Human satisfaction: Can a bot fake it?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Excitement about new technology in real estate is usually followed by long delays in practical application. Logistical, territorial and legal hurdles often stand in the way.

Bots seem to be overcoming those barriers with ease.

How do bots work in real estate?

Bots in real estate create artificially enhanced relationship management. From conversation to conversion, nurture and management, software systems are being built to interact with end users as if there was a relationship with a human on the other end.

Sometimes these systems tell the consumer interacting with them that they’re a bot. Sometimes they don’t.

In some cases, they’re a little bit of HAL 9000, assisted by a little bit of Dave the human.

The gray area creates an interesting question: how much “faking it” is ethical — and how much does the end user care?

No doubt you’ve seen “the scene” from When Harry Met Sally. (Millennials, go YouTube it — maybe not at work.)

The conversation centers on whether participants in a transaction can really tell whether or not their counterpart received the desired experience.

Actor A may feel like he has achieved a win-win outcome, while Actor B may just be humoring his obliviousness. Not unlike a parent letting a child beat them in a game to deliver pleasure through illusion, “faking it” is sometimes the most pragmatic decision.

When Riley met Jenny

When the transaction is business-to-consumer, faking it may often be preferable. If a bot can provide a human-like experience with a fulfilling outcome for the consumer, isn’t everyone better off?

Meet Riley. He is a combination of bot and human, but he doesn’t like to talk about it.

Consumers, by and large, don’t know he’s “human-assisted AI.” An inquiry to Riley about a property may begin with some standardized questions and replies. Quickly, though, it transitions into an actual human experience.

Riley’s job is to answer questions and keep the consumer in conversation with value and time that the agent or business-person may not have at the moment.

I conversed with Riley a few times, looking for the moment where the contextual intelligence of a real person took over.

It’s a smooth transition. Most consumers probably aren’t skeptics, looking for the seams in the process.

Even if they knew, though — would they care? Probably not, if the outcome they desired had been delivered.

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Jenny has a different point of view. She’s built on IBM’s Watson technology, 100 percent bot, and proud of it.

Not afraid to answer 20 texts or Facebook messages at 3 a.m., she wears her digital brain on her sleeve and tells consumers who she is upfront.

It’s a good bet that consumers will be more willing to barrage a bot than a human with extensive and repetitive inquiries.

Jenny’s job is to quickly dispense of the most mundane listing maintenance duties: answering sign calls about property details, showings, flyers, open houses and so on.

Her primary goal is to make the listing management system efficient. Call her Lucy, Clippy or TI-85 — it doesn’t make a difference. Consumers know she’s a bot.

Will Jenny’s upfront AI admission limit other opportunities?

She could transition to lead conversion mode mid-conversation. Already knowing that they’re talking to a bot, though, consumers would probably be less likely to answer a long string of questions about themselves.

Then there’s that nagging truth about real estate: Human loyalty generates long-term clients and referrals. Consumers who feel that their agent has personally provided his or her time to them will often feel obligated to work with, and refer other clients to, that agent.

The giving of human time — real or perceived — generates loyalty. Can a self-identified bot deliver the same feeling?

Team in a box

A team of bots seems like the ideal setup for efficiency.

Riley is mum about his AI to improve the consumer’s experience in the initial conversation. He is the lead conversion bot.

Jenny is the card-carrying bot office manager, delivering answers efficiently with a machine learning badge.

Sally is the incognito sphere nurturer who leans heavily on the real agent for support.

The level to which they support one another or reveal themselves as inhuman will depend on the ethics, perception and aggressiveness of their employers.

Of course, technically, these bots don’t have to be disconnected entities. They’ll likely be built as a single software program with different personalities for different duties.

Call it a team in a box. Defining the personalities is the key to optimizing the user’s perception.

The technology is already capable, but the personal nuances will determine consumers’ acceptance of the experience.

“You don’t think that I can tell the difference? Get outta here.”

Harry didn’t know until he was told. Will consumers know — or care?

A quick note:

CRMLS has begun passing on listing licensing fees from third-party portals to its member brokers. Bravo! The dollar amount is minuscule today, but the decision is still significant.

CRMLS can’t disclose which portals are paying for direct feeds, and how much they’re each paying, due to contractual obligations. This isn’t a surprise. I’ve been asking around the industry for years and getting jazz hands as a response.

The spotlight is beginning to shine through the smoke and mirrors of listing syndication finance. How much will portals pay for a listing? How much is that listing worth in ad revenue? How many MLSs are being paid by portals, and how many are willing to pass that revenue on to the brokers?

Why not create a model where the portal pays a referral fee to the broker/MLS based on a percentage of advertising revenue generated? Brokers know they’re not leveraging their listings’ advertising value. Creative options for greater revenue capture will continue to grow as broker margins shrink.

More exposure of these kinds of financial agreements is good for real estate. Pricing is arbitrary when sellers don’t know the market value of their product. Let’s continue to air out the details.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHomes.com and BellevueHomes.com.