Will AI Make Tech Sales Reps Obsolete – or Empower Them?

Robots can play a valuable role

The latest SMA/ITAC Think Tank explored the topic of Artificial Intelligence and the impact it’s going to have on our marketing and sales jobs, and on the sales process. Overall, participants believe that AI will help to streamline the sales process, and that involving sales with the implementation of AI, right from the beginning, will be key. These are some of the top takeaways from the event:

  1. AI is going to empower sales reps.
    • There’s lots that AI can do – provide general information, answer initial questions, move prospects along the first steps in the sales funnel – more cheaply and effectively than a live sales rep. So when a prospect is eventually directed to a live sales rep, they’re pre-qualified, they’ve reviewed key information and they’re ready for meaningful engagement.
  2. Millennials like interacting with AI.
    • Try better targeting, more relevant messages and use more effective ROI tracking tools.
  3. Sales reps need to be involved in structuring AI interactions and processes.
    • Sales reps need to be involved from the very beginning in designing AI systems, to ensure that the information captured, and the steps involved will adequately qualify and inform prospects, and also lead them to the ideal point for contact with a sales rep.

 This SMA/ITAC Think Tank was hosted at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ontario by Julie Norden, Senior Team Lead, Marketing, Microsoft Canada Co. The discussion was moderated by Bob Becker, Principal, SMA.


  • Dave Butt, Sales Team Lead, Canada, BlueRange Technology
  • Chub Letenyei, Consultative Marketing Manager, Dell EMC
  • Doug Long, Director of Marketing, Emailtopia
  • Laure Tessier-Devlivuk, National Commercial Leader, GE Healthcare Digital
  • Jeff Wilson, Business Unit Executive, Arrow Canada ECS, IBM Canada Ltd.
  • Ray Deutschbein, Enterprise Account Executive, Marketo Inc.
  • Julie Norden, Senior Team Lead, Marketing, Microsoft Canada Co.
  • John Dos Santos, Independent
  • Fern White, Independent

Comments from our Discussions

Below are participant comments from our think tank.  Each event is unique, and the needs of each technology company represented at the event are equally unique. As you will see, there are different opinions and approaches, but also some clear themes. We think you’ll find much food for thought in these comments from our participants.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.

The following podcast (presented by Ian Sample & produced by Max Sanderson, May 3, 2017 at 10:59 BST) documentary film Erica: Man Made, gave viewers a chance to pose their own questions to Erica; the world’s “most beautiful and intelligent” android. And in this episode, we hear her (or her creator’s) thoughts on happiness, humanity, and the future of android-human relationships.


  • It’s a complex topic; reviewing what AI is doing.
  • How do I grow out the business – to some degree don’t know all the tools, still need help with all the AI tools out there.
  • More opportunity than threat; to accelerate using AI sooner rather than later; perhaps leveraging Salesforce.
  • AI is validating and confirming on right track.
  • Sales people are expensive but so is AI. There is no IT – not one answer. AI needs to be applied to sales process. To be adaptable, look at different ways on how AI will apply as the sales/buying process changes.
  • Important to look at human interaction to try and be more sophisticated at that – this could be the differentiating factor.
  • Automation of process is there – it’s the degree of whether it’s going to happen or not.
  • Be aware of AI – need to react if you can’t build it, or will lose business.
  • Need to understand if AI is a person or a proxy to organization – part of that process.
  • Embrace it and recognize it’s here – build it and own it.

What can be done by a robot/android in the sales process? If they do have a role in the future, where do you see it evolving?

  • In the sales process, “adaptive technology” is being used today as an ability to recommend based on scoring and behaviour off- and online to uncover relevant information to move the prospect down the sales funnel.
  • AI can play an inside sales role for early engagement like triage for the sales process.
  • Positioned correctly, AI can establish an opportunity to pre-qualify with basic questions followed by human interaction.
  • Developing a trusting environment with an android is a challenge when conducting business.
  • AI can retrieve data better than any human but linking it to accelerate the sales/buying funnel is the challenge.
  • The role of a sales person continues to change. Prospects have a base of information prior to purchasing, but androids bring a level of sophistication. Now we are competing with robots. How competitively do we engage with those customers? Androids cannot synthesize technology pieces; humans are still needed to continue the interactive process.
  • AI can be the new SME – the more sophisticated the product/solution, the more information is needed.
  • With millennials, AI is the new normal. Continue to know your audience.
  • AI should be considered as an opportunity we need to embrace.
  • Order-taking and dealing with objections may work very well for AI. However, continued assessing and implementation is very interactive, unable to be handled by AI.

What do we know that AI cannot do/process in the sales cycle?

  • AI cannot hold face-to-face meetings to read the non-spoken, interactive cues.
  • Trust and relationship building, such as emotional touch and developing friendships is not present with AI.
  • AI can work well as a prequalifying tool, but not as a trusted advisor to buy.
  • AI cannot provide hypothetical comparison scenarios to push buyer over the edge, where judgment calls are needed.
  • Instinctual approaches – “this versus that” – is not available with an AI.
  • Team building/interaction is not available with AI.
  • 80% of buying cycle is complete before buying – AI is part of that 80%. The remaining 20% is that white board conversation with cues (emotion & discretion) that AI cannot be a part of.
  • Rainy-day scenario: if something goes wrong, we will overreact and give you the best of our services; today, AI cannot assess such scenarios.

Daniel Pink says in his book “To Sell is Human” that selling and buying is an emotional exchange which includes fear, doubt and anxiety as well as excitement, joy, hope and possibility. Unless computers are programmed with human qualities like empathy, they can’t assume the expert sales rep role.

Could you trust an AI/android/robot more than a sales rep that you’ve never met before?

  • No, it takes time to earn a trusted relationship, it’s not instant.
  • AI is more efficient and is available all day, every day and answers you whenever – is that more trust-worthy?
  • Society is becoming accustomed to AI engagement; it is developing the new normal.
  • An android may be more trusted in organizations with a strong reputation.
  • Buying from like-minded people remains important. But this may fade as we trust AI more.
  • We are the owners of the androids. They are filling gaps and eventually can help with profitability.
  • Compatibility issues between humans are difficult to adjust; this is non-existent with androids and can be a huge benefit.
  • One point of contact can be powerful in the future with AI.

Millennials – are they going to want flexibility and information and not require human interaction?

  • All agree that millennials can accept this easier – they don’t know any different.
  • Easy to adopt AI tools (SIRI) and it will be easier for millennials to fully trust AI in the future.
  • Basic emotions and trust in the sales process seem to be decreasing/de-sensitized. Millennials are finding this less important.
  • Sales is an interactive face-to-face and problem-solving environment. Millennials don’t have this mind-set, they are “email-senders”. Sales process is more than that.
  • It’s about what the buyer wants and where they are in the process.
  • In the financial industry, AI is more accepted because there is enhanced data to make those decisions.
  • Face-to-face purchases and money exchange are more satisfying. Millennials may not be there, they prefer to “press that button” when buying.
  • B2C today is mostly done via AI. B2B has more complex/sophisticated purchase processes, not there yet.

What happens when the buyer is a computer? Can a human interact with AI?

  • It is available now for the recruitment market. However, not as efficient as one might think. 80% of hires are conducted via networking and relationships. Not possible with AI.
  • RFPs from androids are not responded to; there is lack of personal touch & influence factor.
  • Depending on industry, there may be big impacts with AI as a buyer. But there will still be a need for human interaction to assess the buying/selling cycle.
  • AI automated RFP can be beneficial to filter proposals to get to the best of the best.
  • Will drive change for the role of manufacturer to try and beat those standards. Means less differentiation to drive higher standards to make focused innovation.
  • Customer success – upsell/cross sell – can be replaced by this outbound robot.

What can a sales or marketing representative do to ensure they do not become redundant?

  • Build and own it; leverage AI.
  • Be where you are valued and play a great role and adapt.
  • Identify who values human interaction and relationships – find those buyers and make that the focus of your efforts.
  • Focus on repeat and retention accounts.
  • Use AI as a sales accelerator and this can help you focus on what you can’t do today.
  • In the healthcare industry, AI may replace radiologists. Since there is a “normal” pattern, AI can identify what is not, thus reducing wait list periods in the future.
  • Protect your account base; existing customers become more critical.

How will AI change/affect Marketing and Sales relationship?

  • Forced to come together encroaching on sales process – alignment has to happen, especially with complex account-based sales.
  • Need to work together when RFP hits – AI can empower – maybe AI can replace marketing.
  • Sales and Marketing roles are becoming more blurred with less traditional marketing duties.

Our next event will be in Markham on October 19.

Posted By: SMA

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