Will Artificial Intelligence Be the End of Reps? — Part 1

by Charles Cohon, President and CEO, MANA

A sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine. — Alan Turing, English computer scientist widely considered to be the father of artificial intelligence.

Will there always be reps?

That’s a question that I was asked when reps’ role delivering three-ring engineering binders was upended by online access to technical data on manufacturers’ websites.

That’s a question I was asked when online quotations and order entry processes eliminated many clerical tasks in reps’ offices.

And now it’s the question I am asked because Artificial Intelligence (AI) disrupts some services traditionally provided by reps.

What happened to reps when three-ring engineering binders faded away? Reps evolved! Reps became guides who helped customers drink from the fire hose of data suddenly available from manufacturers’ websites.

What happened when online quotations and e-commerce disrupted manual processes previously handled in reps’ offices? Reps evolved! Reps removed from their line cards some of the commodity product manufacturers who only valued reps for quoting and order entry services. Reps shifted their resources to launching CRM systems that let them give better information to their principals and better anticipate their customers’ needs.

What will happen as AI disrupts other aspects of the services reps provide?

AI will increasingly be adopted for roles that don’t require face-to-face contact. Reps will evolve and refocus their resources on roles that do require face-to-face contact.

  • Reps will spend more time doing site visits to help solve their customers’ problems by integrating multiple products from their line cards into custom solutions.
  • Reps will spend more time teaching and coaching their customers’ employees on the functions and applications of their principals’ products.
  • Reps will be the conduit for insights and expertise they developed while solving one customer’s problems to be applied to their other customers’ problems.

Yes, there will always be reps, because reps are customers’ trusted face-to-face resources. And that is a role that websites, e-commerce or AI never can provide.

Charles Cohon, CPMR, is CEO and president of MANA. In 2016 Cohon earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation after completing American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) coursework and testing. Cohon also earned an MBA with honors and with concentrations in strategic management and entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and was founder and owner of a very successful Illinois manufacturers’ representative firm for nearly 30 years before joining MANA.

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