Zoho Brings AI to Sales With Zia Assistant for CRM

Zoho announces Zia, an "intelligent assistant" for its Zoho CRM app, with plans to bring artificial intelligence features to its entire cloud-based suite of apps.

artificial intelligence

Jumping aggressively on the artificial intelligence bandwagon, Zoho says its new Zia assistant will eventually be implemented across its suite of office productivity apps. On Feb. 28, the company unwrapped Zia for Zoho CRM, a proactive online sales assistant that suggests workflows and macros to streamline frequent procedures and gives salespeople advice such as the best time to contact a prospect.

Raju Vegesna, chief evangelist of Zoho, said the design goal for Zia was to provide technology that's directly useful to customers. "Zia works in the background and presents information contextually," Vegesna told eWEEK. "The way we are applying AI is that we're trying to humanize it. Hopefully, the user doesn't look at it as technology but as a useful assistant."

As one example, he showed how Zia would pop up an onscreen note to alert a salesperson that her revenue to date was behind where it was last month or needs to be to meet sales goals. Zia can also be used by sales managers to get performance alerts and suggestions.

In addition, Zia could take note of how many leads are coming in and whether the number is below the norm, taking into account seasonality and other factors. "If Zia sees a spike in activity from Mexico or Brazil for a particular landing page, it lets you know both the positive and negative trends," said Vegesna.

In other cases, Zia may simply alert you to anomalies that are worth a closer look such as multiple emails going to the same customer. In all these cases, Zia is proactive in providing the information, but the user ultimately decides what action to take.

Analyst Laurie McCabe says Zia may be particularly attractive to companies that can't afford or don't have data scientists and a lot of analytical tools to monitor how their sales staff is performing. "This opens the door for the non-data scientist to get sales intelligence in a proactive way without having to set things up themselves," McCabe, an analyst with SMB Group, told eWEEK.  

Companies and individuals can use a single Zoho app or any number of the full suite of business apps the firm offers in such areas as marketing, sales and customer support. Productivity apps include Office, Mail and Docs, and for finance and recruiting there are Books, People and Recruit. The company has begun marketing itself as "the operating system for business" via a single cloud platform and says it has more than 25 million users worldwide.

While Zoho offers basic apps for free, Zia is currently only available for the paid CRM (customer relationship management) app, specifically the Enterprise and above versions of Zoho CRM, and will be available in other Zoho apps in the future. Pricing for the fully featured Enterprise Edition is $35 per user per month.

Salesforce made a big splash last fall when it rolled out Einstein, the AI technology that's now part of its market-leading CRM platform.

But Vegesna says Salesforce has had to integrate various technologies into its platform from companies it's acquired, while Zoho's development has been more organic. "All our apps are built on the same platform. We have a strong commitment to creating everything in house, and that makes applying AI much easier. It's possible Salesforce will pull it off, it's just much more difficult," he said. "Our vision is dependent on what we learn across various business divisions and then being smart about it. We think we have a much deeper learning capability to get more insight from data."

While Zia makes suggestions in text format in a pop-up screen Vegesna said Zoho is exploring ways to also offer an audio option, something some users may find useful, though headphones or some other accommodation might be needed so as not to bother co-workers.

Separately, the company also released Blueprint, a Zoho CRM tool for building and implementing business processes.

Several new features have also been added to Zoho CRM, including scoring rules and SalesSignals that give salespeople real-time information about customer actions such as how they scored satisfaction surveys, support tickets and relevant comments on social media. The SalesSignals platform will support 10 out-of- the-box integrations, including SurveyMonkey, Eventbrite, SMS Magic, DocuSign and others. The platform can be extended to receive signals from any third-party application, making CRM the central hub to capture all customer activity.

Zoho also released its Zoho PhoneBridge Platform designed to let cloud PBX and call center management solutions build telephony integrations for Zoho applications. Zoho has partnered with 15 telephony vendors to provide its users with integrations that it says offer powerful call management features, including single-click dialing and automatic call logging.

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...