For many B2B organizations, the challenge has become less about generating new leads and more about how to further engage those leads and move them into a next stage conversation. Critical elements of that include timing — with 87% of respondents in Demand Gen Report’s 2017 B2B Buyer’s Survey Report saying the “timeliness of a vendor’s response” is important — as well as the messaging in the follow-up.
To help address this, a growing number of B2B organizations, such as BeyondTrust, ScaleArc and Cox Media, are seeing early returns from using artificial intelligence (AI) driven applications with the goal of making follow-up engagement more efficient and effective.
“Everyone has the same big-picture problem — generate quality leads,” said Michelle Rae McLean, VP of Marketing at ScaleArc, a provider of database load balancing software. “But what part of the funnel is presenting the biggest problem? Larger companies have a much bigger “lead volume” problem — they need AI around how customers are engaging specific content. Then, they can get more refined about nurture programs because they ‘send in the humans.’ At ScaleArc, we [don’t] need to funnel more content — we’re trying to figure out who’s worth our precious human calling resources.”
At ScaleArc, business development reps (BDRs) typically follow up on high-value leads, but “we realized we had more ‘warm’ leads than our BDR team could call live, so we use AI as a way to understand people’s sentiment about our software,” said McLean. “[It gives] us another, automated outreach channel.”
McLean said ScaleArc has been utilizing Conversica, an AI “virtual sales assistant,” which helps to identify opportunities for sales and communicates optimized messaging that appears to come from a real person.
To test the AI solution, “We developed a couple scripts, or conversations, that Conversica would have,” McLean explained. “The software is built with Marketo hooks, so we tied our Marketo account to our Conversica account and defined a ‘personality’ in Conversica that the [emails] would come from. Our Marketo and SFDC accounts are also integrated, so we defined a set of filters in Marketo for who should come into the Conversica campaign, created the matching Conversica campaign in SFDC, and pushed all the people from the Marketo smart list into the Conversica campaign.”
The clear ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses the AI tool elicits have been especially helpful, McLean said. “About once every month, we drop as many as 3,000 additional leads into Conversica. The script runs against those leads for about four weeks, and we see 15% to 20% engagement on average. That is a huge volume where we didn’t need a human to reach out until we got the positive response. Some of the engagement will be in the form of ‘Please unsubscribe me,’ but that’s still useful.” McLean added that the Conversica tool has met ScaleArc’s criteria for marketing tools: generating 10x in pipeline what it costs to run.
Adding Efficiency To Re-Engaging Leads
When SDRs at BeyondTrust, a provider of privileged access management solutions, can’t get through to leads after seven touches, the company typically “recycles” or stops contacting them. BeyondTrust tried building an inside business development team, then using a third party to follow up on recycled leads.
But Peter Schumacher, Senior Director of Marketing at BeyondTrust, said both approaches were costly and time-consuming. The company first tested AI in 2015 with a Conversica pilot and has since implemented and expanded the solution.
The process took only a few weeks, according to Schumacher. “We got our Salesforce administrator involved in mapping some fields. The Conversica package was installed into Salesforce over the phone in about an hour. Then, I had to build the campaign on our side and understand how it was working,” he said.
BeyondTrust named the persona Alexis (a persona they already used for manual interaction with customers). For her first project, they put a backlog of about 1,000 leads into a three-week re-engagement campaign. Alexis obtained a 20% response rate “from leads that had a zero response rate before,” says Schumacher.
Using AI for re-engagement worked so well that earlier this year, BeyondTrust put Alexis to work handling initial outreach to leads and registration lists from trade shows and events.
Other Applications Of AI Across Pipeline
AI interactions can also help prioritize leads for companies like Cox Media. The local advertising arm of Cox Communications doesn't use formalized lead scoring, so Dan Glicksman, Senior Manager of Lead & Demand Generation, said they are looking to predictive tools and other AI applications to optimize the prioritization process.
Targeting a vast population — busy small business owners — Cox considers every click it gets high-value. Since it lacks the bandwidth to contact all those leads, the company is investigating AI solutions to automate the first touch.
Cox Media recently evaluated Conversica’s solution, and Rex Liu, Senior Demand Generation Analyst at Cox Media, explained that blending the machine learning with human interactions has been a relatively smooth process.
“The trial version of Conversica allows you to choose from a list of templated conversations the AI can have with the audience you drop into the program,” Liu said. “The conversations vary from people who visited your booth at an event, visited your website or downloaded a piece of content, for example.”
Beyond choosing a name for the AI persona and starting the email outreach, Liu said the science of tracking what buyers are responding to has potential to be a game changer. “If the AI is able to identify that a buyer expressed interest, it’ll route it to the assigned rep,” said Liu. “If it doesn’t know how to handle a reply, it will also send those to the assigned rep. It will continue to engage with people until they reply and indicate they aren’t interested.”
During the testing of the AI sales assistant, Liu and Glicksman said they were curious to see if the AI would be too automated and people would immediately identify the emails as coming from a bot. “That didn’t happen,” Liu says. “People had natural conversations with her as if she was an actual person working at Cox Media.” The interactions worked: In one test, Cox’s AI assistant reached out to 100 people who visited an Eloqua-tagged page and qualified four leads.
For companies looking to start using AI, Glicksman recommends focusing on “decision makers who have indicated interest in your products and services but haven’t taken the next step to speak with someone, and [have] the AI set up a phone call for a rep.”
Future Of AI In Sales & Marketing
In addition to providing virtual assistants to supplement traditional BDR functions, AI-driven tools are also being used for a variety of other sales and marketing functions — from appointment scheduling and calendaring.
“We are moving into an era where AI can tackle more complex tasks, such as listening in to sales meetings, recognizing patterns and creating post-meeting briefings with recommended courses of action,” said Pratima Arora, VP of Project Management for Salesforce Sales Cloud.
In another area of potential efficiency, Salesforce’s Einstein Activity Capture is aiming to reduce the need for manual data entry by automatically capturing customer interactions through email and calendar integrations. “We are seeing customer demand for AI that can go beyond handling busy work,” said Arora.
In addition to interacting with prospects, Arora emphasized AI-driven sales tools may have the greatest potential to transform sales training.
“Training plays a huge role in setting SDRs up for success,” Arora noted. “Powered by machine learning and complex algorithms, AI can come in particularly handy for training and coaching new SDRs.” For example, Arora said, AI systems will help new SDRs craft emails to get more responses, and coach them while they’re on a call, enabling reps to “sell faster and smarter than ever before.”
Chorous.ai is one such startup that records, transcribes and analyzes sales calls, using natural language processing to highlight key topics or trends. The tool records the best sales reps’ calls and then uses what it learns to create playbooks for the rest of the team.
No matter how sophisticated AI-powered sales tools become, however, industry experts pointed out that the human touch is still critical.
“[AI] gets you information and saves you prep time,” said Ray Kemper, CMO of Televerde, a global sales and marketing solutions company that helps B2B companies generate demand and accelerate sales. “But you’ve got to listen and get a customized understanding of the client’s needs, pain points, where they are in the buyer’s journey and who’s involved in decision-making to orchestrate a tailored solution and communicate why you’re the best provider. At the end of the day, in B2B, a sale rarely happens without a real conversation.”