Robots Can’t Close

Sales & Marketing Management magazine

To date, technological advancements have always created better jobs and improved the well-being of humanity. But we face the real possibility that technology will, for the first time, displace more jobs than it creates. In his new book, Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin, a senior editor at Fortune magazine, says those people who master the human abilities that are fading all around us will be the most valuable workers in the world.

SMM: What led you to writing this book?

Colvin: I was observing technology doing things that truly seemed beyond what anyone thought technology could do. The self-driving car is everyone’s favorite example and it’s a great example. That truly would have seemed beyond the ability of a computer in our lifetime, but it’s happening and it’s happening fast. I was struck by that and I was struck by what I was hearing from certain mainstream economists and technologists who thought maybe the world really had changed in this regard. This is making people anxious on a large scale.

SMM: You state matter-of-factly that transactional jobs are declining and relational jobs are expanding. B2B sales is the classic combination of both of these, so where does that leave the B2B sales role?

Colvin: Where the relational element is predominant – where it’s a really complex sale, and it may take years to sell a product or service that may last for years – the people who can do that kind of selling are only going to get more valuable. It’s all about human-to-human interaction. Everybody who has been in the world of sales knows that when a company is buying a power turban for $10 million or buying computer servers, a human being in that company is responsible for that purchase and we all know that with something that big, there is an emotional element in the making of that decision. They need someone to talk to to help them with it. That’s not going to go away.

SMM: You stress the skills that will be most important going forward are those that are most human – empathy, creativity and social sensitivity among them. Are managers emphasizing this component of sales?

Colvin: Some do and some don’t. The good ones realize that it is a trait that can be trained. There are plenty of companies where the attitude of managers is just hire a bunch of people, see which ones seem to be good at it already, and then fire the ones who are not. They’re looking for it, but they don’t train it. What’s important for managers to realize is that it can be trained. Even people who are good at it can get better.

SMM: These human skills are particularly on display in after-action reviews, the team debriefing process that was originally developed by the U.S. Army. It requires candidness and permission to be critical of superiors’ decisions.

Colvin: Since the Army developed the after-action review, a number of companies have tried to adopt the practice, but very few have done so successfully. I’ve talked to consultants who have worked with companies on this and they say it is a cultural matter. In some companies it’s just not culturally OK to have a truly frank conversation about what went well and what didn’t go well during a recent event – a sales presentation or the introduction of a new product.
People in the military told me back when they first started it, it wasn’t easy. There were a lot of people who were not at all comfortable speaking up in the after-action review about something that reflected badly on a superior. The way they did it was they simply required it. They would say to somebody, “Give me three things that worked well in this last exercise and three things that did not work well.” The shorthand in the Army now is, “Give me three up and three down.”

SMM: You share your concern that technology is actually keeping us from developing more important human skills. You cite research of groups of sixth-graders who went technology-free for five straight days and focused on interpersonal interaction. In that short time, they became far more emotionally insightful. We’re not going to go screen-free, so what should we take away from that?

Colvin: We spend more and more of our time staring into digital devices and our interpersonal abilities are suffering. We’re just not as good at that – we’re not as comfortable. But the study shows us that these interpersonal abilities can be brought back. It reminds us that sometimes when you have a choice to either email somebody or walk down the hall and talk to them, walk down the hall and talk to them.

SMM: That speaks to your point of the power of face-to-face discussions, which is heartening for sales representatives.

Colvin: When we are able to get together face-to-face, the value is greater than most of us realize. When we talk to somebody face-to-face, all kinds of things are happening between us that we are not even consciously aware of. We are bonding in a way that doesn’t happen in any other way. We’ve persuaded ourselves that doing things by email or text is just as good and is more efficient. Well, it is more efficient, but you lose a lot.

SMM: The problem for many B2B salespeople is getting that face time with prospects.

Colvin: People are going to want to get information on their own. In fact, they won’t feel confident until they’ve done that. But ultimately it is about the relationship. They don’t get built quickly. It’s a greater struggle than it used to be, for sure, which is one of the reasons I say these abilities are more important than they used to be.

SMM: You’ve got a whole chapter on the power of story. Here again, it’s a good sign for sales because story is the essence of sales.

Colvin: At a lot of companies, storytelling has not been valued – charts and graphs have been valued. Data collection is precisely what technology is doing better and better. But if you want to change somebody’s mind – if you want to inspire them to act – tell them a story. Our brains are hardwired for stories and that’s what influences us. And the story told in person is far more powerful because the listener can sense the passion – the authenticity of the person telling the story. It also forms that person-to-person bond that doesn’t happen any other way. We all know what a good story is. What I’ve found is just tell it. Leave out the charts and graphs. It’s remarkable how well it works.

SMM: You also feel that women have innate advantages in terms of the skills that will matter in the workplace of the future.

Colvin: When it comes to these abilities regarding deep personal interaction, the research is very clear that, on average, women are just better than men. We have a ton of research on it, but do we really need it? Don’t we know it already? That has implications for sales. A lot of women in companies have not been encouraged to use these abilities for all they are worth. Women may have insights they won’t articulate because they don’t think they are valued and they haven’t been valued. It would be really valuable to get those insights. In a sales situation in particular, that insight into the human nature of what is going on is extremely valuable. So much of business is based on analytical work. Women will often have insights into the human reality of a situation that men just don’t have. It doesn’t apply to every woman or every man. But on average, that’s the case.