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When Zoom’s business boomed almost overnight in the early days of the pandemic, Michelle Dotson, head of sales enablement at the video conferencing leader, knew that preparing salespeople for every selling scenario was more important than ever.
“We’re training, we’re coaching, we’re guiding, we’re practicing,” Michelle Dotson, head of sales enablement at Zoom, told VentureBeat. But as Zoom transitioned from its core video conferencing product to new services ranging from contact centers to conversational intelligence, traditional one-on-one coaching and role plays by sales managers and simple LMS learning modules were no longer enough.
“The only way to scale quickly was with AI,” she said.
Zoom deployed AI-generated avatars to train sales team
That’s where Jenny came in. Over the past year, Zoom has deployed Second Nature’s AI-generated avatars to onboard and train sales team members. The Tel Aviv-based Second Nature was founded in 2018 to address a key challenge facing large-scale organizations today: how to efficiently ramp-up sellers’ knowledge to drive revenue, confidence and skills. It formally launched in January 2022 with $12.5 million in a Series A funding round, which included investment from Zoom.
“The AI takes the burden off the sales managers to train a lot of people at the same time,” said Dotson. Instead, Jenny is trained to play the role of a sales prospect and have one-on-one conversations with salespeople who need to practice pitches or introductions to new products.
“She’s not watching you,” Dotson emphasized. “A conversation with Jenny is going to give me guidance on my style, my speed. Did I actually share the relevant talking points that are necessary to get my point across? Was I combative? Did I listen? Jenny is really like a coach and a guide and almost like a mentor.”
Sales enablement is a hot space for AI
According to Gartner, by 2025 three-quarters of B2B sales organizations will augment traditional sales playbooks with AI-guided selling solutions. And sales enablement, which Gartner defines as “the process of providing the sales organization with the information, content and tools that help salespeople sell more effectively,” is a particularly hot space for AI-driven tools right now.
Fast-rising unicorns such as Gong and Chorus have been leading the way in this space. But Second Nature maintains that it is the only product that empowers sales reps to practice their sales conversations using natural language.
“My team has fun with Jenny – sometimes we tailor the training and turn up how hard it is to impress her,” she said. “Sometimes she’s a little bit snappy, sometimes she’s very friendly. Depending on the segment or the market they might be pitching to, we try to adjust Jenny to match that so it’s relevant and real.”
Dotson added that Jenny can be adjusted based on the seller’s skill. “If you’re an experienced seller, you don’t want easy Jenny,” she said. “you want a real conversation where she’s trying to be more objective and say ‘I don’t need that. I don’t want that. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Zoom uses diverse AI-generated avatars
More recently, as Zoom has built a diverse sales enablement team, Jenny has gotten some company. “Now we have Penny, we have Manny, we have Danny,” said Dotson. “Our AI is inclusive and diverse and has different races, genders and languages.”
In addition, as Zoom and Second Nature have continued to tweak Jenny, Dotson said the AI-driven conversations have become increasingly natural.
“She understands Zoom, how our sellers sell and how to speak their style,” she said. “It almost feels real, like she already knows what we need to do. So over time, the two biggest things are that Jenny has become more diverse and experienced.”
Jenny learns what Zoom wants to teach
Second Nature CEO Ariel Hiltron said that the AI has also learned more complex sales skills that Zoom wants to teach. “We started off with more focus on product knowledge, including how to position certain products in a competitive situation,” he said. “As Zoom added more best practices around sales skills, such as negotiating, how you bring discussion to a close, we added those.”
Hilton added that Zoom, with its multiple products, stages and buyer personas, may have different markets, whether it is selling to an enterprise, a healthcare organization or a university. “Those are different conversations, so it quickly becomes a lot to master,” he said. “Now with the use of AI, you can actually cover a lot more permutations in a lot more one-on-one time versus receiving information from a module or sales trainer.”
Pre-training the AI is formula for success
Part of what makes Jenny successful is the pre-work to set it up, said Dotson. “I think a lot of people assume you just log in and it’s easy, here’s the deck and I’m done,” she explained. “But there’s a lot of work that goes into creating this place and space where you might have a conversation with Jenny.”
Before Zoom launches a product training on Jenny, Dotson said 10-20 people practice with her first. “The more time you spend training her and practicing with her before it launches, the less things will throw her off,” she explained.
Dotson said there has been a drastic increase in the hours in each quarter that people practice, with an average of 46 minutes per sales rep practicing selling a new tool, product or process with Jenny. “For me, that’s a clear sign that it’s successful, in that people want to use the tool,” she said. “That’s 46 minutes that we gave back to each manager. And some of them have 10 people, spread around the globe.”
The future for AI-based sales training at Zoom
Ideally, Dotson saId that in the future Jenny would become an integral part of Zoom IQ for Sales, the company’s conversational intelligence sales offering that launched in April. “That would be the dream duo.”
There has been online criticism and chatter about recent comments around possibly incorporating emotion AI technology into Zoom IQ. Dotson admitted that the potential of adding Jenny’s capabilities to the solution won’t be for everyone.
“Not every company is ready for something like this – it’s AI,” she said. “So you have to have the right culture within the company to be able to actually train in that manner and give real-time feedback to people.”
But she believes that early adoption will pay off. “Today’s early adopters are the risk takers breaking the mold,” she said. “I think the companies that don’t use AI in the near future will be behind. There’s going to be a line of, ‘did you use AI and are you scaling, or are you behind the curve?’”
Once organizations see the value of deploying AI in their sales enablement efforts, she added, they will be open to bringing it into their workplace. “You’ve just got to learn about it first, how it can align with what you want to do,” she said.
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