Stefanie Boyer is a marketing professor at Bryant University who recently developed an app that helps train college students to improve their sales skills. The app, dubbed RNMKRS, is free to use and was developed with Scott Randall, a pioneering simulation designer, and sales consultant Kevin Kelly.
Since developing RNMKRS, Boyer was named on the Forbes Next 1000 Entrepreneurs list in 2021; was the opening keynote speaker at the 2022 Women in Sales Summit in Napa, California; and was the recipient of the American Marketing Association’s Sales Educator of the Year award.
Q: What is RNMKRS and how does it work?
Boyer: At the end of the day, conversations are the currency of business. People are generally unprepared for them. Our mission at RNMKRS is to get them ready. We’re starting with sales conversations. RNMKRS is a free app for all that provides training to students through videos, quizzes, and then they apply what they learned on the app with a bot that acts like a customer. Unlike other applications, while using the app, the bot doesn’t just say “hello” and then the students have to choose one of four options regarding what they want to say back. They have to literally hit the “record” button and speak into their mic.
The conversation [with the app’s bot] will go back and forth. The students have to build rapport, have a friendly conversation, set an agenda, ask the “client” questions to figure out what their challenges are, and align their presentation or pitch with solving their problems with the product they are offering.
How did you come up with this?
Bryant is only one of 150 schools in the US that focuses on sales education. It’s really challenging for a professor who is teaching people to sell. I used to have my students have four to six “role-playing” conversations with each other (where one pretends to be the buyer and the other pretends to be the seller) and then have to give them feedback. When I have 70 students I need to provide feedback on, it’s not going to come quickly.
How could speaking to an app help someone’s selling skills?
We’re hoping that using RNMKRS helps them learn the sales process until they build some muscle memory around it. They’re not just going in and making a pitch and hoping it works. They will receive feedback from the bot, the bot will object to them during the process [when it comes to price or the fact that the bot “customer” doesn’t trust the student or seller], and then they have to close the sale.
How does the bot know what “sales excellence” looks like?
We’ve created this interpersonal communications logic engine that gets smarter with each conversation it drives. The AI-powered bot creates a bias-free environment for both assessment and feedback. In the big sales competitions the university hosts each year [since 2010], there’s a rubric on what makes a “good” or “bad” conversation. We’ve been able to take all the data we’ve acquired over the years from those competitions and train the bot on what “excellence” looks like and there’s all these algorithms based on the more conversations it has.
We are approaching 1 million conversations on the app.
How do students feel about the app?
When students had to do all the role-playing in the classroom, I would get several who would get nervous and get lost in the bathroom throughout class. Now they are practicing with the bot, not feeling judged as much by their peers, while still getting feedback. The gamification is helping motivate the students and they are practicing their sales pitches a lot more than they were before. I went from having students who were required to conduct six role-playing pitches in class [per semester] to having to do 150 with the app.
We had one student from northern Illinois this semester that did 1,000 role plays. Both myself and my fellow professors would never be able to get to that point without the app.
Can faculty track students’ progress?
Faculty who use the app as part of their curriculum have data visualization tools that help them see performance across classes and use data analytics to inform their teaching. Rather than looking at one conversation and giving feedback, they can look at individual performance data and class trends to see where the gaps are.
How many users does the platform have so far?
Since fall 2019, we’ve had a little over 20,000 users.
Can someone who is not a business student use the app?
Yes. I started this as a tool for college students but it has expanded to include services for companies that rely on sales personnel. Companies can assess and recruit new employees among the student participants, too, or use the app for training existing employees.
What’s the business model behind this app? Do you have investors?
We have companies that are sponsoring the app and partnering with us on various levels. Some companies want to be in the actual app and part of the role play, so they’ll pay an annual sponsorship to be able to gain access. [Dell sponsored the app originally.]
What goals do you have for the next five years?
About 70 percent of the sales programs at 150 colleges use this app. I want to get at least 100 percent of the sales programs. But we need to get to more than just the 150 sales programs out there. Every school in the nation is producing people that end up going into some type of sales-related opportunity where they have to learn to pitch. We’re also trying to expand into minority-serving institutions, like HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and community colleges. We’d like to see at least a 20 percent growth year-over-year in both sponsorships and users.
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.