• AI has the potential to become the world’s worst micromanager for salespeople – but only if they let it
  • Salespeople’s pioneering spirit is what attracts them to the profession, so attempts to limit their creativity might backfire
  • A good rule of thumb is to never underestimate one’s ability to overcome insurmountable odds

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to speak with the CEO of one of the fastest-growing artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled sales forecasting companies. The CMO, sales and marketing leaders, product leaders and the co-founder were there as well. The co-founder is also the company’s chief data scientist. We were talking about the opportunities AI presents for sales, and eventually we began to also discuss AI’s downsides.

blue robot blowing little people off hand

The question “Is AI making us dumber?” came up, and I immediately thought, I rely on my smartphone for everything now, to the point where I can’t seem to walk down a street in an unfamiliar city without checking its GPS every ten steps, whereas in the past I could memorize verbal directions pretty easily.  I had answered the question for myself. AI is definitely making me dumber – or, best case, it’s making me lazy. I shared my realization with the group and asked, “Is AI going to do the same thing to salespeople? Will they only follow the steps that AI directs them to take in furthering a sales opportunity?” I posed more questions: “Will salespeople blindly follow opportunity scores and completely discard opportunities deemed ‘low probability’ from the onset? What will happen to the can-do, obstacle-overcoming, aggressive sales soul that attracts people to the profession in the first place?”

It was a lively topic, and everyone joined in. Well, everyone except the smartest person in the room, the data scientist. He sat quietly and pondered his answer carefully. In the middle of the conversation, he cleared his throat, and everyone stopped talking. ”Never underestimate the power of the human spirit,” he said. We all looked at each other as if we’d just heard a prophet speak. AI, he explained, is only meant to be a guide, not a directive; AI can only predict into the future what’s happened in the past – when it comes to predicting outliers, AI does a terrible job.

Although what he was saying was fascinating, I was only half-listening, because I was thinking about my neighbor’s dad Scotty – the ultimate outlier. A few years ago, Scotty was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. The doctors checked the stats and showed him and his family the charts. It was right there in black and white. He had two months to live – three, tops. Scotty went home and thought about it. He spent time with his family and prayed, and then he decided he was going make it through four months, not two or three. He had to. His daughter was due to have her first child then, and there was no way he was going to miss it. Well, Scotty made it through the four months!

He kept his spirits high, made extra efforts to take care of himself and kept following medical advice, and then he made a new deal. He decided he was going to see his grandson’s six-month birthday. Of course, he did – and then he still kept going. He set his sights on making it to his grandson’s first birthday. After that, he wanted to make it to take his family on the much-discussed vacation they’d never found the time to take, and it was during that vacation when Scotty’s daughter announced she was expecting her second child. He made it six more months to see baby Abigale born, and at that point the doctors started calling him “Miracle Scotty.” Since those first days, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Scotty without a smile on his face. Last summer, I saw him at a gas station and asked him how it was going. He smirked with a I’m-the-luckiest-guy-on-the-planet look on his face and said, “You know Dana, just another day. I gotta go deliver this piano to Aaron Neville.” Scotty rents musical equipment to touring artists and, apparently, he and Neville had struck up a friendship over the years. They’re pals. “Really?” I said. “Yeah.” And then he drove off.

Well, it’s been a few years after Scotty’s original diagnosis. He has two grandchildren, and the second one is approaching her first birthday. I have no doubt he will see it. What if he had taken doctors’ original prediction to heart and just given up, blindly trusting their prognosis? I know if he had, he wouldn’t be here right now – I’ve seen it happen to other people. He listened to them and followed medical advice, but still allowed his spirit to dictate how he would live.

Thinking back to the question of whether AI will kill the sales spirit, I think the issue is bigger than that, because it’s not just salespeople using it. We all use AI and, sadly, AI appears to be using us back. I think a lot of people will give up in much the same way I’ve given up on memorizing directions. There are some tremendous benefits to having these aids in our lives, but I’m starting to see a difference between letting AI tell me how to get where I want to go, vs. having it direct me where to go.

If we apply that understanding in sales, we can say AI should only suggest where you should go – but “suggest” is the key word: let’s use it to help us with the “how” when it’s helpful. We can’t let it become our master. When it comes to deciding the course that’s right for ourselves, our success and our livelihood, I suggest we heed the words the data scientist co-founder gave me that day, “Never underestimate the power of the human spirit.” Scotty’s spirit wasn’t to be underestimated, either!

To learn more about AI and how it can be best applied to B2B sales (and marketing!), join me and Kerry Cunningham as we present the session “Artificial Intelligence for Sales and Marketing: Illuminating the Blind Spots in B2B” at the 2018 SiriusDecisions Technology Exchange, Nov. 7-9 in New Orleans. Register for TechX here.