AI is the future of sales according to Tony Hughes, the celebrated Sydney-based author of Tech-Powered Sales. I interviewed him to understand his view on the future of salesmanship. He unveiled some fascinating insights about the mix of technology and human abilities in the context of a buyer-seller relationship. He also mentioned a new metric, beyond IQ and EQ, which he named TQ for Technology Quotient. A high TQ is, in his mind, a prerequisite for the salespeople of the future. Let’s delve into what the future has in store for B2B sellers.
Disclosure: this interview was carried out on behalf of our client Sparklane with our usual aim of independence and authenticity
AI is the future of sales, and those who ignore it will disappear
The future of sales is AI: One-third of salespeople will no longer exist by 2030
Salespeople on average invest only a third of their time selling and fail to consistently hit the numbers
To start with, Tony isn’t impressed with what he sees around him. Not just in Australia mind you.”This is something I see worldwide,” he told me.
Consequences for this will be dire, according to the founder of Sales IQ Global.
“I predict that one-third of field salespeople will no longer exist by the end of the 2020s. The thing I see is 40 to 70 per cent of sellers are failing to hit quota, and it’s very common. Worse is the fact that the sales manager is the most at-risk management role inside a company. Their average tenure is falling and they have a very stressful existence.”
To an extent, the fact that a large number of sales reps are given the gold watch isn’t something really new. The day I started my career with Philips in Europe in the mid-80s, the sales force was divided by two. Out of the 300 sales reps selling household appliances in France, only 150 were left. The aim was to get rid of older sales reps, the “sharks in cheap pinstripe suits that no-one likes” to use Tony’s metaphor.
There has always been a need to reinvent the way one was selling, to keep abreast of societal and technological changes. Yet, that pressure has never been stronger than in the era of AI. For Sales people are deluding themselves, Tony told me, they are not “immune from a bot-driven apocalypse. We’ve seen agriculture, manufacturing, law, finance, medicine and blue collar roles all disappear to automation. But sellers seem to think that they provide a relationship.”
[salespeople] need to understand that The B2B purchasing process is the result of a long life cycle often linked to a contract as there are many people to convince. truly want their time back
The future of AI-driven sales: the winners and losers
We need to blend the power of technology with the magic of being human in the way that we actually execute our roles. Technology is incredibly good at filtering big amounts of data to trigger events, match patterns, and make recommendations.
Anything that’s a commodity and needs to be transacted, diminishes the role of sellers.
The role of sellers is predominantly where there is complexity, risk, a business case that needs to be built, politics that need to be navigated, and creativity and imagination are at play. Setting a vision for a broader future is a really important part of making the sale.
Conveying belief, confidence and trust, managing ambiguity, and securing consensus with teams are amongst the crucial things which bots will never do. They are the domains of humans. “Providing information and helping buyers transact, and thinking that the magic of the conversation in the relationship is enough to protect their career is wrong,” Tony added.
Salespeople are a bit complacent and do not deliver.
So many sellers can’t use the tech that they’ve been given. On average, businesses have invested about $1000 per month per rep in technology: CRM systems, marketing automation, and other technology depending on what role they’re in. That’s doubling to $ 2000, and by the end of the decade, it will be $ 5000 per month per rep. In the last few years, field selling and all selling has become inside sales. A number of salespeople I see in Zoom meetings can’t figure out how to get their microphones working or how to share their screens. They’ve got the laptop down below them and are looking down at the person, which conveys the wrong sentiment completely. You want to be eye to eye. They don’t.
Point well taken, salespeople aren’t up to the job, and they desperately need to step up their game. Having said that, aren’t we overstating sometimes the power of technology, which traditionally takes a long time to mature and become properly useful?
The power of technology is often underestimated in the long run
“The power and impact of technology are often overstated in the near term and significantly underestimated in the long term. At the moment, however, unions, workers, investors, shareholders, customers, partners, regulators, banks, all accept that we need to drive dramatic change.”
Technology enables organisations to concurrently do two things which would be diametrically opposed: driving cost out of transacting, and at the same time, improving customer experience
This means a lower cost to Market definition in B2B and B2C - The very notion of "market" is at the heart of any marketing approach. A market can be defined..., acquire, onboard, service, upsell, retain and grow customers. All of it boils down to customer experience.
Let’s talk about the future of selling as you did in your book where you describe STEVE, a digital virtual sales assistant
“I paint the picture of a day in the life of tomorrow for a salesperson. What they have got is a sales assistant that sets up the meeting with prospects, phones them and confirms the meeting. They attend the meeting and take notes. They are coaching and prompting the salesperson on talk time ratios, buying signals, best questions to ask, and evidence of claims.”
They’re assessing and monitoring the personality and honesty of the person on the other side of the camera. This digital assistant STEVE is a Sales Team Enablement Virtual Entity, it’s a bot.
Since meetings nowadays are going on behind cameras, it’s very easy to plug in tech that can do these things. People need to embrace tech well and think about how their role can be augmented with it.
All the different features within STEVE are here, but the orchestration layer is missing
All of the elements making up STEVE are here today. The big thing that’s missing is the orchestration layer.
What salespeople need to be today is they need to be the human middleware in creating a mash up of a tech stack that helps them deliver superhuman results
Sales Navigator is about $1000 per year for a licence. When I ask a seller to share their screen with me, they are clueless about how to use it effectively. Though it’s insanely powerful for them, they have no idea how to drive the UI to drive the technology effectively.
“They don’t use LinkedIn well either. They don’t use basic sales intelligence plugins that can give them email addresses and phone numbers they can monitor for trigger events. They’re not using simple plugins to record and transcribe calls to make the process of meeting notes easier. Salespeople seem to think it is okay for them not to be good with technology.”
Well, it seems that salespeople have a long way to go. Sometimes I feel I’m being a bit harsh with them, but Tony didn’t spare them either, to say the least.
AI and the future of sales: still a role for sellers
If a lead comes to us, the buyer is typically in control, but our job is to reframe their thinking in their best interests. I believe the future of selling is where buyer sentiment meets seller relevance. Technology does the matchmaking and getting human beings together at the right inflection point in buyers’ journey matched with sellers’ process.
There will still be a role for selling in the field. But it will be deeper into the sales process and the funnel. The skills and attributes of the people that do field selling, I think will lean more toward being experts in a particular domain as opposed to just being a good seller.
The people in the field will really be good at creating a business case, identifying and managing risks. Thus, they’ll provide a lot more technical value rather than selling
Let’s look at the other side of that buyer-seller equation. Is intimacy what the customer wants? Do they want to build that intimacy with the seller? The reality is that, in our role of selling, we cannot be successful unless we create and build relationships of trust. But the customer is not looking for another relationship. They want their problems to be solved in a way that gives the best value for money at the lowest risk. Buyers have realised that we can fend off the sellers that just consume a lot of our time. They’ll want to meet when there’s an established relationship and a reason to.
When it comes to AI for sales, does it matter what type of AI?
Yes, there’s AI in everything. We live in the era of narrow AI, and maybe in the next 10 to 15 years, we’ll move into general AI. That’s where AI will be able to contextualise across domains effectively and it’ll start to emulate human empathy.
We may never get to the singularity – the super AI where AI becomes self-aware. Narrow AI can apply itself to a particular task of say, navigation, aviation, or monitoring for fraud. General AI will bring the entire cross domains together within a single virtual entity.
When it comes to email prospecting, you must be careful what you put in the hands of reps :
It’s really important to nail the narrative to actually make sure that you’ve mastered the message. The narrative is all about the other person’s opportunity to drive improved results in their role rather than us
To sum up, tech is going to take a lot more space in the world of sales
We’ve always known that you need a reasonable level of IQ and EQ to be successful in life, business and sales.
“There’s a new Q that’s needed though and it’s TQ or technical quotient. You need to be masterfully good at the technology you’ve been given and orchestrate the different pieces together.” Tony Hughes concluded.
Time will tell what really happens but there is no denying that we are at a turning point in salesmanship and that technology, and especially AI, will play a major role in redefining the role of reps and the future of sales. You can buy Tony’s book ‘Tech-Powered Sales’ and, as the book cover promises, achieve superhuman sales skills.