Sujan Patel talks chatbots on Inside Intercom

Sujan Patel on scaling growth with chatbots

With chatbots sweeping the industry, the promise of faster growth through automation has never been more real.

Just ask Sujan Patel, one of today’s most well-known experts in growth. Sujan has seen first-hand just how powerful chatbots can be – greater efficiency, accelerated sales cycles and better customer experiences.

Sujan’s no stranger to finding the cutting edge in growth. As the co-founder of WebProfits, he’s led marketing strategy for the likes of Intuit, LinkedIn and Salesforce. Not to mention, he’s scaling seven of his own SaaS companies – including Mailshake, a cold email outreach tool for sales. You may remember him from his previous appearance on Inside Intercom, where he spoke about growth marketing for startups.

He joined me for a chat about everything from how to deploy chatbots effectively to strategies for balancing automation and human connection. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. When even just one part of your business is working well, it’s time to buckle down and figure out what forms the core part of your conversion flow. Maybe it’s your sales strategy or your product, but often it’s the first experience the user has with your brand. Isolate that x-factor – and then maximize it.
  2. Your customers are smart and can see through fakery. Chatbots shouldn’t pretend to be human. Rather, the key is to position them in a way that tells customers, “I’m here to help bring in the person who can best help you.”
  3. For chatbots to be truly effective, you need to deeply understand your customers first. Oftentimes, that means having your sales reps to talk to leads in real time over live chat. Figure out what your customers’ most common questions are first, then automate.
  4. Imagine yourself as your own potential customer. Would you rather wait for a salesperson to get back to you after the weekend, or eliminate items on your to-do list by getting immediate answers from a bot? Chatbots can deliver instant gratification and give your potential customers less of a chance to shop around with your competitors.
  5. A simple way to make sure you’re creating a human connection with your customer – even if you’re relying on automation – is to read your sales and marketing copy out loud. Then revise (and revise again) until it’s conversational.

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Dustin: Sujan, welcome back to Inside Intercom. It’s been about a year since last time we spoke, so clue us in on what you’ve been focused on.

Sujan: Thanks. I’m very excited to be here. A big thing I’ve been focused on is the convergence of sales and marketing; I’m seeing more and more of the both departments having such a big impact on growth, and there’s not one or the other that’s leading the charge. Or maybe they both want to lead the charge, but when they work together, that’s working. Long story short, I’m interested in conversational marketing and getting automation systems processes for both of these teams to thrive.

Dustin: You run two very different businesses: Web Profits, a growth agency, and Ramp Ventures, which owns an impressive seven SaaS companies. There’s one I’m really interested in: Mailshake. Can you tell us what it is and why you started it?

Sujan: Mailshake is an outbound sales tool. For the most part, people use it for PR. Also, it’s just cold email mostly for salespeople. I actually started it more for marketers; my background is in SEO, and then doing that the longest time and I did a lot of outreach. I’ve probably sent over 10 million emails from a link-building and SEO perspective. When I built Mailshake, I initially called it for content marketers and link builders and SEOs.

Well, they didn’t like it very much. It didn’t work. It was a very big product, but we had this email outreach portion of it and it was just one small thing, so we launched it as a micro tool. It still didn’t work for marketers, but sales people loved it and flocked to the platform. I thought, “Well, I think we have something here.” It just didn’t fit the name, and it wasn’t always who we intended to build it for, but we decided to double down anyways.

During that year, I was the VP of Marketing at a company called When I Work. I was working heavily with the sales team. I’m saying: “Guys, check out what I’m building here. This is awesome. This is exactly what I need. I need something to create these sequences and whatnot.” And so, we ended up scrapping, rebranding Mailshake and going from there.

Tactics for driving growth

Dustin: Coming from a growth marketing background, how do you work with sales teams to drive growth? Are there tactics or approaches that you can share with us?

Sujan: Absolutely. When I talk to sales people – and I do this a lot in organizations, whether through my agency or even when I’m working with the individual teams at the SaaS companies I run – they’re always in the weeds of things. It’s really hard to see a great idea or a strategy or a tactic when you’re so deep into the one to one conversation with a potential customer. So, what I try to do is to extract information: what are the friction points or questions or concerns potential customers are having? What are they asking about? What are the things they love? What are the things they’re smiling about?

When you look at one or two phone calls your week, you may not have hundred to list out. But when you look at the last three months of your life, you can definitely list out things that come up. Then, it’s my job as a growth person to reflect back what the salesperson is noticing. I’m more like the product manager in this role where I’m saying: “Okay, here’s what you said. Here are the five trends I’m seeing, so then let’s figure out a way to implement them into the product or into the conversation.”

“There is a lot of valuable information you can get from people on the front lines – especially sales people who can relay that back to marketing”

Here’s a good example of this. Two of my companies, RightInbox and Mailshake, launched chatbots back in the summer. And we continue to optimize them. How we actually came up with the script of the automation for the chatbot was literally taken from the flow of hundreds of conversations. We know we can’t tackle all the variations that can happen, but we do know the common questions people may ask, and it just sorted out through that. But ultimately, the point of this is that there is a lot of valuable information you can get from people on the front lines – especially sales people who can relay that back to marketing.

For example, when our sales team or our success team talked to Mailshake customers, the only questions we need to ask to see if their campaigns are successful or not were, “What’s your reply rate?” and “What is the number of leads you’re getting and per x amount of emails sent?” Because open rate, click-through rate, and even reply rate don’t matter as much as sending a thousand emails and looking at how many leads you get from that. We can feel and get strengths and weaknesses from that campaign.

Want to hear more from Sujan Patel on driving growth? Join our webinar to see how sales teams can use chatbots to close more deals

The right time to invest in automation

Dustin: From your perspective, why is now the right time for sales teams to start investing in automation and what stage would you actually suggest to start actually doing all this?

Sujan: I think when you’ve figured out product market fit and you’ve got some form of a single marketing channel or a single channel driving growth. When even just one thing is working, that’s when it’s really time to buckle down and figure out what I think is core part of the conversion flow, which is the sales, the product, and the first user experience. It’s the marketing and the brand. The brand might not always be the words on your website. It might not be your graphics or your UX. It could be the experience they have with you, which is why I think something like a chatbot is really, really important, or even just live having chat and your sales people connecting to the customer.

Again, I think that time to do it is now. Why now? Because every single person – every successful founder I talk to – always say they wish they’d started that earlier. It’s good to always capitalize on channels early; there’s a first-mover advantage you can get. But also like I talked about earlier, if you just talked to your sales team you can get an aggregate of the friction points or the common questions.

“Imagine if I told you I could make your sales team 50% more productive by removing the questions that should be asked before the call happens”

Imagine if I told you I could make your sales team 50% more productive by removing the conversations and questions that probably should be asked before the call happens instead of on the call itself. That type of qualification – or just getting the tire kickers out of the system – can help you be more productive and spend more time on the deals that close.

Sujan Patel - Time spent by sales reps

(Source: Sujan Patel)

How to avoid over-automation

Dustin: What advice or tips do you have for organizations to ensure they’re not over-automating?

Sujan: The point is to be helpful and to provide the customer with a better user experience, but not to lie by saying, “This is a human being.” No one’s stupid. Now everybody knows how it works: “I went to Amazon, and I’m seeing this product everywhere. Damn Amazon and their clever marketing!” They know that. This is the same thing that’s going to happen to bots as well. But the key is to not make it look like you’re a human being. The key is to say, “I’m here to help bring in the person that can best help you.”

For example at Mailshake, we get three questions about our product no matter what we’ve done in the copy of our website or how explicit we’ve made it. One is, “Can I use Gmail to send?” We say, “Send through Google G Suite or Gmail” in the headline copy, but people still seem to miss that. So, we now have a chatbot, and one of the preprogrammed questions answers is telling potential customers the three things we can do.

We also use the chatbot as a qualification method. We know someone asking about G Suite is more qualified because you have to pay to play to get a paid Google email address, and these users are usually bigger companies. This way, if we know they use G Suite we can skip any of the pre-qualification and get them to demo. Same thing goes for something like SendGrid or other third party providers: get them over to demo because they’re qualified. If they mention something like Outlook, we may want get them down the route of a webinar or more of a self-service path. And again, real people can jump in and handle sales, but one question helps us prequalify pretty much 90% of our leads.

Advances in automation

Dustin: Automation is popping up everywhere from lead enrichment to lead nurturing tools. What have you found to be the most interesting advances in the space?

Sujan: I think there are awesome tools like Clearbit and Voila Norbert. But I’m usually tool agnostic. Otherwise, I’d have a biased conversation about my seven companies. But ultimately, I think getting that data is awesome. Ultimately, it’s technology like Clearbit enriching the information or using reverse IP lookup to see what company they’re coming from. There are other tools like Lead Forensics, Clickback and others that can actually tell you the IP address of a high value prospect. I think that’s really, really interesting, but I think a lot of people still don’t really adopt it or use it.

One thing you can do with something optimized is to plug in a reverse IP lookup and enrichment data and then customize their landing page or experience for them. It might not be something as basic as customizing the headline; I’m talking about the call to action that invites them to jump on a call or join a webinar. Or say you know they’re coming from Redmond, Washington’s Microsoft office: you want to get them on the phone right away. That’s why I think adding in the chatbots as well can help because if you’ve identified a high-value lead from reverse lookup, you can literally load up live chat right there.

Dustin: That’s a really interesting point, because we started to do reverse IP lookup here at Intercom. For us it’s more of: “Hey, I now actually understand a company who might be interested. I might actually know the persona, and I know something’s going on where we can actually now do some outbound outreach.” That’s how we’ve been utilizing it here, and I think has been really powerful to be honest with you.

Sujan: Absolutely. And people should be replacing forms with leads. A bot is not a human being, but a bot is way better than a boring form that never changes. As a salesperson, you want to have qualified leads, and you want to get the most data on somebody. But marketing is probably like, “I want you to ask the least freaking questions because that’s going to tank our conversion rates.” So, I think that’s where a chatbot can come in to help you get the first part of the information (like an email address) and then go to town by getting more information about that person.

“A bot is not a human being, but a bot is way better than a boring form that never changes”

At a place like Intercom, the salesperson could even be inside the platform and be looking at it while the bot is continuing that conversation. I’m sure you guys totally have that. I do that all the time. I know this person. While that’s happening, you can ask more pre-qualification questions, or maybe you book the demo, or you can book a call a meeting, or you can get them right into the product and while they’re doing stuff. And again, the great thing about any of these chatbots out there is that the conversation continues via email afterwards.

Intercom's Custom Bots

Intercom’s Custom Bots ask pre-qualification questions and book a meeting.

Working hand in hand with chatbots

Dustin: Here at Intercom, we believe bots should assist – not replace – sales reps. What’s your advice on not becoming overly reliant on this technology?

Sujan: A lot of people lead with a chatbot when they should be leading with a human. Why not start with live chat and learn what the questions are going to be – especially if you’re a founder or a product person who’s just gotten product market fit. You can never scale unless you know what the heck people want. Otherwise, you’re just making assumptions and then validating those assumptions.

You should never validate your assumptions the first time around. You have an assumption that works or doesn’t. Then you go to the next assumption. You just keep iterating, whereas if you can get a whole bucket of information through salespeople and conversations, you could figure out a way to automate. So, I always say converse manually first and then automate.

Dustin: For many teams, implementing chatbots will require a new sales motion where bots and humans are working together. What are some of the easiest low friction ways to actually implement this?

Sujan: You need to be looking for opportunities that are on your website right now. This goes beyond looking at your CRM daily. After your sales calls, I’m assuming everyone’s filling in all their notes of what they need to do and setting all of this stuff up. Instead of doing it after the call, it needs to happen now. I call it making sure someone’s “on deck” with live chat coverage or is just watching the platform so they can seize opportunities. I always find that at least 10% to 15% of opportunities are just sitting there and not engaging.

“I always find that at least 10% to 15% of opportunities are just sitting on your website and not engaging”

I have a friend who’s an executive at a billion-dollar company. He’s bought all my courses for the last three or four years. I had no clue he was doing this because it was just a random Gmail address. And I would never have figured out that I could trace it back to him. But eventually I thought, “Who is this random person?” He bought a $5,000 course and paid upfront for five seats. It was $1,000 per seat, and he just bought the $5,000 team plan. Any time I sent an email blast, he was really trigger-happy. I only figured this out a few years later when I had lunch with him, and he told me: “Dude, I’ve been buying everything. Here plug in this email address. This is one I use to sign up for all this stuff.” Otherwise, there was no trace to him.

My point is there are people looking, and you want to seize those opportunities. But the only way you can really do is by watching and monitoring these platforms or through triggers that sort qualified leads. Even if they don’t engage, you want to make sure you’re looking out for that. So, if somebody from Microsoft looks at your site, boom: you can go outbound to the right person.

Building new sales motions with chatbots

Dustin: What sales motions would you recommend with a chatbot versus having someone on the phone with a discovery call? Because it’s almost one and the same, but it’s a different muscle.

Sujan: I think it still works on chatbots, because people will still want the ease. They want the instant gratification. They want it now. But you have to look at the activity. If you were to go up to somebody on the street and say, “Hey, buy Intercom,” the first problem is that you don’t even know who the heck they are, right? Taking it further, if somebody calls you, and you ask for their credit card, and they happen to be calling because they want a demo, they might buy. But that person is calling because they’ve tried you before but didn’t have the budget a year ago, it’s easy to ask them to buy and have them respond: “Okay, here’s my credit card. I’ll pay for it.”

It’s the same thing with the chatbot: you can see if they visited different parts of the site, how many times they’ve been to your site before, if they’ve come from the blog, if they’re on your email newsletter, how many emails they’ve opened, but a simple thing is seeing whether they’ve ever visited a pricing page or a feature page or if they’ve downloaded a book or something.

“Your buyers want the instant gratification. They want it now”

If they have, I think you can have a deeper conversation. Maybe in some products like Mailshake, we’re a fairly low-cost self-service, which means that most people who sign up don’t need to engage with a human being. We can definitely sell them with a chatbot on the second or third page they visit, but if you’re a larger enterprise deal, you may want to start the conversation. Maybe you skip the pre-qualification questions and you jump straight to asking them what their email list and user base are, so you can even formulate the price.

Dustin: Between all your companies and clients, are there any automation or bot use cases that stand out to you?

Sujan: At Mailshake, we get a lot of basic questions from prospects to the point that we know what’s a support question and what’s not. For the most part, our customers would be annoyed to talk to a bot because they’ve gone through the help docs and whatnot and just want to talk to a human. So, we only engage with non-customers and prequalify them. Our goal is to get them in a meeting within 24 hours except for like a Friday.

One really good example I want to share is Zenefits. I was putting a presentation together for a marketing company this summer. I said, “Let me just test chatbot versus lead form.” I went to Zenefits. I was like, “I need an HR tool for onboarding new employees.” So, in a new browser, I went through the lead form on a Saturday and heard back on Monday morning from the salesperson to book a meeting for Wednesday.

“The chatbot not only gets you instant gratification, but it also helps prevent that shopping around for multiple options”

I went on a different browser through the chatbot, and I answered a couple questions indicating that I was interested in a payroll service. And they’re asking: “How many employees do you have? What’s your annual revenue? What states do you operate in?” I answered three or four questions, and I got a meeting booked at like 9 a.m. that Monday. So, that’s the difference. I’m a founder; I don’t want to be doing HR stuff, especially not on a weekend, but sometimes you’ve got to do that stuff. So imagine the buyer (me) getting his problem solved and that to-do item checked off with the next to-do coming up on Monday. On the other end, with the lead form, I had to wait until Monday to even start and I may have shopped around at two or three places in the meantime.

The chatbot not only gets you instant gratification, but it also helps prevent that shopping around for multiple options.

Balancing human connection

Dustin: One of the main benefits of automation is the ability to communicate with buyers faster and at scale. But on the flip side, it’s really hard to weed out the spammy messages. How have your sales teams balanced automation and human connection?

Sujan: One simple trick is to ask your salespeople to read it out loud as if they were a 10-year-old. I found that when you say what you’re writing out loud, you weed out the robotic part of it because people just don’t type the way they talk. The more conversational you can get – even in emails and automation – the better. The other thing is get past this BS where you insert “first name, company name.” Think about how you can actually personalize it. I think of personalization as categorization. For example, let’s say you’re selling Intercom outbound to a VP of marketing or a VP of sales. Let’s say you’re selling your support product to customer support managers. You’re selling the same all-in-one awesome service, but your pitch is going to be different.

“The more conversational you can get, even in emails and automation, the better”

With automation, your cadence might be kind of the same. Frankly, you can replace different bullet points or value props, but how do you get your email to resonate with them? So, you can personalize based off a category. Now, you can personalize your customer support people email versus your sales people email. But, you don’t need to do that; you could get by with personalizing just the category level. I really think it’s about better personalization and reading out loud – the most basic things. Most emails are way too long. And you have to think about the buyer persona.

Dustin: Continuing on the topic of balance, at Mailshake you offer customers the ability to request a manual review of their email campaigns. Can you walk us through the decision to offer this service?

Sujan: When we dug into all of our customers, we found most people have the best success with our campaigns that we talked about earlier: five sentences or less, short subject lines, question marks, short emails. So I dug in a little deeper on a random weekend. I wanted to know why people were churning. I was just digging into every part of the number I could.

Now, it looks like more than half of people churn because of lack of success using the platform. They weren’t successful with their outbound emails. We had to solve that, and it’s something we could do. Then, I dug into more qualitative questions and asked customers about where they’re struggling. We’d been creating lots and lots of books, videos, webinars – and we’d been getting a lot of good engagement.

People were reading the content and joining the webinar. It was getting out there. But still we had that problem. It came down to the theory versus the practice, and that’s where it fell apart. It turns out our customers are not professional copywriters. It turns out that when you give them a theory or example on a different industry, and then they go on a blank canvas and they try to create this Mona Lisa, it doesn’t happen.

We thought: let’s just tell them what they’re doing wrong, specifically. So I just talked to customers with the poorest results (let’s say single digits on open rates). I just emailed everybody and said, “Hey, if you need help, I’m doing a webinar.” I did one too many and realized it didn’t work because not everybody got value out of every minute of it. So, I did one to one. But it was really tough because frankly, we have customers in all different time zones, and it took me 15 to 20 minutes to prep for each, so I couldn’t do a live call because I needed to actually look at their stuff. Long story short, after about 600 reviews, I found out I was saying the same 10 or 20 things all the time.

I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t take this anymore.” So, I created these canned responses. And then, I talked to my co-founder to see if there was a way we could do these on the fly. So we created this mini AI, if you want to call it that. It’s an email analyzer that evaluates if the email copy is too long or the sentences are too complicated. If your email has three or more paragraphs, people just don’t read it. If you’re on a mobile phone and have to scroll, it doesn’t work.

Mailshake's email analyzer
There were about 20 things, but it keeps learning and getting better, which solved our problem because it was happening on the fly. Then we offered the campaign review to the people who still needed help on top of that. Again, it was really to help our customers be more successful with the platform. And it was also a not-so-secret ploy for us, because you don’t always know what your customers are using your platform for. I can guess based off the email they send, but I want to get a gauge of what they’re saying, what they’re doing, and how they’re feeling.

The future of automation

Dustin: How do you see the automation space evolving?

Sujan: I think it’s all evolving into ultimately more instant “Uber-ization.” You don’t wait for more than three or four minutes for an Uber. After five you’re like “I want to cancel.”

I think it’s all about getting the customer’s needs satisfied quickly. Facebook Messenger and e-commerce companies are even pulling off a lot of great chatbot-related things. I think it’s all going to people just getting what they want fast. It’s like, “I just want my problem to solved; how do I get this thing solved now?” Regardless of whether it’s a person or a bot or an email or whatever.

Dustin: Finally, where can listeners go to get some more of your advice?

Sujan: The best place to go is my personal website or the Mailshake blog.

Dustin: Sujan, it’s really been great talking to you. I look forward to the progression of Mailshake, and I really do look forward to our future conversations.

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