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Sales Force Automation: Artificial Intelligence in B2B Traditional Sales

noderWe have previously associated the word “automation” with mechanical robots performing physical labor on factory floors. In the 21st century, automation has acquired an alternative meaning. It means software robots performing office work. Powered by artificial intelligence, robots can perform manual and cognitive tasks that involve writing, communicating and interacting with customers. As a result, occupations that once seemed reserved for humans  –like sales – are now being performed by software. In fact, advertising and insurance sales agents are occupations that do not require human intervention anymore.

Will software replace or enhance traditional sales forces? Can the entire sales process be automated? What are the implications for sales leaders and managers? Although relevant questions, I will cover those in a future post. In this article, I want to introduce the topic of sales force automation. To do this, I will 1) describe how automation has spread beyond blue-collar jobs, 2) explain the concept of artificial intelligence and 3) shed light on how client-facing organizations, including traditional sales, are being automated.

Software Robots Invade the Office

In today’s digital and data-rich world, when we talk or read about robots, it is about intelligent software that lives in the cloud. Software that executes cognitive tasks and analyzes large amounts of data faster and more efficient than people.

In a book titled “The Second Machine Age”, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economic professors at MIT, demonstrated that automation is no longer restricted to manufacturing jobs. Through their examples, they clearly illustrated how back-office tasks such as bookkeeping and accounting are taken over by software robots. Just as industrial robots replaced blue-collar workers, they believe software robots will replace white-collar workers.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are not the only ones to raise awareness about this clear and accelerating trend. Two recent studies explored the implications of today’s rapid technological progress on the labor market. In 2013, Frey and Osborne at Oxford University estimated that 47% of all US jobs are at high risk of automation. Furthermore, they estimated a 50% probability that tasks currently performed by educated professionals will be automated in the next 20 years.

In a comparable study, the Swedish SSF (Stiftelsen för Strategisk Forskning) concluded that in 20 years, 53% of Swedish jobs (or 2,5 million) will not require human intervention. Although the US and the Swedish labor markets are different, a clear pattern can be observed. Intelligent robots are invading the office to perform white-collar jobs.

Artificial Intelligence Comes of Age

Robot_clip_artThe invasion of robots has a number of drivers. Besides cost reductions and productivity gains, in my opinion, two technological forces have played a vital role. First and foremost – unlike traditional software – sophisticated software technology can interact with computers just as we do: via the user interface. This new ability to replicate human-like interactions with desktop computers makes it possible to automate administrative back-office tasks. Second, and perhaps the most important force, is the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence or AI. The EU Business Innovation Observatory defined Artificial Intelligence as:

“The study and development of intelligent machines and software. The associated ICT research is highly technical and specialised, and its focal problems include the development of software that can reason, gather knowledge, plan intelligently, learn, communicate, perceive and manipulate objects. AI also allows users of big data to automate and enhance complex descriptive and predictive analytical tasks that, when performed by humans, would be extremely labour intensive and time consuming”.

The technology has matured to the point that it can now perform both manual and cognitive tasks, once thought impossible for computers. Actually, intelligent software can recognize spoken words, interpret their meanings and communicate with people. In a recent turing test, 30% of judges were not able to differentiate if they were interacting with a 13-year-old boy (Eugene) or a computer program.

Artificial Intelligence Changing Client-Facing Organizations

If people can’t tell whether they are speaking to a robot or a person, it is reasonable to believe that robots will gradually expand beyond the back-office. Even jobs once thought to be reserved for people like front-line or client-facing jobs are being automated. Will intelligent digital advisors like IBM’s Watson replace staff at customer service? Will software that can generate written content based on data substitute marketing communication specialists? The following table shows examples of applications used to automate tasks at client-facing organizations.

Customer Service B2B Marketing Communication
What can robots do?
  • Understand customer questions and respond via email or mobile.
  • Troubleshoot problems, offer feedback and guide customers to make purchase decisions.
What can robots do?
  • Create and publish financial earnings, sales reports, breaking news and press releases.
Examples of tools Examples of tools
  • Quill : analyst and content marketing writer

 Will robots replace the sales force?

Of course, traditional sales organizations are not free from automation either. We recently wrote about automated pre-recorded calls or “robo calls” , which are making Insurance Sales Agents almost obsolete. Moreover, when I interviewed sales leaders from media companies, it became clear that organizations no longer depend on Advertising Sales Agents to sell ad space. Instead, organizations were deploying software to sell ads automatically via ad exchange platforms. Programmatic buying and real-time bidding have become the norm in the advertising industry.

If you are not convinced yet, you may want to take a look at Frey’s and Osborne’s scientific analysis about the probability that traditional sales occupations will be replaced by robots in the next 20 years.

SalesForceAutomationAccording to Frey and Osborne, the only sales occupations likely to escape from automation are Sales Managers, Sales Engineers and Sales Representatives in highly technical industries.

A substitute or a complement?

Will traditional sales forces develop into fully robotized forces in the next 20 years? A quick examination at literature suggests it may be the case. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Sales leaders are not forced to employ only salespeople or robots. They could very well choose to leverage the best of both. An organization can let robots focus on executing time-consuming tasks while salespeople can focus on selling. The ability of reps to carry conversations, demonstrate empathy, negotiate and persuade will still be crucial.

The reality is that despite improvements in artificial intelligence, certain aspects of the traditional sales process will still require human intervention in 20 years. What stages of the traditional sales process will be automated? Which ones are less likely to be automated? The answers to these questions will be the focus of the next post.

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