Sales managers will tell you that there’s a difference between taking an order and actually selling, and they’re absolutely right. Good salespeople don’t wait for deals to come to them – they go out and get them.
Some think the necessity for salespeople has decreased in the past decade. For example, self-service checkout experiences have arisen, where a purchase is as easy as typing in a credit card number and clicking a button. Those typically work best for low-cost or commodity products; the decision to try it out isn’t a big one, because the barrier to entry is small, and canceling is relatively easy.
But when you’re buying enterprise software that costs $80-100k+ a year, you’re not making a one-click purchase with a credit card. You’re making a considered decision that involves a mixture of online research and conversations with product experts. That means salespeople must have skill – to be good at communicating value and showing how the product can address the specific customer’s business pain points.
While it’s true the sales process is becoming more automated, we’ll always have a need for great salespeople. One-click buying might be fine for commodity products that don’t require the buyer to establish much trust or to dole out big sums of money – but in enterprise software, where the latter is almost always the case, it’s not. Even with the emergence of artificial intelligence, we’ll always need the social and emotional skills only a human brain can provide.
Many thought that the internet would be the end of salespeople, just like they thought ecommerce would be the end of physical stores. That hasn’t transpired, because in reality, most humans are moderates rather than extremists – we usually settle on a healthy balance.
Now, people use the Internet for comparative research, and if they’re willing to wait for shipping, they’ll purchase online. They use physical stores for same-day buying and physical research (i.e. what does this product feel like, or look like on me?). In fact, there were 1.3 million more people with sales in their title in 2014 than there were in 1999, according to the Sales Education Foundation. One could easily argue that salespeople are even more important now than they were before online or one-click buying was ubiquitous.
Just as the military has a phrase: no plan survives contact with the enemy, so goes sales (I don’t love the implication of sales as a battle with the prospect as the enemy, but stick with me for a second). What it’s saying is this: your strategy has to be flexible – you need to reach the goal even if the anticipated situation changes.
Good sales teams are made up of adaptable people. Salespeople can’t be too formulaic in how they approach each different and unique sales cycle. They need to be nimble and modify on the fly, and artificial intelligence and automated systems can’t do that – perhaps they will one day, but not yet. (And when they can, they’ll be smart enough to be the buyer as well.)
That said, the Internet has unquestionably made sales reps’ jobs more difficult.
Prospects can Google almost any product, which means they’re more educated and don’t need the help of salespeople as much in that part of the process. They do, however, need an informed sales person to personalize the product to them – to tell it how it solves their particular pain point (and to be honest with them if it won’t meet their needs). Good sales professionals connect the pains and problems of the prospect with the value that their product provides, and they also create a relationship based on mutual trust – which means it lasts longer.
Doing this right means the prospect believes the salesperson has a vested interest in solving their problems. No matter what you try, computer programs can never reach this level of personal connection or trust with a human buyer.
And don’t even get me started on one of the most difficult jobs in all of sales: accurate forecasting. There are so many levels and intricacies that go into forecasting that it would be farfetched at this point to trust nascent AI to do it effectively.
So let’s embrace the idea that the sales world will go the way of ecommerce; software will move in and improve the buyer’s experience, but instead of replacing salespeople in any extreme way, it will simply change the nature of the job. That means the question isn’t whether sales as a profession is dead, but whether sales can adapt.