Adobe Stock

With the crazy activity and demand that the pool/spa industry has been experiencing, companies need as much help as possible managing the workload.

To help, firms are turning to technologies that can boost website functionality so visitors feel more engaged and staff unload some of the work. “Differentiating tire kickers from real qualified leads was our focus this spring and summer,” says Pam Vinje, president and CEO of Small Screen Producer, a web marketing company focused on the pool/spa industry.

Enter chatbots.

Once found only on the websites of monoliths such as Amazon, these platforms utilize an automated system to hold an initial conversation with customers or prospects. They pop up on the screen and ask the user if they need help, then go through a series of questions to lead the consumer in the right direction.

As they’ve become accessible to smaller companies, some pool/spa firms are taking advantage of them. Used astutely, they can save you time and make it easier for website visitors to engage with your company. Applied inappropriately, however, they can prove frustrating for potential customers.

Here, experts discuss this technology and provide advice on implementing it to maximum benefit.

What they do — and what they don’t

To best utilize this technology, users should understand their purpose and limitations.

Chatbots are not meant to completely replace human interactions. At this point in their development, they will not answer complex questions or close sales. Instead, they perform like something of a traffic cop or gatekeeper. They can relieve staff of some basic phone-answering duties, providing basic information such as store hours, or gathering cursory information from the client then directing them to the best professional to address their needs. Not only can they sift out tire kickers, but they can gather information on serious prospects, making for a quicker, easier sales call when that does happen.

Chatbots also can enliven a website and make it more useful. “Forever, websites have been built like brochures: You click on a website, and you’re looking at hot tub models, but there’s no way to convert a sale,” Vinje says. “We are trying to create the website as a 24/7 sales machine.”

This helps keep customers on the site longer. One marketing specialist that has worked with pool/spa firms, Local IQ, found that 2- to 5% of site visitors engage with the chatbot, compared with the traditional 1- to 2% of browsers who convert from passive browsers to active prospects. “Chat really helps capture leads and visitors that otherwise would have bounced from your site,” says Olga Barrocas, senior product manager for Local IQ, the marketing solutions division of Gannett, which serves more than 300,000 small businesses in the U.S.

Chatbots come in different forms. Do-it-yourself chatbot platforms are available for companies to install on their own and operate for a monthly fee. They’re generally easy to install for those accustomed to website upkeep, Vinje says. They often just require the application of a code on the back end.

These often rely on human backup to type in the answers, Barrocas says, requiring more time and expertise to manage.

Among small business, such as those in the pool/spa industry, decision-tree chatbots are most commonly found. These ask web visitors a series of questions and provide choices to help narrow down and pinpoint their needs.

For those who want a more customized chatbot decision tree without as much work setting up and fine-tuning, marketing professionals such as the experts quoted here can help. They can customize the workflows — the chains or funnels of questions and responses that lead to the resolution — to provide the right information and a good experience for the consumer.

“The difficult part is organizing the information into a flow that makes sense so that people don’t jump off,” Vinje says.

More sophisticated systems use natural language processing, which allow customers to type in a question and respond with an answer. But those haven’t become common among small businesses yet, Barrocas says.

Expectation management

In their effort to save time, more people prefer to delay making human contact with a company and prefer to work with automated services, says Scott Reynolds, CEO of The Get Smart Group, a digital marketing agency that specializes in the pool/spa industry, based in Angels Camp, Calif.

While chatbots appeal to that tendency, they also can become very frustrating if expectations are not managed, he adds. A visit can turn sour very quickly if the user expects a human response, only to realize they’re communicating with a bot that can’t answer their specific question. “

Experts suggest immediately disclosing that the user is communicating with a bot. Handle this in the greeting. “Right out of the gate, say something like, ‘I’m the ABC Pools chatbot, and I’m here to answer your common questions,’” Reynolds says.

You can even include a photo or drawing of a robot, rather than a human, to help convey this, Barrocas adds.

At some point, most customers will need to be handed off to a human — often at their request. When this happens, use the opportunity to collect their information. More importantly, when promising to send their information to the staff, make clear when they can expect to hear back. Otherwise, the user will expect a fairly immediate call, Reynolds advises. If they don’t hear back quickly, they can become angry.

“If the [user] wants to talk to a person, we ask for their name, phone number and email address and say, ‘We will forward this to someone who will get back to you within 24 hours,’” Reynolds says as an example. “That seems to break that cycle of anger.”

This also is a good time to let potential customers know if it will take a while to receive their products. Whether it’s construction backlogs or supply-chain issues, let them know if they’ll need to wait several weeks or months for their products.

Smooth exchange

To make the exchange as pleasant as possible for the user, it is also necessary to establish easy-to-understand and effective workflows. So spend time and thought on your scripts, whether working with a professional or handling it on your own.

The wording from your chatbots should be very leading — try to avoid the opportunity for freeform answers. Most of the time, you’ll want to take a multiple-choice approach as you zero in on what they need.

For instance, many companies begin by asking what product or service category a customer is interested in — pools, hot tubs, service, etc. Then they use the next question to narrow it down further. If they choose “pools,” you can ask if they’re inquiring about inground or aboveground pools. Those who choose inground can be asked if they want concrete, vinyl-liner or fiberglass. After making that choice, they can be given options such as “view galleries,” “download resources,” or “speak with service rep.”

“You really have to guide them down the path and give them two or three options at every stage,” Reynolds says. “If you give more than that, it gets overwhelming for them.”

If they choose “service,” you can ask if they want regular maintenance, openings, closings, repairs. If that’s what they want, the chatbot can provide a form. Give extra thought to whether you want to handle appointments through the bot, Reynolds says. Some companies find that a human should speak with the customer first, to get the specifics about their pool and/or spa and any issues they are having.

Most often, they’ll be asking a simple question that is answered in the website’s FAQ page. Other times, they want to schedule an appointment. Either way, try to pinpoint what they need by the fourth or fifth question, these experts recommend.

If a form is the answer, make sure to keep these simple, too, Barrocas advises. It’s tempting to ask tons of in-depth questions to help jump-start your in-person interactions, but the user’s attention span may not last that long. Remember, people choose the chatbot because they want to save time.

“The quicker they can submit their inquiry the better,” Barrocas says. “Those additional questions can be gathered and answered by the live receptionist or live staff.” It can seem less arduous to go over this information in conversation, she added.

Place your best sales writer in charge of writing the scripts, and bring appropriate staffer together to gather input when writing bot responses.

Keep the exchange conversational, Reynolds says. Language that’s stilted and formal — or robotic — can be a bit too on the nose. Feel free to use humor and even emojis. “You can say something like, ‘I can help you with plenty of things, and if I can’t, I’ll find one of my human overlords to help you out,’” he says. “Lots of tongue-in-cheek humor goes a long way.”

Platform of choice

When choosing a chatbot platform, look for one that will integrate with your customer relationship management (CRM) system, Reynolds suggests, so you can maximize its usefulness.

This way, the bot can send gathered information to the CRM as it triggers a notification for the next action, whether it be setting an appointment or emailing brochures and or other materials that will help the consumer in the meantime.

Reynolds and his team also chose a chat platform that integrates directly with Facebook Messenger. This way, the chat conversation can carry across devices through Facebook. “If you start a conversation when they’re browsing your website and they click the chat button on their phone, it opens up in Facebook Messenger,” he says.

Now they chat with you on their phone, go to bed, and when they get to their computer in the morning, the same chat is there.”

Consumers who don’t use Facebook can chat as guests, but the conversation will not transfer devices.

Facebook doesn’t charge for this service in its native format. However, it has limited functionality. Additionally, this requires that any employee who monitors or responds to chat gain access to the company’s Facebook page, leaving open the hazard that somebody could accidentally post something on the company page that was meant for their personal page.

To provide more functions and avoid any mis-postings, Reynolds works with a tool that integrates directly with Facebook and only provides employees access to the chat.