If there is one thing we've learned from science fiction, it's that yesterday's science fiction is today's science fact. Take, for example, artificial intelligence—often referred to as "AI." First came the Steven Spielberg movie of that name, where childless families adopt lifelike robot children. Next was the Will Smith film I,Robot, where a robot learns emotions. And the recent sci-fi thriller Ex Machina features a robot named “Ava” who responds so much like a human that it is nearly impossible to tell that she, or rather it, isn’t one. It was only a matter of time before real-life technology caught up with the AI of sci-fi.
One of the better applications of natural language processing and AI comes in the context of inbound lead follow-up for sales, where an interesting question has arisen: If customers engaged by email cannot tell whether they're communicating with a computer or a human, would it ultimately affect their decision making? The answer—yes, and in a positive way.
AI has found its place in a practical application—the lead conversion process. It can qualify innumerable leads without increasing office space. For that matter, it also reduces the hiring, training, and benefits costs associated with scaling up an inside sales team. Being able to qualify leads using a virtual, AI-based communication system can overcome much of what ails the typical sales and marketing force. Here are five common challenges—and how AI might fix them.
Your inside sales reps spend only 20 percent of their time closing. One of the great challenges sales reps have is following up in a timely manner on each lead that marketing has generated. Qualifying and nurturing a lead is time-consuming, with a lot of repetitive activities. On average, sales reps spend 80 percent of their time qualifying leads and only 20 percent closing. Qualifying leads requires advance research and many phone and email hours trying to hone in on a lead that can be turned into a sale. What if this vetting process could be done by a machine that engaged all inbound leads in an amiable, human-like way? In fact, there is already software like this in use; it has helped generate nearly $8 billion in sales revenue for those companies that have deployed it.
Most of your leads aren't being followed up on. Sales and marketing organizations claim to be taking advantage of CRM and marketing automation to streamline business functions. But only 27 percent of leads receive a timely call, and sales reps don't always give them the information they need.
The best AI lead conversion software maximizes the chances of success by contacting 100 percent of leads in personal-seeming interactions. It can read replies to emails and interpret the lead's intention and sentiment based on the exchanges. It can then nurture each lead for as long as it takes for the prospect to express an intention to buy or opt out.
Inefficient lead follow-up is costing you money. There's an old adage in marketing known as the "Rule of Seven," which posits that a prospect needs to hear your message at least seven times before he remembers you. But with only 12 percent of sales reps making more than three contacts with a lead, the hidden gems among your inbound leads remain just that—hidden.
This is where AI-driven lead conversion can have an impact. Persistently following up on every lead, AI lead conversion usually averages seven or more engagements per prospect, significantly improving the chances a prospect will remember your business and become a sale.
Your "robotic" auto-response emails are turning off prospects. As more of the lead life cycle, from first touch to closed business, becomes automated, the human element tends to get lost. In fact, some marketing and sales automation solutions actually tout removing the human element, to eliminate errors and redundancy. But this overlooks the fact that sales conversion is a very human process.
With AI lead conversion, emotions can be used to create a relationship with a lead. That "human touch" can pull the potential buyer into a discussion that turns him into a hot prospect. Research shows that leads who engage in real conversations early in the sales life cycle make a deeper connection, share more information, and convert into sales opportunities at a higher rate. And when AI lead conversion software is integrated with CRM and marketing automation software, such as Salesforce, Pardot and Marketo, the number of qualified leads goes up and the people who will never buy are easily identified.
Quickly growing the size of the inside sales team is really hard. The knee-jerk response to many of these problems is to merely hire more inside sales reps. But there are pitfalls. Hiring and on-boarding a sales rep can take six months or more. Sales reps that are slow in ramping up miss sales targets and de-motivate the rest of the team, and most companies simply can’t afford to wait six months before new hires are up to speed. And new reps need salaries, health insurance, training, desks, phones, computers…and just when all that is in place, they move on.
By contrast, AI-powered virtual sales assistants are low-maintenance team members. They work 24-7, don’t leave for more money, don’t take vacations or sick days, never ask for a raise. With AI following up on all inbound leads, companies can scale their inside sales teams in a more reasonable way, growing the human force to keep pace with qualified sales opportunities. The "real" salespeople can get the raises, promotions, and congratulations they deserve as they succeed by becoming more productive and generating more profit for your company.
While problems with lead quality and follow-up have plagued sales and marketing teams since the beginning of time, today’s AI solutions can mitigate, if not eliminate, them while improving sales closing rates. And while you won’t see AI lead conversion solutions starring in a sci-fi action movie, they should take a starring role in your lead generation and sales acceleration technology stacks today.
Alex Terry is CEO of Conversica, a provider of lead engagement software that uses the power of artificial intelligence to free up sales people from the drudgery of lead follow-up. He is an accomplished executive in the industry with over 20 years of management experience in high-growth SaaS companies. A technology and business model innovator, he holds multiple patents for his work in Internet services, integrated communications, and interactive billing systems.