Chatbots are increasingly providing 24/7 contact with prospects, but are they preferable to the human touch?
photo illustration, conversation with chatbot

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When consumers landing at your website have questions, they want answers—now. Online chat boxes, staffed 24/7 by either people or bots using artificial intelligence to communicate with a fluency that approaches the level of a person, are increasingly a part of real estate professionals’ lead generation strategies. But the chat box is hardly technology you can just set and forget. Real estate agents and brokers are finding that how and when they get involved with those conversations on their site or through an app matters greatly.

Broker-owner Edric Williams of Bold Realty in Fayetteville, N.C., believes the AI-powered chat box platform he shares for free with his 32 agents has helped enormously to boost his company’s sales. He began getting leads the first day he signed on with Structurely, a real estate tech company in Ames, Iowa, in 2018. The company created Aisa Holmes, the chat program Williams’ brokerage uses. His company’s sales volume jumped from $32 million in 2018 to $46 million in 2019. “A big part of that increase was due to our ability to better nurture online leads with Structurely. These are deals that would have otherwise fallen between the cracks,” Williams adds.

If you’re not already incorporating chat boxes into your engagement strategy, it’s likely that you’re missing an opportunity. The global chat box market was estimated at $1.17 billion in 2018 and is predicted to climb tenfold within six years, according to an analysis by market intelligence firm Reports and Data. “It’s important these days to connect with potential clients very quickly and with value,” says Nate Joens, CEO and co-founder of Structurely. “You will be instantly weeded out from other agents if you don’t respond within a few minutes.”

Williams opted for a robot-driven chat box because “humans are human. They get sick or go on vacation.” Bold’s monthly cost is based on lead volume. The brokerage started at $299 monthly for 50 leads and now pays $450 a month for 150 leads. All of Williams’ agents use the chatbot.

The chat becomes a great recruitment tool, he adds. “I can now offer every agent a personalized inside sales agent, and they can use it however they want.”

What Chat Boxes Do

Programs that allow you to take over the chat and communicate with prospects directly can be effective. “We have mobile apps for Apple and Android, as well as a website dashboard, where agents can see all lead details and take over the conversations at any time,” says Joens. His company also provides texts and email notifications to agents at various points in a conversation with a prospect.

The increased popularity of the chat box is due in no small part to improvements in AI software. Broker-owner George Fotion of Call Realty in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., found that his chat box exhibited a remarkable level of “empathy” when he monitored a recent chat with a consumer talking about the death of a grandfather. “The bot recognized the language and offered condolences. And it responded to the person with ‘Please get back to us when you’re ready,’ ” says Fotion.

A chat box can be set up for each agent in a brokerage to be on alert around the clock to connect with potential clients on many points of entry, including Twitter, text, and listing sites. “Without chat boxes, 97 people out of 100 will leave your website because they don’t find it user-friendly,” says Eric Williams, business development director at Chicago-based LiveAdmins. The company provides customizable, multilingual live chat solutions with humans, plus a robot chat box option.

Robot vs. Human Chat Boxes

While AI-based chats aren’t likely to completely replace human interactions in lead generation, the bots do have some advantages. While both forms of chat offer fast connection to potential leads, as Edric Williams notes, robots never need a day off. And robots can handle a large number of requests simultaneously, unlike human assistants, who can typically answer only one inquiry at a time.

And of course, chat boxes with robots are cheaper—about $150 to $200 a month per 100 meaningful chats. The human-staffed service from LiveAdmins runs about $350 to $400 per 100 chats, Eric Williams says.

Still, consumers have their own strong preference, it seems. According to an Econsultancy survey, 79% of consumers prefer live chat assistance with a person rather than a robot. And that may be part of the reason bot providers don’t make a point of revealing that the AI-driven helper is, in fact, a robot. “If a lead asks if we are a bot or not, we have a response to indicate we are an assistant for the agent we work with,” Joens adds. “We feel this is a sufficient level of service and transparency.”

Fotion doesn’t feel obligated to communicate that a bot is a bot. He says more sophisticated consumers recognize right away the assistant is a bot and don’t take offense that it hasn’t been disclosed.

Structurely says its bot promises “to convert your leads using empathy, humor, and a dash of charm.” It’s also informative, able to quickly reference addresses and public data in response to questions. To further humanize the experience for consumers, the bot drops an emoji into conversations now and then, purposely spells with typos, and even sends appropriate GIFs.

Edric Williams believes AI chat boxes will evolve to a point where they’ll be able to write real estate contracts one day. “They just can’t show the house,” he quips.

While robots may not be able to pick up on every nuance of a consumer’s tone or mood, the truth is not every human assistant will either. Fotion has turned into a true believer. “For me, it’s been 100% worth it because I don’t miss any leads,” Fotion says. “Agents shouldn’t even think about it. Just grab this technology and go with it. That’s the only way to stay competitive.”