – the use of machines or computers instead of people – introduces some ominous undertones to the idea of automation.
How the Cambridge Dictionary presents these definitions is reflective of the conflicting messaging we receive when it comes to the future of automation. Many business leaders worldwide are depicting a brighter future – one where we are freed from the shackles of monotonous work. On the other hand, we have been told to fear this technology and that the bleak reality will be a world rife with robotic interactions and mass unemployment.
Both pictures are extreme. But the reality is, automation is nothing new.
Think about the ubiquity of ATMs (automated teller machines) or the ease of checking in at an airport kiosk instead of standing in a queue to check in at the gate.
This is also true when it comes to sales. The sales industry is constantly adopting new technologies to make the process more strategic and efficient.
The invention of the telephone in 1876 completely revolutionized the sales process at the time. In the past 20 years alone, we have seen the technology revolution, the social revolution, and the mobile revolution impact how salespeople do their jobs.
The impact of automation on salespeople
There is no doubt that automation has brought more efficiency into our personal and working lives. It helps us to work more productively, simplify everyday tasks and even win back some leisure time. However, there are several important questions to consider when it comes to how automation will affect salespeople on a personal and professional level.
What exactly is automation freeing up time for?
Automation promises to eliminate the mundane, repetitive tasks that dog the lives of salespeople. In theory, time spent on admin is time away from selling, so this must be a win for salespeople. But have we considered exactly what automation is freeing up time for?
For example, if automating the lead qualification process means a sales rep will have five times the amount of prospects to contend with, then the expectation to dramatically increase close rates will inevitably follow. How will this extra pressure affect the performance of salespeople?
It's important to have a very clear idea of what exactly it is you are freeing up the time for and to have the right support and systems in place to handle it.
How will automation affect the psyche of salespeople?
Do we need to automate existing systems because the salesperson isn't good enough to do the job at hand and we want to enhance their performance? Or are we looking to automation to replace that person altogether?
The prospect of automation leading to increased unemployment can't be ignored, so you need to consider how far you want to take it. Do you want your systems to replace your employees or make them better? The question "is it because of me or instead of me?" is a problematic one that needs to be addressed and treated with sensitivity and clarity.
Who is making the decisions?
This is another troubling question that's important to consider when it comes to automation, but even more pertinent to the concept of artificial intelligence and machine learning. When we automate tasks, we are undoubtedly reducing the risk of human error, but we also remove an element of decision-making and control from the individual salesperson. Instead, we put the rules and decision-making into the hands of a select group of people who program the tasks.
So who is making the decisions? Will automation be driven by the people who actually sell? Will it be directed by management? Will it be decided by the people who make the sales tools?
With this in mind, we need to be careful about who exactly is making the decisions around automating sales processes and the implications on the industry as a whole.
Find the balance
In order to approach automation sensibly, we first need to tune out the hype and look at the bigger picture. It's important to acknowledge that automation technology has the power to completely disrupt the sales process – we have seen this happen before. But it's also important to recognize that automation will never be as powerful as a good salesperson. This should be front of mind when it comes to any decision around automating a process. Successful automation requires a delicate balance that emphasizes the human side of sales.
If we automate too much, the sales experience will become robotic and customers will be lost. If we automate too little, the sales process will stagnate and, in turn, breed disengaged and dissatisfied employees and customers.
To achieve the right balance when automating sales tasks, we need a clear view of where automation can and should be used to save time and boost your company's bottom line, and we need salespeople to drive these decisions.
Sales success ultimately means making closing deals easier while keeping customers happy. Automation technology can undoubtedly help us to drive this success with more efficiency and momentum than ever, but only if we can maintain a focus on human and personalized selling.