AI Remains a Supporting Actor in Enterprise Sales, For Now

by Tony Palladino

Revolution creates a paradigm shift. The industrial revolution was followed by the information age, when the advent of computers and the internet created another paradigm shift for the world economy. Countless innovations followed, such as smart phones, online shopping and streaming video to name just a few of the life changing innovations. And now, with the advent of Generative AI, we are on the cusp of yet another revolution. Change is happening at an accelerated pace. After 20+ years of Machine Learning, we are now beyond the curve in the hockey stick growth chart, with change climbing at an exponential rate. So, how does this impact big business today? The opportunities are boundless. What does this mean to enterprise buyers and sellers?

The AI revolution will impact mankind in so many ways, from replacing mundane tasks to the fantastic idea of creating a super-human military force, perhaps someday sooner than we may believe. There will be countless new innovations, most of which are unthinkable today. Everyone is amazed and expectations are high. The recent CES conference showed us that companies are inserting AI into almost every consumer electronic product, including washers, dryers, coffee makers, cars, TVs, and now robots. The gold rush is on. Most every company is exploring the possibilities around leveraging AI in some way or another. They say that AI will replace many jobs, which is very believable. Perhaps a few decades from now, AI will replace most of the current jobs. That may seem like a fantasy, though you’d have to admit the possibility, if not the inevitability. But for now, I would like to focus this discussion on the profession of enterprise sales….

The old adage that “people do business with people” has already been shattered by Amazon. A consumer can order almost anything online and have it delivered within 48-hours (if not sooner) without any human interaction. Amazon started their AWS cloud business based upon the same self-service consumption model. AWS did not hire sales people until several years down the road. In fact, Andy Jassy, AWS’ CEO at the time, stated in an interview a few years ago that he had regretted not hiring sales people sooner. He acknowledged that AWS had under-estimated the high value derived from the customer/sales-rep relationship. After all, how could AWS claim “customer obsession” to be their #1 Leadership Principle without having obsessive sales people? Once AJ realized this, AWS aggressively pursued hiring the top talent in the industry, an investment that fueled a high growth boom for AWS cloud services over the past 5 years.

Back to AI….

One could argue that AI can replace introductory level sales and marketing people in the enterprise sales arena, where the customer interaction is minimal – until the opportunity is qualified and a more strategic relationship is desired. Qualifying steps in the cycle would likely include completing a questionnaire followed by a demo. These tasks can be handled by AI automation, which we’ll see become more prevalent in 2024. But, when it comes to a customer making a multi-million dollar commitment, a real human sales pro is critical in the role as the primary interface to the customer. Why? The answer is psychological; call it human nature. The customer buyer needs to trust the seller, in order to follow through with a commitment. Human sellers are better at earning the buyer’s trust, at least currently. Earning trust is the foundation of any good relationship and buyer/seller relationships are no exception. For as long as enterprise buyers remain human, this will remain constant. For consumers buying online, it’s a different dynamic. The consumer can trust that Amazon will deliver their product as advertised. The added convenience of swiping “buy now” makes it an easy, fun experience. But, for enterprise buyers, it’s a different game altogether, with much higher stakes.

Picture this scenario…. The enterprise customer is considering a major financial commitment to a technology solution provider. Transforming the relationship from “vendor” to “strategic partner” will increase the lifetime value for both parties. As the sale cycle progresses, the human sales pro uncovers the customer’s concerns. Diving deeper along the way, the sales pro can address their concerns and explore the nuances around each issue. This is a critical step, based upon asking the right questions and listening to the customer. As any experienced sales pro knows, listening is a fundamental ingredient for success.

Then comes the key milestone in the sale cycle – the customer dinner meeting. There’s something about “breaking bread” that serves as a distinct advantage for humans vs AI. Over dinner, the customer reveals more information around their decision making process, budget, timing, and details on what the competition is positioning. Perhaps a competitor is making an offer with a very creative twist. With this new gold nugget, the sales rep can work jointly with the customer to build a plan to effectively address the new situation and neutralize the competitive offer. Without the cozy dinner meeting, the sales pro would likely not learn about the competitive offer until it was too late – well after the customer decided to change their direction. Because of the relationship that had thus far been cultivated and then cemented over dinner, the sales pro is able to learn what it will take to close the deal. The sales pro can then mobilize his/her team to strategize and respond back to the customer with a new compelling offer, ultimately earning the right to ask for the order. After a series of back-and-forth negotiations (another set of human interactions), the Agreement is finally executed and the vendor now becomes a strategic partner. There’s no way that these events are driven by AI without a human sales pro at the helm (at least until the buyer is replaced by an AI bot).

For the immediate future, both sides – buyer and seller – will have access to AI in the role of a supporting actor, providing greater insights to help make an intelligent decision. I submit that humans will continue to be needed to determine the nuances of the Agreement. As AI continues to feed on data and become better trained over time, it will take on a more impactful role in the decision-making process. But for now, human interaction will continue to be a crucial requirement. After all, the Agreement is ultimately signed by humans. A fair question is, “for how long?”