Google showcased Duplex at its I/O 2018 Keynote just a few days ago. Duplex is a new technology that allows Google Assistant to make phone calls on your behalf. CEO Sundar Pichai played a clip of Duplex calling a real hair salon and making an appointment.
The dialogue was flawless and the hair salon seemed to have no idea they were speaking to a bot.
While no one has said it yet explicitly, one can connect the dots and imagine how this can be a game changer for the sales profession.
While we can debate when AI-based sales conversations will actually arrive and its limitations, it’s hard to ignore the reality that big changes are likely coming. For now, Duplex is core technology for Google and unlikely to be made available for open-sourced projects and pesky startups building sales acceleration tools. And it’s hard to imagine this changing anytime soon given the investment Google has made in building Duplex.
But it’s only a matter of time before others will build similar or even better versions of Duplex and find ways to apply it in our daily lives.
So a few immediate questions and possible implications of how Google Duplex could impact sales:
What will happen to phone sales?
If you believe the keynote example was not a contrived example (as they assured us) but the norm of what Duplex can do, it’s scary how close we are to seeing high-velocity, script-based inside sales jobs being completely displaced.
With the hiring constraints of inside sales reps removed, I could see sales organizations cranking up call volumes and frustrating prospects. And that will in turn probably lead to new regulations and tools to protect the consumer and business owners.
It’s unclear whether buyers will even care that they are buying over the phone from an indistinguishable bot versus a real salesperson but if the conversation is good, they won’t even know. If the adoption of AI-powered sales isn’t good, customers could get so fed up that they stop answering the phones. We may have to resort back to sending brochures and doing more field sales. Either way, corporations should see some productivity gains (at least short term) through lower costs of making cold calls or better conversions because let’s face it, it’s really hard training great sales reps.
Will our Account Executives all be replaced by Sales Trainers?
The Google Duplex system is capable of carrying out sophisticated conversations and it completes the majority of its tasks fully autonomously, without human involvement. The system has a self-monitoring capability, which allows it to recognize the tasks it cannot complete autonomously (e.g., scheduling an unusually complex appointment). In these cases, it signals to a human operator, who can complete the task.
The current implementation of Duplex uses supervised training and will still require a human sales trainer (that’s of course until we build unsupervised learning models of sales conversations).
So the ceiling for AI-powered sales conversations still require a sales trainer to handle corner cases on calls and continuously “coach” the algorithm to sell better.
As training data grows, I wonder if we get actually better sales conversations as the algorithm learns from vast amounts of sales calls and various buyer personas.
How do sales professionals keep up?
The implications for inside sales professionals are very real. I’ll throw out a few suggestions for career development:
Go upmarket if you’re in SMB sales.
Even without Duplex, much of high activity-based selling is already getting displaced with modern sales tools. Acquire the skills for enterprise selling and become an expert in something (anything!) because if you can’t navigate an enterprise and add insight to the conversation, your job could be gone in a few years.
Learn math and technology.
If the future of sales teams is leaner and more technology-enabled, you’ll have to get good at adapting to the new tools. Just like how the archetype of the Wall Street trader has over the past decade evolved towards quants and PhDs, inside sales of the future may be run by sales operations gurus and data scientists.
Prioritize your digital reputation.
Online communities like Linkedin is accelerating the need towards reputation management and social selling. If phone sales become commoditized, we will need to fall back on our personal brands and offline relationships. This means that you need to make sure you don’t have any skeletons in your professional closet and you are doing good by your prospects and customers. Ethics and authenticity in sales has never been more important then today.
Just for fun
A few predictions outside of sales:
- Identity theft accelerates and proof-of-voice may need to be a thing for voice calling.
- The battle of “AI bots” may create hilarious virtuous loops. Even funnier than this.
- Voice commands and systems will finally get a makeover. Celebrity voices anyone?
If you want to appreciate the rigor and thoughtfulness of Duplex, read the Google AI Blog for a layman’s explanation of how they were able to achieve such a natural sounding voice. It’s exciting to see this demo as a technologist but it also gives me shivers thinking about how this will impact modern sales.