Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
Automated technologies powered by artificial intelligence—tools like chatbots and voice-enabled devices—offer speed and efficiency, but they also require careful planning, testing, and integration. Here’s how a few associations are putting them to good use to improve member service.
At any conference, many attendees likely have similar questions: Where’s the nearest restroom? What time is lunch? Who’s speaking next?
Usually, there’s an association staff person or member volunteer at the ready to answer. But last year, at the Citrus Valley Association of Realtors’ Real Estate Revive Conference, participants turned to Amazon’s Echo device instead. The virtual assistant—which many now know on a first-name basis as Alexa—was there to help.
“We were looking to get our attendees excited about the future of voice technologies,” says Doug Devitre, a developer hired to program a set of Alexa “skills” for the conference. “I thought, why not fully integrate Alexa into the conference experience? She introduced speakers, made announcements, and answered some common questions, like ‘Where’s happy hour?’”
Alexa also lent a hand at the American Society of Hematology’s annual conference last year. ASH created several self-help kiosks in the convention hall, each with a video prompt explaining how to ask questions. The kiosks supplemented staff-run information booths.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Devitre says, “and I think we’ll see Alexa skills evolve quickly as time goes on.” For instance, last May, Amazon released a new pay integration technology that allows Alexa to purchase tickets, goods, and services on your behalf.
While voice-enabled technologies may wow meeting attendees, there’s another type of virtual assistant that may hold greater promise: the chatbot, which mimics text-based conversation with human-like precision.
“For voice, what we are seeing is that there are some simple commands: Turn on the lights. Play music. Turn off the heat,” says Arun Qamra, head of product at Radiance Labs, a tech firm that develops chatbots. “But as a channel for organizations and companies to communicate with end users, we’re seeing much more usage of chatbots.”
By definition, a bot is an automated program that helps expedite a request or function for the benefit of the user. And whether you realize it or not, bots are all around us. Already, bots are assisting with mundane tasks like completing a sentence in an email or automatically scheduling a meeting to online calendars.
The global research firm Gartner estimates that, by next year, 25 percent of all customer service interactions will involve some form of a virtual customer assistant. You experience this style of service whenever you phone a call center and give voice commands to reach a customer service agent.
This mode of service is also available via online chat. Qamra predicts that associations will soon need not only a website or an app, but also a live chat feature that provides instant answers to members.
“What we’re seeing now is that people are starting to think of chat messaging, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and SMS, as direct interfaces between users and the brand,” he says. “For organizations, messaging becomes the channel [for the request], and the chatbot initiates the [response].”
Generally, chatbots interpret a question and attempt to match it, using machine learning and natural language processing, to a database where the requested information is stored. If that process doesn’t work, the chatbot hands off the request to a customer service agent.
“I don’t think that a chatbot alone will solve most users’ issues,” Qamra says. “Users’ issues can be complicated, and a bot doesn’t always get it. But on the other hand, if you have human beings responding to every single small request, some of which could have been automated, then you’re just wasting resources.”
Analyzing customer and member requests is a good starting point for determining whether chatbot technology might be able to expedite responses to simple and common questions. Beyond that, Qamra says, associations can use chatbots as a tool to push out news and information or to conduct simple transactions online.
To be successful with chatbots, you must first identify the right channel and test functionalities that best serve members, says Chrissy Jones, lead manager of communications and member engagement at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.
“Since we launched our first chatbot in January of 2018, we’ve learned quite a few things about the breadth of possibility this technology offers associations,” she says. “There’s an almost unlimited amount of ways chatbots can be used—from Q&As to transactions to lead gen.”
Step one is to know where your members engage online. In a recent survey, Jones learned that 94 percent of association members maintain an active presence on Facebook Messenger.
So, last year, the association beta-tested a Facebook Messenger chatbot to respond to frequently asked questions. Jones and her team worked with a bot developer, Google’s Dialogflow, to design a chatbot that could handle some of the approximately 1,500 Facebook messages the organization receives every month.
“We launched our chatbot as a minimum viable product that essentially duplicated our website FAQs in a Q&A format,” Jones explains. “After about six months of testing, we found that our members in the U.S. were not using this function as often as our members outside of the [country]. So, we decided to pivot. We adjusted one of our chatbots to broadcast weekly updates about our initiatives to subscribers.”
Meanwhile, the FAQ-bot is still in operation, but it’s now focused on a much smaller member segment, mainly global users who are students. And with the addition of push notifications, using a Facebook Messenger feature called “chat blasts,” Jones says that content engagement has increased dramatically: Content resources sent via chat blast average a 60 percent open rate, more than twice the organization’s typical email open rate.
Customer service via messaging has also been a boon for the CFA Institute, a global association of investment professionals with a large membership contingent in China. It maintains a presence on WeChat and Weibo, two of the biggest social media and messaging platforms there.
Many of these channels have the ability to add AI-powered chatbots, and that’s likely to be the next step for the organization, says James Albertini, head of global customer service. Already it’s using live Facebook chats operated by staffed agents.
To diversify member service options, Albertini and his team reconfigured communications channels and consolidated customer data into a single, unified database. “We like to call that our ‘single-agent cockpit,’” he says. “Essentially, what that means is, we have a place where all information about a customer is available.”
With the customer database and integrations in place, the CFA Institute could begin to implement chatbots to answer common questions.
“We want to increase self-service for transactional types of inquiries using chatbots,” Albertini says. “But before we go down that path of automation, we want to make sure we understand where it makes the most sense, avoiding any unintended consequences that may lead to customer frustration.”
Which goes to a caveat from Jones: As associations consider deploying virtual assistants to automate functions like content delivery, e-commerce, and member notifications, don’t expect bots to replace staff.
“Chatbots do not replace humans. They make humans’ jobs easier,” Jones says. “My advice would be to start small, see what works for your members, and be agile. Focus on doing one or two things really well.”