Invest in people first, then tech/tools

Here’s a big question in any industry, and any sales context: should you invest more in people, or tools?

In some ways, the writing is on the wall here. Let’s take the banking industry as a quick example. Bank of America is closing branches left and right, and meanwhile, what else are they doing? Investing more in mobile (check) and creating AI chatbots (check) named “Erica” to serve customers. Meanwhile, the CEO of IBM is saying 1 billion people will be using Watson by 2018 — and there are already bots within Facebook Messenger where you can order your dinner.

My point? Some people believe 47-54 percent of jobs might be automated in the next 10 years. As a result of all this, most — not all — companies are investing more in tech right now, and generally less in people.

(Funny story quickly: I saw a job posting for a sales rep in the U.S. a few weeks ago. The job posting wanted tons of experience and listed about 17 specific industry skills you needed to have. You know what the salary range was? It was about $33,000 U.S. to maybe $45,000. Talk about “not investing in people.”)

People have started wondering whether AI will ultimately take over sales — Salesforce, for example, thinks it might help create jobs (more on that in one second) whereas Forbes has said it might eliminate sales jobs. I’m actually not 100 percent sure either way, and I don’t know how long it will take AI to truly “scale.” Some say 8-10 years, but I could also see 25+ — there is a lot of resistance to change in business, and AI will be a massive change. Even if it reduces costs for executives, they may not embrace it for a while.

But we live in the present, right? We aren’t guaranteed any future, in all honesty. In the present, I would invest in people as much — or more than — technology. Why? Isn’t technology supposed to make things easier and be able to replicate the same actions over and over, whereas people can mess up? Yes. That’s all true. But there are a couple of issues here:

Sales has always been about people: No rapport? No deal, baby! We can get AI and natural language pretty far, but if a lead knows they’re talking to a bot, they’re not going to close — at least not anytime in the near future.

Bob and weave: Sales is also about reaction and response. AI might bring you the best pre-qualified lead. Now what? You have that lead on the phone and they pivot to a new problem, so you need to pivot to a new solution. You can teach an AI bot 200 million pages of sales calls, sure, but that pivot isn’t going to be fluid like a pro sales guy can do it right now. You lose the leads without the execution, but if it’s all about execution — i.e. a robotic, regimented, always-the-same approach that you might see with current iterations of AI — you’ll lose those leads too. Still need a human touch.

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Uh, humanity: Humans still have families and monetary commitments. Even if you want to hire up some solid context bots to slice costs to the bone, remember you’re affecting the lives of other people — and in a big way.

Non-AI arguments around sales tools: Let’s back off from AI for a second and talk about some sales tools, like a “sales enablement suite of products” or something that you’re getting pitched. Usually, these things have some good features and some bad ones (like any product), but one way these things fall down a lot is if you have a mixed HQ and remote sales team. Many companies have this. Here’s what happens: the HQ team gets direct information. You think it’s because of the new tools, no it’s still because of the chat over coffee. The remote team obviously does not get that type of info. It’s often more filtered, distant, unprioritized, unrelated, etc. When you go global and try to rely on “tools” to help scale your relationship with those remote sales guys, you fail. This happens almost every time.

On the flip side, if you focus on them as people — training them up, coaching them, showing them good and bad of their approach, doing debriefs — you are more successful.

My overall point is that right now, whether or not you look at it from a “the robots are coming!” perspective or not, sales is more about people and less about tech/tools. Put your focus there. Now, ask me in five years and I may have a different answer — but for now, people drive relationships, and relationships drive sales. So, invest in your people. Why I’m saying that? 5-7 years ago it was just obvious to invest in customer facing sales staff. Actually there was no alternative. There was no modern tool chain! Today we operate a tool stack between $150 – $500 in total per sales rep/month. Tempting to believe that investing in sexy tools would be enough, ha?

 

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