Through his AI-driven company proton.ai, the 23-year-old is creating digital capabilities targeted specifically for the needs of the distribution market with the goal of enabling reps to make more orders — not just take them.
Distributors tend to be labeled as technology laggards, but it’s not their fault, says Benj Cohen, founder and CEO of proton.ai, an artificial intelligence-driven technology company. Systems are not built for the unique needs of distribution, he says, and therefore many are unhappy with technology because it isn’t bringing them the results they are looking for. The purpose of proton.ai, Cohen says, is to change that.
“Distributors are different,” he says. “The differences are, high product complexity and volume, high customer complexity and volume, and multichannel. Those three things together require a totally different-looking solution than would make sense in other verticals.”
Cohen, 23, observed these differences firsthand growing up in the family business, Benco Dental. He saw an opening for reps to transition from simply taking orders to “making orders,” using AI technology that adds value for both the distributors and the customers by matching the right products with the customers who need them and putting that information directly in front of reps, even those who are more used to servicing than selling.
When Cohen first launched proton.ai as a Harvard University student in 2018, he was focused on helping the inside sales team at Benco. The first lesson he learned: spend time observing the customer to understand their specific problems and needs before leaping to a solution. By that summer, AB testing showed the product could improve close rates by about 4.5 times. The next step was to deploy the technology to customer service reps, who saw similar strong results.
Industrial distributor Hisco was the second company to sign up with proton.ai. In a new vertical, the product worked “just OK” at first, Cohen recalls. Working very closely with Hisco to understand their market, the product went through multiple iterations to fit Hisco’s needs. An effort that is much appreciated by Brian Hopkins, vice president of customer experience at Hisco.
Hisco rolled out proton.ai with a group of customer service reps traditionally focused on transactional business who don’t know the company’s products as well as integrated account specialists. “The tool gave us an opportunity to give those people a really solid way to upsell — without having to know the intimate level of details of the product,” says Hopkins. “You pull up the customer and it will tell you the products that they’re due to reorder because they’ve fallen out of some reorder pattern. The data tells you that they’ve typically ordered this, in this period of time.”
Several proton.ai team members traveled to Hisco locations to gain a deep understanding of the company’s process and customize the tool accordingly. “The whole system is really easy. It was a joy to get it up and running because it wasn’t difficult,” says Hopkins. “If I had to encapsulate it, I would say Benj knew our business. He was really easy to work with and the entire team was very flexible whenever we wanted to change things.”
Since graduating college in May 2019 and going full-time with the business, Cohen’s vision for proton.ai continues to evolve. “When we first started, we were trying to solve a really specific and narrow problem, which was how do we help inside sales reps in dental distribution to upsell and cross sell on the phone? And now, we have taken that problem and expanded it out into our overall vision, which is to try to create what we call the distributors’ AI flywheel, which is basically pulling in data from all the distributors’ channels, using that data to figure out who to call and what to sell. And then, building channel-specific applications that deliver that in a way that reps can actually take an action on it, and optimize their action,” he explains.
Once the channel-specific applications are built out, the next phase will be to coordinate across channels, Cohen adds. So far, the company has tackled customer service (seeing 15%+ increase in average order value), e-commerce (seeing 20% increase in revenue per customer) and inside sales (seeing a 10X increase in revenue per product pitch). Next up will be outside sales, marketing and counter.
Mike Burns, chief information officer at Benco has watched Cohen grow up in the business. “The advantage of growing up in the business is he’s seen more than his years might suggest,” Burns says. “Over just a couple of months, we’ve generated hundreds of thousands of dollars of incremental sales from positioning their suggestions in front of our customers. That’s something that we worked on for years previously and really struggled to develop internally. They turned it around. They are a brand-new company and in a couple of months we really have found revenue in it. So it’s been exciting.”
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