The Fight Against COVID-19 Is the Moment Robots Have Been Waiting For

Whether they’re falling into fountains, knocking down toddlers, or losing a fight against an unruly drunk, when robots in office spaces make headlines, it’s often because of a comical mishap. But, our troubled robotic operating buddies may have finally found their moment. In the time of COVID, when limiting human interaction in offices and public spaces is paramount, landlords and property managers are taking another look at what robots can do. A tidal wave of robots aimed at coronavirus prevention is sweeping through the PropTech industry. 

“The coronavirus has created a need for robots because they can reduce direct contact between people,” Mira Robotics CEO Ken Matsui told Reuters. The Tokyo-based startup has found a new purpose for its “Ugo” robot: ultraviolet (UV) disinfection. The robot uses UV hand attachments mounted on adjustable arms to roll around via remote control, using the UV light to kill viruses on door handles, toilets, and other surfaces. 

Russia-based Promobot has developed its own robot, designed to screen people and take their temperatures before they enter a building. Promobot’s latest version, dubbed Thermocontrol, also questions people about symptoms, gives advice about avoiding the virus, and hands out facemasks. Silicon Valley-based Knightscope has been pushing free updates to its robots in the field, which now promote COVID prevention by broadcasting public safety and social distancing reminders to those within ear shot. The list of new or improved robots aimed at fighting the virus goes on and on. 

What sets the robots apart is their efficacy. UV robots in particular have been proven to be faster and more effective than their human counterparts. Many have been clinically tested, achieving a 99.99% level of disinfection in half the time it takes a human worker. Most importantly, the robots never stop and are immune to the virus, so they won’t catch it or spread it. 

After decades of missing the mark, social robots have found something they can do better than their human counterparts. That’s why facility managers are finally taking notice. Chinese hospitals have recently ordered more than 2,000 UV robots, and the units now operate in more than 40 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Sales of Neo, a floor-cleaning robot made by Canadian startup Avidbots, were already doubling on an annual basis before the coronavirus hit—but now sales have doubled again, the company’s CEO Faizan Sheikh told Fortune. San Antonio-based Xenex, maker of a disinfecting robot known as LightStrike that uses technology developed by John Hopkins University, has been running its manufacturing facility 24/7 to keep up with skyrocketing demand, up 600 percent. 

Robotic companies are in an all-out race to seize the moment, and investor money is pouring into the industry. There has never been an appetite for automation quite like the current moment. Cleaning robots are already being rolled out in some of the nation’s most prolific stores, like Kroger and Walmart, which just placed another order for 1,500 more Brain cleaning robots. All that activity means a robot could be coming to your office building soon. 

“What we’re seeing in the market in general now is a lot of pull from places like hotels, from airports, airlines, schools, government office buildings, private office buildings, doctors’ offices,” Xenex CEO Morris Miller told Spectrum News. While payment plans vary, from rentals to outright ownership, each robot has an immense cost. Xenex’s LightStrike robots cost around $100,000. On the lower end, Mira Robotics’ Ugo bot can be rented for $1,000 a month. 

Knightscope’s patrol and surveillance bots charge by the hour, coming in at around $122,000 a year. While those costs may have been prohibitive in the past, facility managers and landlords are starting to see the cost-benefit analysis differently. To be competitive, historically commercial robots are priced largely on who they replace, Medhat Moussa, Robotic Engineering Professor at Canada’s University of Guelph, explained. Now people responsible for public spaces like office buildings are starting to see robots as an insurance policy, rather than a labor cost.

“What’s the cost of a COVID outbreak? It’s astronomical,” Moussa said. “That’s the insurance policy cost robotics can help with. If you understand these robots can prevent disease and offer early detection, you see lots of funding. If one of these ‘bots prevents an outbreak or catches it early, it can be mitigated. If offices can’t control the virus, the losses are massive.” 

Getting workers back into the office was always going to be a struggle. Amid a growing second-wave of the coronavirus, that task has only become more difficult. Half of American professionals are reluctant to go back to the office, according to a survey by Korn Ferry conducted in early June. When asked what precautions they want to see employers take as offices reopen, temperature checks, regular and documented deep cleanings and enforced social distancing were among the top responses in a Citrix survey of more than two thousand American office workers. 

“Crises shift perceptions on what is possible regarding investment and transformative action on the part of both private and government actors. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, robots will be mainstreamed across a range of applications and markets,” Rian Whitton, senior analyst at ABI Research, said in a release. “Automating disinfection is a key part of maintaining health and safety and could be one of the major bright spots in the response to COVID-19.”

Robots can help offices reopen safely. Disinfection, deep cleaning, surveillance, temperature checks, and social distancing enforcement can all be automated in office buildings to keep employees safer. In the world of industrial real estate, robots are ubiquitous. From assembly lines to warehouses, they’ve become essential. As the world comes together to fight against the coronavirus, they may become just as essential in our office buildings. Social robots are finally evolving from accident-prone machines into the helpers we dreamed they could be. 

How Much Time/Money is a Bot Really Saving?

During the course of a typical conversation around bot technology, a question that often comes up is, “How much time and money is a bot really saving me?”  It’s a difficult question to answer because there’s really not one answer. 

There are three answers.  Let’s start with answer #1:

The Work

Let’s look at what a typical bot does in a given month for an average property when deployed on a property website and additional channels in the digital marketplace. Additional channels could include  Facebook Messenger/Marketplace, Google Ads/MyBusiness, Yelp, Instagram, YouTube, etc.

The average Multifamily bot  greets around 3,000 prospective renters, has about 400 conversations, answers around 450 questions, hands off around 13 high-interest/high-intent conversations to the leasing staff, and schedules an average of 12 appointments a month. In the chart below we calculate the savings based on the estimated amount of time a human leasing agent paid an average hourly rate plus benefits would take to accomplish specific tasks.

What can we glean from this?

  1. Well, the bot handles the same volume of tasks at nearly 1/6th of the time for less than 1/10th of the cost.
  2. The bot saved the leasing staff almost 80 hours of work and more than $1,300 if in fact the leasing staff were to actually do all of these tasks.
  3. If the property were to pay the bot the same hourly rate as a human ($18/hour), the bot is being grossly underpaid ($99/month), even when recognizing the bot is working 6x faster. The bot should actually be paid $273 for the 15 hours it put in.

The Bump

When property marketers deploy a bot solution to their property website and in the digital marketplace they see an immediate lead, conversation and appointment bump of 20%+.  Why? Today’s consumer, especially the renter demographic, is less and less inclined to make phone calls and really doesn’t like filling out webforms.  Often they’ll just pass through your social outreach, ads and website without engaging. But they’ll engage with conversational technology, especially a bot that’s quick and provides what they’re looking for in less than a minute. This is tantamount to putting a fuel additive in your marketing gas tank to drive more efficiencies in your consumer outreach.

The easiest way to quantify the value of “The Bump” is simply figure out how much it would cost to drive 20% more leads, conversations and appointments to your respective properties. Then apply that to answer #1.

And all the Other Stuff…

What’s not being factored into the above calculations is: A bot works 24/7/365, doesn’t get snowed in, take sick days or require benefits. Can handle 3, 5, 20…an unlimited number of conversations covering a dozen topics all at the same time. Can be deployed on virtually every digital channel to instantly meet and greet prospective renters anywhere, any time. Look up and coordinate complex calendaring and appointment scheduling in seconds, see and convey unit availability and pricing in under a second, show virtual tours and videos at the click of a button, and so much more.

In close, let’s be very clear about one thing: Bots will never replace humans. They simply create efficiencies of marketing scale while reducing repetitious tasks that humans either don’t do, don’t like to do, or don’t do very well.  Humans will always be needed to handle interactions that require thought, empathy and complexity. So let’s let humans be humans and bots do the rest.

Phones in Hand, Leasing Teams Take On Marketing

Live virtual tours help apartment operators sign prospects in peak moving season, according to industry experts.

The onset of COVID-19 in mid-March could not have come at a more inopportune time for apartment operators. The sector’s spring and summer peak leasing season was set to begin, but stay-at-home orders largely restricted apartment communities from providing tours to prospective tenants.

The initial fallout jolted the multifamily industry. By the end of March, year-over-year leasing volume had plunged 46 percent, and only in mid-May did it start to rebound, according to RealPage.

Tested by the crisis, apartment owners and managers pivoted to technology-driven virtual tours. Many communities already provided videos of units and amenities on websites well before the pandemic interrupted business. But the shutdown forced them to strengthen their technology by providing much more detailed videos and live one-on-one tours via FaceTime, Zoom and various social media platforms.

“Before COVID, we thought our virtual marketing efforts were enhancements, but they quickly became ‘must-haves’,” said Marc Turner, managing director of investment management for Origin Investments, a Chicago-based owner of some 3,600 units primarily in southern growth markets. “When you can’t tour an apartment, it becomes much harder to gauge what it would feel like to live there, so we personalized tours to create a better experience.”

Origin’s communities possessed a lot of video content that it could immediately deploy as part of the effort, he said. But the owner and its managers also realized that the videos needed to provide more visual information, including views into cabinets, refrigerators, closets and storage, displays of functioning faucets and ovens, and architectural highlights.

GOING VIRTUAL

Cabana on Washington. Image courtesy of Alliance Greystar

Because professional videographers were unavailable, leasing staff had to practice taking video with their phones. Ultimately, that proficiency transferred to live virtual tours.

The approach paid off. Despite the forced closure of leasing offices, virtual tours helped Origin net one additional lease per week in April and May compared with the same period in 2019, Turner stated.

“We found that the video content helped people say, ‘OK, this is a community I’m interested in, and I want to learn more,’” he explained. “From there we could do a personalized tour on FaceTime or other platform and answer questions that maybe didn’t get covered in the video.”

Other apartment operators have had similar results. In Phoenix, more than 50 percent of prospects interested in two new Greenlight Communities are inking leases, which is about 10 to 15 percentage points higher than the original lease-up goal, noted Erica Herald, regional manager of new sites for property management firm Alliance Greystar, formerly Alliance Residential.

In January and February, Alliance had been providing virtual tours of the two properties—Cabana on 12th and Cabana on Washington—to drum up pre-leasing activity for spring and summer move-ins. The tours included standard online videos of its models as well as live “hard hat” showings online. Yet early in the rollout, the latter strategy was still considered a bit awkward for people who were used to physically touring properties, Herald said.

“I don’t think the pandemic has done many great things for the world, but it did make apartment prospects more open to virtual experiences, and virtual tours have become an industry standard,” she pointed out. “Because we wanted to be more progressive prior to receiving a certificate of occupancy, our teams had already transitioned to conducting virtual tours, and it served us well when COVID set in.”

TECH SAVVY

RangeWater Real Estate, an Atlanta-based apartment service provider, focused on creating new content that blended professional videos with self-made clips made by on-site teams to ensure that all of its communities were digitally optimized, according to Dana Pate, senior director of marketing for the firm.

“COVID-19 escalated any beta-testing into full blown, portfolio-wide rollouts,” she said. “Our experience and training team established a standard for RangeWater virtual tours, utilizing all technology available—from Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to FaceTime and Facebook video messenger. If prospects were using it in their day-to-day lives, then we needed to be available and proficient in those same systems.”

Thanks to those and other marketing efforts, the firm has not seen a significant drop in conversion rates from lead to lease since the crisis began, she said.

To a large extent, on-site guided and self-guided tours have returned to properties, but appointments are generally required and are spaced to avoid overcrowding and to allow for cleaning, observers say. Virtual tours still remain an option, especially as some people remain cautious about where they travel.

Prior to the pandemic, property manager Village Green primarily provided virtual tours for out-of-state prospects that wanted a detailed look at units, said Ryan Kirby, senior vice president of the Midwest region for the Southfield, Mich.-based firm, which oversees 40,000 units in 20 states. But virtual tours became much more effective in April and May.

“We’ve pretty much opened everywhere for physical tours at this point, but because our virtual tours were so successful, we’ve just incorporated them as an option as part of our sales presentation,” he added. “We got a lot better at them through the pandemic, and I think they’re here to stay.”

A BetterBot Needs Better Advisors

Company announces official multifamily advisory team

Atlanta, GA, July 9, 2020 – BetterBot, the leader in Conversational Leasing™ technology in the Multifamily Industry has officially announced its newly formed advisory board.

“I’ve been in the Multifamily Industry for more than 20 years and have been fortunate to meet some of the keenest thinkers and up-and-comers our Industry has to offer,” said Robert Turnbull, president and co-founder of BetterBot. “We’ve asked some of those folks to provide their Industry experience and insight to – what was a little start up – now the fastest growing and most adopted Conversational Leasing™ solution in Multifamily.”

Though BetterBot has a long list of Multifamily executives that provide guidance and feedback on a daily and weekly basis, these individuals have agreed to officially help shape the BetterBot roadmap into 2021 and beyond (in alphabetical order):

Kim Boland

– Director of Digital Marketing for Morgan properties.

Kitty Callaghan

– Vice President of Marketing for Wasatch Property Management

Jonathan Ford

– Vice President of Marketing for Gates Hudson

Seth Kaplan

– Southeast Regional Marketing Director for Pinnacle Property Management Services

Ryan Perez

– Vice President, Marketing for CF Real Estate Services

Daryl Smith

– SVP & Chief Marketing Officer for Kettler

Candace Weaver

– Director of Marketing for Bell Partners, Inc.

Why Live Chat Doesn’t Work in Multifamily

For three years I worked for the largest live chat company in the world, Liveperson. They service more than 60% of all business-to-consumer live chats on their platform across the planet. They’re good at it, they know what they’re doing, and it works very well in most industries.

But it didn’t work in Multifamily.

It wasn’t the software. Liveperson literally started live chat 25 years ago and continues to be the leader in the live chat space.  It wasn’t the deployment.  It was easy to get the software hooked up and even easier to train folks to use it.  It wasn’t the people. Many management companies bought into the concept and we had great chat agents manning the chats for properties.

So why didn’t it work?  Simply put, live chat is the square peg in a round hole that is Multifamily. Allow me to explain:

Clicks. No matter how we presented the live chat button, only about about 2% of people on a property website actually clicked on the live chat option.  We never could entirely figure out why, but we just began to accept that prospective renters were not interested in live chatting.

Defections. Of those folks that did click on the live chat button, a full 50% stopped using it after only 2 exchanges or less. We eventually stopped asking for any kind of personally identifying information at the start such as the prospective renter’s name, email or phone, but that only reduced the defection to 40%.

Time Gap. After waiting an average of 1 minute, 45 seconds to connect to an agent, the average time in between a prospect asking a question and a chat agent responding was 76 seconds.  That may not sound like a lot of time, but when you ask a question and stare at a screen for a minute and 16 seconds, that feels like an eternity.  

Available People. Let’s face it, leasing agents at properties have a hundred things they’re working on at any given time. They don’t have the time nor the proper infrastructure to stop whatever they are doing to start and maintain a chat conversation which lasts an average of 8 minutes. And having a call/chat center respond to these chats is not only very expensive, they simply aren’t as knowledgeable about the property in question.

So what does work? Bots work! They solve most of the problems listed above as long as they are the right kind of bot (more on the “right” kind in a different article).  Just look at this data provided by BetterBot below:

Clicks – Avatars get an average 14% click rate on a property website which is 7x that of chat. And, some bots can be deployed on more than just a website such as Google My Business, Facebook, Yelp, Instagram, etc., significantly increasing clicks and conversations.

Defections – If a bot doesn’t ask for personal information up front, it will likely only get 10% of prospects x out before using. Most of those are people who are just wondering what this avatar is.

Time Gap – Unlike live chat’s average in-between time of 76 seconds, a typical bot’s response time is 1 second. And instead of 8 minutes for live chat, bots usually get through a conversation in 90 seconds. Helps explain why such little defection.

Available People – Don’t need them! A good bot can answer 80% of the questions a consumer has and schedule appointments, etc.  Blending or “hot transferring” bots to humans is a terrible idea as well. Here’s a great article that explains why.Bottom line, good bots work infinitely better than live chat in the Multifamily space. To see the difference, put live chat on 3 properties and a bot on 3 similar properties and after 60 days, you’ll see a dramatic difference in usage, questions answered, and appointments scheduled.  And best of all, bots are not only much less expensive, they work 24/7/365.