In 1950, Alan Turing, already famous for helping to crack the German Enigma code during World War II, devised the Turing test to define intelligence in machines. Could a computer, Turing asked, fool a human into thinking he was interacting with another person, or imitate human responses so well that it would be impossible for a person to tell the difference? If the machine could, Turing proposed, it could be considered intelligent. Turing’s thought experiment spawned scores of science-fiction tales, such as the 2015 hit movie Ex Machina. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous algorithms are not only passing the Turing test every day but, more importantly, are making and saving money for the businesses that deploy them.
CenturyLink is one of the largest telecommunications providers in the United States, serving both small and large businesses nationwide. The company collects thousands of sales leads from the businesses it serves, and it wishes to interact with them in the intimate, personal manner consumers have come to expect. Pursuing those leads more effectively would accelerate the company’s growth, and converting and upselling a larger percentage of hot leads (people who have expressed interest in the company’s services by filling out a form, clicking on an ad, or emailing the company) would boost the company’s bottom line.
Accordingly, in the latter half of 2016, CenturyLink made a small investment in an AI-powered sales assistant made by Conversica to see if it could help the company identify hot leads without hiring an expensive army of sales reps to comb through the leads. The Conversica AI, a virtual assistant named Angie, sends about 30,000 emails a month and interprets the responses to determine who is a hot lead. She sets the appointment for the appropriate salesperson and seamlessly hands off the conversation to the human.
The potential customer gets a prompt and helpful outreach from Angie, and the reps — who may each have 300 accounts — save time because Angie vets the inquiries to identify the ones with the most potential. The reps also become more efficient because Angie routes the right leads to the right reps. In the small pilot CenturyLink ran, Angie could understand 99% of the emails she received; the 1% that she couldn’t understand were sent to her manager.
According to Scott Berns, CenturyLink’s Director of Marketing Operations, the company has approximately 1,600 sales people, and the Angie pilot started with four of them. That number soon rose to 20, and continues to grow today. Initially, Angie was identifying about 25 hot leads per week. That has now increased to 40, and the results have certainly validated the company’s investment. It has earned $20 in new contracts for every dollar it spent on the system.
Tom Wentworth, Chief Marketing Officer at RapidMiner, a company that provides an analytical tool for data scientists, had a problem that was similar to CenturyLink’s. Like many software companies, RapidMiner offers free trials, and Wentworth was struggling to serve the approximately 60,000 users who come to the company’s site each month for the free trial. Many of the visitors using RapidMiner’s software, and needing help, are not paying anything for the service. So, how could Wentworth help them in a cost-effective way?
The company had a popular chat feature on its site, but its salesforce was overwhelmed — and spending a great deal of time — sorting through the chat sessions to find potential customers. It was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Wentworth approached a friend who suggested he try a chat tool called Drift, which would ask a visitor initiating a chat, “What brought you to RapidMiner today?” The visitor would respond, and the Drift bot would provide one of seven potential follow-up answers. For example, a visitor might say, “I need help,” and Drift would send him or her to the support section of the website.
Drift was relatively easy to set up. Wentworth, like CenturyLink, started small, running the tool on a few of RapidMiner’s smaller web pages to test how helpful it was.
In less than two weeks, he had deployed it on every page.
The Drift bot now conducts about a thousand chats per month. It resolves about two-thirds of customer inquiries; those that it cannot, it routes to humans. In addition to Wentworth, who is monitoring the tool’s interactions, two co-op college students support the inquiries part-time. Wentworth told me that Drift is generating qualified leads for the sales team by making customers. “It’s the most productive thing I’m doing in marketing,” he said.
Every day, Wentworth reviews conversations people have had with Drift. “I’ve learned things about my visitors that no other analytics system would show,” said Wentworth. “We’ve learned about new use cases, and we’ve learned about product problems.”
This is the strength of an AI agent that can elicit information like a person, rather than an analytics tool that simply finds patterns in the data it collects, like a machine.
In 2016, Epson America, the printer and imaging giant, piloted the same Conversica AI assistant as CenturyLink. Chris Nickel, Epson’s senior manager of commercial marketing, was drowning in all the leads he was getting for the company’s diverse line of products: big printers, projectors, scanners, point of sale solutions, and industrial robots. Epson America was getting 40,000 to 60,000 leads per year from trade shows, direct mail, email marketing, social media, print and online advertising, and a successful brand awareness campaign. The leads would pour in, and whether they were good, bad, qualified or not, they would all be turned over to salespeople whose availability to follow up was inconsistent.
After implementing the AI assistant, Epson’s leads are now followed up promptly and persistently until their AI assistant gets a response. “Because the outreach to leads takes 6-8 times, Conversica is a true force multiplier for our sales team,” say Nickel. After a lead is passed to one of Epson’s partners, the AI assistant follows up to make sure the customer was satisfied. Sometimes, the response to that follow-up identifies a new sales opportunity, such as “everything went great, and actually we are looking to buy another 60 projectors,” giving Epson the opportunity to quickly capitalize on a new sales opportunity before the competition. Or it can uncover an unresolved customer support issue, such as “I’m having a problem with my projector.”
As Nickel told me, “Before, if we gave 100 leads to the reps, we might get a couple of responses from customers. Now, if we give 100 leads to the AI assistant, we get 50 responses.” Epson reports that the official response rate with the AI assistant is 51%, representing a 240% increase from the baseline established at the beginning of the pilot, and a 75% increase in qualified leads. According to Nickel, that has produced $2 million in incremental revenue in just 90 days.
Because the AI tools that Epson America, RapidMiner, and CenturyLink deployed are offered as-a-service, it was easy for these companies to conduct pilots, and then scale up. Clearly, it’s worthwhile for companies to test AI-powered chat or email tools to see if they can convert more leads, and improve their understanding of what customers want and need.
When it comes to AI in business, a machine doesn’t have to fool people; it doesn’t have to pass the Turing test; it just needs to help them and thereby help the businesses that deploy them. And that test has already been passed. As one CMO told me, “AI tools are the only way I can scale ‘helpfulness’ to a global community of 200,000-plus users with a team of two.”