Survival of the fittest: As we enter a new age of automation, one where technology and society are evolving faster than many organizations can adapt to the changes, Darwin’s words have never resonated more clearly.
New technologies have the ability to completely transform business and put a lot of people out of work. From self-driving cars, file-sharing services, and even technology that can help heal the body, we’re witnessing an explosion of technology that some predict will reduce demand for jobs within the next 20 years.
In The Second Machine Age, it’s easy to see how MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee conclude that today’s jobs are being threatened across multiple industries, including retail, manufacturing, health care, law, and financial services. They say those that survive will require a human touch to avoid extinction. For sales reps, it may be time for a wake-up call as consumers’ buying decisions about products and services are being heavily influenced by what they see and hear online.
Look no further than the omnipresence of online shopping giant Amazon to see how big data and automation is disrupting almost everything. And growth is not limited to the B2B market. Wholesalers are also at risk of being displaced by automation sites. (An example of this is Alibaba in China.)
In either case, we can buy with as much ease as navigating a website or clicking on an ad. Is it possible, then, that just as machines have replaced human workers in other industries, that big data automation is just the thing that could completely wipe out the traditional sales force as we know it?
While automation can replace many routine tasks and while customers are increasingly willing to buy direct with or without the aid of a salesperson, the human touch is still critical. Consider your own frustration when you call a service provider—hoping to have your unique question or problem addressed—and can’t get through to a live person.
The key point is this: customers—even big business customers—are still people, and people like to do business with other people. This is especially true in B2B sales where products and services can be costly and complex. Often, decision makers need answers to questions that are not always anticipated in datasheets, brochures, and videos—with the level of specificity only a one-to-one interaction can provide.
So, how do salespeople of today justify their value and avoid getting replaced by a website, automated chat feature, or banner ad?
In my role as CEO of Hearsay Social, a provider of technology for the financial services industry, I’ve worked with dozens of companies that have enabled their salespeople to effectively leverage technology yet still remain that of a trusted advisor and subject matter expert offering highly personalized human touch to meet the demands of today’s social, mobile customer.
As such, here are my four best tips for salespeople on how to avoid displacement because of automation and succeed in the digital era:
Your customer base is no longer one size fits all. Your customers have unique goals, preferences, and likes that affect their buying decisions. Digital technology plays a key role in how they access and consume products and services. Therefore, sales-based organizations will need to shift from standard business models and lean toward a “digital mindset” to address the needs of an empowered customer base.
The potential pitfalls associated with a static website are only matched by the seemingly endless frustrations of a website that doesn’t easily load onto a mobile device. The ability to have meaningful conversations and interactions with clients will require a consistent presence across social, mobile and web channels.
Now, with new technologies at our fingertips, it’s more possible than ever to embrace a “work smarter, not harder” mentality. For sales reps, using technology is not about replacing what salespeople do best—that is, providing advice about a product or service—it’s about embracing potentially disruptive technologies to become more efficient in the ways you work and engage with customers and prospects.
Gone are the days of the two-hour lunch meeting. Today’s reps will need to play to the traits that make them uniquely human—being trustworthy and the ability to relate to customers and prospects on a personal level. These are the things that simply cannot be replicated by machines, and a winning solution will combine the best of both worlds.
It’s a social, digital world—one in which consumers dictate the terms of communication, not the other way around. Salespeople must therefore come to understand the transformational power of technology and use it to their advantage to improve customer relationships, streamline operations, and grow their business in the process.
Deliberate application of technology provides the best weapon against automation while providing the ultimate delivery mechanism for showcasing real, human knowledge and personalizing the buyer decision-making process.
Clara Shih is the CEO and founder of Hearsay Social, the predictive social suite for the financial services industry. A pioneer in the social media industry, she developed the first social business application in 2007, and is a New York Times-featured best-selling author and member of the Starbucks board of directors.