Will Your B2B Sales Job Survive AI?
Not long ago, I got sucked into a heated LinkedIn debate about whether AI will eventually automate (and replace) the B2B sales profession. These discussions seem to be cropping up a lot lately. Many sales professionals and leaders believe it won’t happen; they predict that people will always want to buy from people, and that relationships will always trump the impersonal experience of buying from a machine.
I only half-agree.
After all, when was the last time you found yourself wanting to talk with an Amazon.com rep over the phone, rather than using its one-click-order feature?
We as sales professionals have an emotional attachment to our jobs not being affected negatively by AI. Given that emotional attachment, our judgment becomes clouded and we become violently resistant to the idea of the sales profession becoming an automated job function.
Value Creators vs. Value Communicators
The types of sales jobs that will no longer exist in the years after the “AI wave” are those that are solely communicators of value. The sales jobs that will not only exist but flourish will be the sales professionals who go beyond just communicating value and into the realm of creating value. But here’s the caveat: You can’t just jump from communicating value to creating value simply because you decide to. Creating value is dependent on whether your customers have value for you to create for them in the first place.
Read on to see what I mean.
What’s the Difference?
A value communicator simply communicates facts, figures, and benefits about a product or service in hopes of persuading customers. They disseminate information. The problem with this approach is that technology can easily fill in for the expensive salesperson (“No thanks on the demo; the product video on your website should do.”) There is even technology out there today that can automate and customize product demos and presentations for customers. No salesperson needed. That’s bad news for someone who relies solely on communicating the value of a product or service.
Going Beyond Communicating Value
Value creators are different. They provide value during and after the sales cycle to the customer beyond disseminating information. They have to do this to justify their existence. How do they do it?
They diagnose customer problems in ways that customers haven’t thought of before. They help customers think through decision-making criteria in new and different ways and help them avoid landmines in the decision-making process. They challenge a customer’s thinking on key issues by providing provocative insight. They demonstrate to customers that if they behave differently, they can reap gains and prevent losses. They act as an advocate on behalf of a customer within their own organizations, marshalling resources to ensure that customer’s success. They educate customers on otherwise complex solutions or subjects.
Oh, and sure, an element of their job is to communicate what it is their product does, along with its benefits. This will certainly remain a part of the sales profession. But more will be demanded, and the role of communicating value will continue to fall on marketing’s shoulders.
Value communicators describe the CRM they sell. Value creators advise their clients on how to best integrate that CRM with existing technologies.
Value communicators describe the marketing services they sell. Value creators help clients think through marketing strategy and avoid the pitfalls of a poorly executed marketing program.
Value communicators describe how they’re different from competitors. Value creators help customers rethink the criteria of how they evaluate competitors to begin with.
How Value Is Defined—Don’t Delude Yourself
Many “transactional” sales leaders and professionals may read this and conclude that their salespeople need to be more consultative and add more value for the customer during the sales cycle itself. This is a dangerous interpretation because value is defined in whatever way the customer defines it, not the way the sales professional does. This means that if you sell a simple product (commodity) that customers in your market completely understand, while also understanding their own problems and needs thoroughly, the only value the sales function can provide is to strip costs to make it cheaper and to make purchasing the product more convenient.
Customers in this type of situation don’t want their problems diagnosed because they already understand them. They don’t want to think through decision criteria with another person because they don’t have to. They view interactions with a salesperson as a destruction of value, not a creation of value. In other words, this is the type of sales role that is highly at risk of becoming obsolete. There is no value to be created on the part of the salesperson because there is no value to be gained by the customer from interacting with a sales professional.
And this role can’t be saved by a futile attempt to create value. The salesperson who tries to diagnose a customer’s needs when that diagnosis isn’t needed or welcome does more harm than good.
Which One Are You?
If you sell a differentiated product that solves problems that the customer may or may not fully understand, now you have the opportunity to be a creator of value.
The next step is mastering the skill of value creation within the sales process, while letting value communication take a back seat. Knowing this distinction is one thing. Doing the hard work of actually creating value for your customers is another. So the key question to ask yourself if you’re in a sales role is: Am I providing my customers value beyond disseminating information, and do the customers in my market value this effort?
If your value creation efforts are unwanted by your market, you may want to sharpen your résumé.
Chris Orlob is senior director of product marketing at Gong.io, a conversation intelligence platform that helps B2B sales teams sell better by automatically recording, transcribing, and analyzing their sales calls with artificial intelligence.