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Conversational AI Moves from Service to Selling

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Conversational artificial intelligence has thus far been primarily applied to contact centers, where the technology has been used to pull apart and analyze automated and agent-led interactions between businesses and their consumers.

Most of the few dozen vendors of conversational AI technologies have been laser-focused on the chatbot market, using AI insights to improve inbound customer service interactions, but that’s just scratching the surface of what’s possible with conversational AI.

The technology that enables conversational artificial intelligence has advanced so far and improved so dramatically in just the past year or two that it can now help sales teams uncover opportunities, move prospects through the sales funnel, and close more deals more quickly and efficiently.

“We’re seeing conversational AI being plugged into more and more sales applications,” observes Rebecca Wettemann, founder and CEO of technology research firm Valoir. “[Sales teams] use analytics to understand what is going on and then tie that data back into their CRM data.”

Conversational AI helps push transactions through the sales funnel much more quickly, confirms Yaniv Hakim, CEO of CommBox, a provider of unified customer experience platforms.

Conversational AI has the unique ability to find certain words or phrases within a conversation that can be used to predict whether the prospect or customer is ready to make a purchase and when, Hakim adds. “You can predict which customers you can upsell, which customers will need a human to close the sale. You can see a lot of growth by making the right offers at the right time.”

Conversational AI has uses throughout the sales funnel, according to Wettemann, who notes that as organizations increasingly rely on data from what prospects and customers are doing on the web to determine their propensity to buy, they use conversational AI to feed the top of the sales funnel and then to follow interactions all the way to close and beyond.

Jim Kaskade, CEO of conversational AI and automation provider Conversica, agrees that conversational AI can be used at the top of the funnel and all the way through the sale. Teams are using it to capture prospective customers that visit their websites, through the use of chat, and in the early stages of engaging the customer, trying to drive people further along the sales cycle to eventually closing the deal, he says.

The technology also helps qualify sales leads for outbound sales efforts, according to Kaskade.

Conversational AI is also being applied to sales meetings in real time and after the fact. Uniphore, a provider of conversational automation, launched Q for Sales in March, which leverages computer vision, tonal analysis, automatic speech recognition, and natural language processing (NLP) to capture and make recommendations on the full emotional spectrum of sales conversations during virtual meetings. It provides opportunity-level insights, customer sentiment, and engagement timelines and flags key moments in real time so sales personnel can self-correct when needed.

Conversational AI can also be used to generate more sales or increase existing order values. Conversational AI leverages the input from an interaction and information the company already has about the customer or prospect to uncover additional sales opportunities and upsell or cross-sell possibilities.

For example, with conversational AI, someone might mention to a company employee or an automated system that a big party is being planned. Conversational AI can take that information and use it to make wine suggestions. Then, once that person has ordered wine, the same conversational AI can give him suggestions for other wine purchases or for purchases of other products that pair well with a particular wine he ordered.

“Conversational AI uses the insight of the current interaction to offer very targeted suggestions that generate higher sales and conversion rates than generic sales offerings,” explains Daniel Ziv, vice president of speech and text analytics global product strategy at Verint.

In addition to providing prompts that help with current sales, conversational AI also helps in coaching sales reps and other employees for future sales, according to Wettemann. “It has the ability to analyze conversations and tie those back to actual closings, enabling companies that take advantage of AI to scale the efforts of their best managers and to take advantage of the fact that we’re not all sitting in a bullpen anymore where managers could listen in and coach on an ongoing basis.”

BEYOND THE SALES TEAM

Conversational AI for sales is not being used just on sales calls or other sales-related customer interactions. With greater frequency, companies are applying conversational AI to customer service calls to identify and move sales opportunities.

Conversational AI helps uncover sales opportunities during service calls by finding where customers might, for example, express an unmet need to an agent and then giving the agent real-time guidance so that she can pitch an offer using the right words, Ziv points out. “These calls, initially for service and resulting in costs to the company, can instead turn into revenue-generating opportunities,” he says.

“There is a limit in how much [contact center] expense you can save, but there is no limit on how much more you can sell,” Ziv says. “The potential ROI on additional sales is really high. Many organizations sell very little [from these calls], so moving the needle just slightly in the right direction can really transform their businesses.

“The timeliness and specific insight about what a customer is saying [to a customer service agent] is unique compared to other sales methods,” Ziv says further. “It is also unique because of the leverage that you can apply to sales from other channels that don’t sell at all.”

Using conversational AI to boost sales from service calls is critical if the economy plunges into a recession, as is expected, Ziv adds. “Focusing on your existing customer base becomes really important. The people you have contact with are the people who use your channels. Identifying those sales opportunities and investing in technology that supports generating more revenue from your existing customer base is easier than other kinds of promotions.”

“In a tight economy, where every dollar matters, conversation intelligence platforms and AI-powered software will help brands with efficiency, conversion, and customer retention by providing data and insights at each step of the customer journey, from click to call to conversion, for the entire revenue-generating organization, from marketing to sales to e-commerce and customer experience,” agrees Gregg Johnson, CEO of Invoca, a provider of AI-powered conversation intelligence and call tracking.

“Data clearly shows which calls drove revenue and which simply clogged up the phones, ultimately enabling contact center agents to provide personalized and tailored customer experiences,” Johnson adds. “Brands can also discover where and why customers are abandoning the digital journey and calling to improve digital experiences and drive more online conversions. This leads to increased close rates, more efficient marketing campaigns, and better customer experiences.”

Regardless of where a customer or prospect is within the sales cycle, conversational AI can be used to inform companies about which kinds of offers or phraseology will work best in selling to that specific type of customer at any particular stage in the journey, according to Richard Boyd, CEO of Tanjo, an AI technology provider. “First you come up with a model to determine who is going to open your message, then you come up with a campaign of communication that moves them.”

Doing so greatly increases the chance of sales success, moving people down the sales funnel from prospect to customer or from customer to repeat customer, Boyd adds.

But, as with any modern CRM system or other business application, conversational AI cannot be used in a vacuum, experts agree. Conversational AI works best when it can pull information from and feed information to other business systems of record.

Integration with other CRM, analytics, and related technologies boosts the success for companies using conversational AI, Hakim says.

And the incremental sales boost potential from conversational AI comes at a much lower cost than adding salespeople, who must be paid and trained, Ziv adds. The technology guides the bot or human agent on the offer to make, so no sales training or acumen is needed, he says.

FUTURE OF CONVERSATIONAL AI IN SALES

The financial services and retail industries have already been heavy adopters of conversational AI for sales. The technology is just now starting to take hold in the automotive industry, which is understandable given the high value of car purchases. A company called CarLabs.ai, which was recently acquired by Impel, deals exclusively in conversational AI products for the automotive industry. CarLabs’ artificial intelligence products enable automotive retailers and manufacturers to engage customers with automated, contextual two-way conversations and optimize content delivery and business performance with machine learning and advanced statistical models.

Devin Daly, Impel’s cofounder and CEO, said at the time of the acquisition that he sees a growing need in the automotive industry for “exceptional end-to-end omnichannel experiences across the entire customer life cycle.”

Martin Schmitt, CarLabs’ cofounder and CEO, agreed, noting that “automotive is ripe for intelligent automation” and that AI-powered applications have the power to “transform the experience for customers and dealers alike.”

But while there have been some initial successes—and certainly some failings—most companies are at the very early stages of realizing the full potential of conversational AI for sales.

“As we head into 2023, brands are looking to do more with less. AI and automation will only become more important as they seek to increase customer loyalty while reducing operational costs,” says Rob LoCascio, CEO of LivePerson, a conversational AI platform provider. “Our latest research shows that 98 percent of brands say AI is important to their customer engagement strategy, but only 28 percent say they’re realizing its full potential.”

Companies are still fine-tuning offers generated via conversational AI and fine-tuning the words that are used, Ziv says. “I think it will become a must-have tool for sales and for many other use cases just because of the potential impact and the potential opportunity.”

Boyd expects to see companies attempt to shorten sales cycles by using conversational AI in connection with the metaverse and other virtual and augmented reality channels. “Those who embrace the idea of modeling and simulating a synthetic population of customers before you go out in the real world and talk to them will be more successful than those that don’t do it. Some will use it, some won’t. It will be the high performers who will be successful.”

Ziv adds: “In economic environments where people have to be much more cautious about their discretionary spending, it becomes much more critical. So companies have to be very, very targeted in figuring out when they want to offer something. I think conversational AI needs to play a role there for almost every vertical.”

One innovation that is just beginning to take hold is the use of video with conversational AI. In November, Aivo launched what it is calling Video Conversational AI, created with Synthesia, provider of an AI video generation platform that turns text into video in minutes.

With Video Conversational Al, companies can interact with customers using video chat and virtual AI-generated avatars; the avatars can understand and respond to customer questions in real time and learn with each conversation to become more effective at addressing each customer’s situation.

“We’re very excited to finally launch Video Conversational AI. Brands are eager to keep innovating while consumers are more demanding than ever. It’s time to take innovation a step further, and we believe that video conversational AI will lead companies in that direction,” said Martin Frascaroli, CEO of Aivo, in a statement at the time.

And another area of innovation will involve bringing conversational AI to a level where it can engage large numbers of leads, prospects, and customers in unscripted conversations at scale.

“As the economy continues to change, the old growth model working one customer at a time no longer works,” Conversica’s Kaskade says. “Businesses simply can’t staff to the level needed for one-to-one conversations with every prospect, lead, and existing customer. And today’s buyers are too savvy to be moved by the many one-way message blasts or, worse, scripted bots that are painfully programmed to route frustrated customers to an already overwhelmed human.

“Companies must deliver personalized, back-and-forth, human-like conversations to their contacts at every point in the customer journey. Otherwise, they’re leaving revenue on the table,” Kaskade says further.

He expects conversational AI to welcome in a “new era of business where no revenue opportunity is missed.” 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises1@comcast.net.

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