By Dan Pryor
Recently, Google’s virtual assistant went viral in a recorded demo, in which the Turing-test-passing robot successfully schedules a hair appointment for its “client”. The robot intersperses its speech with human-like pauses, and even uses sentence fillers like “umm” to make it sound more convincing. While the video was almost certainly staged, and it’s likely that most calls with the robo-assistant won’t go quite as smoothly, the ability for a robot to perform calls with strangers as convincingly as a human begs the question: will robots be able to replace business development representatives?
Efforts have been made to automate and improve cold calling for years — auto diallers and robocalls for example — but until now, being able to successfully conduct a call has been primarily the responsibility of real live salespeople. Prospects can tell the difference between a robot and a human — either by the tone of voice, or from the robot giving a non-human-sounding answer — and while the rate of success with robocallers is extremely low, they have gained traction in less scrupulous circles due to their very low cost. But Google’s new assistant might be able to change the game.
How Much Room For Deviation Is There In A Sales Call?
I’ve been working in Sales for almost a decade, and have worked with a variety of clients and products. When a sales process is properly optimized the very first calls have followed a fairly standard structure, that rarely deviates greatly from one prospect to another.
Like a decision-tree based chatbot, sales calls can go down a few paths based on the caller’s response.
- The call recipient hangs up immediately once they realize you’re trying to sell something
- The call recipient reluctantly says they have “a few minutes” to learn more
- The call recipient knows something of your company already and asks one of a few typical questions
Each of these three initial responses leads to a scripted answer on the part of the cold caller:
Most cold callers (or at least, the successful ones) intersperse scripts with personalized language. Whether that be asking how the recipient’s day is going, or using the recipient’s name throughout the pitch to make it more personal, salespeople know that reading a script in a monotone won’t yield results. What’s impressive about Google’s new technology (termed Google Duplex) is that the robo-assistant seems capable of doing this too.
According to a senior sales executive at one of the ‘Big Five’ tech companies, over 90% of sales calls contain minimal deviation from a sales call flow chart — which means, if a robot can talk like a human in somewhat scripted scenarios, cold calls can be automated without the call recipient knowing that they’re talking to a human.
“Cold calls aren’t that different from scheduling an appointment,” explained the sales executive. “You know how a call is going to be structured and the questions people will ask — and what little variation there is can definitely be accounted for when training a natural language processing based bot.”
Will Google’s Assistant Take My Job?
Based both on my own experience and on several interviews the NewtonX team conducted with sales executives at large ($100M in revenue or more) technology companies, it is highly likely that AI will automate at least some aspects of the lead generation handoff, allowing humans to put their focus further up the value chain.
Like in many areas of business, AI automates the first rungs of the expertise ladder, pushing humans into higher level positions that require a greater degree of personalization and technological expertise. The days of the affable salesperson going door to door are gone; the salesperson of the future will be more akin to a product expert. And the door-to-door personality will be a robot.
Whether or not this is a bad thing is a moral judgement better left to policymakers. But the reality is it is a more efficient and cost-effective method for conducting entry-level sales work, and therefore will likely be implemented by most companies eventually. Google has positioned itself well to be the company that owns this space initially, but Amazon’s Echo is sure to follow suit — after all, the market for automating cold calls is an untapped well, potentially worth billions.