Machine Earning - How 'the new normal' makes sales more human

28 July 2020
David Roddick

David Roddick is chief sales officer Foxtel Media. 

"Unprecedented", "Blursday", "quaranteams", "lockfrown": say what you like about this pandemic, it’s given us plenty of new words that get right on your nerves.

And while there are many candidates for most irritating, there are probably none better than ‘the new normal’: the phrase that takes the biscuit for being everywhere all at once.

In many ways, the "new normal", the sense that things have been irreversibly changed by how we’ve had to live recently, is about how technology has helped us. After all, one day we’ll probably get back to non-tech things like shaking hands, going to sports events and travelling overseas, but now we all use videoconferencing every day the idea of flying interstate for a couple of meetings and coming back again the same day seems ridiculous.

Changes driven by technology that will last beyond the pandemic, like videoconferencing, but also cybershopping and going cashless were all arguably on the cards anyway. The crisis has in many cases simply accelerated the adoption of the tech and made it more widespread.

With faster and more reliable technology, including the automation of increasingly complex tasks, wholesale transformation in the way we work becomes possible at a rate that is, depending on your outlook, either terrifying or exhilarating.

Agile office spaces for example were already planned for many of us in media, but COVID took what would have taken six months to organise and execute, and made it happen in about three days.

Foxtel Media is also embracing “the new normal”: automating as many practices as possible to free sufficient capacity to make the customer experience, for both viewer and advertiser, as rich as possible. The warning from one of our agency customers that, post-Covid, "If it’s not automated or data driven, it won’t be bought!” serves as a new guiderail for our entire business.

Gartner predicted last year that 30% of the world’s business operating costs would disappear through automation by 2024 and has revised that figure upwards in light of the global crisis. Expect much of the media sector to use Covid as a prompt to streamline the sales model and focus people only on those parts of the process which cannot yet be handed over to machines.

Many conversations I have had with agencies and marketers over the past months have centred around the increasing role that automation and data will play in creating a contactless transaction process for example. Just as the pandemic brought forward Amazon’s roll-out of grocery stores which have no staff to interact with, no check out and no servers, using cameras to detect purchases, so programmatic workflow in its purest form shows that machines can negotiate and transact media reliably and safely, replacing much of the work that is today defined as sales.

And it is not just simple functions that automation can be applied to. Tasks such as cleaning which are menial but complex and those requiring “pattern recognition, visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and adaptability” are now in scope for the new wave of Hyperautomation, according to Salesforce’s Global Innovation Evangelist, Brian Solis. When coronavirus hit, cancellation requests for airlines rose 8-fold overnight and banks had to recalibrate the records of 6 million loan applications instantly. Both these industries started using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to handle the workload which allowed the machines to learn from one another how to get outcomes that were mutually successful for customers and the business alike.

We saw a similar sudden explosion in workload when coronavirus hit media. Although lower revenue volumes were being written, the work required for each individual order spiralled, much of it reworking and remodelling of existing plans. Service levels and outcomes are likely only to improve if these functions are handled by technology.

So, what is to become of the media salesperson? Well, I’m optimistic. In its true sense, sales is a complex, creative, inventive and imaginative activity. In other words, deeply human.

A sales function is all about creating desire and excitement. It's about compelling communication and inspiring vision, built on a foundation of trust that there simply is no code for. For example, for us at Foxtel Media, that’s translates as having some of the world’s best television on digital video, and turning it into a value proposition for advertisers - not just about price - but about profitable outcomes

Often there is no logic to it. As Start with Why author and TED-talk favourite Simon Sinek observed: "We will do a handshake deal without a contract, but we won't do a contract without a handshake." This kind of interaction is going to remain very hard for technology to replicate, for a very long time. So, anybody looking to drive sales post-Covid should be prepared to double down on that.

This is the vision for how automation releases potential for sales, and, according to the RBA, creates rather than limits jobs. If we can automate workflow as far as possible, reduce data entry and the back and forth of the transaction, then it frees up time to think the unthinkable. This enables us to bring clients more and more powerful solutions to meet the practical needs of their businesses. Paradoxically, the more automated sales become, the more creative salespeople can be.

In his book entitled: "To Be a Machine" Irish journalist Mark O’Connell explores the ways some very rich and quite bonkers people are attempting to upload their own consciousness into a form of quantum computing. Of course, it’s nowhere near possible to do this yet. But, like a media sales organisation, a huge amount of the brain’s function is involved in merely keeping the body alive: temperature regulation, pumping the heart, breathing. Imagine what would happen if we didn’t have to do that: if technology could carry out these functions, just think how much brain capacity, and the resultant creativity, we would unleash.

And then, God knows how many irritating new words we could think up for things we have to do in lockdown …

David Roddick is chief sales officer, Foxtel Media.

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