Will artificial intelligence make the role of the salesperson obsolete in the next decade?

We’ve had public warnings from some of the most revered minds in the world, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, who have both said that automation will disrupt world economies and leave many jobless in its wake. Technologists and economists agree that the automation revolution is already underway and really has been since the invention of the personal computer, but how far will it go? What impact A.I. will have on employment remains to be seen, but all signs point toward it having a significant impact in the very near future.

When you think of A.I. and automation, you might think of sci-fi movies where robots are responsible for most of our manual labor. That future may not be all that far off, either. One study found that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. Will sales AI automation be one of those heavily affected industries?

The attention that this subject has drawn, combined with the near-apocalyptic predictions from studies and famous thinkers have increased the fear among workers in many industries. At first, the biggest worries were of A.I. taking over jobs that included repetitive menial tasks, but as artificial intelligence continues to grow in power in versatility, it’s left many white collar workers wondering if their own jobs are at risk too.

It wasn’t long ago that sales jobs were thought to be relatively safe when it came to the re-shaping of the economy with A.I. After all, sales agents need to have real conversations with their prospects. They have to build personal connections. These are tasks that A.I. has historically struggled with and doesn’t appear to be an easy solution to solve.

However, sales jobs have become increasingly intertwined with technology over the course of the last decade. We have seen more aspects of the work improved through software and A.I. to the benefit of all salespeople who use it. In-depth CRM software provides sales reps with the ability to juggle more connections with prospects than ever before. But is there a breaking point where so much of the job can be automated that real, live salespeople are no longer required? Some studies have looked at this exact issue.

What Have Studies Shown about the Future of A.I. on Sales Positions?

As the subject of automation replacing jobs has become more of a mainstream topic in recent years, there have been numerous studies that have attempted to identify the types of tasks that A.I. would be best suited. Those studies then match those findings with jobs in order to determine which jobs are most likely to be outsourced to A.I. and automated.

A recent study by McKinsey looked at the tasks and work activities of more than 750 different occupations in the United States. They analyzed which of those tasks could be automated simply by adapting technology that already exists to the job. The study found that more than 50% of the day-to-day tasks performed in sales positions could be automated using already-existing technology.

employment automation potential

The study also only looked at technology that already exists and didn’t attempt to account for future advances in artificial intelligence and automation. Seeing something like this, it’s easy to worry about the future of your career and wonder if you should start to take steps to shield yourself from potentially being replaced.

Ability to Automate Depends On the Sales Position

Before you call your boss to quit your job or start signing up for programming classes, you might want to pump the brakes a bit. While there does seem to be a lot of opportunity for sales AI automation within the industry, it does depend heavily on your specific position and what your daily activities actually look like.

Some sales jobs are more easily automated than others. Telemarketers, for instance, should probably be pretty worried about their future in the industry. NPR’s Planet Money created a tool that estimates the likelihood that certain positions with be automated. Their system analyzes jobs on a number of factors including:

  • Need to come up with clever solutions
  • Need to personally help others
  • Ability to squeeze into small spaces
  • Need for negotiation

Using these factors to evaluate positions, NPR found that telemarketing has a 99% chance of one day being automated:

telemarketing automation likelihood

Compare that to Advertising Sales Agents, who have about a 54% chance of seeing their position become automated:

sales agent advertising automation

Advertising Sales Agents are required to come up with clever solutions to problems and negotiate deals with clients — something that A.I. in its current implementations would struggle with.

But not all sales jobs have a high chance of being automated. Securities Commodities and Financial Services Sales Agents have only a 1.6% chance of being automated, according to NPR’s tool. This is due to those positions requiring clever solutions, negotiation, and the ability to personally help others.

financial sales automation

Higher level sales positions that involve a more in-depth sales process are less likely to be candidates for automation. They simply require too much interaction to be fully automated by the types of A.I. solutions that we have on the market today. Most higher-level sales jobs have a consulting component built into the interaction, which requires a human touch.

However, that doesn’t mean that certain tasks within every position can’t be automated. As automation begins to replace lower level sales jobs, the higher-level positions will become even more competitive. So even if you find yourself in a safe position in your current job, it doesn’t hurt to prepare.

Automation Will Never Completely Replace the Sales Rep

It’s difficult to imagine a future where A.I. solutions are able to completely replace every sales position. There are just some tasks that are requirements in high-level sales jobs that make them unsuitable for automation, but much of the sales workforce could see significant portions of their work tasks automated, greatly reducing the demand for sales agents.

Still, bots can’t be expected to develop relationships with and effectively communicate with prospects in the same way that people can — which is the foundation of sales. Automated solutions may not be able to prospect and analyze complex social situations in the way that a person can.

A huge part of any sales job is listening to your prospect and responding in a way that helps to position your product as a true solution to their biggest problems. That process of listening and responding is precisely what forms that bond between salespeople and their prospects, and is something that an automated solution will always have trouble emulating. Sales positions that are part-consulting are even harder to automate and represent much safer positions when the wave of automation comes crashing into the sales industry.

If you’re worried about the effect that A.I. and automation could have on the future of your sales job — you should be. There is no doubt that the coming changes will affect many in the industry. However, it is important to understand that just because automation is becoming a bigger part of our jobs doesn’t mean that the entire position can be outright replaced. Make yourself and the relationships that you cultivate integral to your company and they’ll never be able to replace you with software.