Local startup develops software to help sales reps close the deal

St. Louis Post Dispatch

By Uliana Pavlova

July 28, 2017


Have you ever been on the other side of a sales call, growing increasingly frustrated with a sales rep who just won’t shut up? It seems the more he talks, the less interested you are in what he’s selling.

Three 24-year-old entrepreneurs think they’ve found a way to turn unsuccessful sales calls around. Marc BernsteinChris Kontes and Davidson Girard, who founded St. Louis-based Balto Software in January, say they’ve developed a software program that uses real-time conversation analytics to help sales reps spot and correct mistakes during their phone calls.

This is a case, they say, of artificial intelligence being used to help workers rather than replace them.

“Since Balto cues people with the right things to say in real time, it allows people to actually deliver the information they were taught, rather than forgetting most of it when they actually need to apply it,” Kontes said. “This is the power of immediate reinforcement.”

Studies show that people tend to forget 50 to 80 percent of information they learned after one day and almost 90 percent after one month. Sales representatives get initial training, but after a while they forget and companies lose money on retraining their personnel.

During a sales call, the Balto software is able to identify problems and give tips to reps about what they should be saying while they are still on a phone.

Tips could includes simple observations and instructions, such as “you are talking too much” or “talk slower.” The software can also help rephrase a question, making it more open-ended. Balto’s software also is designed to predict what a customer is likely to say and help the sale rep prepare a response. AI technology analyzes a few verbal cues to identify why a customer is hesitant to make a purchase.

Two of the company founders came up with the idea for Balto when they worked in sales at TopOPPS, one of St. Louis’ leading early-stage software companies.

After making several sales calls each day, Bernstein and Kontes started noticing that they made the same mistakes again and again.

“Sometimes those calls get heated and it is hard to have the right information,” Bernstein said. “You get off the phone and you knew you blew it. There is so much to remember when you are having phone conversations.”

Balto Software was bootstrapped — meaning the founders put up the bulk of early financing — but the company will soon be looking for outside investment. Balto Software is currently working with a few local companies, including Abstrakt Marketing Group in Laclede’s Landing.

And it’s not the only company on the market. A Silicon Valley company called Qurious, founded in 2013, also offers real-time conversation analytics to help sales reps. Balto founders say they are different from Qurious because they focus more on cues that get reps thinking, while Qurious provides scripts.

“We are a healthy, young company solving a real need in a cost-effective way, and growing,” Kontes said. “It’s not better or worse than the Silicon Valley ideology, but it is a different — and something that makes the St. Louis entrepreneurial scene a little different and special.”

The company founders attribute their success to St. Louis startup community and support they received early on.

Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, Bernstein fell in love with the St. Louis startup scene while he was studying business and entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis. There he developed a close relationship with Professor Cliff Holekamp, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at the university’s Olin School and a board member of TopOPPS and other companies and organizations.

“I knew Marc since he was a sophomore in college, he was engaged and passionate about entrepreneurship,” Holekamp said. “Over his time in college he got engaged with the startup scene in St. Louis and started getting excited about software.”

With Holekamp’s help, Bernstein found a position at TopOPPS. There he met Kontes, a Franklin & Marshall College graduate who was doing a Venture for America fellowship.

VFA still remains the company’s primary resource for mentorship and organizational support. VFA is located at the T-Rex innovation center for tech startups, which also became an office space for Balto Software.

“They seem to be really committed and aware of the community aspect of this space,” said Kathleen Bauer, T-Rex community director.

Bernstein and Kontes will soon see the third co-founder, Girard, move to their office in St. Louis from Washington. Girard, a childhood friend of Bernstein’s, helped with technical aspects of the company on a volunteer basis at first and later was asked to join the team as the chief technology officer.

The company is named for a heroic Siberian husky that led a team to Nome, Alaska, in 1925 to deliver a serum to combat an outbreak of deadly diphtheria.

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