Creative Ways To Deploy AI For Sales With James Isilay
There are many creative ways by which AI can be deployed in sales and there is a good chance that you’ve never heard half of them. You’d be surprised at the sheer scope of possibilities that AI can offer to a specific space like sales. One of these areas is sales engagement, where AI can do wonders in terms of eliminating repetitive tasks and keeping sales reps engaged and focused on higher value work. Chad Burmeister is excited to get to know some of these innovations in this conversation with James Isilay. James is the CEO of Cognism, a $10M+ European sales engagement company. James also discusses how sales engagement has changed over the years and where it is headed beyond 2020.
Listen to the podcast here:
Creative Ways To Deploy AI For Sales With James Isilay
I've got a special guest from Zurich, Switzerland, a place I've only touched down for a stopover one time. I'm excited to get there one day. James is the CEO of Cognism. Cognism plays in the space of not only data but also the email cadencing tool as well as phone. A whole all-in-one solution. We're going to talk to James about AI for sales and where things are headed in the future. James, welcome to the show. Thanks for being here.
Thank you for having me, Chad.
I always get asked, am I in a virtual background or am I in my office? Most people think I'm in the office. You've fooled me too, unless you're in an office.
This is virtual. My shirt is matching the color of the chair behind me.
I met with this diversity person in Pennsylvania and he had a good point. He said, “Physical offices if you go in, one of the subtleties around being a good diverse CEO is to have different artwork on the wall.” I was like, “I need to upgrade my virtual wall to have that.”
Makes it easy to replace it.
It is easier to replace. You don't have to spend $10,000. I could have a Mona Lisa if I wanted to. You're the CEO of Cognism. You started in 2017 and you've grown well into the seven figures, $10 million-plus range. Congratulations. That's a big move. Tell us a bit about how the company came into being. What are you working on?
My former life, I was a trader. I used to trade in gem powder, carbon and oil. I used to be an algo trader. I used to write computer programs and traded the markets. One of the key bits of technology that was interesting to me as a trader was processing news for events. You'd look at some shock to the oil market, some motor tractors capturing that and then being able to make the algorithm react to that. When I started the business, it was like, “How can we take that technology that works in trading and is quite established in the trading world and bring it into the sales world?”
You look at LinkedIn, where you have contacts and business information. What would happen if you could bring a bent data into that? There's an extra dimension of data. The easy example is to say, “A company raise funding. Give me all the companies that raise funding.” Companies hired employees or a new sales. Bringing that event dates helps you build better, more relevant audiences. That was where we took our technology at the beginning of 2017. Our original idea was a Fintech idea. We moved Pemberton and sales and marketing.
AI makes sales more efficient by taking away the repetitive, boring tasks and keeping salespeople engaged.
When I was the Head of Sales and Marketing for ConnectAndSell, we're $8 million when I joined. We were maybe $14 million or $15 million after a couple of years and we didn't have a marketing program at the time in the traditional sense, paid ads, Google and search optimization. What we did was leveraged exactly what you're talking about only it was homegrown. It was hodgepodge together. How do we check who's hiring for inside sales? Who hired a new VP of sales? Trying to pull all that trigger and alert data into a platform. It took time, energy, money and it broke every once in a while. It sounds like you've put together the product that does all that.
That was where we originally got technology. We've been heavily-invested in machine learning AI because one of my early investors, also a friend, is Joe who's on our team. He signs off James Hudson, the former Head of AI at Bloomberg. He designed data science side. We built on that, which is the event technology, which something that he specialized in at Bloomberg. We focused on the machine learning side, understanding all that contact data that you have in your CRM and then being able to extract out ICP, your Ideal Customer Profile and then reach back into these raster and find similar people so it looks like audiences. It’s another area that we've invested in terms of the machine learning technology.
I once interviewed the Head of Data Science from InsideView for my book, AI for Sales. It was amazing how he talked about looking at your current customers, let's say I have 150 customers. He was able to show me an upper right quadrant, “These are the customers you should find more of because they can spend a lot of money and stay for a long time.” In the bottom was, “They spend a bit of money but they'll stay for a long time.” The lower left was, “They'll spend a bit of money and they won't even stay.” I was like, “Are you asking me to fire those 50 customers?” He goes, “No. You find more look-a-likes to your top upper right quadrant. That's how you scale your business.”
It’s about what do you want your BDMs pipeline to be full of? Do you want it full of companies that are going to pay the same money but have low retention? Especially at an early stage company, we didn't because we were a green team when we started, we didn't know what an ideal customer looked like, especially in terms of retention because you need a couple years of data to understand what retention looks like in your industry. It's shifting. A great retention, which might be an events company would have been great for retention in 2019 is terrible for retention in 2020 because of COVID. It's shifting as well because of the industry dynamics. It's about filling the BDMs pipeline with quality. If you can understand your ICP, pick that audience and then build your outreach less on that then you can fill your BDM quality and the same if you have too many inbounds, not a problem that everybody has but you have too many inbounds that you can sort out your high-quality prospects and make sure your BDMs are filled with the best quality pipeline.
I liken that to gas in the tank. If you buy bad gas and you're going to get pings and your engine could go out of commission. You always have to be constantly figuring out how to upgrade the gas of the tank. As far as your passion, if you think back to when you were younger, you changed industries a couple of times. When you were teenager, even before that, what were you excited about when you were a kid that caused you to one day get to where you are?
I was always in computers. I was always a bit geeky with computers. My stepfather was a salesman. Usually, programmers end up introverted. My stepfather was a salesman, so I learned a lot from him, he handled sales videos with John Cleese in the ‘80s. The John Cleese from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. We've got a bit of that in terms of sales knowledge. My father was an entrepreneur. He ran a small chemicals business and a comic book shop and comic con in the UK. He’d run the Manchester Comic-Con, started the Manchester Comic-Con and also ran a comic book shop.
I had entrepreneurship in the family as well on an ongoing basis. Those things were inspirational. After university, I took a normal career path. I went into investment banking, which is almost what students at my university did at the time. I seen friends start companies and that inspired me to take the leap in my mid-30s from having a standard career to taking a leap into entrepreneurship and starting my own business. It’s the case. Start with one idea and then you pivot so you get to a good idea that has traction rather than that I wanted to go into sales and marketing as a specific place. It became the destination.
How many people do you have on the team in your company?
170, it sounds like a lot. A lot of them are Macedonians. We have a big data ops team that does a lot of the data work in Northern Macedonia. It's not expensive, you can have a lot more people. We have all the software engineers in Croatia. We have a low cost base. Most of our sales and marketing team are in the UK. We also acquired a company in Germany, we have staff in Germany. We have a small team in New York and one person in Vancouver, Canada. We've got an office in Singapore. We've got quite an international base. We'll start to hire in South Africa. We've got quite a nice international base and our aim is to have a low-cost infrastructure that we can compete with some of our larger rivals that have far more resources than we do.
I ran the AI against your LinkedIn profile. I'm using this new technology. It's called Codebreaker Technologies and it's in four languages and it's called the BANK Code. I asked you about the number of employees you have because the number one, nurture. Number two, action. Nurture means you dislike inauthentic or fake people. You enjoy training, motivating and coaching others. You need interaction with people, groups and teams. I think of a CEO of a team of 170 people leading from that place of strength, my CRO is 68 percentile and nurturing. He was the former SVP of Sales for Miller Heiman for eight years.
He had a large team and they rolled up a lot of companies, where mine is bold, action and I pull over the bowling pins. Nurture is probably my third, action, knowledge. It's always interesting. I'd love to get your thoughts and opinions, think about a year out, two years out what happens. When you have tools this that can read or hear text, convert it into a Codebreak and say, “This person responds in this way.” That person you should send a message that looks and sounds differently. Imagine if you were sending out an email blast to 500 people and it could compartmentalize the nurturing lead versus action versus blueprint versus knowledge and change the way the email looks and feels. It'd be ideal to do it in an automated basis.
Out scale. That's one of the things we focused on, how do you have great response rate? I love this market because it's a market that's evolving, getting stronger. It's still young, all these technologies coming together, which all is feeding into salespeople beings to outreach and get good response rates from their campaigns so that they can drive their businesses and we can all grow great companies and create lots of jobs, which is one of our main goals. The problem is that all this technology becomes mass. It doesn't become personalized and people get bored. It’s seeing the same things. Attention span goes down. Personalization is going to be critical to keep people engaged and to differentiate contents that people are engaged and responding and new business happening. It's critical for the future.
What do you think about the role of the sales development representatives and business development representatives? I felt it got hit a bit during COVID because you cut marketing budget. You're a seller. You got to get back on the phones and make your own dials. A lot of companies looked at it as a luxury. They may have reduced that by a bit. Do you think AI has a negative impact on the sales development role? Do you think it'll rebound post-pandemic and come back bigger than ever?
I guess your SDRs and your BDMs, you want them as efficient as possible. You want to take away all of the repetitive, boring tasks that they do and you want them engaging with real conversations with people to get new business. That's where the time is most valued. That's what the AI tools do to strip away all of the boring work. That's where the technology comes in. I look at companies that feel like staff cut back in technology spend, they're suffering. We're not seeing any drop in growth, we did a tiny bit in March 2020 when we went into furlough shutdown in Europe, that was one small, bad month but it wasn't even too bad. We've grown. Companies made a mistake if they cut back and they cut back on technology. You want to invest in new technology and in the best technology. You want to make your SDRs and your BDMs as efficient as possible.
The other thing that I've seen is that industries that normally don't invest in this technology have started to invest in this technology. Are you seeing that as well?
In Europe, we're a couple of years behind America. UK is probably two years behind you, the rest of Europe's probably another two years behind the UK in terms of adoption of technology, even sales cadencing technology or CRM even. We're a bit behind, we're catching up. One of our main things that we see is that we have to do a lot of education of clients to get them even to adopt the technology that we're selling. Once you can show clients what you do, you show them case studies, they can see the benefits. It's about companies adopting new working practices, sales teams adopting new workflows, marketing teams accepting new workflows. That's the hardest part. Our job as CEOs, business leaders is to educate and convince people that they need to adopt new workflows and stop wasting the team's time on repetitive tasks. That’s the function of what we do.
Lori Richardson from Score More Males at an ISP event, when we first started talking about AI for Sales, she said the exact thing. She said, “It's all about minimizing the number of repetitive tasks so that representatives can focus on higher value work.” If you think of it and you're in sales and you want to be in sales and that's your profession then who wouldn't want to get rid of the monotonous tasks. There's a handful of people who like to hit the send all button on email.
The SDR role is the hardest role in the company. That's why the lifespan of an SDR is generally quite short and it has a large churn rate. We want to make that role as fun, as productive and as interesting as possible. It’s usually the first sales role, people should be coming in and having a great experience in that role. If you give them tons of list building, admin, data work especially the young people in the first role in their job, they're usually inexperienced. They need the support of intelligence systems to get them productive quickly. That’s something else we need to bear in mind as leaders how top that role is. How people coming out of college, university in their first roles are suddenly thrown into a role where they got measured in a way that they probably haven't been measured before on an almost daily, weekly and monthly basis hitting a revenue target, which they probably never had that experience before.
We need to think about how we can minimize the number of repetitive tasks so that sales reps can focus on higher value work.
It sounds like Cognism is right at the bleeding edge of AI and machine learning, especially as it comes to sourcing the data and then executing emails and phone calls. If you think forward December 2021, what's changed?
For us, there's some interesting things happening around, one big change is in Tendata, it's a different type coming in. Tendata is becoming more common in terms of being blended into the data sets that we have. That's one change, new data sets and new types of data that we bring into the sales process that become more common practice. We have our revenue technology which we're rolling out and putting into new processes. AI being modern. I saw a cool system like Gong.io and Chorus, if you use those platforms, I like those platforms. Real-time analysis of voice like in Alexa but for sales, as the client is speaking to you, you're being shown flashcards.
It sounds like Alto software, is that who you're talking about or a different one?
It’s a different one, I'd have to look at those. It's called CoPilot. You might have a hard time searching for it because there's quite a few copilots. There's a few in that space that I need to dig into. It's quite young that technology. You can imagine that technology measuring tonality in real time for representatives. You see differences between BDMs. There are BDMs that can close at a far higher rate than other BDMs. Why is that? You can't get everybody uniform. I haven't seen a company where everybody that got uniform performance across BDMs, there is a talent issue. The question is as we started to do those real-time analytics of BDMs, can we help the weakest performing BDMs and get the conversion rates higher? Real time analysis and tonality language, things that they missed, battlecards coming in, that's a cool area to be explored. There are loads of innovation. I am an Angel investor across lots of different sales and marketing tech. Look at new products that do pipeline analysis, that real-time call auditing. It's an exciting time.
Have you seen a company called Hyperise?
I haven't seen them yet.
You should check this one out. In an email or on your website or on a YouTube video, they have an agency model where you don't have to spend that much money and you can leverage across all your customers. You can plug in and it'll map to my name, it could put my website in a YouTube video, it could even be a real-time book and it'll show my name on the cover of the book on the website. When you go there and you type in your name, the whole experience of the site gets customized. They can do it by IP address mapping, all kinds of things. When we talk about hyper personalization at scale, it seems to me to be one of the ones that could help do that.
I'll have to look at that.
Tell the readers a bit more Cognism. I run into a lot of companies who are selling into Europe and there are technologies like ZoomInfo and SalesIntel that generally do a good job of US coverage. When it comes to Europe, I haven't found too many solutions. There was one Chrome plugin that I heard about that plugs in and can scrape data but it lacked phone numbers and LinkedIn URLs. It sounds to me like your application would be a huge gap filler for companies that are US-based or global that are trying to sell into Europe. Is that an accurate assessment?
We have great North America data as well. RAMP is European data. We’re headquartered and regulated in Europe, that's a big benefit because Europe has its own regulations on GDPR. There are quirks in each country, in the UK we have a do not call list. We clean against those do not call lists. That's an important reason that you want to potentially look at a provider that's based in Europe. We have great European coverage. We have a number of big-name multinationals, the US companies that have selected us, they might use other providers. We've got a couple of clients where they have Zoom and they have us or they have Clearbit and they have us. RAMP is a European data and it being compliant and that we can advise on in particular about the outreach in each country. It's not a uniformly-implemented law in GDPR regulation, there are differences between countries and we can also help with that and the outreach and in different countries in Europe.
It seems to me that it's an all-in-one solution. If I've got 1,2,3,4, even 5 representatives, I want to use your data, your emailing platform, your dialing platform. No need to buy any other technologies.
I have a great starting point for sales cadencing. We've got a great partnership with SalesLoft. When you get to the biggest size and you want to get to a larger number of seats, we partner with them at the larger level. Our platform is a great starting place for an all-in solution and turnkey solutions get your revenue engine going. Depending on how you're scaling, you want to pick up over platforms at a later stage but we’re a great all-in-one solution to get going.
If you've got 3, 4, 5 representatives, you need data internationally and domestically in the US, international, etc. I read that you charge between $15,000, $20,000 for that deployment. That comes with the data, the email and the dialing. A lot of companies spend $15,000 for the data alone.
We're a cost-effective solution. We've got a great customer success team. You look at our ratings online, we've got one of the best ratings in terms of the customer satisfaction. It's a great place. Anybody wants to come our way, we have to demo the solution to you and show you the value.
Fabulous talking with you. If someone wants to get a hold of you directly or someone on your sales team, with the 170 people I'm sure you've got people who could take an incoming call. What would be the best way to get ahold of someone on your team or yourself?
You've shared a lot of new technologies that I had not heard of and I enjoyed the dialogue. I hope our readers have found some business value here as well. James, congratulations on the success of your business. We'll see you in 2021 on the road somewhere, hopefully.
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me, Chad. Great speaking to you.
Thank you. See you next time.
- LinkedIn - James Isilay