If you believe the posts you read, the days of human salespeople are numbered.
“Buyers do their own research on the internet.”
“A.I. chatbots will eat salespeople for breakfast.”
This might turn out to be the case for some types of consumer products, but it’s certainly not true when it comes to buying complex products and services in the massive B2B marketplace.
In a recent survey by Gartner, buyers rated the interaction with salespeople as the most important factor influencing their decision. But in that very same survey, Gartner found that customers hate talking to sales teams because the reps don’t know how to properly guide the conversations. Nobody likes a sales pitch. Listening to an oral version of the marketing material that’s available on the website is a waste of time. What buyers want is a real conversation, tailored to their needs.
Enter the chatbot, which has the potential to smooth out that process, especially when it comes to things like booking a flight or ordering flowers. If Amazon’s Alexa can order a book or replace your shampoo when you run low, will we soon rely on chatbots to order accounting software from Netsuite?
My bet is yes on the flowers and flights, no on the SaaS programs. But first, sales teams have to seriously improve customer conversations.
Selling is hard. Really hard
There’s a reason there are over 13,000 books about selling on Amazon. Buyer-seller interaction is hard to master. It is nuanced and infinitely complex. And the Gartner survey reveals that most salespeople are clearly getting it wrong.
Attrition among sales staff is notoriously high. Data provided by Glassdoor shows that of 1,000 salespeople surveyed, more than 68 percent plan to look for a new job in the next year and 45 percent plan to look in the next three months. Just one in five — 19 percent — were sitting tight with no imminent job hunt plans. No doubt about it — life is hard in the trenches.
No matter what many of the sales books tell you, there is no single trick that will make you a great salesperson. There aren’t special questions, punchlines, or lists of top 10 Do’s and Don’ts that will make you a killer salesperson. That’s because no single umbrella rule applies to all sales situations.
In reality, there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of intricate factors that determine which sales conversations will lead to a sale and which will not.
And this leads us to three main reasons chatbots can’t take over the sales role in the B2B space anytime soon:
1. Too much content
Content marketing is now becoming a victim of its own success. The billions that have been poured into marketing automation technologies and the overwhelming amount of content on the internet have created a new problem: information overload for buyers. Sure, some people do preliminary research on their own. A chatbot might even provide some initial information and personalize an otherwise impersonal search experience. But, when it comes to complex products and services, and even some consumer products, it’s simpler to ask a salesperson than to spend days researching on your own.
Why else would Apple, the top-grossing retailer (per sq foot), employ 100 staffers per store, on average, to sell packaged products that can be easily viewed, researched, and ordered online?
2. It’s not one buyer
On average, a B2B buying decision involves 5.4 people on the buying side. What are the odds a buyer selling a project internally will do so based on a “conversation” with a bot? The B2B salesperson often serves as a mediator between all the stakeholders within an organization. Without this help, the product does not get sold.
3. It’s not the same product
Businesses buying complex products — such as IT, benefits programs, or financial services — are not all buying the same “product.” Each company is unique and needs to understand how the product will fit their specific situation and requirements. This is very difficult to accomplish without human assistance.
A.I. to the rescue
Considering the complexities above, bots are unlikely to replace B2B salespeople in the near future. But artificial intelligence certainly can – and should — be used to expedite the process. Many of the skills used by the best salespeople can be greatly enhanced with artificial intelligence. Think R2-D2, not the bot version of Luke Skywalker.
Listening: Speech recognition and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) provide the salesperson with bionic ears, allowing them to understand, interpret, and remember everything the customer says.
Domain expertise: Show the salesperson relevant product, industry, and competitor data at the right time during the conversation.
Organization skills: Schedule meetings, suggest when to call, remind reps to send a follow-up email, and update CRM records.
Play it by ear: Highlight customer needs, sensitivities, and concerns. Suggest how to change the course of the conversation, and make suggestions on what to say.
All of which is to say that rumors about the death of the salesperson have been slightly exaggerated. Instead, think of this new era as ushering in the beginning of a beautiful friendship.