Special Report: Artificial intelligence apps come of age
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Determining whether a lead is interested in becoming a customer is a delicate game of answering the right questions, responding with timely emails and providing pertinent information. But these tasks add cumbersome work for sales personnel -- and even if done correctly, they can lead to no sale. Companies like Conversica Inc. are starting to develop AI software to help automate the sales task.
Despite the time and effort needed to nurture leads into customers, salespeople have been hesitant to allow third-party software to interact with leads. As time becomes more valuable, however, more industry verticals are adopting artificial intelligence (AI) software.
While not a new concept in technology, AI has evolved to a point where some companies have developed humanlike email interactions using cloud AI software.
This software as a service can take bulky, repetitive processes, such as incoming internet leads or product questions, and provide accurate, concise and timely information for the consumer. This can enable sales personnel to focus on closing deals.
Sales has more time to close deals
"Because we use the AI to manage the front end of the sales funnel, our customers' salespeople spend more of their time closing deals and less time prospecting and following up with leads," said Alex Terry, CEO at Conversica, an AI sales assistant company founded in 2007, based in Foster City, Calif.
Conversica has more than 750 customers in more than a dozen industry verticals, including automotive, higher education, technology, real estate, finance and insurance.
"We have a lot of data to train the system and helps the AI get smarter every month," Terry said.
While AI assistants are gaining traction in some sales industries, widespread use won't be adopted until there is more of a proven track record of implementation for sales executives to point to.
"The use cases are there, and people are starting to use it," said Evan Woollacott, a digital analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., in Hampton, N.H. "But it's not just about adding an AI-enabled application to the sales process. It's more around the internal process of the company and how they use it. We're still very early in the game for AI."
Solving the email conundrum
Selling luxury cars in the greater Dallas area is a strategy that requires quick and accurate communication to leads, according to Joseph Davis, internet director at Mercedes-Benz in Plano, Texas.
"With any dealership, but especially higher-end ones, when you're ready to talk about a car and submit a lead online, you want to hear back immediately," Davis said. "One problem I had was our sales teams weren't answering leads fast enough."
In September 2014, Davis implemented the Conversica cloud AI software for the Mercedes dealership's online sales team, despite some reluctance from its members.
Joseph Davisinternet director at Mercedes Benz-Plano
"They didn't want an assistant or third party touching their leads," Davis said. "Especially with higher-end clients, they are very protective."
Some of the sales team's concerns were they would have no control as to when the AI assistant would reach out, if it would contact them too much or get confused by a potential customers' question.
"There were too many unknowns for the sales reps to be comfortable with it," Davis said. "It took about a week and the reps were on board after they saw the first couple interactions."
Personalizing the cloud AI software
When using the cloud AI software, the company will tailor it to its needs, setting the amount of emails it wants the automated sales assistant to send to a lead, even giving its assistant a name.
"We named her Tiffany," Davis said. "We've had one client show up with roses for her, and a couple others have tried to ask her out."
The Mercedes sales team was able to configure how many times Tiffany would email leads, and the automated process allowed for quicker response times and, ultimately, more sales.
The month prior to installing the AI assistant, the Plano dealership handled 696 online leads in August 2014, converting 103 into sales for a 15% closing rate.
Eleven months after installing Tiffany, the dealership handled 716 leads in August 2015, converting 149 into sales for a 21% closing rate.
The response time for online leads was also dramatically diminished, with an average of 54 minutes prior to the sales assistant, down to 16 minutes with Tiffany.
"It allowed us to change for the better," Davis said. "We were actually sending out too many emails to our clients before. We sent so many, they were being flagged as spam and not even reaching the leads."
AI assistant evolves as data grows
Conversica's AI assistant continues developing the more messages and leads it sees, making more refined responses as the software develops data.
"Last year, over 95% of all inbound messages have come in, and the AI has received and correctly read the messages and takes the next action in a fully automated way," Terry said. "The 5% where the AI isn't quite sure about the message, it gets sent over to the training desk, and the human sales team reads the message and decides on the next step."
Terry added that the cloud AI software develops a confidence score: When it reads a message, it has a certain confidence, and if that number isn't high enough, it's sent to a human sales rep.
"We feed that training data back into the machine learning algorithms, so the next time a message like that comes in, the AI will be better at interpreting it," Terry said.
Replacing real jobs
One primary concern, other than giving up control of potential sales, is that AI assistants might eliminate existing sales jobs as they become more advanced and accurate.
"In organizations, you often have sales assistants help account executives manage customer relationships. If you start doing that with AI, those jobs could be put at risk," Woollacott said. "We're not anywhere near that yet, but that's a longer-term threat."
Terry said replacing jobs with his software is often one of the first concerns potential customers ask about, but he called it a groundless concern.
"What we've seen happen over and over again, a company hires Conversica, the team gets more efficient and more often they hire additional salespeople, not fewer," Terry said.
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