Is there a more ambivalent word in English than “artificial”?
Some artificial things are clearly beneficial, such as artificial organs, artificial insemination as a fertility treatment, and artificial sweeteners as an alternative to sugar for weight and diabetes control. But in other contexts, “artificial” can have a negative connotation. Artificial people. Artificial ingredients. Artificial turf on a baseball field.
Artificial intelligence, meanwhile, manages to straddle both sides of the fence. It’s a term that evokes a range of feelings. AI, of course, is already all around us, whether it’s Apple’s Siri giving directions, Netflix suggesting movies you might like based on your choices of and reactions to previous films, or Tesla revolutionizing driving with predictive self-driving capabilities.
And AI is penetrating multiple industries in myriad ways, such as taking some of the guesswork out of manufacturing design, preventing data breaches, smart ad targeting, analyzing structured and unstructured data for medical diagnoses, and sales forecasting.
But while AI’s broad and positive impacts excite many people, some view AI as a job killer and a general existential threat to humanity.
Even one of the smartest people on the planet, Stephen Hawking, is ambiguous about the topic, warning that AI is “either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”
As a sales and marketing executive, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about AI. And not to go all Pollyanna on you, but I believe that in my field, AI won’t replace humans — it actually will allow us to be more human. To understand why, start with the fact that the manner in which businesses engage with customers is one of the biggest competitive differentiators today. Customers interact with brands across multiple digital touch points — from product research to the buying process to ongoing customer care — and they expect an experience that feels personalized.
Thanks to the help of AI capabilities that can anticipate buyer behaviors, marketing technology can automate the entire process of reaching out to customers — prescribing what type of content to send based on their previous behaviors and actions, as well as identifying the best time to send it.
So AI allows marketers to abandon linear, one-size-fits-all, persona-based customer engagement in favor of a more adaptive, individualized approach — one that would be impossible or infeasible for humans to execute at scale.
That’s a big win for artificial intelligence. Another win involves sales and marketing reps themselves and the impact AI can have on how they look at and perform their jobs.
While the fear that AI will replace many jobs has some validity — if I’m a truck driver, for example, I probably have good reason to be wary of self-driving trucks — sales and marketing is one of the industries discovering that AI frees employees from mundane tasks and enables them to be more productive and creative.
Even in sales and marketing, the fact remains that AI is a poor substitute for human interaction in certain situations. No matter how much of the buying process takes place in an automated fashion these days, a human-to-human component will still be essential at key junctures.
This means that even as machines take over more work and AI achieves increasingly human-like degrees of sophistication, human emotions such as empathy and creativity are more critical than ever.
And now individuals in sales and marketing get more time and energy to use them.
Despite how data obsessed sales and marketing have become and the growing reliance on AI in aspects of marketing execution, it’s still up to people to carry out the ultimate goal — connecting the brand with other people.
This is why empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is one of the top traits my company looks for in prospective employees.
Remember that sales and marketing have been and always will be exercises in human relations. Artificial intelligence may be playing an increasingly vital supporting role, but the profession remains all about building better, more meaningful person-to-person relationships.
David Satterwhite is the chief revenue officer at Act-On Software, a company that makes a software-as-a-service product for marketing automation.