Do We Even Need Salespeople?

On long-haul flights, you get a lot of time in the air. Some of it is occupied by work and meals, but since I do not sleep on planes, I…

On long-haul flights, you get a lot of time in the air. Some of it is occupied by work and meals, but since I do not sleep on planes, I spend most of the flight watching videos. The last time I flew, I was able to binge watch both seasons of Westworld.

If you are not up on your must see TV, Westworld is a sci-fi show about an amusement park and its lifelike android hosts. It’s an interesting view into morality and consequences, but what most fascinated me is the idea of robots that are truly “human”.

The same cannot be said for most sales prospecting however. Much of what comes my way feels like it was written by a robot, and not a very intelligent one. But alas much of this “prospecting” is from actual humans.

Since I never pick up calls from unknown numbers, what I do receive are sequenced emails with similar patterns. There is the intro email, the follow up email, the did you receive my last email email, the exciting news email, the your CEO told me to reach out email, the customers similar to you email, and the hope all is okay email, and then finally the break up email. Sometimes this is all in the span of a few weeks, sometimes a few months, and sometimes it never stops.

What you may find surprising is that I read many of them. I take one for the team as they say. The worst of it is not the low value and poorly written messaging, but the fact that the vast majority of these emails are not even directed to the right persona or company type. And on occasion, the emails cannot even get the name right.

I know how this all goes down because I have seen companies executing these tactics. First you buy a list or use a scraping tool to harvest LinkedIn or use one of the thousands of “verified leads” services. Then you put together a string of hastily composed templates. Then you load these leads and templates into a tool and have your SDR’s push a launch button to send thousands of emails into the Internet. Then you rinse and repeat in the hopes that of the thousands of emails sent, a handful will become actual deals.

The better sales desks will actually place some quality controls on data. Leads get eyeballed to ensure they fit the right personas. Templates are still heavily utilized, but SDR’s are able to customize before sending. More experienced SDR’s tend to add a bit more creativity into the emails in the hopes it will stir the hearts of the recipient to acquiesce to giving 15 minutes of his or her time.

Recently a debate started on LinkedIn about SDR’s and automation and AI and blah, blah, blah. I avoided this debate as it is a blatant (and disingenuous) marketing ploy. However, there is an important point to emphasize about the future of sales, which is that the typical sales rep of today has no place in the profession of the future.

The style of prospecting I mentioned before is happening today with machine learning bots. Some of it is garbage, but not any worse than much of the “human” driven efforts. But much like with chess and driving and speech recognition, the algorithms get “smarter” with more data and more practice and more refinements. Soon humans will not need to be involved at all, meaning a lot less low-salary, no experience, poorly trained sales reps.

Until the technology gets to the levels of “Westworld” however, humans will still be necessary for the rest of the sales process. Rather than replace, the technology has the ability to enhance the skills of the rep in ways that today’s technology has barely touched. When it is ready, the technology will provide the speed and processing power that enables reps to be “human at scale”.

The debate is not about “replacing people”, it is about enhancing what is uniquely human about selling. The dumb robotic stuff does not require humans. The way most companies use SDR’s today is an unfortunate consequence of the technology not being quite ready, but change is around the corner and will be sooner than we think.

The progress in technology will lead to two outcomes for B2B sales professionals. One, there is be significantly fewer sales reps needed. Most of the growth in sales hiring in the past five years has been at the SDR level. Given how the role is typically structured however, most SDR’s will be replaced by bots. Second, the existing sales reps will need to perform at a higher level in order to remain employed. Having the help of technology, the elite sales professionals will further separate themselves from the average performers. Why? Because freed from the drudgery of low value work, they can direct their superior creativity and intelligence towards higher value efforts.

Sales has constantly been disrupted by technology. When the phone became ubiquitous, door to door selling became less important. When the Internet arrived, B2B marketplaces and e-commerce sites displaced many of the salespeople that acted as middlemen. Sales specialization took us in another direction and added to the ranks with armies of SDR’s hired. AI is yet another stage that will come upend what we know about our profession.

As a sales rep today, consider what you are doing now and ask whether you are in danger of being replaceable. Take stock of what skills you can improve upon now so that you avoid the impact of the disruption of technology. Westworld might be a far way off, but it is also closer than you think…

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