Rational and Irrational Reasons Why AI Won’t Replace Salespeople

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As a tech leader in a sales CRM company, I’ve seen up close how artificial intelligence (AI) is at the forefront of new innovative applications, from chatbots that can learn and interact with prospects to intelligence that acts like a super sales assistant to guide sales professionals to take their “next best action” to close a deal. As these new applications of AI proliferate, the question continually pops up: “Will salespeople be replaced by AI?” My answer: I doubt it. 

First, let’s consider that the promise of AI is that it can seemingly be applied to virtually any problem. But if we think about AI as an industry rather than a technology, we can see that many applications are not large enough markets to warrant the investment. They don’t have a high ROI. This is true when we consider the market size for AI applications in sales. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are about 14.5 million workers in sales and related occupations in the Unites States.

Now compare that to the number of drivers. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports more than 210 million licensed drivers in the U.S. This suggests that artificial intelligence for the automobile and driverless car industry is a market almost 15 times greater than sales.

Sales is comparatively not a huge market for AI. If you are a salesperson, thank your lucky stars. You will be saved by the rational argument—the market for AI replacing salespeople is dwarfed by other opportunities. It’s no different than the pharmaceutical industry. Widespread conditions like high cholesterol get gobs of money to create drugs like Lipitor, while rare diseases don’t get the research dollars.

But beyond the rational business-friendly, macro-economic reason, there’s a more nuanced answer to why AI won’t replace salespeople. At their core, salespeople engage and connect with humans of all walks of life to help them solve a problem, and society needs them (as strange as that might seem to some).

Consider the famous quote by the late author and sales expert, Zig Ziglar: “Selling is something we do for our clients, not to our clients.” This, in essence, is what sales is about. It is about finding a mutual benefit between buyer and seller. This only happens when a salesperson has a relationship with the buyer so that he or she truly understands a buyer’s needs.

Establishing that worthwhile relationship requires salespeople to connect with buyers in ways that lead to meaningful dialogue. It creates an open conversation where salespeople can learn how to help their prospects with their solution.

The best salesperson is less focused on closing the deal than on delivering a solution for the prospect. When that right match is discovered, the sale is inevitable. It is made for the customer, not to the customer. 

Sales requires empathy and emotion even though our technology is getting more human-like with each passing day. Douglas Rushkoff shared his perspective on the age of AI in his book Team Human. He warned that “we are building our world around what our technologies can do. Instead, we need to build our world around what people need. Human beings are not the problem. We are the solution.”

Granted, technology can work to eliminate salespeople, but can a computer be empathetic? Can it cry? Can it laugh? I know the greatest salespeople can have empathy and cry and laugh with the buyer. And I have learned that buyers are not rational. They are human and thus, irrational.

Sales happen because of a real connection between buyer and seller, and between company and client. It is why we walk away from deals that “just don’t feel right.” Both salespeople and buyers appreciate having a real person on the other end. It takes creativity and trust to understand someone’s needs and get them to buy from you. A machine can’t build trust. Only a human can.

The salespeople who motivate people to buy their product do so because they discuss the “why” of what they are selling. As Simon Sinek notes, people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. They buy because they believe what you believe; it comes from a set of core beliefs. This is why we irrational humans pay more for Advil than for store brand ibuprofen even though there is no substantial difference.

Humans change their minds all of the time. Machines don’t. They start on assumptions, but the assumptions don’t change; they are programmed. Human needs and wants change over time, and sometimes instantly, and we are programmed to adapt and change course according to those developments. Empathy and relationship-building (two uniquely human skills) are still so vital to the human condition and critical to the sales process—no AI can take away from that.

So there you have it—the rational and irrational reasons why there will always be a place for humans in sales. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for AI within the sales process. Technology is already undoubtedly helping human salespeople become more effective and productive in their work, but salespeople being replaced by AI? Well, that just doesn’t feel right.

Vinay Ramani is the chief product officer at Pipedrive, the first CRM platform built from the salesperson’s point of view. Having been based in Silicon Valley for two decades, Ramani joined Pipedrive from Google, where he was product lead on the search ads team.

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