AI is making a major disruption in sales. What skills will reps need to compete on the new, AI-enabled playing field?
It used to be that sales performance was almost entirely dependent on the rep's knowledge, intuition and judgment. Now, though, AI has barged in and changed the game.
According to Gartner, uncovering new revenue will be the key source of AI's business value in the next few years. In 2018 alone, worldwide spending on sales process recommendation and automation is slated to reach $1.8 billion.
Interestingly, we can pair this with the forecast presented in the World Economic Forum's The Future of Jobs Report. According to this report, specialized sales jobs will be "critically important" by 2020. Sales reps will need to acquire "people skills" – in particular, persuasiveness, teaching techniques, and the ability to explain offerings and their value to individual clients. In addition, more than a third of what will be core skills are currently not considered job-crucial.
In other words, while tech skills (like data science) have been getting all the attention, there’s going to be a strong need for people with other skills – especially in sales. So what skills should sales reps be adding to their repertoire? What will the rep’s role be in an AI-enabled world?
It will be being human, engaging with their customers on a human level and bringing their experience into play. Here are four important sales skills all reps will need in the future.
Creativity and its closely allied trait of flexibility are part of what set today's top-performing salespeople apart. Creative reps are resourceful in problem-solving and imaginative in how they approach customers and pitch products. These qualities are still widely considered the exclusive domain of the human brain; whether machines will ever catch up is in doubt. Reps who can take data delivered by their AI system and apply their own imagination to come up with out-of-the-box solutions will always be welcome in the sales team.
AI can show us the stages of a buyer's journey and how they get there; it can even tell us what might be motivating their interest. But it can't deeply understand and empathize with the buyers themselves. This is where reps come in. They have to take the time to learn about their customers: their unique needs, their experiences and their viewpoint. They should approach collateral (such as brochures and websites) from a customer's standpoint, and they should understand how it feels to go along that journey from interest to purchase to a relationship.
AI might be improving its game when it comes to analyzing sentiment, but it's nothing compared to how humans understand each other. Humans can get subtext and detect humor or sarcasm without conscious thought; AI isn’t there yet. It can only be programmed to analyze conversations. When you consider that experts say 80 to 90 percent of all communication is nonverbal, this really highlights the need for strong social skills in a sales situation.
Humans are hardwired to connect with other humans. This fact drives everything from massive social networks to small-scale interactions. It also influences how people pick their favorite brands — they tend to be loyal to those brands that reinforce their own self-image, values and aspirations. While most of us are OK with having Alexa or Siri recommend the next song to add to our playlist, we’re less likely to let them guide the purchase of, say, our next car. Once again, we have an opportunity for a powerful partnership here AI can give the sales rep a curated selection of solutions or information, but the rep is the one to establish trust and a personal connection with the buyer.
Where does AI fit into the equation?
AI is here to stay — and so are humans. While companies rush to jump on the AI train, it’s imperative that they remember that humans will always be their first and foremost asset and their real audience. Organizations do need to keep up with the times, and those times do include AI. But they can’t exclude the human element.
This is where sales leaders and company leadership need to step up, providing the training (and the motivation) for teams to play well with their AI "teammate." In the human-AI partnership, each half has a unique skill set. AI can crunch numbers and find patterns with a tireless accuracy that leaves humans far behind. Humans have imagination, intuition, and people-reading abilities that machines may not ever reach. Together, that's quite a team.