How Chatbots Will Change Sales Forever

This article was originally published on the EBQ blog.

When Facebook announced its new developer platform for Messenger at F8 last month, it blasted a long-standing digital trend into the mainstream. Chatbots have been around since the advent of electronic communication, but now, as digital citizens’ vision gets crowded with the plethora of flashy apps promising to solve all problems, we have moved back into an age of plain, human-to-human communication.

And like all social shifts, the time has come to monetize chatbot technology. 2016 has been heralded as the “year of conversational commerce”, and Facebook’s announcement plays right into that theory.

Chatbots? Really?

“All right,” you say. “I buy it, but who even uses chatbots?” After all, the only chatbot to garner popular attention in past year has been Tay, Microsoft’s experiment in “conversational understanding” that Twitter users quickly derailed in spectacular fashion. This implosion of an experiment hardly sparks confidence in the future of AI, yet the world’s largest social platform spent the majority of its developer conference focused on chatbots. Someone, or many someones, somewhere has decided the time has come for natural language processing to enter the mainstream.

It makes sense. With the majority of our time on mobile devices spent in natural language messaging — even more than is spent in social networks and apps — as well as the overwhelming shift toward mobile usage, messaging is the most fruitful new avenue for advertisers and marketers. Now that an overwhelming majority of marketers use email as a core strategy, the more enterprising and innovative marketers have turned to this new, largely untapped field.

The model has already proved hugely successful on WeChat, the most popular messaging platform in China. Users can transfer money, pay for a taxi, or book a flight, all through branded bots in a single messaging interface that responds in real time. Unlike other messaging-only platforms in the United States such as WhatsApp that appeal almost exclusively to the under-35 crowd, WeChat has penetrated all age groups in China, providing a deep pool for brands’ future chatbots. Even with the vast cultural differences between China and the West, the new avenue for brand awareness and customer acquisition is compelling.

And there’s the important point that with the chatbot model, marketing and sales teams receive immediate feedback as to what’s working, what’s not, and what customers care about the most. Chatbots may become as much about data acquisition as meeting the customer on a new field of communication.

Chatbots and Sales

The mainstream chatbot comes at an interesting juncture in the world of sales, when cold calling is vilified at the same time that sales development is touted as one of the hottest jobs in sales. And while sales professionals argue amongst themselves, the very nature of the means of communication they use is changing.

Critics of cold outreach advocate for a more content-centered approach, anxious to produce enough content to have a surplus of inbound leads. But newer social media networks such as Slack and Snapchat, with their for an off-the-cuff, naturalistic approach to communication, have begun to take hold, and research suggests they make users happier and thus more engaged than the traditional uses of Facebook. Combined with the rise of the chatbot, one thing is for sure:

In today’s sales climate, you can’t rely solely on content as we know it to generate leads.

At the same time, the chatbot holds the same allure as relying solely on inbound leads. Chatbots deliver immediate feedback on who your prospects are, what they are interested in, and how they want to interact with your brand, without the grind of dialing hundreds of phone numbers. However, as demonstrated by the aforementioned Tay or the infamous Microsoft Office “Clippy” of old, interacting with chatbots presents an array of problems when actual humans are thrown into the mix.

This paradox, however, presents an opportunity for sales. Technology’s advancement to the point where chatbots can become reality has also enabled a level of visibility into the day-to-day operations of sales development never before imagined. As an SDR executes the cycle of cold calling, he can record every interaction into a cloud-based CRM. The SDR’s notes, in essence, deliver the instant access to a prospect’s desires that can be seen by looking at a chatbot’s log.

The spread of artificial intelligence will, somewhat counterintuitively, empower companies who choose to invest in outbound demand generation. With the introduction of the chatbot onto the platforms with which we interact most frequently, we will once more become accustomed to interacting with a humanlike intelligence to acquire our goods and needs. The back-and-forth necessary to complete a transaction, even with a bot, will become a familiar process again, guiding us away from one-sided eCommerce processes that dominate the field right now.

B2B marketers have begun to embrace live chat features on brand websites, showing that even stubborn proponents of a content-based approach understand the importance of human conversation in executing the sales cycle. B2B marketers mirror the sentiments of developers: Too long, we have focused on creating one-way content, desperate to catch the attention of the public. Perhaps, we should take a cue from where people are spending the majority of their time and return to one-to-one communication.

Artificial Intelligence: Back to the Future

Naturally, developers look to technology for this return, and that is the source of the rise of the 21st century social chatbot. But in sales, we can shift our attention to how we can interact in a similar way. The popularity of B2B marketing automation has already addressed this concern, and CRM has allowed us a way to react to our customers and prospects more quickly and accurately than ever possible before.

The logical progression is for sales professionals to marry these ideas — use the technology afforded by cloud-based CRM to return to natural conversation in sales. Therefore, while all the chatter surrounding chatbots and AI may raise fear in the hearts of some sales and marketing professionals, they do not need to worry. The demand for chatbots only confirms the one thing we all know about sales.

There’s nothing better than a good old-fashioned conversation.

EBQ is a sales and marketing support firm based in Austin, TX. We specialize in lead generation, sales development, and marketing automation for technology companies. You can learn more at EBQ.com.

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