Chatbots or Humans for Sales?

Mar 4 · 7 min read

Well, it Depends…

Have you visited a company website recently and interacted with a chatbot? If so, how was your experience? Was the “conversation” lacking a certain je ne sais quoi? How would you feel if you could have gotten instant help from a friendly, qualified (and non-pushy) salesperson instead? Do humans still matter?

For many types of purchasing/sales scenarios, chatbots are merely a symptom of poor accessibly to today’s salespeople. Companies are fabricating and rolling out chatbots for a number of reasons, including:

· Chatbots never call in sick and are accessible 24/7

· Chatbots are an extension of CRM automation

· Chatbots increase website visitor time-to-response

· Chatbots are a way to screen prospects prior to hand-off

· Chatbots are generally affordable (cheap to deploy)

There’s a humorous quip that goes like this: computers today are still not fully able to imitate intelligent human behavior, but neither are a substantial number of humans. As someone who has been intimately involved in human-computer interaction for two decades, I hold out more hope for the species. So, I want to share my perspective to help you and others who may be rushing to implement chatbots and AI to avoid potential unintended consequences while also helping you put your “interface with customers” in the optimal position for success.

Elephant in the room: chatbots are not humans. While they are built, programmed and deployed by humans, they are not authentic and therefore are incapable of replacing humans. If you are holding out hope that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace salespeople anytime soon, it’s unrealistic. In fact, further on I’ll talk about the opposite of AI and how that will help with your sales interface with customers.

The Latin term mos maiorum defined the unwritten code of decorum that governed social and commercial interactions in ancient Roman society. It was a set of conventional social norms that were widely accepted. In commercial dealings, the relationship was nearly as important as the transaction itself. Throwing customers into programmatic buying scenarios today is simply unnatural. We are hard-wired for human interaction. For thousands of years commerce has been driven by relationship-based and mutually agreed upon terms developed exclusively through a human-to-human (sales) interface. It’s only been in the last century (think catalog sales) but especially the last 20 years wherein certain types of sales transactions, and the sales interface, has been possible, sans human.

In the late 1990’s and 2000’s I had the opportunity to work with two technologies that usurped the traditional human-to-human sales interface. I developed virtual agents (using the IBM aglet-inspired model) and also worked in self-service kiosk technology that impacted point-of-purchase/point-of-sale environments around the world by enabling the programmatic (touchscreen) interface to replace the human interface. In a way, you could say I’ve been part of the solution and the problem.

Similar to virtual agents and kiosks, chatbots take advantage of a customer willingness to forego human interaction by self-fulfilling an immediate need. For example, you’re willing to use a self-checkin kiosk at an airport in order to avoid the pain of waiting in a queue to deal with a ticketing agent. Or, in the case of a grocery store, you might use a self-checkout lane if you have an armful (or less) of goods, but when your cart is completely full you want a checkout clerk because it’s less painful than self-checking out because you trust that somebody (a human clerk) will perform the hard work for you with their predictable form of technical expertise.

The point here is that there are certain situations where self-service automation such as chatbots are practical, and there are many situations where having real people is advantageous or even essential. You can determine whether chatbots are right or not for your sales process by starting with one very important question: do you sell commoditized goods and services, or do you sell high-value/complex goods and services?

If you sell a simple and/or low-priced product a customer will likely tolerate chatbot interaction if the “conversation” is quick/fluid and requires low cognitive overhead. However, for expensive and/or complex goods and services, modern chatbots fall far short of matching the capabilities of human salespeople, primarily because at present they share a completely different set of values.

Until the “singularity” of science fiction is achieved and available off-the-shelf, customers in many types of buying scenarios will continue to require the uniquely human characteristics of salespeople and their ability to provide “intent intervention” by interpreting the real customer wants and needs and applying their sensitivity and sensibility to helping the customer solve their underlying problem (note: the real customer problem is often NOT what the customer initially thinks that it is).

Selling is a large (and sometimes the largest) cost-center of the business. Experimentation, including augmenting or replacing the traditional sales role with an AI/chatbot interface, can be forgiven as logical from a financial or operational optimization point of view. But, it is illogical from a customer experience and relationship standpoint if it signals to the customer you’re unwilling to make an investment in an authentic, concierge-level experience with your brand. The cost savings, efficiency, or scale you think might be gained through automation can be completely offset by the customer sensing they are being undervalued or commoditized.

Remember, the relationship can matter just as much as the transaction in “considered value” purchases. Customers want to feel important and appreciated. From a human factor standpoint, chatbots can be seen as impersonal and dehumanizing and a customer turn-off at essential points in the buying process where that high-touch buying experience is expected. Furthermore, unlike human salespeople who take accountability for customer outcomes, chatbots are WYSIWYG and entirely unaccountable. Simply put, the apathetic nature of chatbots/AI is palpable to customers. How binary of them!

There is another option to AI. It is called IA, or Intelligence Amplification. In a way IA is antithetical to AI. IA is the pursuit of how to use technology to make humans even better and more competitive at what they do better than computers. In the IA model you provide your sales staff with better tools and capabilities to connect with and help prospects and customers in new and improved ways. You also help customers to have more efficient means to self-select and self-engage with customer-facing salespeople.

For example, is your customer-facing sales team currently exposed or hidden from your digital customers? When a customer visits your website, microsite, or digital assets, how challenging is it for them to quickly find, self-select, and self-initiate engagement with your salespeople? Are your salespeople equipped for immediate response, or does it take minutes, hours or days for them to respond to the prospect while the lead decays?

My work has shown empirical evidence that customers still very much value interaction with salespeople, and find chatbots shallow in capabilities. But, on the other hand, it has become hard for customers to tolerate latency when they are looking for help. Customers are time-starved and are navigating a very noisy marketplace. They should neither have to hunt for sales help nor endure the unresponsiveness.

Where it may be thought that a chatbot will help with immediacy, the real problem is that the Company hasn’t helped sales with a good IA. That is, the salesperson should be there to meet and greet the customer in real-time (not a follow-up call three hours later or an email the next day). In that respect the Chatbot is more competitive, but only for lack of awareness and adoption of tools to accelerate human sales engagement and help the sales team swim upstream in the customer interaction to be there for the customer sooner.

After reading Covey’s The Speed of Trust and Pink’s To Sell is Human it became clear to me that your people are your message. One of the major underlying threats of chatbots for sales is the message that they convey (or don’t convey) to your customers. Can you entrust such an important relationship to exclusively to chatbots?

Here are a couple examples in the marketplace today where named salespeople and customers create an immediate interface:

· Virtuoso (see: is one of the most well-respected travel businesses in the world with over $20 billion in annual sales. In select areas of their digital property they leverage their live travel advisors to help luxury travel customers instantly.

· The PGA Tour (see: helps their clients looking for ticketing, sponsorship, and hospitality offerings by displaying named salespeople who are immediately ready to answer questions.

The obvious next question is: can I blend chatbots with salespeople? Absolutely! This is most definitely not an either/or scenario. But it can be somewhat vexing determining what’s right for your business. So, I recommend testing the heck out of it.

Generally chatbots are a safe bet for buying scenarios that lack complexity. They also work good on context-specific web pages where it’s likely the customer is looking for “quick help” to a very specific issue. Chatbots are also better than nothing in a 24x7 world, so they are great to deploy as “backup” for sales staff during busy periods or after-hours when your sales team is sleeping. In this case a strong commitment to human follow-up is essential to moving the customer deeper into the funnel.

In terms of helping your sales team respond faster to today’s digital customer, it’s about leveraging the right tools. There are numerous chat platforms in the market (Drift, LivePerson, Engage, Intercom, et al) that do a good job of helping your sales team to be accessible to visitors, prospects and customers. Most of these tools run on the desktop computer of your salespeople and simply alerts them to inbound conversation opportunities with customers (without cannibalizing their daily workflow).

In summary, there are very unique differences to the experiences customers receive when interacting with chatbots vs. humans. If your customers are worth it and you can afford to, there are many compelling reasons to deploy customer-facing human sales staff as the highest priority, especially if you sell expensive or complex products or services. Chatbots potentially have a role to play too, especially when augmenting the sales process with a blended human/chatbot approach. Today, above all else, it’s about how quickly you can develop a meaningful relationship with the customer.

Lief Larson

Written by

Thoughts on Entrepreneurship, Business, and Technology from Seattle, Washington.

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