If you sell things for a living, the robots are coming for you. Or, more specifically, they’re coming for your job.
In particular, chatbots, which, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) has found are significantly better at selling things than their human counterparts. Four times better, in fact. Which puts a lot of human jobs on the line.
But there’s a caveat — robot salesmen only work when people don’t know they’re a robot. If a person knows they’re speaking with an artificial intelligence, the jig is up, the sale is sunk and the customer saves their dollars to spend another day.
For now, it seems, there is hope for the human salesperson — hope in the form of trust issues. But how long can that protect their jobs?
“Chatbots offer enhanced technological benefits, reduced customer hassle costs and increased consumer welfare (offering the product at lower cost because bots save money on labor),” says Xueming Luo, co-author of the study and professor at Temple University. “This data empowers marketers to target certain customer segments to cultivate customer trust in chatbots.”
Chatbots are clever AI algorithms that mimic human conversation. Sometimes they only use text, sometimes they use recorded voices and respond to voice commands. Sometimes they even use video. Chatbots don’t have bad days, they never come to work hungover or stoned, they don’t give customers attitude (no matter how rude they’re being), and, best of all, they don’t require those nettlesome paychecks.
On top of all that, according to this research, chatbots are also 400% better at selling things to people than actual people are. For all intents and purposes, robots are the perfect employee for any business with a product to peddle.
Except for one unfortunate truth: Human beings hate chatbots. Especially when they’re trying to sell them something. Turns out, when someone knows that they are interacting with a robot, sales rates plummet by 79.7%. Which is not trivial.
"Our findings show when people don't know about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots they are four times more effective at selling products than inexperienced workers, but when customers know the conversational partner is not a human, they are curt and purchase less because they think the bot is less knowledgeable and less empathetic," says Luo.
In other words: we don’t like buying things from inanimate algorithms, but we’re highly inclined to do so, if they’re good enough to fool us.
So, what does that mean for the future of human sales jobs?
Nothing good. Because, as the technology behind these AI sales-entities continues to improve our ability to discern them from real people will also wane, and quickly. And when people can’t tell the difference between an actual person and a robot, why would employers continue to hire human employees?
For now, though, most sales jobs are safe. This study only analyzed 6000 online customers from a financial services company, and the data they collected really only applies to online sales jobs of a similar nature. It will still be a long time before you walk into a clothing store and have to ask yourself the question: is this salesperson a human being or a cleverly disguised robot?
But that day is probably coming. And when it finally does, customers’ trust issues will reach an all-time high.