Who needs sales and marketing people when we have artificial intelligence?

Joel Mero, LUT

Public dialogue on artificial intelligence or AI easily gives the impression that machines will soon take over all of our jobs.

In marketing and sales, bold scenarios are swiftly gaining ground: robots making infallible marketing decisions based on data analytics, serving customers with greater empathy than humans, and closing sales for us.

Even though these scenarios are not completely unfounded, they are largely based on expectations of future developments in artificial intelligence. AI-powered robots performing a number of service sector jobs is a likely outcome, but the transition rate is difficult to forecast. Artificial intelligence saw its origins in the 1950s, and it was soon believed to win people at chess. Nevertheless, it ultimately took AI 40 years to accomplish this feat.

Long-term scenarios are intriguing, but it is also useful to focus on what AI means in the short term. The greatest advantage of artificial intelligence is its ability to process masses of data from multiple sources and create links between different variables. This capacity enables AI to identify customer behaviour trends from large data sets, forecast customers' purchase behaviour and make automated recommendations on products and special offers relevant to customers.

Another significant advantage over human beings is the speed at which AI recognises and produces text, audio and images. This may soon make simple customer service and sales events faster to carry out with robots. Likewise, AI enables the automated preparation of reports and summaries, although the depth of their content does not yet threaten the level achieved by professional content producers.

The current capacity of AI is best suited to the optimisation of previously performed actions and behaviour patterns on which an organisation possesses large quantities of high-quality data. Herein lie also the weaknesses of AI: the recommendations it offers are only as insightful as the data it is fed. Customer data is, as a rule, always incomplete because we can only observe a part of a customer's behaviour, and even the best behaviour data is unable to provide profound knowledge of a customer's motives.

Zeroing in on history data and optimising marketing and sales efficiency solely based on it does not guarantee future productivity or help us develop radical innovations that would generate a competitive edge in the future. Even if people had access to an AI application that helped a horse run faster, the application would not be able to suggest selling the horse and inventing a new mode of transportation such as the automobile. Innovations and great changes call for creativity, and that is where we people are still many strides ahead of AI. In fact, I do believe that AI is becoming an exceedingly competent sales and marketing assistant, but it still has a long way to go if it wants to advance to the executive board.

Joel Mero, D.Sc. (Econ. & Bus. Admin.), is an assistant professor in digital marketing at LUT University. His expertise relates mainly to new technologies and the potential they hold in marketing and sales. This text was previously published in the September 2018 issue of "Myynti ja Markkinointi" -magazine.