Today, everyone working in and around sales and marketing knows that bots are hot, in vogue and quite simply, of the moment. That’s no secret.
After years of dreaming about what might just be possible, over the past 12-18 months numerous software as a service (SaaS) companies from around the globe have taken their respective bot offerings to market.
It’s been an exciting period as discussion around bots has (finally) moved on from the peripheral to the mainstream, or put another way, from the realms of sci-fi to reality. While innovators and early adopters are embracing the opportunities afforded by bots, the fact remains that too much work within sales and marketing is still manual - too few teams are thinking of ways to automate, eliminate or optimise. Spreadsheets, documents and email are all too often, still the norm, rather than the exception, as most people at most companies continue doing their job, rather than figuring out ways to improve how their work is done.
In my role leading sales enablement at HubSpot in EMEA, we deliberately carve out time to think about ways to leverage tools, technology and software that will make sales reps more effective. And as a company we value people that have the ability to continually reimagine ways of working and attach great importance to this attribute.
Indeed, a large part of my remit is not just responding to the needs of sales reps today, but thinking big and anticipating future trends, and subsequently our sales reps’ needs in the future. The best sales enablement teams implicitly understand what a sales organisation wants, but more importantly what it needs (they’re not necessarily the same), often before even the sales organisation comes to that realisation.
While the most effective sales enablement leaders leverage data, study trends and speak with both sales reps and sales managers to develop a true sense of the sales organisation, and how they can best support it. With this in mind I built and launched a sales enablement bot for HubSpot sales reps.
It’s hosted within our private HubSpot Slack channel and answers sales rep questions related to competitive intelligence, case studies, sales collateral and more.
To use Silicon Valley parlance, the bot was built to “scratch my own itch”. I needed to somehow answer the numerous and ever increasing questions that I was asked each day by sales reps, while remaining productive. The bot works by answering questions within Slack, as well as pointing the sales rep towards more detailed information (outside of Slack), if required.
Building the bot within Slack was really important to us - it’s the internal communication platform of choice for sales reps at HubSpot and they feel comfortable using it everyday. Building a tool on a platform where your audience already are, is nearly always more successful than building it elsewhere. We had a large and engaged audience on Slack, which helped massively with adoption of the bot.
Slack’s sleek design and intuitive user interface (UI) means our sales reps can simply click on the options suggested by the bot or type in what they’re looking for, and they will be guided towards the answer to their question. While the bot is freeing up my time, more importantly it provides sales reps with the information they need, at any time of the day and across any device.
Here are some examples of what queries the bot can help with. HubSpot sales rep can either ask these requests verbatim or try a different variation:
Marketo competitive intelligence
How do we beat SharpSpring?
Who are Intercom?
How we beat Act-On?
Tell me about Zoho
Strengths of MailChimp
Sales Hub competitors
SaaS case studies
Case studies on manufacturing
Customer reference call request form
ROI of HubSpot
Send me sales collateral
Show me some review websites
G2 Crowd reviews
Where do we rank on TrustRadius?
You can watch a demonstration of the bot in action below:
There are many more ways the sales enablement bot can help, plus some carefully hidden “Easter Eggs” for sales reps to discover. You’ll also notice that we named the bot, “Ben Botton”. The name was suggested by a sales manager (in case you didn’t notice, it’s a play on my name, Ben Cotton), and while it’s fun, what’s more important is the Ben Botton moniker makes the bot memorable, which in turn increases adoption by sales reps. It’s easy to overlook, but what you call and how you brand your bot matters. My advice is to think carefully about this from the beginning, and avoid making it an afterthought.
Let’s now cover in detail how, why and when I build the bot. Here’s goes. As an individual contributor (IC) partnering with over 100 sales reps, I’m always thinking about ways to effectively scale the services I offer to the sales organisation. Scale is hugely important (although, we shouldn’t chase scale at the expense of impact and revenue), and there’s two forces, in particular which keep me focussed on it.
The first is related to the business and pretty obvious - as HubSpot grows we’re going to recruit more and more sales reps - certainly at a faster rate than we’ll make sales enablement hires. That’s to be expected. The less obvious factor is related to my role, and where I invest my time. A large amount of my day can be spent answering sales rep questions. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think an important part of my role is partnering with sales reps, coaching them and where needed, answering questions, but the answer doesn’t necessarily need to come from a human. That’s where bots, and more generally, automation comes in.
Like many people I’ve been intrigued by the potential utility of bots for a long, long time. Leveraging automation is not only interesting, but important - after all, if a SaaS company’s headcount growth exceeds revenue growth, it impacts its ability to invest in product, and if that happens, things can start to go awry. The solution is to achieve leverage via automation, and that’s a part bots will play.
Automating sales enablement
The way I see it, not all sales rep questions are created equal (far from it). In fact, most questions I’m asked each day by sales reps can be split into one of two categories:
Consultant - low volume, high value questions that require a bespoke response.
Agent - high volume, low value questions that require a templated response.
The consultant-type questions are when a sales rep wants advice, guidance or coaching. This is a good use of my time, and where possible, is where I invest it. However, the agent-type questions, such as suggesting case studies, sharing competitive intelligence, sales decks or links to various resources still need to be answered, but I think a bot can and should help lighten the load. Frankly, this work is far less valuable, more unskilled and more tactical in nature.
As I’ve said before, there’s a significant difference between data and insight. Bots are ideal to turn to when seeking to answer a clear cut question, but anything that involves judgement, empathy or shades of grey is where a human will be required. Bots provide data and answers to inform decision-making, but a human is needed to distill that data into actionable insight. Bot technology will help complete simple tasks quickly and efficiently, but they won’t close a deal or dream up a marketing campaign. Data is to knowledge as insight is to wisdom.
Goals of the bot
I had heard my HubSpot colleague Brian Bagdasarian talk about how bots should take on “fragments of jobs”, rather than replace them entirely, and it really resonated. I see the sales enablement bot as a way for sales reps and sales enablement to become more productive in two important ways:
Help sales reps get the answer to agent questions quickly.
Reduce the volume of agent questions I get asked - freeing up time work on consultant questions.
It’s always difficult to set SMART goals for a new initiative such as this, however, we set ourselves the goal of the bot answering 500+ sales reps questions per month, which equates to five questions per month, per sales rep.
It’s fair to say we’ve been delighted with the results. The bot answers (well) over 500 questions per month from HubSpot sales reps in EMEA. Importantly, that’s 500+ questions that would have needed to be answered by a human (either myself or a colleague).
Using some back of a napkin math you can begin to quantify the impact and benefit of the bot. For example, if each question a sales reps asks would take five minutes to respond to (research suggests that the true number is 20+ minutes, especially, once you factor in the time to regain concentration and flow), then you can begin to see how the efficiencies quickly add up.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still do answer sales reps questions, but there’s been a significant change in the type of questions that bubble up to me - sales reps now ask for recommendations, coaching and advice, rather than links, sales decks and case studies. Candidly, recommendations, coaching and advice are much higher value activities and the right place for me to invest my time.
Not only is the bot making me more productive, but the bot is providing sales reps with answers to their questions immediately. The bot is making me more efficient and freeing up sales rep time, so they can focus on doing what they do best, which is high value tasks like speaking and meeting with prospects.
What the bot can and can’t do
It’s fair to say there’s much hype around bots at the moment, but the reality is humans, from the Industrial Revolution onwards have systematically sought out ways to eliminate manual tasks via automation - and the rise of bots is just the latest incarnation of that trend. In a sales and marketing context we should consider bots an enabling technology that will replace parts of, rather than entire jobs. For the moment, bots are a time saver, rather than true value creator.
The bot that I built directs sales reps to the right place. It works by “signposting” sales reps to places that answer their questions. However, there’s lots the bot does not do. It’s by no means comprehensive and certainly doesn’t have every use or edge case covered, but it does answer the majority of agent-type questions I’m asked. I have continued to iterate on the bot since its launch and plan to add more functionality in the future.
Looking ahead, I’d love to see the bot evolve from something that is essentially reactive to become proactive and predictive. Currently a sales reps inputs a question and it outputs a response. This is somewhat rudimentary, and while it hints at the future power of bots, it clearly has its limitations.
The next step is to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning so that the bot can proactively make suggestions. The future bot won’t wait for a sales reps to come to it with a question or problem - instead, the bot will proactively reach out with a recommendation. At a high level, making the move from tools which are reactive to those which are dynamic, proactive and learn is how we’ll create more value for the sales organisation and business.
I’m truly passionate about bots and the promise of this new technology, but while there’s a lot to look forward and ideas to be dreamt up, we need to realise that we’re still in the first act of bots and what’s possible. This is exactly what makes sales enablement exciting and the reason I work in this emerging field - we get the opportunity to create a small part of the future and think about just what might be possible in the sales industry.