Friday, July 12, 2024
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CEO Opinions

AI and the Art of the (Human-to-Human) Conversation

Michael Norton

Some astonishing advances in information technology have made big headlines in recent months. You probably don’t need me to recap those headlines … but I want to ask you to pause to consider a single,  sobering question those headlines have given rise to among sales professionals. Some of us ask this question out loud. Some of us don’t. But spoken or unspoken, the same question seems to be on a lot of people’s minds: Are good salespeople now, or will they ever be, irrelevant? 

I say no.


Don’t misunderstand. Artificial intelligence (AI) is indeed changing our landscape in ways faster and more far-reaching than anyone can predict.  What’s happening in our lifetime with machine learning is truly amazing, and we have a professional responsibility to keep up with it.  According to Exploding Topics, ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer) by OpenAI, has now exceeded 100 million users; its website draws over 1.8 billion visitors per month—and that’s just within the three-month period between February and April of this year.  Again: That’s “billion” with a B, as in 1.8 billion users every thirty days. All of those users are eagerly typing queries and prompts into an application that interacts with them like an inconceivably intelligent human being would — most of the time, anyway.  We can’t ignore a seismic shift like that, or pretend it hasn’t changed expectations, routines, and buying patterns. And by the same token, we can’t ignore the reality that ChatGPT is just one of dozens of powerful large language models, a category that is itself only one of dozens of AI applications and platforms with equally game-changing potential. Yes. It’s a lot to keep up with. But we’ve got no choice.  

Effective salespeople always have had and always will have an obligation to stay abreast of the latest trends and get comfortable with the newest tools, quick — not least because the competition is highly likely to be doing both of those things. AI, which has unleashed both a tidal wave of business trends and a perpetually expanding collection of powerful resources for salespeople, has to be on our radar. It will continue to transform the social and work landscape for salespeople (and everyone else) for as long as we are selling. That’s just reality: The breakthroughs will accelerate, and they will continue to disrupt and inspire buyers and sellers in ways we can’t possibly predict.  So yes, it would be foolish for us to try to minimize or ignore AI, just as foolish as it would have been to ignore Zoom and other video-conferencing options in, say, the spring of 2019.  Yet no matter how powerful and transformative this technology may become, I maintain that it will never, ever be able to replace a real-time human-to-human conversation between a potential buyer and a professional seller.   

Consider the definition of the word conversation: “A talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged.” 

There are three important words I want you to notice in that definition.  The first word is people. Translation: No interaction is a conversation unless it includes real, live people! 

Next, look at the second critical word in that definition: feelings. Human buyers have feelings. There is simply no room for debate on that point. It follows that effective human sellers are the ones who can understand, empathize with, and respond authentically to those feelings. That’s something human beings do, not something robots do. Could robots do it twenty years from now? Ask us then. Our bet, though, is that this dynamic is not going to change.

The third key word I want to draw your attention to in that definition is questions. Human buyers will always have questions, and effective human sellers will always be rewarded for helping them to identify the best answers to those questions. Not only that: The best sellers will always have questions of their own! All of this was true in the age of the telegraph; none of this is going to change in the age of AI.

It’s a good idea to remind ourselves every now and then just how fundamental the act of asking and answering questions is to the world of the sales professional. Every question, after all, is a shift. Shifts are what we are paid to notice and respond to. In real-world conversations between buyers and sellers, unexpected issues always arise, and each time they do, they will invite the opportunity to engage in a different conversation than the one that either side could have foreseen as the interaction began. Conversations, in other words, are dynamic. If both sides already know what is going to happen, then there are no meaningful questions being asked, and the exchange is not a conversation. It’s a script. And our experience is that scripts – you know, those words and sentences that can be memorized and recited verbatim ahead of time –- do not lead to optimal revenue production for sales teams. Human-to-human connection is what does that. Why? See word number two: feelings. As long as human beings make decisions emotionally and justify them intellectually – and they can be relied upon to do that in any and every purchase situation – salespeople will have a role to play and will be rewarded for performing that role well.  

What’s really interesting is that Sandler’s definition of selling connects directly to this concept of human-to-human connection. We teach our clients that selling is a conversation between adults to uncover the truth. And this way of looking at selling really is the key to understanding how AI fits into sales as a profession, in 2023 and in the years to come. 

People still buy from people … people always have had, and always will have, questions about what they are considering buying … and people still have feelings about the commitments they are considering making to other people. As long as all of that is true, salespeople who know how to lead effective conversations and know how to use the latest technology will be in heavy demand.


Some of effective selling is science. When I say “science,” I mean a process that can be broken down and repeated with predictable results. But some of it is art. When I say “art,” I mean “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.”  And make no mistake: the art part of effective selling is fundamentally human. No robot can pull it off.

With each real-time back-and-forth question and answer cycle, in each conversation with each buyer, effective salespeople leverage a complex personal array of experiences, instincts, and hard-won expertise. They summon something quite unique to them as a human being in creatively executing an indispensable part of the job, the part that can’t possibly be reduced to a line of code or carried out by a prompt. And that is the art of empathetically, and strategically, leading a human-to-human conversation to a point of commitment that both sides feel comfortable with emotionally.  

The big question here is not whether a transcript of a conversation between a human and a robot could confuse outsiders about which is the robot and which is the human.  For sales professionals, the far more relevant question is whether that same conversation results in a) the deepening of personal relationships on both sides and b) the escalating fulfillment of commitments in a business relationship.

 Could ChatGPT (or some other AI tool) improve the ability of a sales professional to lead a human-to-human conversation with a buyer, and thereby secure a given commitment? Sure. If prior to the meeting or discussion, the salesperson uses ChatGPT or some other resource to prepare, the conversation being prepared for could go better than it might otherwise have gone.  (It could also go worse, of course, depending on the quality of the application and the salesperson’s level of fluency with it – something we could say about any sales tool.) But ChatGPT still wouldn’t be leading the call. The salesperson would.

The potential game-changing impact of AI doesn’t stop with preparation.  For sellers who are willing to use their computer as a real-time resource (and I hope you’re one of them), artificial intelligence can often improve questions and responses during a conversation … by leveraging machine learning so salespeople can target their messaging more effectively to an individual buyer, and by providing clarity on what questions, and responses are likely to work best as the relationship unfolds and the cast of characters becomes more clear.  Do we want to know about this kind of thing? Absolutely. Ideally, this information shows up on what is referred to as a single pane of glass, providing both sellers and customer care teams with just-in-time content that can help resolve problems, clarify goals, and yes, assist in making a sale. But notice: The salesperson is still leading the conversation!


Meaningful person-to-person connection calls for more than useful data, which is what artificial intelligence provides. A real person-person dialogue calls for empathy, an understanding of the other person as a person, and the ability to pose questions that respect and support the emerging relationship. All of those are prerequisites to an actual connection between human beings. 

Consider any relationship that really matters: spouse and spouse, parent and child, teacher and student, coach and athlete, doctor and patient– and, yes, salesperson and buyer. Each of these relationships constitutes a situation where people need to be able to communicate effectively with one another. . In each scenario, meaningful conversations are essential, which means both sides need to be able to think and respond in the moment based not only on the topic, but also on the tone of the discussion and the complex interaction of variables like shared experiences and shared goals. ChatGPT has a lot going for it, but I have yet to have a conversation with it in which I felt I was discussing specific goals that were as important to the software as they were to me. Yet that is precisely what great sales conversations uncover.

Scripts do not uncover those goals. Prompts do not uncover those goals. People do. Relationships do. One of the things we hear consistently from our clients in the sales and sales management training industry is that they don’t want their salespeople to come off sounding like robots. And yet, if we start relying on machines to feed us the right things to say to clients, that could easily become the reality!

We often see salespeople reading negative tonality (such as sarcasm or disinterest) into emails and text messages where there was no intentional negative tonality. Then a new string of texts and emails begins, based on tonality that was never part of the initial message. Before you know it, the communication escalates to the point of anger and disagreement. The big what if question is: What if we found a way to humanize the exchange? What if we just picked up the phone and had a conversation to clear the air and quickly resolve any misunderstanding? The lesson here is a simple one: Our goal as professional salespeople is to humanize interactions, and that means having better, deeper, richer, and more authentic conversations.

Think about the best conversation that you ever had with a salesperson (or anyone else, for that matter). What made it work? I’ll bet that conversation was awesome because it was a true dialogue, not a monologue, or a pair of monologues proceeding more or less simultaneously. I’ll bet you enjoyed that great discussion because you felt you could trust the person you were speaking with, and because there were great questions you couldn’t possibly have predicted ahead of time, questions that took the conversation to a deeper and more meaningful level. 

I remember listening to Denis Waitley, one of the greatest authors and motivational speakers of our time, share his story of hosting a dinner party to get to know his neighbors as he and his family had just moved into the neighborhood. As the evening went on, he socialized with everyone and got to know each of the guests. As it happened, though, he never really got the chance to share his own story. He was fine with that. He was there to get to know them. When the party was over, as he took the trash out, he overheard one of his neighbors saying, “That Denis sure is an amazing guy — he was so interested in us!”  

Let’s look at that story through the lens of today’s seller. Even with instant access to oceans of data, to industry information, to insights about a buyer’s communication style and preferences, even with powerful artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT at their fingertips, sales professionals still need to listen as well as Denis Waitley!

They still need to begin earning trust, building upon that trust, furthering that trust, and then figure out the best way to be sure they always maintain that trust. When it comes to winning business and protecting that business, there always needs to be a strong relationship with all the key stakeholders. Relationships always have been, and always will be, forged through commitments made and fulfilled because of meaningful conversations.  Relationships always have been and always will be built on trust and communication. Knowing how to lead a conversation that helps both the buyer and the seller determine the right solution is the key to success in selling, and it is also a uniquely human skill that will never go out of style. 

Just as Denis Waitley found out, authentic curiosity and the ability to ask personalized, spontaneous questions really pays off when it comes to building and sustaining relationships. The very best salespeople recognized a long time ago just how important it is to ask situationally and personally relevant questions in real time … and to operate, consistently and empathetically, on the principle that telling is not selling. A resource like ChatGPT may be able to repeat and/or rephrase those important lessons, but, as of this writing, it is unable to live by them. For that, you will need an effective salesperson. And we don’t see that changing any time soon.

Written by Michael Norton.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Opinions - AI and the Art of the (Human-to-Human) Conversation
Michael Norton
Michael Norton, Executive Vice President of Enterprise at Sandler. Michael still considers himself a constant student of the game when it comes to performance development and helping organizations meet and exceed their goals. He brings more than 25 years of experience in helping to drive leadership, sales management, and sales success for companies of all sizes. MichaelHe has developed, delivered, and created reinforcement programs that deliver real ROI while fitting into a company’s culture, processes, daily sales workflow, and budget. Having founded two companies prior to joining Sandler, he is considered one of the earliest pioneers of micro-learning for personal and professional development. Michael is also the former President of the Zig Ziglar Corporation.

Michael Norton is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn.