‘AIex’ turns students into sales stars at Plymouth State
An artificial-intelligence entity known as “Alex” is training Plymouth State students to become better salespeople, helping them get pre-graduation face time with prospective employers — and winning them acclaim in a national competition.
Alex is an Interpersonal Communications Engine (ICE) that was created several years ago by a pair of academics in Rhode Island, Scott Randall and Stefanie Boyer, to simulate interactions between individuals and provide “the practice, bias-free feedback and scoring they need to improve.”
With an ICE, “there are no predetermined responses,” according to Boyer. “You talk to an intelligent animated bot using your phone — like Siri or Alexa — but with an animated character. The bot responds in real time with answers that reflect your input. You get detailed feedback on your successes, areas of improvement and on your performance compared to other players.”
In addition to the classroom, Alex, the ICE, is used in sales competitions, like RNMKRS, (pronounced “rainmakers”) that was held virtually Nov. 16.
Fifty-nine colleges and universities participated. PSU finished No. 2 overall, while PSU senior Brennin Loring, of Wolfeboro, finished 13th out of a total of nearly 2,200 other students.
Loring, a graduate of Kingswood Regional High School, was able to get Alex to agree to have his “boss” at the hypothetical Sunflower, Texas, Police Department meet with Loring to consider acquiring a rugged Dell laptop for each of the agency’s 156 officers.
Loring closed on his objective while meeting a number of objectives along the way: He engaged with Alex to create rapport, as with a human customer; he evaluated Alex’s needs; presented Alex with a solution; handled questions about or objections to the product he was promoting; and he got a commitment from Alex, while also keeping in mind next steps, most importantly, the delivery of the laptops.
“At first, I thought this would be so stupid” to work with Alex in his professional sales classroom at PSU, said Loring, who plans to pursue on a career in medical sales. “But I was like ‘Wow…this is actually helping me out.’”
Loring estimated he completed 70 practice sessions with Alex before entering the RNMKRS competition.
In the competition, Alex was an office manager who had a male voice “with a Texas accent, which was kind of funny,” Loring said. “He was interested in helping his community and his department.”
“His mouth was moving, he moved his arms, and you could pick up on his hand movements. You could also see if he was happy,” said Loring, who, based on those cues, was able to tailor his message to Alex.
Working with Alex “forced me to go through the normal sales conversation and how to open up and talk about the product and also not talk about the product and how to close the best you can,” Loring said.
By downloading Alex for free to his cellphone, Loring said he was able to work with it much more than just in the classroom alone. “I would 100 percent recommend it,” he said.
Robert Nadeau, a former Liberty Mutual Insurance sales manager who teaches the professional sales class at PSU, said in lieu of semester-end final exams, he made Loring and the rest of his 70 newest students enter the RNMKRS competition and graded them based on how well they did.
PSU, the University of New Hampshire and Southern New Hampshire University and about 200 others nationwide have professional sales programs. Nadeau consulted with PSU to create the program in 2010, inspired by a student sales competitions he organized at the University of Connecticut.
“We’re the Goliath, the largest program north of New Jersey and east of Ohio,” he said, adding that he sees the program growing, in part thanks to AI and Alex. He said a Harvard Business Review study of business-to-business “loyalty drivers,” found that the most important thing to business owners — 53 percent — is the experience of the sales team they’re working with.
“I read some of the verbatims (from the business owners in the study), and one lady said ‘I didn’t buy from this person, but I would have paid for their time if I could,’” Nadeau said.
Schools like PSU teach their professional sales students to know their customers and markets, he said, while tools like Alex help the students become responsive salespeople.
Nadeau likened Alex to baseball, explaining that whereas an instructor can throw batting practice to a hitter for only so long, Alex is the equivalent of students having a pitcher and a batting cage to themselves as long as needed.
Capable of making 3,000 statements, Alex provides real-time critiques and analysis of how students are performing and allows teachers to focus on the ones who might require more attention, Nadeau said.
“We’re going to see more AI for training,” he said.