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Sales AI: Will AI tools take over sales jobs?

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
14 min read

McKinsey Jobs Report
LinkedIn’s Emerging Jobs Report

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Sales AI: Will AI tools take over sales jobs?:

Full Transcript

You could trace the AI revolution in the banking industry way back to 1967. That year in London, Barclays installed the first ATM machine. People panicked. It was mayhem. They were sure this meant the end of bank employees. Why would banks hire cashiers to do the same thing as machines? Newspapers ran with the story too. Headline shouted the death of the bank teller and the ATM became a symbol of things to come. But here’s the thing, quickly making a cash withdrawal is convenient and there are plenty of transactions that still require a person to help out. Loans, customer service and other bank roles are still critical. In fact, the number of bank employees in the US is still around two million with more people working for banks today than they did even 20 years ago.

But here’s the thing, my personal checking and savings accounts are totally virtual. There are no branches, just a website and an app and a customer service number. That’s it. But someone made that out and someone maintains it and someone markets the company and there’s a whole army of customer support reps out there. There are plenty of jobs still. They’re just different. In this episode of Modern Sales, I’ll talk about how sales AI is going to change the landscape of selling, how it’ll affect jobs now and in the future, and what you need to stay relevant.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast that’ll help you sell more by understanding how people buy. I’m your host Liston Witherill, founder of Serve, Don’t Sell and this here, Modern Sales Podcast and I dig through heaps of academic research, interview people inside and outside of sales and nerd out on psychology, economics, and neuroscience to figure out how people make decisions. I’m on a mission to change the way 100 million people sell so that moms don’t cringe when they find out you’re in sales. This of course is the Sales AI Series on Modern Sales where we’re diving into the truth behind artificial intelligence and its impact on sales. If you’d like to go back and start from the top of the series, this is episode two. Just subscribe, scroll back in your feed to episode 113 and start there. In today’s episode, we’ll be covering how AI is disrupting jobs, but wait, is it really disrupting jobs that much? And more importantly, should you be scared that your job will go the way of the ATM? That’s coming up right after the short break.

Welcome back. As you know, AI tools are quickly advancing and the economy will shift rapidly as new technologies significantly disrupt the workforce. How will it affect dedicated and partial sales roles? Well, first of all, as I said in the last episode, AI is a relatively meaningless terms, so we’ll define it as machine learning and data science here on this podcast. Much more specific, both are fast disrupting what’s possible in sales. Now the question of course is what to do about it, and what I would tell you is don’t fight it. It’s a losing battle. Be prepared for the future of selling. Now, if you’re listening to this and you’re a business owner, take note of the automation possibilities both for your own business and the competition. If you’re a full-time salesperson, you had better understand the changing landscape on the horizon and what’s possible in your career. And if you’re in a partial sales role, like you sell and deliver a service, you better understand how AI can help you out, multiply your impact on the things that you already do and how your competitors will be using AI.

So let’s get into the jobs. The first thing I did was look out there, what research is available to help us figure out what impact AI may have on sales. And what I found was a very famous study, you’ve probably seen this before or maybe you’ve heard of it at least put out by McKinsey Global Institute. Yes, that McKinsey, they put out a report in December of 2017 titled Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transition in a time of automation. I’ve linked to it in the show notes if you want to go through and read the entire report. I bet you won’t, but it’s there in case you want it. Here’s the big takeaway of what the report says. Zero to 30% of work activities will be displaced by 2030 with a midpoint of 15% and advanced economies will be more affected by automation than developing countries due to higher wages and therefore higher incentive to automate. That’s a direct quote from the report.

It goes on to say that demand for professionals, managers and executives will go up substantially in the coming years and in terms of education, college and advanced degrees will become more and more valuable. When we look at specific skills, applying expertise, interacting with stakeholders and managing people will be increasingly important and there will be a decrease in skills that can be easily outsourced like processing and collecting data. Those will become less important as computers do well at those and especially in advanced countries as those jobs get outsourced elsewhere. One section of the report is called Workforce Transitions, and I think that’s a really suitable name for the report in general because it’s more about changes to jobs than outright replacement with one small exception.

Now, in the last episode I mentioned that I spoke to a good friend of mine named Dan, who is actually in the process of writing a sales AI kind of a chatbot and he and I talked a lot about what we thought would happen to sales, which jobs fall into those buckets, right? So we talked about the skills that will be increasingly important, you know referencing back to the McKinsey report. Sure. It’s about automation, but that could just as easily be about artificial intelligence, which is one form of many different forms of automation. And so in a sales context, I do think it’s clear that some jobs will definitely be lost.

And before I name any names, the jobs that are most likely on the chopping block are more repetitive, less critical or creative thinking involved in what you do. If that’s the case, there’s way more likelihood that that job will be significantly or completely automated. And I would say the roles most primed for this kind of disruption are inside sales BDRs and SDRs. So the people who first talked to a lead, particularly people who are chatting with leads on a website or someone fills out a form and then you execute a algorithmic series of steps, that kind of stuff. It’s just going to be hard to justify people doing that role in the future.

Most cases there will come a time when a robot can go in and read most people’s requests and know what to do with them. Now, what’s also likely is that in AI or whatever the heck you want to call it, will go in and make decisions about its own confidence in what it is reading that someone filled out say on a form or typed on a web chat widget and it should be able to make decisions about whether or not it’s equipped to deal with the person chatting with them on the other end. If it decides not, then maybe it’ll pass that off to a person. But you could definitely imagine a scenario where if an inside sales team was predominantly responding to people on a website and all of a sudden a chatbot comes in that can do that. Maybe that team goes from 20 people down to four people or something like that. Right? There will be a difference in the number of people needed in order to execute on that job.

I think the other point to make here is that if you’re talking to people who are ready to buy, they probably just need to book a meeting and it’s not really clear why a person is necessary in that situation in order to triage or book that meeting. All kinds of tools connect to calendars now. People are pretty familiar with booking themselves on a calendar, and so if you’re just delivering information to people, if you’re just booking meetings, that’s going to be a tough one. That job is probably not going to be around much longer. My guess is within 10 years, those jobs will mostly be eliminated.

Now going back to that McKinsey report, it estimates that in the US, about 25 million jobs will be lost. That’s not sales jobs. That’s all jobs. And the average age of those displaced by automation will be 40 to 45 years old. But there’s way more good news and bad news in my opinion. The good news is that some sales jobs will just absolutely never go away. And the more strategic, creative and interactive your job, the safer it is. I had someone comment on a post I put on LinkedIn in preparation for the series and they said AI won’t change sales because it’ll take over sales roles, but rather it’ll take over sales because it’ll change buying roles. Now I have some trouble with that one. I think that in more transactional situations that may be true, but the more complex, the nastier the environment, the higher the risk of the decision, the safer your job is, my friend, the more likely it is that there will be people there to make decisions.

Now with all the automation that’s going to happen, McKinsey also projects increases in executives and managers and those are the type of people who generally are making these buying decisions. So I generally think that those jobs are pretty safe, but just my opinion. And look, if you’re in professional services or consulting or a custom solution delivery environment, you’re going to be pretty safe. So it seems to me that those jobs will never go away completely. Of course, they’re going to change slightly and you’re going to need to adapt with the times and go back to my Sellers Become Marketers series. If you’re wondering about some of the changes happening now or some of the changes that you can make and some of the skills that you can acquire because all of that stuff is happening right now. So yeah, if you’re interested in that series, those are episodes 96 through 101, it’s a six-part series Sellers Become Marketers.

Now, some sales jobs will not go away, but they’ll change substantially. And one of the best areas to demonstrate this is in prospecting. So sales development reps, business development reps, sometimes they’re dedicated sales researchers. Those roles will probably look more and more like data science jobs in the future, requiring fewer but much higher paid people to execute on the sales role. So their job will be to go out and basically build their own machine learning programs to go out and find lots and lots of data, lots and lots of prospects, figure out which ones are buying ready. You know, I had a private conversation with someone on LinkedIn just today, actually, the day I’m recording this who works at a company that does AI for clients and they have some off-the-shelf solutions, but the real magic comes when they work with a client and adjust and write the algorithm to find buying ready prospects for specific companies.

Meaning some companies are going to have different requirements and of course whatever your theory or hypothesis is of who your perfect buyer is, it’s going to change from company to company. Even if you’re selling the same solution as a competitor, you’re going to have slightly different requirements, different patterns that you observe, different things that work and different signals that you may pick up on, which will downstream affect your entire sales process. I believe having a dedicated data scientist within your sales organization will become a very, very critical role, but it will also disrupt how prospecting is thought about and done.

And I think the same is true for sales enablement. It’ll be more and more reliant on technology to determine the best place, the best training techniques and mechanisms and real empirical results. Hard data, right? Because it’s becoming easier to collect data that before was messy because it all happened in the real world. But now as we spend more time on chat and text messages and LinkedIn and recorded phone calls, it becomes a little bit easier to assess the results. And we have a bigger data set about what’s happening in sales. So that’s also going to disrupt many roles within sales, including sales enablement and training functions. Which is all to say something that I’ve been nibbling around the edges of since I started the Sales AI Series. And that is that scale will win in the AI space. Data science only works if you have a big dataset and the bigger your dataset, the more resources you have in terms of time, money and people. All of it will contribute to a more useful AI infrastructure.

So if you’re working in a small business with a few hundred clients, you won’t have the advantage of say an IBM that has the giant dataset with hundreds of thousands of clients, projects and data points, but they also have Watson and they’re going to feed everything into that machine learning system to start to extract insights. There’s just no way a small or even mid-market or even a smaller enterprise company will be able compete with that. So scale will absolutely win in the AI space. I hate to say it because I like to run small and fast, but that’s just the natural consequence of how this whole thing works. Scale will absolutely win, which may be a sad day for smaller businesses, but there is just no stopping it, my friends.

Now there will also be brand new sales jobs. Just like the ATM has created brand new jobs for developers and engineers and even further professional hence the loan department in banks. Look how many people work in loans now. New sales jobs will emerge as machine learning and data science become a bigger part of sales. And in fact, I would guess that sales and marketing will start to combine forces. They’ll start to shed some headcount and a lot of that headcount will go into customer success, which you may argue is just a change to the org chart. And maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But the way we address our clients and the way we take care of them, it changes over time. And I think that that’s what you’re seeing.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what new jobs will be coming, but I can take some educated guesses. Just so I don’t make a complete fool out of myself, I’m only going to take three guesses here. So take it with a grain of salt. One might be a conversational architect. I made that up. Maybe that’s a thing already. I’m not sure. But people who study the patterns in conversations throughout the sales process and write bots as well as conversational flows for the full sales process.

So I’m writing a book right now on the SDS method, Serve, Don’t Sell method, and I’m putting in quite a bit of detail about how the conversations can flow, what will be said, how to respond in certain situations. And I believe with a large enough dataset, this can be customized to every single company. You can predict what people will ask you on your website. You can predict what inquiries they will have on your web forms. You can predict with a pretty high degree of accuracy what types of things will come up in the sales process and what is most effective in response to those questions and those queries. So conversational architect job prediction number one.

Job prediction number two, VP of sales learning. Given the speed of change and the tools to deliver learning experiences, I suspect that eventually sales enablement will have someone, will be augmented by someone whose only job is to think about the content of sales training and deliver improvements in outcomes absent the technology. A lot of the learning in development field has sort of branched off from HR and I think there’s a real opportunity in a lot of sales organizations for career salespeople more attuned to teaching, more attuned to help people learn to be in charge, specifically of sales learning as we get a better and better handle on what actually works and not just be so focused on delivering better training technology that breaks the modules into bite-sized pieces. I think that there is a lot to be said about the curriculum and the quality of the content and I think there will be a dedicated sales learning person in that role.

My last prediction for a new job, and I alluded to this earlier, and I can’t take credit for this one because it is the number one fastest growing job in LinkedIn’s 2020 Emerging Jobs Report and it’s AI specialists and of course that’ll be a dedicated role in many sales organizations. In fact, I would guess you would have multiple AI specialists based on where they are in the funnel, which customer segments they work with, which products and services they work on, that kind of thing. It will be highly, highly specialized because the AI will only make sense if it can mimic demonstrated successful human behavior. Otherwise, it’ll be total crap. And so I don’t believe it’s a situation where you can have one single AI specialist to run everything at the company because there’s so much contextual information that needs to be in there as part of their job. But AI specialist, chief sales AI person, I don’t know what the heck it’s going to be called, but something in there around AI specialist.

So here are the key takeaways in today’s episode. No matter what sales role you’re in, you should understand the changing landscape that automation is causing. Whether you call it AI, data science, machine learning or something else, things are changing, my friend, particularly when you’re looking at scale. Demand for highly educated professionals will continue to rise as well as the demand for critical people skills. So learn to be a more effective person. Learn to speak well, learn to collaborate, learn creative skills, learn to write for goodness sakes because increasingly there will be pressure and some sales jobs will be lost.

The more repetitive, the less creative and the less interaction you have with clients and customers, the more likely you are to have a job that’ll be automated, but the more strategic and the more you work directly with people in complex situations to collaborate and problem-solve, the more likely you are to be safe from job loss though there will be increasing pressure on you to update and improve your skills. That is not going to go away. There will be increasing pressure to learn, learn, learn. Some jobs will change a lot and look more like data science roles than traditional sales roles. Wherever data science can be applied, it will be and of course brand new jobs will be created so companies can stay competitive in the changing sales landscape.

That’s it for the second episode in the Sales AI Series. In next week’s episode, I’ll be covering how we’re using AI right now and what nerdy strategy games have to do with the future of selling. If you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the subscribe button. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes and get daily sales insights with an authentic hand drawing that I drew right on my iPad in my office as well as other exclusive sales content I put out by signing up for the newsletter at That’s It’s totally free and it’s linked in the show notes.

I want to thank you once again for listening to the Modern Sales Podcast. If you’re getting something out of this, tell someone, just share it with them. Send them the link, just talk to them. Tell them, put it in Slack however you want to tell someone, and if you would please do subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. Yes, reviews still matter. It helps me reach more people, and if you’re on Spotify, hit that follow button because that will also help me reach more people with your help. Thanks to everyone who makes this podcast possible. Juan Perez is our editor and Mary Anne [inaudible 00:22:28] is our show assistant. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

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