WSJ Article: AI Tools Find New Customers for Companies

Wall Street Journal Article

 

By: Angus Loten, Wall Street Journal - April 29, 2018 10:02 p.m. ET

When the 100-plus sales team at Snowflake Computing Inc. had more leads than it could handle, the company assigned each rep a personal assistant: an automated, artificial-intelligence-powered chatbot designed to engage with potential buyers by email or text.

Sales showed a “tangible boost” after just four months, says Denise Persson, chief marketing officer of the San Mateo, Calif., data-storage firm. Each automated assistant, developed by Foster City, Calif., technology firm Conversica, speaks six languages and works around the clock contacting, engaging and following up with prospects who have reached out to Snowflake through its website, email, text, social media or other channels.

When it determines that a lead is ready to buy, it alerts a human sales rep, handing off useful tips, like the best contact number or time of day to call.

The sales rep takes it from there.

 

Fewer dead ends

Digital tools powered by intelligent algorithms are changing the way corporate sales teams operate. Automated assistants and other smart tools take over repetitive, time-consuming tasks from harried sales staff, who spend too much time chasing dead ends that don’t produce a sale, and not enough time chasing those that do, sales managers say.

The use of AI is spreading in part due to the broad adoption of cloud computing to increase computer-processing power, storage and data-gathering abilities. With the cloud, businesses are able to rent much-higher-capacity computer infrastructure from third-party vendors, avoiding the hefty costs and additional resources needed to run their own data centers. Indeed, many large cloud providers are adding AI capabilities to their existing enterprise IT platforms and services. Salesforce.com Inc., CRM +0.97% the cloud-based business-software giant, last year announced a partnership with International Business Machines IBM +0.12% Corp. to develop data-analytics offerings for sales teams using AI. Each of the partners has its own AI platform—Einstein and Watson, respectively.

Sales departments are the most common business units acquiring AI technology, largely because they are already awash in data and need help analyzing it. In a survey about corporate uses of AI, Forrester Research found that 46% of more than 400 business and technology professionals identified sales and marketing as leading AI spending and adoption, followed by product management and customer support, at 40%, and engineering at 31%.

“That transactional data is so rich and clean, companies want to pull value from it,” says John Bruno, a Forrester Research analyst.

Gartner Inc. estimates that 30% of all business-to-business companies world-wide will employ some form of AI in at least one of their primary sales processes by 2020. “Saving salespeople time is important,” says Todd Berkowitz, a Gartner analyst, “and these tools can help them be more effective.”

 

The conversation

Not all of the vendors in this space are cloud-based giants.

Conversica, the provider of AI sales assistants to Snowflake Computing, says more than 2,000 companies are currently using its product, generating $18 million in annual recurring revenue. “We’ve found that the platform becomes part of the sales team, and I mean that literally, with a name, a job title and an email,” says Conversica Chief Executive Alex Terry.

“The key piece is that AI has been trained to understand the type of back-and-forth of a sales call,” he adds. “It is having that conversation.”

Cindi Stevenson, sales director at Insperity Inc., a Houston-based provider of human-resources and other business services, says her company last July deployed an automated sales assistant designed by Nudge Software Inc. that scours Twitter, Facebook and other social-media data for potential sales leads.

 

Sales in the Lead

“It has already paid off, big time,” says Ms. Stevenson. “All this intel and data is out there in the universe, and you have to go find it.” The firm’s 450 sales reps have “too much on their plates to go digging into every prospect’s Twitter feed every single day,” says Ms. Stevenson.

Toronto-based Nudge has about 20,000 users spread across thousands of different companies, says Chief Executive Paul Teshima. Using AI, the platform “helps identify which relationships need attention and what’s going on in their world, so you can prioritize sales reps’ time,” says Mr. Teshima.

 

Knocking on doors

John Stewart, chief executive of MapAnything, a Charlotte, N.C.-based maker of software for designing more-productive sales trips, says about 2,100 businesses currently use his company’s AI product. The software analyzes data from Salesforce’s customer-relationship-management platform, GPS and other resources such as real-time traffic patterns to optimize sales routes for traveling reps. The software identifies and links clusters of customers and can fill any gaps in a schedule arising from last-minute cancellations.

“This is computationally heavy stuff,” Mr. Stewart says, “but in the end sales is all about knocking on doors, and this allows them to knock on more doors.”

Vince Lowe, a senior vice president of sales optimization and integration at branded credit-card issuer Synchrony Financial , SYF +0.48% says that before his company used MapAnything, its sales reps would “dump Excel spreadsheets” onto laptops as they headed out to meet a customer.

“We have some 365,000 locations across the U.S., so you can imagine the complexity of that,” Mr. Lowe says, referring to the retailers, manufacturers and other brand-name businesses that offer branded credit cards through Synchrony Financial.

Now the company’s sales teams travel with iPads, CRM platforms and visualization tools to track customer data, Mr. Lowe says.

“MapAnything helps to aggregate all that data together on the go and predict exactly where the next sales visit should be and when,” Mr. Lowe says.

Mr. Loten is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. He can be reached at angus.loten@wsj.com.

Appeared in the April 30, 2018, print edition as 'Sold! AI Systems Help Companies Find Customers.'

 

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