Sales assistant Tiffany seems like dealership employee-of-the-month material. She’s cheerful and helpful. Her work is unreal. Literally. She doesn’t exist. Not as a human, anyway.

Neither does Crystal, Denise, Rachel, Heidi, Eva and other such virtual sales assistants at about 800 dealerships using Conversica’s artificial-intelligence system for digital communications with customers who submit emails about vehicles of interest.

Those people invariably believe they’re dealing with an actual employee. The AI never declares something like, “BTW, I’m not human.” People draw their own conclusions. Most think the virtual sales assistants are real. Some appreciative customers even send gifts.

Individual dealerships come up with the virtual assistants’ names, or “their own virtual personae,” says Carl Landers, Conversica’s chief marketing officer.

The system isn’t out to deceive people, he says. “It’s trying to gauge a customer’s level of interest and connect them as quickly as possible with a dealership person who can help out. That’s the goal: create a human-human connection. It’s led to more customer traffic and sales.”    

Tiffany et al. work 24/7. They’re always good-natured and up for the job.

“If someone at 11:30 p.m. wants a price on a new Ford model, goes to a website and submits a request, Tiffany will follow up right away,” Landers says.

“She’ll say, ‘I got your request. We’ll have someone on it first thing in the morning. Can I verify this is the right email address or phone number to reach you?’”

Or in a similar situation, she might say “I saw you were interested in a new vehicle. Can I connect you with one of our salespeople?” 

The system also follows up with customers, Landers says. “Tiffany will say, ‘Just checking in to make sure you spoke with our salesman Bob and got everything you needed.’

If a customer says that didn’t happen, it identifies holes in the dealership’s digital process.

“Sometimes sales managers will see: ‘I never heard from Bob,’” Landers says. “But we’re not out to throw Bob under the bus.”

There could be logical explanations for a customer not hearing from the dealership, including the store’s emails going to spam folders. “But Tiffany or Denise or Rachel will let management know if something isn’t working right,” Landers says.

In a Q&A with WardsAuto, he talks about Conversica’s roots, what names work best and how customers react. Here’s an edited transcript.

WardsAuto: How did Conversica come about?

Landers: Ben Brigham, who was a lead-provider to dealers, founded the company seven years ago. He was on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence. Back then, it was something in the lab or university. He hired some smart AI guys and they built the first Conversica automated sales assistant.

WardsAuto: On the spam issue you mentioned if the sales assistant is replying to someone’s email, wouldn’t that immediately get through because it is a response, or are there situations where the sales assistant is initiating the email?

Landers: The assistant is always following up on inbound requests. But if someone goes to a third-party automotive website and fills out a form and the dealership is buying leads, it will come in to the CRM system as a lead, yet the person hasn’t directly sent an email to the dealership. Tiffany is still following up on your interest, but not always responding to a direct email.

This puts a positive, personal experience at the front end of the consumer interaction with a dealership, getting things off on the right foot.

The machine is constantly learning, changing up words and subject lines, as it discovers what do people open and respond to. She’ll keep trying. She’s very persistent and constantly changing up the language. The response rate on these emails is 50% or higher.

WardsAuto: Are names of the virtual assistants a factor in what works or not? You’ve mentioned Tiffany a few times. Crystal is one. Heidi is another. Are dealers just picking names they like or do they actually resonate?

Landers: I think there’s a story behind every dealership’s name selection. We recommend – because we’ve seen it work well – picking a nice, friendly female name.

WardsAuto: They’re kind of modern names.

Landers: Yeah. It’s not like your grandmother is on the other end of an email. They are newer names.

WardsAuto: Although a grandmother’s name might work in terms of making a connection or establishing trust.

Landers: That’s true.

WardsAuto: Someone thinks they are communicating with a human being. If they ask a direct question, is the artificial intelligence able to pick that out and come back with a response that makes sense?

Landers: That gets to the heart of what we are doing. The simple answer is, “For some questions, yes.” Simple things like hours of operation or location. We don’t try to answer specific question such as, “What’s your best price on this Ford F-150?” or “Do you have this Toyota Camry in black?” But those are good signs someone is interested, and we accelerate getting them connected with a salesperson. We’ll say something to the effect of, “John, that’s a great question. Bob is working on that for you. At what number can he reach you today?”

WardsAuto: And in saying Bob will be calling, there’s the turnover more or less. Otherwise presumably someone could later on say, “Where’s Tiffany?”

Landers: Right.

WardsAuto: Do people ultimately discover Tiffany, Heidi and Crystal are not real?

Landers: I would say pretty much never. It’s humorous and great for us that people have come into the showroom and said, “I only want to deal with Tiffany because she was so friendly.”

WardsAuto: Uh-oh.

Landers: People have sent flowers to Tiffany at the dealership. They’ve asked her out on dates. So they really believe they are talking to a human. We advise dealerships to say, “She works at another office or at a remote location…”

WardsAuto: That’s for sure.

Landers: “…or she’s not here today, but how can I help you?” We’re doing a smooth, seamless handoff to the salesperson. Typically, when you have a great experience or interaction with a dealership, you don’t ask a lot of questions. You do if you have a terrible experience.

WardsAuto: So there is no shocking news delivered to someone that Tiffany doesn’t exist?

Landers: Never.

WardsAuto: Is there concern that some salespeople could get disingenuous in their explanation of Tiffany, to the point they lie, or is that overreaching?

Landers: You mean in terms of revealing Tiffany isn’t real?

WardsAuto: Yes. Maybe you touched on it earlier. Unless they are obsessed with Tiffany, they don’t really care.

Landers: That’s the bottom line. The salespeople love her because she sifts through the tire kickers and gives them good prospective car buyers. They use it for the desired objective, and that’s as far as they take it.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com