Everyone knows the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted sales, marketing, and businesses worldwide. Uncertain times call for empathy to best serve others.
Today’s guest is Jim Benton from Chorus.ai, a conversation intelligence platform. Early on, Jim and his data science team recognized the need to crunch and record a lot of numbers to analyze how customer bases are adapting and adjusting to changes.
Ben: Hi Jim! Welcome to the show!
Jim: Hey, Ben. Thank you, great to be here.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do at chorus.ai?
Jim: Jim Benton. CEO here at chorus.ai out here in the Bay Area. We’re the number one conversation intelligence platform. Our job is to help businesses to connect and create these brilliant experiences by living in the meetings, capturing these meetings, and bringing that truth back to the full sales stack.
Ben: Cool. I understand, recently with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve been doing a lot of work analyzing the business impacts of the pandemic across a number of different areas of business and marketing and sharing that data, that information, and the things that you’ve been discovering so that others can benefit from seeing how the landscape is shaking out with everything that’s going on right now.
One thing that you’re doing with that, as I understand it, is this Daily Briefing of broadcast that I believe you’re hosting via Zoom call. Not unlike the one that we’re using to conduct this interview right now. To get more to the point, what kinds of business and sales data have you been sharing on those daily Zoom calls?
Jim: Happy to share. It’s interesting. The daily call is something new for me. I hadn’t had that experience before, and I just started and joined Chorus as CEO in March. I joined actually right when the offices were shut down. One of the first observations, in my first week, was we had data that was really empowering to other leaders out there where they were trying to get a sense of what can we still sell during this time and what’s changing?
I remember the first data point I looked at was how can we analyze these calls and meetings we’re in and how is COVID coming up in the calls at that time? This is going back a few months. We saw February 23rd that 8% of the calls had a COVID-19 mention. A week later, it’s 29%, then 63%, and then 98% by early-March, mid-March.
That’s what set off how is productivity changing? Are people still able to move from an office to their homes and continue to sell? Our data was showing yes. They were absolutely maintaining incredible levels of productivity even when you might think I can’t see the team. I can’t see them, I can’t walk the halls, maybe they’re not selling. We were just the opposite.
That is the data that we set out to share daily in kind of a wartime mode of hold on, we are seeing unique patterns [...], segments, and in different types. We set out to do that on March 26, and we ran that daily for several months.
Ben: Cool. Are you still running those daily, or it’s run its course at this point?
Jim: The spirit of all this is what does the world need right now? What we’re seeing today is now focused on reopening or adjusting to what the new norms are. How do we continue to bring rich data to the market? We’re going to be shifting it to weekly, but getting much richer in terms of some of the best practices that we’re seeing out in the marketplace. We interviewed about 60 different CROs, head of sales enablement, and CMOs during that two-month period. I would ask these questions and am happy to share some of the insights that we were learning.
By the way, one of the points that I found incredibly interesting in the last couple of weeks is that we saw a significant increase in CFOs showing up in the sales calls. 91% increase over baseline—baseline being pre-COVID. In the last week, a significant uptick. We’re seeing a trend where CFOs are the new buyer, essentially. How are teams presenting extreme ROI, how are teams messaging when we know that this CFO is in the room, and just how do you enable your team to be prepared for that? It’s just a small example of the type of ways that this data is unlocking deep insights.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to take some time to dig into some of those other trends in a moment, but for now, it’d be great to really focus on that one point you just mentioned about CFOs being brought into sales discussions more frequently. Because there could be all kinds of interesting ramifications from making the decision to bring your CFO into the sales call. Also, there’s got to be a lot of interesting reasoning behind why companies would want that person there.
I imagine, you’ve alluded to this, when there’s a lot of belt-tightening going on, you probably want the numbers people in the room to make sure that you can rationalize that purchase. I’ll leave it to you though to explain. What do you see there? Why do you feel you’re seeing CFOs being brought in the sales calls? I guess as a corollary to that, what does that mean for a sales team? How do they brace themselves or prepare themselves for actually having to have that person in the room with them during the call? It’s maybe something that they’re totally not used to.
Jim: It’s right. One of the data points that lead to the 91% increase on the CFOs is we also saw 100% increase—doubling of director-level individuals joining the buying sales calls. You’re pitching other companies, they’re bringing a lot more leadership. 100% increase in directors, 104% increase in executives with CFOs. What we’re seeing is that there’s just friction in the system. Here’s one of the comments I heard from one of the guests that I just thought that it was a great point. It was that we’re on two sides. We’re also seeing it on the sales sides, that sales leadership is now 88% higher involvement in sales calls and executives are 72% higher.
On both sides, we have massive increases in executive-level here. But what we’re finding is that only business essential deals that really are necessary are getting off the wine. CFOs need to get closer to the action. Other execs need to really make sure that this is the program that needs to be funded versus the other ones. We can’t just fund the way the budget was laid out. We need to choose wisely.
I think friction is the right word, which is more people having to get involved, more people having to study it, which is both good. We can move incredibly fast on decision-making right now. If the deal is meant to happen, we’re hearing folks talk about these extremely fast sales cycles on large enterprise deals, and it’s because we have all the right people joining these calls upfront.
The question is what would make that call successful for a CFO? What do we need to do to be aligned going into that call so that we’re not [...] it, but we’re absolutely focused on making sure that we overcome any CFO objections. What I’ve been hearing from folks is just this concept of the extreme ROI, and just how do we present with more clarity and more rigor the absolute ROI or extreme—meaning many, many multiples—higher case that we have.
We basically need to beat out other options. Maybe a better way to say that is, identify that this really is one of the most important initiatives that needs to be tackled, because those are the only ones being funded right now.
Ben: Sure. That’s really interesting. I would be interested to get your opinion on this. Do you feel that that’s maybe that should have been happening anyway?
Jim: The entire sales motion right now, I’ve been very intrigued by. In life, sometimes what happens during a crisis, you see pure, the good, and you do sometimes see the best of people during the challenge. When you look back at the Great Recession or you look back at much more challenging events, 9/11, etc., you do see a massive change in the way people interact.
Right now, what we saw with COVID was another time where we saw incredible authenticity, incredible empathy. It wasn’t trained, it wasn’t programmed in, that was people being real, people opening up their homes, and their interruptions, not just apologizing, but actually accepting them and bringing them into the conversation when their kids are speaking or their dog walks across on their desk.
What we saw was the human side of problem-solving. I always think of sales as just problem-solving. Two people coming together to solve problems, but the human side is just incredibly special. It was less about a pre-scripted sequence that goes out and more about I’m reaching out for these reasons. What you’re hearing, Ben, is that people are actually thanking people for some of the outreach. Hey, thanks for doing your job right now.
We have our team doing our jobs and you’re clearly passionate about what you do where you’re coming to me and we recognize it’s hard. I thought that was incredibly powerful to hear those comments on it. You just also had people thinking more freely about—our messaging is literally changing day by day, week by week. What we did two weeks ago doesn’t make sense today.
How does the sales team be empowered to think more freely and to really deeply think about the true problems we’re solving versus the scripted, hey, we improved this 2% or 2x. It’s not enough. We need to really connect, and we need to connect in a really real way.
Ben: For sure. That’s a fantastic answer. There’s a lot of truth in all of that. What are some other trends you’ve been seeing, some other really high-level things that are just really at the front of your mind right now?
Jim: One that I’ve been really intrigued by, and it caught me off guard when I first saw the data in my first week of joining, was how many actions are managers taking on calls to support these deals and train rep? Basically, how much coaching are we giving to our teams? What we saw was that right when COVID started and basically right where we moved to shelter in place, there was a pretty significant dip. People stopped coaching, and it makes sense looking back.
You’re like, got it. The first week at home, it’s chaos. Everyone’s trying to keep their sanity. We saw a drop. That was March 16th that we dropped significantly, then it went up a little bit, March 23rd, up more March 30th, and by April 20th, it essentially was at pre-COVID levels, and then has just continually gone upward. 53% higher today, more coaching is happening than pre-COVID.
To me that is stunning. The people sitting in their living rooms, and garages, and kitchens are getting more coaching from their leadership than they were when they were side-by-side in the office, and it’s far more specific coaching. It isn’t just great job, I heard that went well. It’s hey, I was looking at this, the way you told a specific story at minute 20 was amazing; we could do this; hey, I am studying the sentiment of the call; or I’m studying how long was the monologue.
We’re giving really specific data-driven coaching. To me, I just think that’s how we grow people, and we need to continue to develop our teams and our people while we’re remote. Secondly, what I’m just super passionate about is how do we help companies to truly bring their best every interaction. Because if we do that, we solve a lot of problems.
How do we validate that our teams, when they’re working from home, from bedrooms, are continuing to represent brands in their own authentic way, but they’re bringing the best of the company, not just themselves? We need to ensure that is happening and that we’re capturing the voice of the customers. In those interactions, we’re capturing deep moments about how customers are feeling about the current environment and buying, how they’re feeling about competition, messaging, and pricing.
How do we get those real-time insights and bring it back to the rest of the companies so we can be making customer-driven decisions? That to me is critical, and we’re now doing that better working from home than we were in office environments. That’s fantastic. It’s incredibly inspiring.
Ben: Jim’s point about sales being about problem-solving sounds so simple, but maybe because it’s such an obvious element of being in sales, being in marketing, or being in business in general that it becomes really easy to forget. I just like to put a point of emphasis on that because no matter your role or your situation, approaching challenges with a problem-solving mindset, while putting others first, can go a really long way towards making those challenges feel more manageable.
If you can do that for someone, if you’re in a call with a prospect, if you can really make their challenges feel less overwhelming and more within their reach to overcome, maybe in that process you let your guard down slightly, you show your human side and lose some of the scripts a little bit, then you can really create an amazing experience for those prospects, even in tough times. Now, back to Jim.
What is it about this specific set of circumstances that is not only driving businesses, driving sales teams, and driving marketing teams to shake up the status quo, but to actually maybe even outperform, in some ways, what they’re doing before? Maybe to actually start fixing problems that have been long-standing, that maybe just got overlooked before this current situation pushed things to the forefront.
Jim: Look, we were in an eight-year bowl market. Things are frothy, things have been very economically strong for many of these segments. There were motions that worked and were adequate in that environment. The environment changed dramatically—just dramatically for all of us about the human level, the family level, the personal level, and the work level. We didn’t quite know what the next few weeks or few months would look like.
We were told to shelter in place for two weeks. That has turned out to be far longer than two weeks. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but what that uncertainty brought was that the motions of how we connect with people had to dramatically change. That required coaching, that required enablement. Leaders suddenly went from being deeply connected to their teams whether their fine around and joining them in meetings or sitting them in the bullpens.
Now we have leaders sitting at home completely unconnected from the entire sales motion, yet feel an incredible urgency, ability to forecast, and share learnings about what are we hearing in the market? Do we think Q2 is going to hold up, Q3? What decisions do we make in the company? Are we going to have to reduce the size of the team?
What we found was they had to find a way to connect. That is where the conversation intelligence has seen the big tailwind is we need to be in the calls, we need to be able to give specific coaching, not just on salesmanship, but just what’s the new messaging? Is it working? What is the data showing? What’s driving higher effective rates right now? How do we onboard a new person that we’ve never even met and had them hear what’s working best?
That’s the message—leaders needed to connect. Coaching was a great way to say this was great; hey, let’s try this; or, I’ve seen this. That’s pushing the whole group forward.
Ben: Bringing things down to a more tactical level, more down to the ground level. Say, I’m a marketer or I’m a sales professional. I’m either going into a sales call directly, if I’m a salesperson or maybe if I’m a marketer, I’m supporting that sales process in some way. Now we have the CFO or some other executive-level staff that I’m not used to having in the room with me during that interaction, what advice would have for that person to maybe make sure that they are sharing what the executive-level staff wants to see? In general, how do you include them in the conversation? That interaction could be really intimidating, potentially. In general, how would you handle it?
Jim: Our data would suggest that the NAE in that example should bring their sales leadership to these interactions. That is what’s happening in the industry right now, is it bringing leadership? Leaders, what we’re hearing from others, and my own thoughts on this, should be really thoughtful about what role they play in these interactions. A common theme that we heard, and this validates how I think about it, is you want a very empowered sales professional. That’s really the quarterback in these deals. They’re starting the calls, they’re ending the calls, but it’s also important that when leaders join, that they’re not sidelined into a non-role where they only chime in if there’s something to add. It’s a real miss to have a leader join a call who potentially doesn’t say anything.
You should not feel like they’re there to perform. It’s a team effort. What role should we play? How does the [...] show control, urgency, and access? Hey, I’ve brought my leader in to talk about this topic into how to be very natural at this time? Let me say that differently. How to think about the situations we’re in, think freely about things that are different? We do have a CFO, we have the Senior VP at the other company in the call, how do we make sure to not just follow the existing playbook to the T, but think more thoughtfully about what’s required to make this interaction successful?
I always like the [deal] concept. What is the desired outcome of this interaction? What would make this time together wildly successful and how do we quickly align on those and make sure that we’re going to talk about that content.
Ben: Another thing that I’d be curious to get your thoughts on to, something that you mentioned is the only deals that are getting across the line at this point in time right now are the things that deliver just outsized ROI. If I’m on a marketing team, I’m on a sales team, I’m a business leader, or whatever the case may be, let’s say that we’re struggling right now. We’re struggling to communicate that kind of value to prospects.
Maybe, we believe we offer that value or the person in this hypothetical example believes that they can provide that value, there’s a block somewhere between giving that message across and actually motivating the desired action. How would you recommend the team in that situation, maybe self-diagnose what’s going on and start turning that around?
Jim: The above the line selling is really important right now. We had skipped [...] and we were talking about below the line, above the line. It is difficult to get below the line deal done. It doesn’t mean they’re not happening, but just in general, we really do need stronger economic buyers playing key roles. That’s what the data shows, that they’re showing up in the calls on both sides, but they are the ones that need to be speaking to the CFO. The CFOs, typically, they’re peer or in a closer group to say, look, of all the things, I do need this. Whether we have extreme ROI or extreme conviction, it depends where the businesses are if they’re truly in a spend freeze or just in a being more thoughtful.
That championship, an above the line leader, is critical right now. Deals are getting done. Look, Q2, deals are getting done. I’m hearing from others, potentially, 40% longer, but we’re still seeing the deals get done, that’s the important aspect. We’re still seeing, by the way, that calls are being picked up. Although dials are down, when you do call people, the connect rates have held fairly steady. People are willing to answer the phone and engage. That’s the key message is business is happening. We just need to be really thoughtful about how we engage right now.
Ben: That’s fantastic advice. The last question I’ll throw your way, what advice would you have for marketing and sales teams to better collaborate together right now? You mentioned a lot of things in this area about how a lot of us have just gotten a lot more comfortable with our presentation on calls like this. Maybe being a little less perfect—people have their kids in the background, they have cats walking on their keyboards, and whatever. Maybe our guard has been let down a little bit from what it used to be or what it would be under normal circumstances.
At the same time, there are logistical challenges to collaborating effectively if you can’t be in the same space together. What would you recommend? What are the most important things in that area that you would say that those teams should be addressing?
Jim: That’s really interesting. A lot of us are going to think about this whole collaboration in many little pieces because there’s part of it. When you talk about sales, marketing, and collaborating, the first part I think about is how do we give each of those parties equal access to what’s happening? Rich data, rich ability to actually hear the conversations, and understand the relationships that are being built so that we’re removing that opinion, and more of, look, let’s watch these 12 interactions. What could we do differently? How would we build this and train the rest of the team on it? Let’s remove the assumptions.
One aspect is the group seems to come together, they need to understand what’s actually happening. It’s more than just the data, it’s not just close rates and conversion rates, but look at the human interactions. Study them and do that at scale. That’s one area. Because from there, we’ll find that certain segments right now are not buying at the same levels of other segments. Our data shows that. We saw HR Tech down 28% on medium productivity, whereas infrastructure companies are up 19%. How do you make sure your ABM accounts are aligned between sales and marketing on segments that are enamored of a growth pattern right now? That’s one area.
The last part is the other part of the collaboration as they're coming together to solve problems. That is where we’re all missing the human element or need richer ways to come together in making the time virtually, but to make sure that we can then talk about what are the action plans. I know from our side, it’s just about aligning the groups, having common plans. I’d say one last thing, Ben, aligning on that final objective.
If the goal of sales and marketing is about ultimately having revenue come in, I do think the simplicity of making sure we’re aligned on the end result and not just all the handoffs and the mini conversion rates. I’m sensing and seeing in the data and the folks I’ve talked to, there’s a lot of pain in all of this specialization where things are being handed off and not converting at the effectiveness that we should see.
It doesn’t mean that it’s going to go back, it just means that we need to be more thoughtful about how we partner and team up on the ultimate objectives and making sure that we’re wickedly efficient on that.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. We’re all on the same team. Absolutely. This is fantastic, Jim. Thanks so much for sharing your insights with our audience. At this point, we’ve been living with the pandemic and with some pretty serious disruptions to our day to day lives and the business for a while now. It’s going to be another month or so after this conversation even before our audience gets to hear this. I guess I lied when I said that was the last question. This is the actual last question.
Given how unpredictable literally everything is right now and just the fact that it’s really difficult to predict what things will be like between our conversation right now and when our audience actually gets to hear this, are there any long term trends, or not even super long term but near term trends? Where do you see a lot of this stuff going? Just based on the data you’ve seen from March to now, what do you feel, maybe the next month, two, or three, is maybe going to look like in regards to how marketing and sales teams handle the way that the business landscape is changing right now?
Jim: As you mentioned, this will air in the future, and right now, in early June, we’re dealing with even more significant issues than COVID right now and these stats. I know with my all hands with my company today, talking about our support and standing with the Black Community, absolutely rejecting all forms of racism, hate, and intolerance. It’s even changed my perspective of sharing daily intelligence. There are bigger issues. There are a lot of issues that need to be tackled in really deep thought. I just want to put it out there that, yeah, balancing these different pieces.
Right now, the thing that, Ben, we did today is I want our company to have the time, next Friday on June 19th, to be in the community to advocate, to get the right time to reflect. I think why I share this is we need our team and our folks to be at their best when we do our work. We need to make sure that we’re creating enough space for them to be dealing with all of the different things going on right now, to deeply think about it, and to put actions in place. Because if you don’t solve those things, you’re going to have people say why are we doing this sales deal? What are we doing? If we’re having these massive social issues that are just horrific.
I share that just because even coming on today, the bottom of my mind space right now is on how do we play a bigger role in the community and helping on that. If we can do that well, then all of this stuff will go up into the right and we can solve great problems, but we need to come together beyond even these sales numbers and truly deal with these issues as a collective team. The same way that we work and solve other problems. I hope we’re in a much better spot when this airs and I think this is a much longer-term thing that we’re addressing, but it’s very important as well.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. That was a fantastic insight. I appreciate the work you’re doing in that area and the work that all companies, all individuals, and entities that are working towards making progress in those areas I agree is very important.
Jim: Look, we’re kicking up our Q3 plan, and we’re going to make it a key initiative. How we really integrate this into our core business, not just a quick plan. I feel really passionate about—I was putting the same, really attacking and putting that effort there. Thank you for that.
Ben: Yeah, very cool. This was great. Before I let you go, is there anything else you would like to add, or anything that maybe you didn’t get a chance to mention earlier?
Jim: I’ve really enjoyed this. The data will continue to change. At the end of the day, sales is about solving problems. It’s about understanding the other side and bringing them something that’s going to help them to be successful. We just need to remember that we’re problem solvers, simple as that.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. If our listeners are interested in getting The Daily Briefing, it sounds like it’s now going to be The Weekly Briefing, where would you direct them to find that?
Jim: They can go to chorus.ai, and there’ll be a link right there on the home page.
Ben Sailer has over 14 years of experience in the field of marketing. He is considered an expert in inbound marketing through his incredible skills with copywriting, SEO, content strategy, and project management.
Ben is currently an Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic, working to grow WordPress.com as the top managed hosting solution for WordPress websites. WordPress is one of the most powerful website creation tools in the industry.
In this role, he looks to attract customers with content designed to attract qualified leads. Ben plays a critical role in driving the growth and success of a company by attracting and engaging customers through relevant and helpful content and interactions.
Ben works closely with senior management to align the inbound marketing efforts with the overall business objectives. He continuously measures the effectiveness of marketing campaigns to improve them. He is also involved in managing budgets and mentoring the inbound marketing team.