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Can robots close? It depends on whether they’re selling to robots.

I like a challenge.

I am a subscriber to Sales & Marketing Management, and noticed an interesting article recently. The title? “Robots Can’t Close.” The piece is an interview with Geoff Colvin, who has written the book Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. While Colvin acknowledges that technology has made great strides, he believes that certain tasks will still require human interaction.

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 [turbine] 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.

Or will it?

Today, some purchases can be made by routine or automated means – General Services Administration (GSA) schedules, Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) bids, and other things that lend themselves to easy decision-making. Others require that “relational element.” In my employer’s industry, most biometric identification systems are purchased through a relational process that can take years, and often requires final approval by a government agency’s legislative body, such as a County Board of Supervisors.

But even in my industry, there has been at least one exception. I know of one buyer who bought a national biometric identification system via a reverse auction, which can be considered LPTA on steroids. Certain vendors were deemed to be technically acceptable, and the vendors competed against each other to see who could cut their price the most. While the determination of technical acceptability was made by humans in this case, it is possible to envision a case in which even this could be automated.

But what will happen in the future? Is it possible that more and more procurements will become routine – and automated?

For that to happen, the “emotional element” that Colvin mentions would have to be eliminated, and everyone would need to be convinced that automated systems – the robots – are better able to make purchasing decisions than people.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of this in the self-driving car industry. Initial reactions to the idea were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform. (Of course, we are now getting to thornier issues – if I am in a car, and the car’s software has to decide whether to save my life by plowing into a crowd of people, or save the crowd of people by doing something that will kill me – what should the car do?)

Perhaps a day will come when automated procurement scoring systems are proven to result in better procurements than an overworked human procurement officer. If that happens, then perhaps the emotional element will be reduced, allowing more procurements to proceed without the need for a human “closer.”

Yet even then, there’s one thing that may derail any such effort.

Human politicians can receive campaign contributions. Robots cannot.

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One thought on “Can robots close? It depends on whether they’re selling to robots.

  1. Pingback: Can robots issue citations? More importantly, can people issue citations? | tymshft

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