Why Don’t We Replace Sales Reps with Robots?

7 minute read


If you get home tonight and you fancy watching a movie, how will you pick one?

Will you turn on the TV and leave it up to the choices an exec somewhere has made on your behalf? Or will you, like millions of others, sign into a platform like Netflix and click on one of the spookily good suggestions it makes based on your preferences, your ratings, your watching history, and the behaviour of others who think like you?

Two years ago, the movie rental company Blockbuster finally went bust. At the time, many people in the industry lamented that the internet – and specifically, illegal downloads – had killed the video store. People would rather watch movies online instead of renting them from places like Blockbuster, they claimed. It was inevitable: technology had replaced human jobs, and the rise of rivals like Netflix, with their recommendation-by-robot algorithms, only proved it.

… Only, that’s not how former company execs like Jonathan Salem Baskin remember it.

Here’s what Baskin wrote in Forbes in 2013:

“The solution would have been to focus on consultative or advisory selling, and turn its store associates into de facto recommenders. It could have implemented true social networks to rate and catalog movies, and used its customer data to develop a predictive engine that members could use to locate new titles. Store associates could have been encouraged (and incentivized) to establish ongoing customer relationships, and found ways to promote all those library titles (that had already been paid off, so they were pure profit). It could have owned the position of movie experts and migrated that brand to any new distribution platform. Blockbuster could have written a business school case on its reinvention, and who knows what role it could have crafted for itself this decade, or beyond?”

In other words, Blockbuster didn’t fail because it couldn’t compete with automation. It failed because it refused to engage with two things: what its customers were actually looking for, and how to use technology to give it to them. It refused to bring its sales techniques into the 21st century – and it collapsed.

In today’s digital-driven economy, many of the decisions we once entrusted to the intuition of sales stars and experts are now based on data analysis.

Gone are the days when a sales agent was left to survive on their own wits in a negotiation. Now, armed with a wealth of insights drawn from big data sets, they can know in advance precisely which price point is most likely to seal the deal. They have a good idea of the overarching trends in the client’s sector and the buying habits of similar firms. They even know which day of the week and what time of day they should call to get the best chance of a sale.

When so much of this is the product of automated processes, rather than individual skill, It’s easy to see why some salespeople are getting nervous about the future of their role.

Could a robot do my job?” is a question that troubles people more and more, as technology becomes ever smarter and “real” people get pushed out in place of machines.

But while many straightforward manual tasks, and even complex operations like statistical analysis, can be performed faster and more efficiently by computers, there are some things they simply can’t do. They can’t (outside of Spike Jonze films, at least) form meaningful human connections. They can’t develop relationships. They can’t inspire trust.

But they can allow human beings do all these things – better.

Linking up your CRM to cloud-based systems that conduct data management and analysis on your behalf means that you can draw out vital information from enormous datasets – and then tap into these while you’re on the move.

Customer interactions and details on the behaviour of prospective buyers can be cross-referenced with bigger shifts in the market to help you figure out exactly how your sales drive fits into your customer’s business and procurement landscape.

This kind of information can even be automatically generated in real time and delivered to the mobile devices of sales executives and agents, helping them to immediately reprioritise their leads, adapt their pitch and alter their offering, even while they’re out in the field.

But the data itself is not going to win any sales.

It needs real people to interpret it, apply it and capitalise on it.

It takes sharp minds to take these insights and turn them into sales. To repackage their pitches and strategies in ways that they now know are going to be the most attractive to potential customers.

It takes individuals to figure out how to turn what they’re looking at into commercial advantage for themselves.

What does this mean for salespeople?

It means, first of all, that you’re not in danger of being replaced by a robot any time soon. But it also means that, by harnessing the potential of automation, you can add even more value than you already do.  

By taking advantage of automated sales technology, you get to trim the fat from your workload.

All those time-consuming little admin tasks that eat up your day and make you no profit? The right system or platform will do them for you, leaving you with far more time in your day to do the things that really get results: the relationship-building, the lead-nurturing, the scouting for new opportunities. The things, in other words, that a robot can’t do.

With these tools at your fingertips, you can supercharge your sales performance.

Remote access to well-ordered data means you can keep on top of opportunities and communicate with clients easily and effectively, even when you’re out of the office. You can hone and improve your strategy, syncing everything you need in one place to make it easier to roll out your plans.

You can keep track of tasks and progress, preventing leads from going cold and sales from being lost. You can hike up your win rate and rake in the rewards.

But here’s the thing: you have to be prepared to up your game.

The fact that you’re reading this article suggests you’re smart, ambitious and on the lookout for ways to push ahead of the competition. It suggests that what I’m about to say won’t apply to you.

But it may well apply to people you know.

For sales agents used to coasting, the future does not look rosy.

Why? Because if you’re just going through the motions – if you’re someone who relies on presenteeism over productivity – you’re going to find it harder and harder to show that you bring value that a computer can’t.

Because when you take out the data entry and the admin and all those other things that can be automated instead, you don’t just have the space to shine as a salesperson – it’s all you have.

It means that, suddenly, you’re being judged purely on your tenacity and your spark and your strategic mind; on your ability to connect with customers, inspire their confidence and win their business.

All those things a robot can’t do? Suddenly you have to do them better than ever before.

To succeed, you’ll have to step up. And you’ll have to be ready and willing to make technology work for you. You’ll need to become a next-level ninja when it comes to time management, self-motivation and actively pursuing leads. You’ll need to work out how to get the most out of your toolkit, so that you can be the best you can be.

The result? A more competitive workforce – but a more energetic, effective and exciting one, too.

Salespeople who work out how to leverage automation efficiently will make themselves more of an asset, not less. Rather than threatening or undermining your role, these technologies will make you more productive, more successful and more indispensable than ever.

So, unless you want to end up as a Blockbuster-style disaster movie, ignore them at your peril.

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