Interview: Ben Brigham, Father of Automotive Retail AI
Ben Brigham, founder of Conversica, brought the power of artificial intelligence (AI) into the world of automotive retail. He is a true industry trailblazer. Following his graduation from the University of Washington in 2007, Brigham founded AutoFerret.com (later Conversica). There, Brigham and his team harnessed the potential of AI for generating and following up on leads for dealers.
After more than a decade, Conversica, with its flagship AI Sales Assistant, is used by more than 1,200 companies worldwide. After its initial success in automotive retail, Conversica, headquartered in Foster City, California, has expanded to industries such as technology, finance, education, and others.
In this interview, Ben Brigham discusses how he came upon the idea of using AI for lead follow-up, why the revolutionary automated virtual assistant (AVA) was developed, the ways Conversica evolved and expanded, and the reasons the company has created its new Lead Provider Awards.
When did you get interested in artificial intelligence and the possibilities of conversational AI for business use?
I became interested in AI when I was studying informatics at the University of Washington in the early 2000s. At that time, we were still in what academics refer to as the AI winter, so not much was being done with it. Shortly after I started selling leads to auto dealers through AutoFerret.com, I realized that there was an opportunity to use AI to solve a real business problem — lead follow-up.
What inspired you to get into automotive retail with AutoFerret.com, and what were the company’s initial product offerings?
I wrote some software while I was working on my master’s degree that would crawl websites with user-generated content and find posts that indicated a person was in the market for a vehicle. I then formed AutoFerret.com and started selling those to auto dealers as $5 leads.
Very soon after we started selling leads, I realized that there was a problem with lead follow-up: Dealers would complain about the quality of the leads, saying that they weren’t looking for vehicles. It didn’t make sense to me because I would harvest a post within minutes of someone writing, in their own words, that they were looking for a car.
At that time, AutoFerret.com had a couple salespeople, so I had them start calling and emailing the leads: We learned not only that they were indeed in the market for a vehicle, but they had not been contacted by the dealerships’ sales staff. That was when I suspected that there might be a universal problem with lead follow-up, and I realized that it likely extended beyond automotive leads.
I wanted to see if we could use AI to help solve the problem, and that was when the idea for AVA, the automated virtual assistant, was conceived. The fact that we were still in the dead of winter — the AI winter — [meant] there were no tools available, so we had to build it from scratch.
How has Conversica evolved its products and technology to serve the needs of dealerships, and then branch out into vertical industries?
It’s been a decade since we started down the AI path, long before Siri and Alexa. In the past decade, we have added a lot under the hood to make the AI better at understanding what people are writing, which is natural language understanding.
We have extended the flexibility of the AI to carry on much more complex conversations. We are also doing a lot in the realm of natural language generation (NLG), allowing the AI to help write responses. For auto dealerships, we have done a lot of work on integrations with some of the largest CRM and DMS providers, which opened up a whole new realm of conversations for our auto dealer customers.
Those integrations really opened the door for the automotive service assistant, ASA, which is doing things on the fixed operations side of the house that dealers just haven’t been able to do consistently. Over the last few years, we have expanded our offerings beyond automotive into technology, finance, education, and other industries.
We have multilingual AI assistants being used around the world for things like collections, selling credit cards, loans, burial plots, security systems, cell phones, helping in university admissions, and much more. It really is a universal solution to a universal problem.
How will artificial intelligence develop and improve in the future to further enhance lead generation and other business functions?
We’re going to continue to see conversational AI carry prospects further down the sales funnel. We’re also going to see AI used to leverage existing data to automate most of the processes that currently trigger reminders for humans to do tasks.
I think that in the very near future, the AI-powered AVA will become more like KITT from Knight Rider or JARVIS from Iron Man: an almost omniscient helper in the background handling all of the legwork associated with connecting the hottest prospects with the sales staff at just the right moment, even handling all of the scheduling, rescheduling, note-taking, and follow-up.
Why did Conversica create its new Lead Provider Awards, and how does its technology work to identify the best-performing third-party lead providers?
I feel like it’s important to note that I started this journey as a lead provider, so I know the issues they struggle with and the misplaced criticism their sales teams sometimes take.
The Lead Provider Awards will recognize what we see as the best performers. We realized some time ago that we have data on lead performance that no one else has, especially on this scale. Historically, we have shared this data with our customers in the Lead Source Performance Report, which shows them how their lead sources are performing against each other.
We have made that report available to our dealers for years but have never really engaged with lead providers on the subject. One of the most exciting initiatives I am working on is bringing the lead providers a little more into the fold, allowing them to have some creative license with the messaging that the AI assistant uses to communicate with their leads.
This is a quadruple win because it gives the prospect a more tailored experience, increasing engagement, making us and the lead provider look good, and improving the dealer’s odds of closing that deal. Customizing the AI assistant’s messaging for a particular type of lead is something we have done almost since the beginning. Now, we’re doing a lot more of it and on a much more granular level.