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Startup Chorus.ai analyzed millions of sales meetings since the pandemic using AI, and found successful salespeople demonstrated empathy towards their customers


Jim Benton Chorus.ai

  • Jim Benton leads Chorus.ai, a San Francisco-based startup that analyzes sales meetings with artificial intelligence to find what approaches are working best to close deals. 
  • Hired March 16, a week after his company sent staff home to work remotely, Benton has started a daily briefing webcast to interview customers about how they are adjusting to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Benton's firm and customers have unearthed trends during the past two months such as delayed payments, a decrease in cold calls, leadership involvement in sales meetings, and low open rates in COVID-themed emails.
  • A major takeaway: Salespeople who demonstrated empathy for their customers amid the pandemic were generally more successful.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

If you're a newly-remote office worker who feels like you haven't seen your coworkers in forever, consider the situation of Jim Benton, the CEO of an AI startup who has never met his staff. Hired March 16, Benton has only met a handful of the employees of Chorus.ai, the 100-person San Francisco company he now leads. 

"I have not worked in the office yet," says Benton, a veteran of AT&T and Ticketmaster. "We started working from home the week before I started, and I had interviewed with a few folks. But I showed up Day 1 to face 100 tiles on a Zoom screen." 

Talk about the new normal of work life during COVID-19 staring you in the face. Looking into those 200 strange eyes, Benton knew he needed to do some informed communicating in order to lead his new staff. 

"I thought, 'What can we do with this situation to be our best? This is our moment, whether we would have chosen it or drawn it up this way or not. This is what we have. How can we make the most of it and help others to do the same?'"

Luckily, what his company does is study how firms communicate. Chorus.ai has raised $55 million in venture funding to date, from Canadian investment firm Georgian Partners, Redpoint Ventures, Emergence Capital, and its customers include Zoom, Mavenlink, Qualtrics, Adobe, and GitLab. 

Benton, the new CEO, has created a daily briefing video conference that breaks down how businesses are approaching sales calls during the COVID-19 crisis. Benton's daily briefing is broadcast live at 8:35 AM Pacific Time here, with past episodes available to stream. 

With a guest from a different company every day, Benton discusses the trends identified by Chorus.ai's natural language processing — the combination of computer science and linguistics that helps computers understand human language. Those AI programs swim through a vast data lake. Last year Chorus processed 5 million sales calls for its State of Conversation Intelligence report, and Benton says the data he cites in his daily briefings is culled from millions of calls from this year already. 

What the data show is a very different approach to sales over the past two months.  

"You might think the workforce just collapsed. It didn't. Teams are as productive or more productive working remotely, but it looks different. That's why we started the daily briefing, to show what we're seeing," Benton said.

One of the main things Chous.ai is seeing is that successful meetings over the past two months often "start with the heart." Participants connect, ask about each other's families and home life. If salespeople swoop in for a quick sale, it feels tone deaf, Chorus.ai customer Sean Andrews of MongoDB said in Benton's daily briefing last week.

"I think we're having more sincere discussions. Everyone is going through this so I think people are slowing down and building more rapport," said Andrews, whose firm provides a database for application developers. 

Lessons learned

What Chorus.ai calls its Conversation Intelligence Platform identifies and helps teams replicate the performance of top-performing reps by analyzing recordings of their sales meetings– who's at the meeting, when does it happen and on what platform, what's the outcome of the meeting, and what materials are presented? If the meeting led to a sale, what conversations led up to that? What patterns of speech show up regularly? These insights inform coaching strategies for sales and customer success teams. 

Other lessons learned so far include:

  • Payment terms of longer than 30 days have doubled since the beginning of March, as companies rethink their budgets for the oncoming recession. 
  • Mentions of COVID-19 more than doubled over the past month, but half of them occur in the first 10 minutes of a business conversation as participants inquire about each other's health and well-being, then move on to focus on business. 
  • Cold calls have dropped 38% since January as salespeople have adjusted to remote work and a more personal approach with budgets tight.
  • There's been a big jump – by 70% – in companies' leaders joining sales calls as budgets tighten. 
  • Some of the markets hit hardest by the virus are rebounding in their productivity, with meetings increasing in New York and Chicago. 

'People are shying away from COVID messaging'

The effort to connect personally is also paying off within companies, Benton's guest on his daily briefing webcast said Friday. Grayson Cooper, head of sales at the transcription and captions company Rev.com, urged managers not to "miss out on what you're used to seeing in the office. It's a chance to have that coffee conversation that's crucial to having healthy relationships with your team."

All of this personal conversation doesn't just mean sympathizing about the virus' impact, said  Matt Amundson, the chief marketing officer of business data firm EverString on Benton's web conference show last week. "People are shying away from COVID messaging so much that if you use coronavirus in a subject line, the open rate decreases by 60%," Amundson said.

"We're focusing on humanity more than empathy. Something like 'I'm writing this email sitting in a bean bag chair in my living room rather than the office.'" That kind of messaging really clicks, he said.

What this all signals to Benton is that "We're all in my position. We're all trying to connect in this situation and make sense of this new environment."

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