Noun: a technology program designed to participate in conversations with human users.

Chatbots have been around for long enough now that you’ve probably interacted with one. In fact, you’ve probably even been frustrated by one! I remember when my favorite airline first implemented a voice-activated bot on its customer service line. It was annoying! At the time, I wished I could’ve just used the numeric menu rather than shouting “New reservation” or “Speak to a representative!” for all around me to hear.

By now, though, we’ve gotten used to talking and typing to bots. They’ve also gotten smarter. We’ve been hearing a lot about these chatbot things in tech news for a while now. Think about Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. If on a Friday afternoon you ask one of them “What are the best bars near me?” then you’ll get an answer! That can be very useful, not to mention a little bit fun.

But for those of us in the commercial real estate (CRE) industry, chatbots may still seem irrelevant. A lot of us are still a little murky on exactly what they are, let alone how we might use them. We may understand the dictionary definition—a chatbot is a piece of technology that talks like humans do —but that’s not terribly useful until we understand what chatbots can actually do for us.

The reality is that, while chatbots may not (yet) live up to the hype suggested by science fiction movies, they can still do a couple of very important things for us.

1. Chatbots offer the opportunity to “change the channel”

One of the recent improvements in chatbot technology is that they can now operate outside of the proprietary web and mobile software applications. In other words, they can be free agents, living on popular messaging platforms, including basic text/SMS. This is a huge opportunity for an industry that has now accepted its obligation to treat every single occupant within its buildings as a customer.

To serve customers effectively, it is crucial to establish a communication link with them. Some building owners have turned to “tenant engagement” mobile apps in the attempt to do this. But there is a lot of evidence that mobile phone users don’t want more apps. Instead, they’re spending more time using a small number of apps on their smartphones—including messaging. Furthermore, according to our Tenant Experience Gap report, building occupants are expecting to keep up with what’s going on at their buildings the same way they keep up with friends and family, and that means text messaging.

By shifting to messaging platforms, chatbots can help CRE professionals meet their customers where they are. In effect, chatbots change the channel. This means building teams can make it easier for authorized tenant users to request the property management services they need, while at the same time creating a communication link with all the other building occupants. From the occupants’ perspective, they can get most of what they need without logging into a web portal or downloading a single-purpose app; instead, they can stay in the same channels they already use the most frequently and comfortably. That’s a pretty big win for both parties.

2. Chatbots offer a fundamental change in the way we interact with software

Take a second to think about how we’ve used business software up until now. We’ve had implementations, training sessions, change management consultants, training sessions, user manuals, calls to tech support, and more training sessions. In our personal lives, we don’t really do this anymore. But in the business world—especially in an industry like CRE—we still think this is normal.

Chatbots can change this. They use natural language processing (NLP) to interpret what users are trying to accomplish. They also use machine learning (ML) to improve their interpretations over time. This essentially means that instead of training users on how to use technology, technology is now being trained on how to make better sense of users

There are big implications here! Imagine a world without user manuals and training sessions! For that matter, imagine a world where no one needs to navigate to a web page or fill out a form on a mobile app to get something accomplished. Instead, people use technology as fast as they can say or type what they are thinking!

We aren’t there yet, of course. Even so, chatbots can already handle a big percentage of what most building occupants need day in and day out. And they’re only going to get better, delivering a broader and broader range of more and more personalized service and information. In short, even though they are machines, chatbots add a more human element to using technology.

Chatbots at The Office

So, what does this look like in the CRE industry specifically?

Put yourself in a tenant suite where the kitchen lights are out. Typically, an authorized tenant user would either log onto a desktop or mobile app to create a service request—and that’s the best-case scenario, better than this person placing a call to the property management office! But with a chatbot, the user could simply type, “I need help, the lights are out in the kitchen.”

Based on this single sentence, the chatbot interprets the user’s intent (creating a work order), the type of problem (a lighting or electrical issue), the location (the kitchen in the tenant’s suite) and the urgency (lighting problems are high-priority, but not emergencies). Furthermore, having taken care of all the data entry, the chatbot can keep the user in the loop regarding the progress of the work.

The bottom line: Chatbots have the potential to offer an entirely new level of simplicity and ease of use to CRE’s customers.

Separately, changing the channel and redefining the interaction are both great steps forward for customer-facing technology; together, they can make service magic. We are just at the beginning of a journey with chatbots. There will be a learning curve. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to need proprietary interfaces to handle the most complex workflows. And we will always need humans to execute on the services that will make CRE assets stand out in the market. But in the meantime, there’s already a lot that chatbots can do for our industry.