EP203: AI Coaching Conversations Elicit Unfiltered Rep Feedback
The guys are tackling the big question on every sales manager's mind: Could AI replace me? With wisdom and reassurance, Corey and Chris explore the power of Taylor, an AI sales coach created by grw.ai CEO Alex McNaughten. Taylor provides a judgment-free space for reps to vent frustrations and surface red flags managers miss. As Chris explains, Taylor's conversational skills elicit "confessions" from reps. And for managers worried an AI could do their job better, Alex gently says: "The goal here is to make leaders better...not replace them." So breathe easy sales managers, and get ready to be 10-50X more effective. With the power of AI augmentation Sales Managers will be unstoppable. Join us for this episode, AI Coaching Conversations Elicit Unfiltered Rep Feedback.
About Our Guest:
Alex McNaughten - CEO/Founder - Grw.ai
With a background in B2B sales for both Kiwi startups and US tech giants, Alex is passionate about increasing the level of professionalism & performance in B2B selling globally. Prior to Apprento, through his advisory firm, he trained hundreds of founders, executives and sales professionals and worked across over 130+ ANZ businesses from pre-revenue startups like SafeStack Academy, to growth companies like Rocos to large multinationals like Vodafone, helping them to reduce their sales costs, speed sales cycles, maximize win rates, build out teams, expand into new markets and ultimately generate $10s of millions in new revenues.
The Market Dominance Guys are tackling the big question on every sales manager's mind. Could AI replace me? With wisdom and reassurance, Corey and Chris explore the power of Taylor, an AI sales coach created by grw.ai, that's G-R-W-A-I, CEO Alex McNaughten. Taylor provides a judgment-free space for reps to vent frustrations and surface red flags managers miss.
As Chris explains, Taylor's conversational skills elicit confessions from reps. And for managers worried an AI could do their job better, Alex gently says, the goal here is to make leaders better, not replace them. So breathe easy sales managers, and get ready to be 10 to 50 times more effective. With the power of AI augmentation, sales managers will be unstoppable. Join us for this episode, AI Coaching Conversations Elicit Unfiltered Rep Feedback.
Corey Frank (01:22):
And here we are once again. Welcome to another episode of the Market Dominance Guys. It's episode 200 and something. We'll just say 200X episode of the Market Dominance Guys. As always, we have the sage of sales, the prophet of profit, and the Hawking of hawking. Chris Beall to my left or right, depended on where in the audience you are sitting right now. And we also have a guest. So Alex McNaughton, fresh over the pond. Do you call the Pacific the pond, or the Atlantic is the pond. I don't know what the Pacific is. But anyway, he's somewhere in the land of the Hobbits in New Zealand. I don't know if you were in Auckland, but welcome to Alex McNaughton, the CEO of Grw.ai, and he's going to talk to me and Chris about his company and some of the changes and trends that he's been seeing. So first off, good afternoon, Chris. Good afternoon, Alex. Chris, how you been?
Chris Beall (02:15):
I'm been good. I'm down here south of you right now, in southern Arizona. Not as far south as Alex. He's so far southeast, he's an antipodal upside-down kind of guy. I'm looking to see the blood rushing to his head anytime soon.
Alex McNaughten (02:28):
About as south as you can be in the world.
Chris Beall (02:30):
Yeah, yeah. And still have a nice climate. That's what's kind of weird. How you guys get away with that in New Zealand is entirely beyond me. As you know, Corey, my sister Theresa once executed the most brilliant business I've ever seen. She flew to New Zealand to the South island. She bought a horse, a retired racehorse, and tacked to go with it. Rode it around for three months. A product of that was a trail horse. Trail horses are worth a great deal on the South Island. She sold said trail horse for enough to pay for the entire trip and then went up, spent two months on the North Island, hitchhiking around among friendly people. I still think if you want to see bootstrapped, she was wearing boots.
Alex McNaughten (03:15):
Corey Frank (03:17):
So Alex, tell us a little bit about Grw.ai and what kind of rundown [inaudible 00:03:23] did you stumble into meet a guy like Chris, besides LinkedIn, of course.
Alex McNaughten (03:27):
Well firstly, guys, thanks to have me on the podcast. It's good to be here. How did I meet Chris? I think this was a podcast introductory conversation or just a LinkedIn conversation, that I've been running a podcast for a few years and it's brought me to some interesting places and brought me to some very interesting people.
And in terms of Grw.ai, we are very early days. We're four months into this journey. I've got two very, very smart co-founders, Alistair and Dan. Alistair's a machine learning Masters from Cambridge University, and Dan is a full-stack engineer and data scientist by trade. And we are building a performance management platform for sales teams actually focused on performance. And really this came about because I've worked with about 150, give or take, B2B SaaS companies predominantly over the last four years. I accidentally built a go-to-market advisory and then I built a sales training and recruitment company down here in New Zealand. And we noticed that they were all using, I guess what you'd consider traditional HR performance management platforms, but they weren't aligned to performance, had nothing to do with what was being measured and actually weren't very helpful for sales teams specifically.
So we started building Grw to give leaders and managers better insight into their teams, help them manage more people, and really just help them be better leaders. And then the final thing I'll say on that, for now anyway, and you might have some questions, is we also noticed 95% of sales leaders have had no sales leadership training, so they're really struggling and I'm really passionate about this. Sales is, we're the people who bring the business and keep the lights on. And when you've got 95% of the people leading those teams who haven't been supported in the best possible way, that's a recipe for disaster.
Corey Frank (05:15):
Chris, we've spoken about this several times. Particularly I think, Alex, I know you're a fan of something that's near and dear to our hearts here at the Market Dominance Guys is particularly after the top of funnel, the discovery process. And Chris has some interesting things to say about where a lot of folks are focusing on top of funnel, which is a good place to start. But it's also, Chris, you talk a little bit, much more elegantly than I about the discovery and how critical it is to be trained there, to have feedback there, to have visibility there. So Chris, and I know you've taken a look a little bit about Alex's platform, but first off, for the audience and for Alex to level set, your opinions on the discovery and where some of the needs are there that perhaps Alex is addressing with Grw.
Chris Beall (05:57):
Yeah, I think that one of the goals of any sales organization should be to shove the bottleneck of the entire company down into discovery. It tends to sit just above the top of the funnel. So we kind of built this whole podcast around the notion of, hey, you can beat everybody if you can solve that one problem because now you actually have got increased flow and improved targeting and the ability to go out and characterize markets and expand where it makes sense to expand and withdraw of where it makes no sense to go.
We have some episodes about discovery, and we call it the confessional. So the idea of discovery is to have the other person get in an emotional state where they will confess to you what's really going on with them. And if that happens, then you immediately get an increase in flow rate through discovery and an increase in quality, and probably a decrease in cycle time. So when we're looking at systems, we care about those three things a great deal, throughput, quality and cycle time, and we address all of them by making discovery into a proper confessional where somebody is comfortable confessing.
What Alex and his team have done, which is fascinating to me, is they've made the sales manager, sales rep one-on-one into something that, by taking the sales manager out of it, this is really quite interesting and ironic to me. By taking the sales manager out of the first level discussions about deals, which is what reps tend to focus on, they actually have come up with a way of eliciting a confession from the rep. And it's not just a confession about how they're doing in the deal. I mean you can do deals well or poorly or whatever all day long, but as we can still call her the fetching Ms. Fenucci, even though she's now the Chief Revenue Officer of Mediafly and kind of too professional to be the fetching, but well, sorry Helen, we're just going to fetch you up just a little bit. She reminded me this morning when I got her coffee. She said, "You're the one who's doing the fetching." I said, "Yes, I fetch you and I pour."
But it's interesting, when I was observing Alex demoing to me, it reminded me of a very old program, not in how it's built, it's very, the freshest generative AI, super smart, getting smarter about the conversation, but the conversation has a great deal of lightness for the rep.
The very first word my eyes fell on when Alex was demoing to me was the word frustration. The rep was frustrated at how a deal was going, right? Well, that's not actually a deal term. You being frustrated about a deal is not part of the deal. This is your problem, not his problem. But the love your team approach says, no, your problem is your manager's problem. And your emotional problems, your life problems, your direction that you want to go, your ambitions, how you feel you're being supported, who's taken the notes. Remember when Helen told us once she took notes when her people would be presenting internally to the big bosses so they could focus. Even though she is the boss, she's taking notes, a little servant leadership there. All that stuff comes together.
I believe Grw.ai has come up with something really interesting. It's a way to get information compressed at about a 30 to one ratio into the brain of the sales manager by being able to get the extract from the interaction between the sales rep and the bot in question, which I'll let Alex talk about. But then there's another thing that happens, which is there's a softness about that relationship because the rep doesn't fear the bot. And so the rep starts telling their emotional truth to the bot. And there was a program called Eliza written many, many years ago that is a Rogerian non-directive therapist written in a hundred lines of code or something like that. And everybody I know who used it, and I had hundreds of people use it because I was so interested in it, ended up confessing to it. And that was a hundred lines of code.
So there's some hidden magic in interacting with a bot that it feels enough like a human, but isn't your boss. That you can actually relax and tell it the truth. And you know me in the Lonely Minds Club, right? CEOs live in the Lonely Minds Club because everybody lies to us. Well, sales managers, everybody lies to them too. So they're not well-trained and everybody lies to them. It's a tough combo. I don't know. What do you think about that, Alex?
Alex McNaughten (10:29):
Yeah, so just to give a touch more context, as part of our platform we've built Taylor, and Taylor is an AI powered performance coach specific for sales teams. And the sales teams have one-on-one conversations with Taylor on a regular basis with our early design partners, that's every two weeks.
And the behaviors we've noticed from the team is super interesting. We've seen people spend up to 45 minutes talking to Taylor. On average it's about 20, but we've seen up to 45 minutes in a single session. And there's an unbelievable amount of rich data that come out of those conversations. You imagine you're a sales manager with a team of 10, the reality is you don't have the time to do one-on-one across the team and get to that level of detail all the time.
So I think, Chris, your description of how it compresses information for the sales leader 30 to one, that's probably fairly accurate. We haven't measured the exact compression, but in terms of time compression, it probably is something like that.
And the other things we've noticed that's really interesting is even though the sales team know that their leader, and even their leader of leaders, will see insights from these conversations, they're extremely honest, if not more honest than they would be with a real human. So yeah, it's super exciting and I'm pumped because what we're able to do now is stuff that typically I would be doing as a person going into organizations to help them. Technology is allowing us to scale that, but do it better because the great thing about Taylor AI powered coach is memory across all conversations, across all the team, and it never forgets anything. So it can actually be more effective than a human in a lot of respects.
Corey Frank (12:12):
How did you overcome the empathy? As we've spoken about many times, when you're giving feedback, you can't just give the, Chris and I had a conversation yesterday, we were talking about the old English aphorism where it's soft words, hard arguments, and that it's not versus hard, sharp words. But I bet that process to make it accessible, to make it connect emotionally from an empathetic perspective on the feedback was a challenge. I find that fascinating to find out how you've evolved that and tested that.
Alex McNaughten (12:44):
So it's moved very quickly. So we started with surveys a few months ago, was where we started. The problem is you don't get very good data and we realized that that was not good data and horrible experience for people to interact with, which is more important, reason why we moved away from that. And then really we've just built, tested, learned, iterated again and again and again over many, many, many cycles. And then also drawing from my experience because I've personally coached hundreds and hundreds of people. So just trying to embed it with as much of the learnings I've had through my 11 years in sales and then sales coaching.
So it's probably a mixture of, I guess, some psychology, some science, and then a little bit of art in terms of the testing and learning and the feel of it, to get it to a point now where it's able to coach in a human way and give feedback in a way that isn't jarring, which often having a conversation with an AI can feel quite jarring. And I'd say that's something that we are, I wouldn't say we've a hundred percent nailed it, but it's moving in the right direction fast. We're only kind of five months in.
Corey Frank (13:54):
Well yesterday, or I think this morning, there's the news here, in the States at least, Alex, that Bobby Knight was a very famous, very successful basketball coach at the college level for many, many years. One of the all time winning college basketball coach. And he had a very sardonic sense of humor, demeanor, very aggressive when it came to discipline with his players. He's frustrated, throws a chair across the court, grabbed one of his players by the throat. Nothing that we endorse as sales leaders of course. But very antagonistic and very Lin Subardi-esque to raise the bar of his folks. His famous phrase was, "I want it more than you do and that's a problem."
And Chris and I talked yesterday about a lot of leaders who are all about conviction, conviction, conviction, right Chris? And it's just boom, boom, boom. And I would imagine from a coaching perspective, Chris, you have some thoughts on this about introverts versus extroverts in sales, in that fine line, Alex, to build a platform that can talk to both types of sales personas. Chris, anything to add to that from the perspective of find that nuance of a coaching mechanism that speaks to both styles?
Chris Beall (15:06):
Yeah, I think there's three things in play here. One is Bobby Knight had an advantage. You couldn't very well transfer from the team you were playing on to some other team. And so you were kind of stuck, if you wanted to get into the NBA or you wanted to even have a successful college career, your foot was nailed to the floor and you were pivoting in circles, which people do in basketball a lot. And he'd really be pissed off and tell you were acting like your feet were nailed to the floor even when you were moving as fast as you could.
So in the modern world, salespeople can go work for whomever they want and the best ones can work, literally just write their ticket and do whatever they want, wherever they want. So you start acting like that and you're going to get down to the ones who like it, who like that kind of abuse, which is there are people who like that kind of thing, but not most high performers.
Secondly, I think this business of introverts and extroverts, I think introverts make better salespeople in general if they can bring energy, and energy is orthogonal to conviction. You don't need to persuade somebody just to be energetic in a conversation. You can be very present, very energetic, and yet very open-minded about what is the best thing to happen next. You don't need to be driving towards your end. And one thing we know about everybody, and it's salespeople and customers and everybody else, is when you push on them, they push back. They might push back overtly, they might push back covertly and they may wait and push in the way in which the back that they're pushing on is yours and they're doing it with a knife.
So there's a lot of issues that get buried in this short-term desire to get it done right now. And I think that it's one of the things I really liked about, again, I had a short demo with Alex, but I loved thinking about how an introverted salesperson who's really, really good would have fun exploring the ideas that Taylor is willing to bring out and would be encouraged. One of the things that... you got to check this thing out, Corey. Taylor actually says encouraging things to you, but only when Taylor thinks they're the things that you're doing that makes sense. And you're always doing something that makes sense, or you wouldn't be in the deal. Most sales managers never do that. They never tell you what you're doing right. And so there's an encouragement factor that I think works across a broader range of sales personalities, including the best personalities, which are high energy introverts.
Susan Finch (17:37):
We'll be back in a moment after a quick break.
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And we're back with Corey and Chris.
Alex McNaughten (18:18):
There's a few things I'd add to that. I think coaching in its purest form is not telling people what to do, it's helping them to get to the answers on their own, typically through smart questioning. So I think that's kind of really the starting point for a lot of what we've built here was with that kind of lens of coaching.
And then what Chris just said there around validation is super important. And this was a surprise to us. We didn't think that people would feel good with an AI-powered bot effectively saying to someone, "Hey, well done. That was smart, that was a good thing to do." But we've noticed that a number of the early users have been telling us, and they were surprised themselves that it actually felt good. It felt good to get validation from something that wasn't human. And that's probably partially due to the fact that, like you said, most of them don't get that from their boss regularly.
And it's not that their boss doesn't care, it's that their boss is stretched. Sales leaders are so stretched, they have way too many reports a lot of the time that they can handle. They don't know much about leadership in general, other than what they've been able to intuit over time.
Corey Frank (19:33):
Alex McNaughton (19:34):
Yeah, jump in.
Corey Frank (19:35):
You bring up a great point. I'm sorry to step on your feet. I'm curious as a sales, am I threatened by this? How do I make this my friend? How do I amplify the results, because my gosh, what if my people, God forbid, they like AI better than they like me because I'm a sales manager who got into this because I have a high need for approval. Maybe I wasn't the best closer, and for the insecure folks in the audience like me, how do I deal with that? This sounds too good here to put me out of a job, potentially.
Alex McNaughten (20:04):
No, so the goal here is to make leaders better and make their experience as a leader better for them as well. So the early customers and leaders who are using this are saying, this is helping me make better and faster decision. It's helping me uncover things I didn't even know were going on in my team, but I can actually fix, and it's helping me to know where to focus on and who to focus on across my team. Who needs the help most at an individual level and how can I help the team as a whole.
And then it also from a feeling threatened perspective, I think, and Chris actually put it to me, he said, and I'm going to butcher exactly how you said it, but you said something along the lines of, "There's an inherent fragility in relying on technology for everything in a team environment," and things that can sometimes unexpectedly happen, and that's what the human there is for, is to deal with the unexpected. Technology can't solve absolutely everything. And I fundamentally believe that there is, even in an AI world, there is a space for great leadership. And I think technology actually just helps them be 10, 20, 50 times better to their team and ultimately drive performance. And that's probably the final thing, is a sales leader who's getting better results out of their team and hitting a better number themselves, I think that's going to feel good irrespective of whether you've got an AI coach in the mix supporting you.
Corey Frank (21:27):
Yeah, yeah. Well we know that Tony Stark was made a much better superhero with the voice at his head and the Jarvis that was rattling around his brain.
Alex McNaughten (21:36):
That's it, right?
Corey Frank (21:38):
[inaudible 00:21:38]. So I can see it.
Alex McNaughten (21:40):
That's it. Maybe that's the analogy. We should use the Ironman suit for sales managers.
Chris Beall (21:44):
Yeah, we already have it for sales reps, so you can borrow it from us. That was actually something that came out of serious decisions. One of their senior analysts about 10 years ago came over physically for an hour and a half with us. And at the end he said, "You guys have an Ironman suit for sales, don't you?" Well, it goes fast and lets you shoot stuff that you want to shoot, so I guess so. I don't know, does it smell good when you get out of it? We don't really know. That's another question entirely we have deal with.
Corey, you bring up a really good point. The question is, does this feel threatening to sales leaders? I actually suspect it won't. And in fact, I think there's a sales leader's version of this, of Taylor, where the questions that you're asking, the challenges, the frustrations are about the team themselves. And you are thinking of doing things like the things like are in the 17 chapters of that Love Your Team book where the question is, should I go this direction or that direction? Does this need this meeting or this conversation or that conversation?
My guess is, Taylor's going to expand fairly quickly to handle those conversations too. And nobody likes confessing to their boss, nobody likes being made fun of. In the world of sales, by the way, there's a lot of athletes that come out of trash talk land and they think trash talking is just like having fun with folks. Your entire team might not love being trash-talked at, to be called names or whatever it happens to be that was a big deal in the court or on the field where it just seems natural to folks who kind of grew up in competitive athletics. Well, not everybody in sales is a former competitive athlete from the field. In fact, some of the best in the world never did any of that stuff. They're very different kind of people and they don't take well to that particular style of interaction.
And one of the things that I think is so interesting about Taylor is, Taylor will challenge you clearly. Have you thought about this, but have you thought about... What do you think about this? You're doing this, but have you considered this? Right? And most sales leaders aren't comfortable enough in their own skin to say stuff like that. And if they came out of the world of trash talk, they can't resist having that little dig. So I think there's a lot here to be said for, think of it in the large, AI is a safe person to talk to, a bot is a safe person to talk to, because they can't fire you and they're not going to make fun of you.
And those are two pretty big deals when it comes to people feeling good about their own job. Because in sales, you've got to really feel good about yourself in order to help somebody else along the emotional journey they need to go on in order to have both real and perceived risk reduction to the point where they'll take the next step with you. And if you're feeling risk yourself as the sales rep, that feeling of risk is going to transmit itself directly to your prospect and they're going to be less likely to move forward with you because it doesn't feel right.
So where does your confidence come from? Well, it can't just come from inside. I mean, going to a sensory deprivation tank sometime and see how long it is before you're hallucinating like crazy. We don't stay sane because of what's going on inside of us. We stay sane because of what we're getting from the outside. And getting consistent positive affirmation from the outside that's not silly, is actually very helpful for all human beings to maintain their sanity and their confidence.
Alex McNaughten (25:20):
There's something in that, and that's one of the real motivators and drivers for me with this business is I've noticed over the years and across all these teams that I've just seen genuine human pain and frustration at a team level, at both leader and individual contributor level. And I think we can do better and I think that's the exciting thing that technology can unlock. And the salespeople who've been using Taylor have been telling us things like, this is positively confronting. This is helping me think about things, this is helping me learn. And it's a place I can go vent as well and let off some steam.
So it's really exciting. I'm so pumped for the next 10 years of business technology, one, what we are doing, but two, what other kind of opportunities we're going to be able to see in this space and this world of generative AI. So yeah, I think teams will fundamentally change and I think it can be a real catalyst for teams to change way for the better than where they're at right now.
Corey Frank (26:14):
Well that's wonderful. I agree. And what I hear both of you saying is that my job is relatively safe and I should not fear the reaper just yet from the AI bots taking over my job.
Okay, well we're going to leave it there. So Alex, thank you so much for wrapping some time. We'd love to have you as a standing guest here at the Market Dominance Guys, since I imagine the data that the team is going to compile here over the coming months or so is going to be incredibly valuable to everybody in our profession. So for Chris Beall, this is Corey Frank from the Market Dominance Guys.
Alex McNaughten (26:49):
Thanks for having me.
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