Jeff Guthrie knows technology is changing how sales are conducted – he just doesn’t believe it can replace human salespeople entirely, or even more than a small fraction.
As CMO of Canada’s largest payments processor, Moneris Solutions, Guthrie has certainly seen his share of technology-driven changes in the sales profession – especially those powered by artificial intelligence (AI), which Moneris has used to analyze past customers and compare them with current prospects to identify the merchants most likely to use its products – but ultimately subscribes to a theory akin to an insight that IBM chair and CEO Ginni Rometty discussed at Salesforce Inc.’s Dreamforce conference last November: That only 10 per cent of jobs will disappear as a result of the current AI revolution, but 100 per cent will change.
“Humans cannot interpret sales history the way a machine can interpret sales history,” Guthrie told CDN during the Future of Sales in Canada, an event held by the Canadian Professional Sales Association (CPSA) on Jan. 10. “I always say that [finding leads] is like diamond mining – you have to dig through a lot of coal to get a few diamonds, and what technology is doing is helping you dig through all that coal to find the real diamonds, which are the right leads to contact at the right time.”
AI-driven leads are the perfect example of the digital transformation Rometty discussed at Dreamforce, where she emphasized that the greatest technological breakthroughs will be driven by “man and machine working together.”
By automating routine tasks and applying machine learning to customer data, AI is completely transforming the world of sales, Guthrie acknowledged – but also creating new opportunities along the way.
“I always use the example of 10 years ago, when nobody had a smartphone. You dropped your cellphone, it was no big deal,” he said. “Now, drop your smartphone on the ground and break it, and you will feel a separation like no other.”
Just as today’s smartphones have both shuttered and built entire industries, AI is going to change sales, Guthrie said. “But is it going to make everyone obsolete? I don’t think so.”
More importantly, he said, even the most advanced AI can’t replicate the most irreplaceable, intangible component of any sale: chemistry between buyer and seller.
“Selling is all about building relationships,” Guthrie said. “I always say you buy from people you like. You don’t buy from people you hate. Yes, there are going to be products where you can just click and buy, but when it comes to important decisions, especially in business, you want to look at somebody in the eye, you want to shake their hand, and you want to build a relationship.”
“You want to know that person understands your business, and is looking to help you solve a business problem, and I think that requires a level of human connection that no machine can ever do,” he continued.
Not every sales executive who shared the stage with Guthrie at the Future of Sales in Canada shared his optimism about the impact of AI on jobs, however: PointClickCare senior vice president of sales Joan Leroux told CDN that she believes today’s aspiring salespeople need to be “pragmatic” when it comes to thinking about the sector’s future.
“As in many industries, we have seen technology advancements really disintermediate those high-volume/low-value transactions and solve low-level situations with consumers,” she said – both situations which had introduced many to the industry.
Adding technology to the mix forces salespeople to work smarter, Leroux said, as it has in many industries, though she noted that in her experience it’s embraced equally warmly both by sales teams and the executives leading them.
“As sales professionals, technology is giving us an opportunity to better engage with our customers in a more strategic capacity, so that we can improve their buying decisions, and improve our competitive advantage,” she said.