As anyone who works in sales knows, advanced tools that make selling easier can be just as important as quality leads. Unfortunately, many modern sellers are asked to deliver results with rudimentary tools amounting to little more than a database and some web entry forms. Although the past several years have seen a renaissance in the use of data and machine learning in digital marketing and marketing automation, solutions that use machine learning to enhance the human side of selling have been largely absent.
As one of the formative theses for our new fund, we have sought out entrepreneurs attempting to bring this action- and intelligence-oriented philosophy to all areas of business software, starting with sales. Two of our early investments that stand out in the area are Outreach and Tact.
The insights needed to drive more sales
One of our first Microsoft Ventures investments, Outreach provides an enterprise-grade platform that learns from past sales efforts to improve future results. Outreach works by passively gathering information about selling behaviors and touch points across accounts. The platform then feeds those insights back into the sales process in the form of workflows that can be automated, tested, and tracked across a sales organization. This helps ensure each touch point occurs at the right time and helps accelerate dissemination of best practices throughout a selling organization. The platform also offers a dashboard that helps salespeople track their tasks, focuses them on the efforts most likely to drive results, and helps them measure their results.
Outreach is a great example of a platform that is intelligent by default and one that is using technology to enhance human capabilities rather than replace them. As Manuel Medina, CEO of Outreach, puts it, “Automation is about making salespeople more productive so they can spend more time selling; but once you free up that time, how do you make the best use of it? You need intelligence that tells you which prospects to prioritize and what actions to take to move the deal forward.”
Outreach is also an excellent example of Microsoft Ventures’ value-add approach to investing. After participating in its Series B funding round, we worked closely with Outreach to accelerate its engagement with Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Office 365. We’re also thrilled that two Microsoft executives, Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of Cloud and Enterprise Group, and Debbie Dunnam, corporate vice president of Worldwide Inside Sales, will be speaking at Unleash 2017, Outreach’s inaugural conference taking place in Sonoma, California, June 4–6, 2017.
An AI-powered sales assistant
Another startup disrupting the sales industry is Tact, which was just named a 2017 Cool Vendor in CRM Sales by Gartner. Another Microsoft Ventures investment, Tact has developed a human-friendly sales assistant that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to automate administrative tasks and deliver sales insights. Tact’s conversational AI platform turns a salesperson’s mobile phone, digital home assistant, or other connected device into a smart assistant that can be summoned by voice or text to schedule tasks and provide sales updates.
Voice-powered interfaces have long held promise for sales and many other fields, but it wasn’t until fundamental technology innovations in natural language processing, edge computing, and digital noise reduction that these interfaces changed the way we interact with technology. These advances have allowed Tact to serve as a seamless extension of salespeople’s toolkits and help keep the data they rely on accurate and fresh. “What every salesperson I’ve spoken to wants most is the support of an administrative assistant,” says Tact CEO Chuck Ganapathi. “Thanks to the intelligent edge, Tact AI can help you no matter what you’re doing—making a sales call or driving to your next meeting; or wherever you are—online or off. We designed it to be right there, anytime you need it.”
Since the investment closed, Tact has been evolving its product in partnership with our engineering teams to make use of the latest innovations coming out of Microsoft. Tact unveiled the results of this collaboration during the keynote of the 2017 Build conference, where Executive Vice President of Artificial Intelligence and Research Harry Shum highlighted the new capabilities that were unlocked to create an intelligent sales assistant: “The power of the Microsoft Graph comes together with business and customer data through a new partnership with Tact, the sales experience platform. At Build, we demonstrated how multiple Microsoft products and services, including Dynamics 365, Office 365, Microsoft Teams, Cortana Skills, Microsoft Graph, and Sentiment Analysis, will be integrated into Tact’s conversational AI-powered virtual sales assistant later this year.”
Although we have seen tremendous advances in machine intelligence, there are still challenges in automating actions that will reach end customers without a human’s involvement. Sales will always be a human-centered, relationship-driven process, and we believe that companies like Outreach and Tact are well positioned to transform this industry. Both focus on combining the best of machine intelligence and human ingenuity to empower salespeople to accomplish more. This aligns perfectly with our mission at M12, and we are excited to partner with both Outreach and Tact to push the boundaries of what is possible.