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As remote and hybrid work becomes commonplace, companies are investigating ways to train salespeople one-on-one virtually — typically over video chat platforms like Zoom. Even before the pandemic, 59% of learning and development professionals were spending more of their budget on online training than in-person, according to LinkedIn. But not every department is devoting an equal amount of time to coaching, surveys show — and this can be to the detriment of sales.

A recent RingDNA report found that 45% of salespeople have received less coaching than usual or no coaching since moving to remote work during the pandemic. It’s estimated that 75% of sales organizations waste resources due to random and informal coaching, besides, the opportunity costs being substantial. According to McKinsey, low-performing companies are half as likely to offer personalized training for their sales reps and firms that provide a suboptimal amount of coaching realize 16.7% less annual revenue growth on average.

The global market for sales training — which is estimated to be worth upwards of $4 billion — includes products from vendors like Mindtickle, Ambition, and Lessonly (which Seismic acquired in August). Companies like Chrous.ai fall into this category, too, with platforms that leverage AI to analyze sales calls. But a newer player in the segment, Second Nature, is opting for a different approach to coaching with AI-powered avatars that walk salespeople through lessons via the web.

Virtual training

Tel Aviv, Israel-based Second Nature was founded by Alon Shalita and Ariel Hitron in 2018. Shalita was previously a software engineer at VMWare, where he led the machine learning team focused on passive network topology detection. Hitron spent several years at Kaltura, an online video and broadcast software provider, where he was promoted to VP of new markets.

Second Nature

Above: Second Nature uses AI-powered avatars to coach salespeople.

Image Credit: Second Nature

Like other sales coaching software, Second Nature reminds reps about points they didn’t cover during simulated presentations and challenges them with questions, providing managers with visibility into members’ performances. But unlike most, Second Nature hosts a simulator with avatars that have conversations with reps based on talk tracks and sales playbooks, measuring how deeply reps cover key topics.

“Second Nature has collected what it believes is the world’s largest dataset of human-to-AI conversations within a sales environment, based on thousands of hours of sales simulations,” Hitron told VentureBeat via email. “Typical human to AI conversations are structured around the AI navigating people through a tree of options. When a salesperson has a call with AI, however, it becomes an open conversation with the sales rep leading the call and the AI interjecting, answering questions and raising objections. Second Nature is in the early stages of using this unique dataset. As it evaluates these simulations, it can run data experiments on anything from voice user interface design to the pace of learning and adopting new habits.”

Second Nature isn’t the only startup developing AI-powered avatars for sales training. It competes with Trenario, which creates avatars for corporate mentoring across sales, call center, and customer support use cases. But Second Nature’s avatars can be customized to products with an editing tool that allows sales teams to upload messages and talking points.

“Second Nature competes in the red-hot sales enablement space that includes unicorns Gong and Chorus. These companies use AI to analyze conversations that sales reps have as they are on sales calls, or after they are completed,” Hitron said. “By contrast, Second Nature enables sales reps to practice and develop their skills and product knowledge before they are face-to-face with potential customers.  If you think of a tennis analogy, companies like Gong and Chorus offer post-game video analysis versus practicing swings before a match with a sophisticated tennis ball machine that shoots out balls with different spins.”

Second Nature offers four kinds of training sessions in addition to video calls: Slide presentation simulation, pitch recording, and product demos. Slide presentations have the avatar listen to a presentation and ask questions about it, while pitch recording scores the sales reps on prerecorded sales pitches submitted to managers. During product demo training, the avatar provides feedback as sales teams walk through a screen share.

Second Nature can integrate with existing learning management systems to schedule training sessions automatically. Alternatively, managers can set up courses with videos and other sales enablement materials and assign tasks to reps. Second Nature provides leaderboard functionality for managers who wish to have the platform score and compare reps on performance. The software can also award certifications based on how well they responded to the avatars during simulations.

“Second Nature’s technology means that enterprises can spend less of their HR and financial resources training sales reps while more quickly getting them up to speed on messages about new products or updated features,” Hitron added. “It also allows for training to be delivered driven by data based on the progress of sales rep training rather than on an ad hoc basis, which has been the traditional route taken by sales departments. By using AI- and data-driven-based sales training, enterprises experience training that is consistent, and more effective and efficient with sales reps fully engaged in their professional development.”

Digital growth

The benefits of training are clear. Sales reps with 30 minutes or less of coaching per week achieve win rates of 43%, by one estimate. But it’s less obvious whether digital tools like Second Nature provide the same benefits as in-person coaching. Studies show that online instruction tends to lower performance relative to physical instruction; and that 84% of sales training content is lost after 90 days. With an avatar, it can be tougher to get immediate answers to specific questions, and digital settings can offer more chances for distraction.

Considering that a mere estimated 40% of sellers work within a well-established coaching culture at their organization, digital coaching platforms might be better than the alternative. That’s assuming, of course, that sales leaders “properly diagnosed their organization’s coaching challenges and validate those hypotheses with internal stakeholders” before evaluating these technologies for sales training and coaching, as Gartner advises.

Second Nature

Despite concerns about their effectiveness, investors aren’t shying away from sales coaching platforms like Second Nature — Second Nature counts thousands of users across Zoom, SAP, Check Point Software, and Lookout as customers. By 2026, the corporate online learning industry is expected to grow by over 250% from 2017 to hit roughly $50 billion.

“Second Nature’s business has thrived in the face of the pandemic, as enterprises … have worked with [us] to train hundreds and even thousands of sales reps working remotely. As long as salespeople have a laptop and an internet connection, they can benefit from training with [Second Nature] whenever it works for them,” Hitron added. “We’re now in the sales kickoff season for many enterprises, most of which are being held remotely due to the pandemic.”

Twenty-six-employee Second Nature today announced that it raised $12.5 million in a series A investment from Signals Venture Capital, Stage One Ventures, Cardumen Capital, and Zoom’s Zoom Apps Fund. It brings the company’s total capital to $15.5 million.

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