How To Make Your Sales Career AI-Proof

By Steve Woods in Sales

AI, the future of work, and the future of sales

The rapid advance of AI is threatening millions of jobs. Right now, no discipline seems safe. AI systems first tackled purely digital tasks and demonstrated their superiority in everything from transcribing voice data and translating languages to recognizing images and diagnosing medical conditions.  But more recently, AI-based systems are tackling the physical world and now can drive cars, build houses, and mow lawns.  For a while, creative disciplines appeared to be safe, but recent innovations in AI are allowing machines to write music, paint, and compose news articles. AI also threatens jobs relying on creative skills and reading comprehension.

So what remains for the future of work?  Most articles on the topic of AI and the future seem to delicately avoid this question. Instead, pundits stretch back in history to the rise of agriculture or the industrial revolution – completely different eras – and say, essentially, “we figured it out then, and new jobs came about, it’ll probably be the same this time”. But these people are wrong. The magnitude and exponential learning capability of AI presents a completely, irreversibly, drastically different future. And, given the scope of AI’s capabilities and the speed with which it’s tackling so many different tasks, it’s hard to view the “it will all work out” viewpoint as anything but hopelessly optimistic.  It’s through this lens that we need to look at the future of sales.

Where does that leave humans?

Our clearest path to seeing the future of work, and the future of sales, comes from psychology. What makes humans unique is what psychologists call the “theory of mind”.  In brief, what that means is that when we are interacting with another person, we make an innate assumption that the other person has a mind and a personality. Hence, humans act and react in ways that are familiar to us, assuming that our counterparts too have mutually made that assumption about us.  Salespeople have innately known this as the core of sales is entirely built on relationships.

The “theory of mind” assumption is a core foundation of social interactions, trust, and relationships.  Without assuming that we’re dealing with other humans who are (somewhat) like us, we would be unable to interact, develop trust, or build relationships. And these capabilities are also what AI has so far proven totally unable to do.

Ultimately, we are best to find areas that are not easily tackled by AI-based systems.  So, jobs that rely on triggering the “theory of mind” assumptions that we rely on as humans are much better positioned for success than jobs that rely on doing “tasks”, even those with some basic thought involved.  Sales, if done correctly, can be one of these jobs.

What are the implications for your sales career?

Sales, when looked at through this lens, is very much at a crossroads.  Done well, sales is fundamentally about relationships and trust.  The best sales professionals get to know their prospects, learn about them and their careers, and find ways to help in order to build trust and develop relationships over time.  However, in many organizations, the relationship building approach has lost ground to the “hustle” approach. The much-hyped modern “hustle” often involves using automated and quasi-automated processes to send high volumes of undifferentiated outreach to large numbers of prospects.

Any salesperson today who is looking at their long-term career prospects needs to be making sure that they are focused on developing the skills that will matter in the next 5 years and are ready to let go of anything that can be fully automated.

Is your sales career AI-proof?

To help assess how “AI-proof” your sales career is likely to be over the next 5 years, here are 7 questions to answer:

  1. What percentage of your prospects would recognize you by name?  Would they recognize your voice on the phone or know who you were if you bumped into them on the street?
  2. What percentage of your prospects have you talked about more than specific projects or challenges?  Do you talk about their career, family, alma mater?  Have you congratulated them or cheered them on for a work accomplishment that is not related to your specific project?
  3. For what percentage of your prospects do you know their favorite sports team, hobby, or next vacation destination?
  4. What percentage of your prospects are you interacting with where there is not an active deal at the moment?
  5. In what percentage of your communications with prospects would a recipient be 100% sure it was not automated?
  6. What percentage of your communications with prospects do not in any way follow, or partially follow, a script?
  7. What percentage of your communications with prospects are truly about them (not a generalized “people in your situation” but truly about them and their unique reality)?

Evaluating your sales approach

Under 25%: If you find that you are answering many or most of these questions with a percentage that is under 25%, you are in serious danger of being threatened by the rise of AI in sales.  If your outbound communications to prospects are not differentiated, not based on the prospect’s unique reality, and not developing a relationship, those outbound messages could quite easily be replaced by AI in the next 5 years.

25%-50%: If you find that your answers are in the 25-50% range, there is still a lot of risk to your sales career, as much of what you do can and will be automated.  However, there is an aspect of what you do that is very human and is relationship focused.  If you can build those skills and habits, while minimizing the undifferentiated outreach, you will find yourself well set up for success.

Above 50%: If your answers are consistently above 50%, you’re in a good spot.  Most of what you do is focused on building uniquely human relationships, and as the manual tasks are more and more automated, you’ll naturally be able to focus even more on the relationship aspect.

#HoldTheHustle and shift your sales career to relationship-building

AI is completely transforming the job market and will be the defining trend of this generation and the next few decades.  Millions of jobs will be eliminated or substantially reduced. It’s not yet clear that the growth of new jobs will be large enough and fast enough to replace losses. In some career areas, there is no clear path to ensuring long-term employability – but sales does have that path (for now).  

So, for anyone in sales, now is the time to assess whether your approach to selling is one that will be automated and eliminated, or will be sustainable for the long term.  If you are truly a relationship-builder, you are in a good spot, but if you rely on undifferentiated outreach and try to “hustle” to make up for the lack of quality, I can’t emphasize enough that you are on a very dangerous career path.

Do you want to try to out-hustle AI?  Or do you want to leverage AI to become more human?

And, ultimately, ask yourself this question: do you have a genuine relationship with your prospects?

If the answer is “no”, it’s time to #HoldTheHustle and contemplate how you want to move forward.

Steve Woods
CTO and Co-Founder