A number of these artificial intelligence relationship managers entered the scene, evolved or made traction this year, aiming to make consumers happy and agents’ lives a little easier.

  • Automation risks impersonal customer service. But to some, bots are more about being available where consumers frequent and expanding your coverage abilities.
  • According to Contactually's CEO Zvi Band: "2016 was simply about gaining the knowledge that bots are here. We're in the hello stage."

Have suggestions for products that you’d like to see reviewed by our real estate technology expert? Email Craig Rowe.

Is the real estate industry ready to embrace bots? Yes. And no.

A number of these artificial intelligence (AI) relationship managers entered the scene, evolved or made traction this year, aiming to make consumers happy and agents’ lives a little easier.

This week I wrote a column about a home and agent search app that a father-son team developed for Amazon Echo. Consumers interact with the software via Alexa, Echo’s bot, and a companion smartphone app.

The column’s comments suggested that at least a number of agents weren’t super psyched about what they perceived as “impersonal service.”

However, my October column on Automabots, which warms up leads for agents by answering their initial questions, didn’t elicit the same reaction. Readers seemed optimistic.

Maybe one column happen to find more readers one day, but I feel secure enough to say at this point the industry appears mixed about the role automation will play in the industry.

Agents and bots vs. consumers and bots

Contactually, a popular industry CRM (customer relationship manager), released a Slack and Facebook Messenger chat bot to help its users more quickly access features without having to sign into their accounts.

Company founder and CEO Zvi Band told me he hasn’t seen a negative response to the technology’s introduction. However, his company’s bot isn’t customer-facing; it’s between agent and software.

Regarding the difference between voice and chat bots, Band said, “I would not want an agent driving around trying to manually log-in to Contactually. It would be much safer for them to talk to their CRM.”

Contactually doesn’t use voice prompts, but Band admitted agent clients have inquired about it.

In response to my column about the Alexa app, Renee Porsia, CEO/owner of Sweet Digs Real Estate in Newtown, Pennsylvania, suggested (sarcastically) that the industry might as well hand over the keys to the talkative Amazon entity, in so many words. I could only infer that Porsia is not a fan.

“There’s so many efforts underway to try to skirt the business these days, trying to get buyers to do everything online, and push us aside. I’m surprised a Realtor would come up with an idea like this. No, I’m not a fan,” Porsia said.

Should agents feel threatened? Automabots founder Grant Gould argues: “Only if the Realtor chooses not to embrace this exciting new tech. How many times have we heard that something is going to replace Realtors, and they are still here in full force. These new technologies help both the Realtor and the consumer.”

I can understand how some view bots as impersonal machinations of a tech world trying too hard to be efficient.

Porsia wants to know where it’s all going to end, adding, “No transaction is ever smooth. I don’t see how [an automated transaction] could ever be the case.”

Meeting consumers where they are

Are agents really too busy to answer early-stage prospects? Isn’t that where the selling starts? Is there such an onslaught of business that agents can’t bother with anything other than clients under contract?

Band doesn’t necessarily see it as a case of trying to take a deal out of agents’ hands.

Rather, he believes automation is about being where the customer is, all the time.

If people are spending so much time on Facebook, the agent should have a presence there. He found that many Contactually clients are also using Slack, so why not be there, too?

The same could be argued by consumers who are fans of the Echo. Why shouldn’t they be able to ask the machine about properties?

I’m not a fan of sales scripts, while many agents swear by them. Aren’t scripts a form of automation? They are, after all, preconceived messages. Instead of being delivered by code or robot voice, they’re copied and pasted into an email or memorized and recited over the phone.

Bot cherry-picking

I admit to being mixed on the topic of bots and other forms of smart automation.

No company has ever or will ever get the automated customer service model totally correct. Calling DirecTV makes me want to stuff a starved badger in my shorts.

Yet, I love automated flight check-ins and chat-based tech support. Will there be more automation advances to look toward in the coming year?

“I think 2016 was simply about gaining the knowledge that bots are here. We’re in the hello stage,” Band said. “We’re far from saturation; many agents are still thinking, ‘What are bots?'”

Gould echoed a similar sentiment: “It has been mostly a conversation topic in 2016. Yes, bots are more a part of our everyday life than most people realize and they make doing tasks more efficient, like getting instant answers to questions without all the manual steps it took just a few years ago. We haven’t seen much in the way of direct impact on a Realtor business yet.”

Band added that he thinks we’re a couple of years away from a time when Siri or an equivalent mechanized assistant will be able to dictate a market report or share the buying preferences of a new lead.

I think it may come sooner than that.

“Although there are only a handful of AI-labeled products, by Inman’s San Fransisco Connect, we will see a dozen or so new services on the scene,” Gould said.

Have a technology product you would like to discuss? Email Craig Rowe.

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