The Role of The DSR Is Changing In The AI Era—Here's How

Distributor sales reps experienced a collective hand-wringing when we first saw the leap in AI technology that ChatGPT represented. A smorgasbord of generative AI tools were soon released, each promising to disrupt the sales motion more aggressively than the last.

But now that the initial shock and awe has subsided, a few things are clear: generative AI is powerful, it’s going to change how foodservice distributors operate, and the DSR role is still as critical as ever before (if not even more so).

The World is Still Very Human

There’s not a single person whose job involves a heavy portion of computer work that didn’t wonder to themselves in the last couple of years, “am I about to be out of the job?” And those concerns aren’t unfounded. Bloomberg reports that over 4,000 jobs in the United States have been replaced with AI, but the real number is likely much higher (but companies are afraid to say so publicly). And it doesn’t help when venture capitalists with major investments in AI sales technology companies proudly declare that 95% of sales jobs will be automated by AI in twenty years.

That said, we still live in a very human world. The value of human empathy is skyrocketing, as is the skepticism of AI communication.

A series of studies from the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services found that consumers hang up on AI sales telemarketers faster than they do with human salespeople due to feeling a lack of empathy and connection with the AI bots. One survey by Publicis Media found that only 38% of consumers view AI in advertising positively, feel a general distrust for it, and want to know when advertising and marketing is created with the help of AI.

Yes, AI is already changing a lot—but for the DSR, there’s a lot that’s not changing (anytime soon, anyway).

Which Parts of the DSR Role Will Be AI-Ified?

What percentage of the DSR role is going to become replaced by or infused with AI? Evercore ISI, a research firm, looked at economic and research data to make some estimations on a variety of industries and roles. They concluded that 32% of sales activities will be AI-ified in the near-term, as reported by Harvard Business Review.

From our vantage point as a foodservice distributor technology company that’s building AI-enabled tools for DSRs, it’s easy to see what many of these activities are. DSRs can… 

  • Use natural language and AI assistants to source and collect data on new prospects, rather than manually assembling and sorting through lead data
  • Take a tablet armed with a AI chatbot connected to inventory and pricing data into account meetings, rather than giant binders full of this week’s pricing
  • Scan prospect menus and automatically create mock order guides to use in sales conversations, rather than searching for ingredients and tallying up prices by hand

There are many data-wrangling tasks that AI can create shortcuts for, or automate entirely. These are often the most tedious activities of any DSR’s day, and relatively low-value compared to the harder work of making authentic connections and building relationships.

And the need for human empathy is not going away.

The most clear example of this may exist in healthcare. AI tools are making the news for identifying hard-to-find illnesses, but diagnosing is only one part of a person’s healthcare journey. “Clinical empathy” is one of the most clear leading indicators of good outcomes (and AI is currently unable to replicate it). This can mean doctors who listen to patient life histories, rather than rushing through immediate symptoms. It can look like nurses who become patient advocates against a medical system that may overlook certain experiences or backgrounds. It can mean the human care that causes patients to feel emotionally supported on their recovery journey.

Foodservice sales is not so different. AI tools may be able to diagnose issues, like suggesting substitutions for out-of-stock items, but they don’t have the empathy to advocate for customers or help them feel like they and their businesses are supported and rooted for.

AI Does Not Change Core Sales Principles

Foodservice sales is like all B2B sales. The core principles remain true across time, even if the tools and methods change. AI will not make these any less critical (and it won’t do the job as well as a human DSR!).

  • This is a relationship business. Stories and relationships between people make business agreements sticky. As much as we like to believe we’re rational thinkers who always pursue the best deal by the numbers, it's an authentic connection that often (maybe most of the time) seals the deal.
  • It’s about value, not features. AI bots are fantastic at evaluating a list of features or products and helping buyers match them with needs. But as the best sales reps know, everything is about something else, and being able to identify and offer up the things that are most valuable to a customer is a result of listening to the subtleties of their needs and desires, then meeting them with empathy.
  • Looking someone deep in their eyes is a superpower. Meaningful live conversations are the building blocks of lasting relationships. Thoughtful eye contact, the incantations of a heartfelt recommendation or advice, genuine smiles—these intangibles are a force multiplier to the hard skills a sales rep needs to master to thrive.

There’s a reason we call Pepper’s AI features “Sales Rep Tools”. They are not meant to replace DSRs. They’re designed to take the most tedious data wrangling tasks off the hands of DSRs so that they can focus on the highest-leverage activities for their role: building relationships, strategizing with customers, and helping them achieve their goals.

“Thanks to our new app, I have a lot more time to visit customers, more time to sell, and ultimately more time to spend with my family.”Diane Snider, Seattle Fish Co

Want to see how our AI DSR tooling works? Schedule a demo and we’ll give you a personalized walkthrough.

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