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“According to Harvard Business Review, by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their interactions with an organization without interacting with a human.” If it’s in HBR, it must be right.

Through other data, we know customers are self educating on the web, depending on who you read, it’s up to 90% of customers are letting their fingers walk through Google.

The implication that many try to make with this data is usually something around the death of sales. Usually the authors try to use this information as a causal effect around the declining need for sales people.

Certainly, there is a lot of wishful thinking about getting rid of sales people (a surprising amount from people in sales).

But people using this data don’t really understand what is happening in sales. They haven’t tracked how things have been changing in sales, for at least several decades. We are missing the real opportunity automation, the web, and upcoming developments in AI/Machine Language provide both buyers and sellers.

The value of sales people has never been in the “transactional” aspects of buying/selling. Sales people did these things, because there was no alternative for both the customers and them.

We spent lots of time doing the endless mundane things that are parts of buying/selling. Getting the customers information they need, researching details about products/capabilities, getting specs, understanding inventory/lead times, getting contracts, getting credit reports, researching referrals, arranging meetings with product specialists, entering orders, confirming shipping…..

As we prospected, we spent endless amounts of time, simply searching for customers, finding addresses, phone numbers, identifying people in the companies we were trying to sell to.

Customers were doing many similar, transactional, things on their side, searching for suppliers, finding addresses, phone numbers, asking for product information, trying to find the right people in companies to talk to—all while still trying to do their day jobs.

But little of this was “value added” in the buying/selling process. They were simply things we and our customers had to do, because there was no alternative to getting them done more effectively and efficiently.

Because so much of our time was taken with doing these transactional/mundane things, many people started thinking these were the things critical to sales people doing the job–they became the job of sellers.

Because so much time was taken in doing these things, on both the buying/selling side, it often diverted us from the most important aspects of buying and selling–helping the customer solve their problems, helping them think about their businesses differently, helping them organize themselves to buy, helping them to achieve their goals and dreams.

Things like EDI, and electronic ordering have been around for decades, offloading/simplifying the transaction of placing orders–both on the customer and sales sides (too many people confuse this single transaction as the sum total of buying/selling). Web based tools, enable sales people and buyers to conduct many of these mundane transactional aspects of buying and selling much more efficiently, or offloading them completely from our work.

The web and the abundance of information have made it far easier for sales people to share relevant information more accurately and quickly. It has made it far easier for customers to educate themselves about products, solutions, alternatives.

In short, much of what’s happened in buying and selling over the past decades have freed up time on the part of customers and sellers. They’ve offloaded buyers/sellers many of the mundane, transactional parts of buying/selling. The things that added no value to the process, but had to be done because there was no other alternative.

At the risk of repeating myself, those sellers that defined their jobs as doing these things are dinosaurs. They are no longer necessary because they add no value to the process.

But this shouldn’t be new news.

What all this automation and the abundance of information on both the buying and selling side has done is freed us up to focus on the aspects of buying and selling that create real value. Helping our customers discover new opportunities, helping them understand and solve their problems, helping them organize to solve their problems/buy, helping them achieve their goals and dreams.

This is where we create value, this is where we have the greatest impact on our buyers. This is where the human to human interaction cannot, currently or in the short term–if ever, be replaced. It is situational, it is unique to each individual, it changes over time, it is neither consistent, nor rational. This is where sales time needs to be spent and where the most value is created. Those that can’t navigate the business/human side of buying/selling will not survive.

The transformation with automation and other technologies has freed everyone to focus on the things that cannot be automated and require that people to people interaction. These capabilities give us and our customers the time to invest in those parts of buying/selling that are most critical and cannot be done without interaction/active engagement/shared discovery/empathy.

The key challenge for sales people is, Are we focusing our time on doing those things? Are we using the time to engage the customer in really understanding them (as people, their functions, and their organizations), are we helping them think differently about their businesses, are we helping them identify and address opportunities or problems?

The promise of AI/Machine Learning is that it further frees up time to focus on things really important to creating value with the customer. It further informs and prepares us to make the best use of that time we do spend.

The key issue is: Are we prepared to spend that time well?