These days, it’s hard not to be scared that a robot is coming for your job. With the rise of artificial intelligence tools like generative voice and text, it may feel like the technology is on its way to replacing sales reps and managers altogether.
But experts—and consumers—say that’s far from the case. So while AI may be here to stay, so is the need for humans in the sales industry. And as AI evolves, reps will need to find new ways to stay ahead of automation. Here’s how to carve a competitive edge over AI and (keep) outselling bots.
Forge impactful relationships and build trust
According to Oded Netzer, vice dean and professor at the Columbia School of Business, as use cases for AI grows, so does hesitancy among consumers who prefer purchasing from real humans. And this preference for human contact is something salespeople can use to build lasting relationships with clients.
“It is human interactions that customers cherish, that salespeople need to cherish as well and build on,” Netzer said. “If all you do is take orders and fulfill them, then yes, you are at risk [of AI taking your job]. It’s really important to think through customer needs.”
According to a 2022 study by Internova Travel Group and OnePoll, 70% of respondents said they trust human sellers over bots, and 74% said they believe industries have grown too reliant on automated systems.
From an industry-specific standpoint, respondents indicated they preferred buying real estate and insurance products or services from a person over a bot, at 55% and 51%, respectively.
While automation can make sales more efficient in some aspects, Netzer said the technology isn’t advanced enough to understand the nuances of specific customer needs or effectively forge initial relationships.
“In unique cases, like a complex order or a new customer that you don't know yet, you need to collect more information before assessing their needs,” Netzer said. “It's exactly for these situations where we still want the human in the equation, to interact with the client, to build the relationship.”
To stand out from bots in initial interactions, reps should focus on a personal approach that is focused on identifying their individual needs rather than leading with a product pitch.
Contextualize customer needs
Beyond forging relationships, humans remain essential in staying ahead of and contextualizing customer needs, skills that Netzer said: “Machines are still not very good at.”
“The nature of the sales industry is that it's very contextualized, and there is a lot of context that goes into each one of these transactions,” Netzer said.
And while bots can make sales, it’s important to remember that doesn’t mean they do it as well as humans. Reps looking for an edge over their bot competitors need to learn how to anticipate needs and proactively provide solutions. This is especially helpful when up or cross-selling current customers—64% of sales leaders say that understanding client needs is the key to upselling.
“Sales workers should focus their attention on the ability to provide salesmanship, in the ability to truly understand what the customer needs and wants and can't even express yet in words, and then offer this to the customer.”
Embrace a hybrid model
According to Netzer, a key to staying ahead of artificial intelligence is, ironically, to embrace it and find a way to use the power of AI to enhance the sales process.
The goal should be “finding a balance between tasks that should go to humans and tasks that should go to the machines,” he said.
In many areas, blending human work with automation is already proving advantageous, including customer service. According to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research study, AI improved productivity among customer service reps by 14% and helped workers address more concerns per hour.
“Our overall findings demonstrate that generative AI working alongside humans can have a significant positive impact on the productivity and retention of individual workers,” the study stated.
Ultimately, by using automation to tackle tedious or basic tasks, sales reps can shift their focus to more complex, fulfilling, and lucrative tasks.