With selling having a legitimate claim to being named as the oldest profession, it should come as no surprise to learn that attempts to automate the sales process have been going on for almost as long as selling itself. While we tend to look to recent decades – and the advent of cheap, universal computing power – for the first attempts at marrying science with sales, we actually need to travel back some 2,000 years to find the dawn of sales technology.
Hero of Alexandria was a first-century Greek mathematician and engineer, credited with inventing steam and wind-powered devices, plus some of the original formal research into what we now call cybernetics. Of direct relevance to sales is his invention of the earliest known vending machine: like many modern examples his was designed to dispense flavoured water – in Hero’s case, the flavour was ‘holy’ and the device was intended for the religious market.
Hero’s contraption worked when a worshipper inserted a coin in a slot at the top of the machine, which then dispensed a measured amount of holy water in return. The coin fell onto a pan attached to a lever which opened a valve to let water flow out. The pan continued to tilt under the weight of the coin, which eventually fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.
Fast forward to the early 1880s, the industrial revolution, and the first modern coin-operated vending machines in London, designed to dispense post cards. Of course, selling is all about communicating with the buyer and this was the logical next step for vending technology: an early example was Dallas-based Ussery Industries’ 1970 Venda Talker, which said ‘thank you’ to customers and rewarded their purchase with a selection of comedy one-liners.
These days, almost all the action is computer-based with the imperative to replace or reduce expensive human involvement in the selling process, particularly in the lead-generation and information-gathering phase of a transactional sale. We’re all familiar with autodiallers, voice broadcasting and the use of so-called ‘robocalls’ for information announcements and telemarketing. Even more common are the interactive voice response (IVR) systems deployed by so many banks and utilities as a front-end to their call centres. Both technologies suffer from credibility issues from the customers’ perspective.
However, growing technological sophistication enables some systems to simulate interaction with a real person, according to sales performance expert and psychologist Professor Neil Rackham. He predicts that diagnosis of customer need via expert systems and increasingly user-friendly types of interaction are set to become the reality.
"Diagnosis of need is the most expensive part of the sales cycle," he explains. What’s more, with growing product and service self-selection by the customer, companies experience a corresponding fall in complaints about the suitability of the product sold. Rackham also points towards data mining of recorded customer conversations and the use of intelligent query models for CRM systems in relation to opportunity management as current areas of cutting-edge sales technology.
Beth Rogers, head of marketing, Hospitality and Sales Subject Group at Portsmouth Business School, highlights the increasing sophistication of websites and their customer interfaces, with a particular emphasis on adaptive selling. One example is Jellyvision Lab, which claims to "create interactive web experiences that bottle up your best salesperson, advisor or evangelist".
So will we ever find ourselves being sold to by cyborgs across the table? It’s a work in progress in terms of equipping machines to simulate empathy – one past notable attempt being the late 1990s Kismet robot project at MIT. However, Rackham urges caution in terms of the timescale around solving issues with the man-machine interface: "It won’t happen for a long time; sales is a very 'noisy' area."