If you’ve ever interacted with a website-based assistant, or even Alexa or Siri, you’ve already dealt with this kind of technology.
In its most common form, a chatbot is a popup figure (or text) that offers to help you navigate a website, and asks you to type in your question. Each time you do so, the chatbot escorts you down a path, based on the response it received.
Question: “What time does the club open?” Answer: “The club is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, but is closed on weekends.”
Question: “Are you offering aqua-aerobics classes today?” Answer: “Yes. There are classes that begin at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Do you want to register for one of them?”
Chatbots, also called conversational agents, interact with real people either through web-based applications or standalone apps via a chat interface. Employing algorithms, they process text and voice input to determine an appropriate response, facilitating a virtual conversation.
First developed in the 1990s, chatbots originally were called “chatterboxes.” Since then, advances in AI and Natural Programming Language have made them more conversational, intuitive, and ubiquitous than ever.
Once regarded as a substitute for online forms, their ability to engage in conversations, gather data, and use that data to help users make informed decisions have made them a perfect middle-ground solution—an efficient remedy halfway between static forms and live support.
Today, they’re a common service offered by application, software, and web developers. A list of IHRSA-member providers can be found at Club Business Exchange.
“It’s actually easy to create, run, and update chatbots,” says Fred Hoffman, a Paris-based industry consultant and CBI contributing editor.
Reaching the Chatbot Potential but Keep Limitations in Mind
“At this point, some of our customers are in the early stages of evaluating the use of chatbots,” says Adam Stokar, the founder of Club OS, a Philadelphia-based management-software firm that works with health clubs and fitness boutiques. “But a few of the more progressive groups are demoing chatbots for their websites to capture interested leads.”
It’s not hard to envision a time when an Alexa-like interface expedites check-in, class bookings on an app, or the handling of other member needs. But for the time being, chatbots are most effective in dealing with a range of marketing and communication needs. Here, we’ll focus on their text-based—rather than voice-activated—forms.
Whether on a website or as an imbedded part of an app, they’re likely to become one of the first points of contact for individuals seeking information about a club’s offerings, as well as a means to automate other interactions.