5 Reasons Why Your Student Housing Site Needs a Chatbot

Today’s students are busier than ever. Between classes, internships, jobs, and enjoying all the fun that college life has to offer, there’s little time to spend searching for housing. What’s more, property management teams have a lot on their plate as well, and often have a hard time keeping up with all the leads coming their way. Fortunately, bot technology is transforming the student housing space for today’s digital-first world, and at BetterBot, we’re helping lead the charge. Here’s 5 of our top reasons why your educational organization will benefit from a student housing chatbot. 

Student housing chatbot stats

Bots have changed the game when it comes to multifamily, and it’s no different when it comes to student housing. And, with great bot technology becoming more affordable and accessible, more universities and colleges are leveraging it. As of 2020, 37% of all educational organizations use some form of a chatbot for student housing. 

One of the many benefits of chatbots that property teams love is that it takes the pressure off lead conversion. For example, property management teams who use BetterBot are able to convert 21.3% of chatbot conversations into handoffs. 

Why your student housing site needs a chatbot

Along with giving your property teams more peace of mind (and who doesn’t want that?), here’s some of the top advantages a student housing chatbot can provide:

Simplified scheduling

Through chatbots, students looking for their next place can easily view available properties and floor plans. Instead of having to jump through hoops and fill out lead form after lead form, prospective renters can explore units with ease, and when it comes time, can schedule an appointment directly from the bot. 

Interactive student resources

Oftentimes, students looking for housing want to see more than a floor plan before they make a commitment for a semester or year. The good news is, chatbots can easily be loaded up with all sorts of interactive resources that people can use to assess whether or not a particular property is a good fit. Things like virtual tours and 3D videos can provide a much more accurate snapshot of a particular space, and can help students get the info they need without having to schedule an in-person appointment. 

Omnichannel management  

One of the great things about chatbots is that they don’t have to live exclusively on your property website. Instead, they can be integrated into your wider digital and social media presence on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Google My Business, and more. If you’re looking to connect with students where they already are, this is a great way to do it. 

Student housing chatbots lead to more conversions

Chatbots make it easy for students to get the information they need quickly and easily. Instead of having to wait around for a live customer service representative to respond to their queries, bots give prospective renters everything they need to know in order to make a decision. That’s why we see 21.3% of conversations converting into handoffs.  

Actionable, in-depth reporting

A great bot will offer your team a dashboard that collects quality KPIs and offers actionable insights at a glance. Instead of having to track and organize all your metrics on your own, chatbots do the work for you, leading to overall higher performance and efficiency. 

Learn more about our student housing chatbot solution here! 

Understanding the Various Bot Types

Different Types of Chatbots Your Property Can Use, Explained

According to IBM, over 265 billion customer service requests are put in each year, costing around a trillion dollars to resolve. And with more and more consumers choosing to do business online, that number is only expected to grow. Fortunately, as much as 80% of these requests can be taken care of without a CS rep – and that’s where chatbots come in. Today we’re going to take a quick look at the most common types of chatbots – and how they can elevate your customer engagement strategy

Why are chatbots effective? 

Before we get into the different types of chatbots, it’s important to understand why companies choose to leverage chatbots in the first place. From reducing the load on customer service centric teams, to gathering valuable data, chatbots have quickly become a tour-de-force when it comes to improving the prospect journey. 

While you can find a chatbot for just about anything these days, most of the different types of chatbots you’ll find fall into one of four categories. 

4 different types of chatbots you’re likely to encounter

Guided conversation 

The most common types of chatbots are what we call “guided conversation”, or “rules-based”. Used in a variety of contexts, these chatbots lead users through scenario trees, offering them predetermined options to choose to help them complete simple service requests and get information. Think “Choose Your Own Adventure” but for finding an apartment. At BetterBot, this is the type of chatbot we use to help property managers turn prospects into renters!

AI/Natural language processing

Unlike guided conversation bots, “AI” bots utilize natural language processing (NLP) to guide users through human-like conversations. Instead of giving users a predefined set of options to choose from, NLP bots analyze user queries for key words and phrases, and then answer accordingly. The cons with this type of bot are that it’s much more expensive to create, requires a long training period before it can be active and must be constantly updated and maintained. 

Hybrid

As the functionality of Natural Language Processing can cause issues in the prospect’s experience due to misunderstood questions or responses, some brands utilize hybrid chatbots, which provides the capabilities of NLP combined with the effectiveness of Guided Conversation. While they mainly operate in a rules-based way, they also have a limited capacity to answer other queries through NLP. 

Voice-based

A newer type of chatbot we’re beginning to see emerge are based in voice-recognition technology. In 2020, 24% of American consumers owned a smart speaker, creating the opportunity for advanced companies to create more personalized chatbot experiences. While this is still an emerging category, it’s exciting to imagine the possibilities here. 

Want to learn more about how chatbots can improve your customer service strategy? Explore the BetterBot blog for more! 

The Impact of Chatbots on the Customer Journey

Chances are, you’ve had at least one conversation with a chatbot in the past 12 months. Whether you were looking for a new place to call home, or simply doing a little holiday shopping online, many of us have found chatbots a helpful addition to the online shops and services we frequent. 

Once more, these helpful little bots have been transforming the way customers engage with the brands that use them. After the tumultuous year that’s been 2020, more brands than ever are beginning to take advantage of the benefits chatbots bring to the digital customer journey. And to think, only a few years ago were people still largely mistrustful of online chatbots. As the years have progressed and the pandemic accelerated companies’ digital transformation efforts, chatbots have become an increasingly popular solution. 

So what makes chatbots so effective in improving the customer journey? And what should you look for in a chatbot solution? We’ll explore all that and more below. First though, a quick run-down on what chatbots actually do. 

What is a chat bot, exactly?

Simply put, chatbots make it easy for brands to carry on a conversation with a customer without actually having to speak with them. They’re built on a range of communication software, and can have many different features, depending on what they’re being used for. 

While some allow users to chat via voice, most are text-based, making it easier for customers to quickly find the answers they need on their computer or smartphone. There are also different varieties of chatbots, with the most common being Rule-Based bots (also known as Guided Conversation). This type of chatbot provides users with a structured experience, guiding them down a decision-tree conversational flow. Through scanning the keywords in a person’s text, these softwares are able to guide people exactly where they need to go, can help them make purchases, send documents, and even sign leases

How chatbots improve the customer journey

A high-quality chatbot can have a measurable impact on your customer experience and success. In fact, they’re often so helpful, 35% of consumers want to see more of their favorite brands leverage online chatbots. 

Let’s break down how chatbots can enhance and streamline your customer’s journey. 

Chatbots are like a search bar

Even if they’ve visited your website several times, most people won’t know how to proficiently navigate your site. This is where chatbots can come in handy. Instead of having to spend precious time navigating around your site or reading tedious FAQ pages, chatbots can act as a search bar into which users can ask for things to be shown to them directly. 

Instead of interrupting your customer’s experience, a chatbot can bring potential customers exactly what they need – and ultimately help you increase your site’s conversion rate. Since chatbots are so helpful as a search function, it’s important to display them front-and-center on your site, or even have them follow users as they navigate through different pages. 

Customers can personalize their own experience

It’s not just about calling customers by their name. Depending on the level of your chatbot software, people can personalize their experience and gain a sense of continuity with your site. For example, if you run an eCommerce retail brand, a chatbot can keep track of customer preferences, their past purchases, questions and even keep track (and follow up on) potential complaints.

Additionally, a great chatbot reflects the brand it represents. If part of your mission is to be a calm, cool, and collected repository of knowledge in your industry, your chatbot’s conversational style should mirror that. Or, if you like to have fun with your customers and have a good sense of humor, that can be programmed into your chatbot as well. 

They create less friction

It’s a fact of life in the digital age – most people dread having to talk to customer support. A well-designed chatbot can help eliminate that common concern, helping eliminate friction within the customer journey. 

Friction arises from inefficiency, and inefficiency happens when people can’t find what they’re looking for. With chatbots, users can get their questions answered instantly, and any queries that aren’t able to be processed are automatically sent to the appropriate department for resolution. Instead of having to do the back and forth with customer service reps, people can get their answers on the spot. 

Chatbots can help collect better information for your brand

Most people aren’t inspired to voluntarily fill out a form or sign up for something on your website. However, chatbots make it easy for customers to input their information, and for brands to collect that valuable information. They’re a useful tool for eliminating the overwhelm users can feel when presented with a long response form. Like a good conversation, a good chatbot can adapt questions to user input, making for even more detailed data.

When it comes to collecting customer feedback, chatbots are great at prompting people to submit their experiences in a natural, non-intrusive way. For example, if someone recently made a purchase and you want to get their feedback, utilizing a chatbot can prompt a much more detailed response than a traditional feedback form.

They make the experience memorable and convenient

Unlike sales and customer service teams, chatbots are available 24/7/365 which is especially helpful for people needing help after typical hours.  And if you’ve programmed a ‘personality’ into your software, your customers are bound to have a memorable experience. 

These days, it’s not enough to offer a competitive price. Consumers expect a great experience as well, and expect to be able to find all the information they need quickly and seamlessly. A well-designed chatbot carries the advantages of being able to deliver exactly what your audience needs, whatever, whenever, and potentially however they want – and that could be enough to win your brand a new loyal customer. 

BetterPractices: Understanding NLP

To NLP or not to NLP… wait, what’s the question?

What’s the question, indeed. Take a look at the simple question below with four simple words.  Notice that depending on what emphasis you place on which word, the question has a totally different meaning:

Did you buy that? Translated meaning: Or did you borrow it?

Did you buy that? Translated meaning: Did someone else buy that?

Did you buy that? Translated meaning: Did you steal that?

Did you buy that? Translated meaning: Wow, that’s ugly.

Welcome to the English language, or any language for that matter. It’s filled with nuances, syntax, homonyms, synonyms, and even slang. It’s no wonder that when a computer can respond correctly to a typed or spoken sentence it’s super cool! This is Natural Language Processing (NLP) at its best.

In 2017 and 2018 BetterBot built the largest proprietary NLP engine in all of Multifamily filled with the terms we use every day in our Industry.  Then walked away from it altogether.  Why?  

Because NLP breaks 3 out of 10 times.* It turns out the biggest and best NLP solutions in the world such as IBM Watson, Google Dialogflow, Amazon’s Alexa or Comprehend, etc., all have the same breakage problems.* And these are the best on the planet!

Imagine asking a leasing agent the same question ten times and three of those times, you didn’t get the answer you were looking for, or worse, you didn’t even get a response back. That can profoundly affect your user experience. With this type of error rate, NLP requires a level of human supervision to course-correct when it incorrectly interprets an interaction. This doesn’t make leasing jobs easier, it actually creates more work for leasing teams now having to either monitor, assist or completely take over when NLP fails.

Taking a look at some of the biggest conversational bot solutions such as Drift and Intercom, they have all moved to Guided Conversation or Rules-Based Chat. The reason being? You can’t break it. If you look at some of the other bots in the Multifamily space, they recently began incorporating some sort of Guided Conversation because they know that without it, the system can’t stand alone.

Guided conversation can also lead renters through different levels of a single inquiry, providing deeper understanding into the topic and thus making them a more qualified prospect when they ultimately convert to a tour. Natural Language Processing assumes the renter wants to continue the conversation after their question has been answered, rather than presenting additional routes to follow.

BetterBot learned a great deal during their early development period about what prospective renters and residents are looking for in their digital interactions. Approximately 40% of consumers don’t care whether a chatbot or a real human helps them, as long as they’re getting the help they need (Invesp). So, let a chatbot be a chatbot and own it. 

And finally, IBM found that Chatbots can help reduce customer service costs by 30%, services such as answering Frequently Asked Questions, scheduling tours, and providing renter resources. Not to mention, always being available, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We even throw in an extra day every four years, just for good measure. So let’s be clear, Chatbots are NEVER going to replace a leasing agent, but it can help offload these menial tasks so that leasing agents can go back to doing what they do best… being human!

*BetterBot 2017 & 2018, LivePerson 2016

More than Just a Trend: How AI is Reshaping Fashion and Beauty

In fashion, AI has first been embraced by big brands such as Amazon, Adidas, and Zara. Adidas, for instance, has voice-assisted in-store robots, while competitors are now following Zara after it partnered with Jetlore for a consumer behavior prediction platform. Zara’s aim to create “full integration between store and online stock rooms” is becoming an industry trend. Across the fashion world, consumer-facing AI solutions have been focused on improving personalisation and customer experience.

But AI has also crept into supply chain optimisation, inventory management, and other aspects of production. H&M and Adidas have begun integrating ‘smart’, interconnected robots into production to gain leverage. On the other side of the room are efforts to predict fashion trends and create products that fit these trends. For instance, Indonesian entrepreneur Lingga Madu has gained global attention after using AI to predict what styles will blow up and which ones will flop.

Similar efforts can be seen in the cosmetics industry, as the sector is now tapping into AI to improve customer engagement and relevancy. Mobile apps such as Modiface and HiMirror claim to be capable of assessing your face’s quality and even give you skincare advice. Estée Lauder, Sephora, Benefit, and others have developed their own apps with basically the same features, all powered by AI. Olay’s wildly popular app even lets you identify which parts of your face are most prone to ageing while also addressing other problems.

Taking this concept further, Swedish beauty tech brand FOREO’s has developed a cleansing device called LUNA fofo which can read hydration levels and suggest a personalised skincare routine. FOREO founder and CEO Filip Sedic even said that they plan to “detect air quality and [the] user’s skin conditions in real time,” making the device “the world’s smallest beauty coach.”

Nonetheless, despite these lofty claims, these fashion and beauty innovations are not without some blind spots. While AI has the capacity to process huge amounts of skin data based on user photos and facial recognition, factors such as lighting and picture quality play a huge part in the overall assessment. Indeed, there is a lot of pseudo-science in the world of skincare. For instance, Olay’s vague concept of “skin age”, while its very convenient idea, it is not backed by hard science.

While we can’t doubt that AI and machine learning can transform these industries, it is difficult to make out the exact shape of the things to come. When asked about using AI to address negative fast fashion practices, Elle writer Jo Fuertes stated that a sustainable and ethical future for fashion “requires a seismic cultural shift in how humans work together, not a technological one.” AI is driving more personalised consumer experiences, but it is still underpinned by traditional market models. Unless we see AI radically transforming these models from the ground up, what we can only expect from it today are on-point recommendations and fancy camera tricks for your social media feed.

What Is Robotic Process Automation?

Through the use of specialized software, you can eliminate repetitive tasks from your team’s workload.

As technology continues to advance, humankind is finding more efficient ways to use emerging technology to simplify and eliminate repetitive tasks. One such advancement is the ominously named robotic process automation, which leverages software to make repetitive tasks a thing of the past. While RPA is more common in the enterprise realm, small businesses can also utilize this emergent tech.

What is robotic process automation?

Though its name might evoke images of an uprising of metal and lasers, robotic process automation is anything but that. At its core, RPA is a piece of “robot” software that lets users reduce the number of repetitive tasks they need to do on a computer by mimicking those actions.

From timecard management to data entry, RPA tools eliminate the need for employees to spend their time on computer-based, routine tasks. Instead, employees can focus their energies where they’re actively needed, increasing overall productivity.

Because of its relatively new status on the automation front and increased hype surrounding the technology, researchers at Forrester estimated that the RPA market would balloon from $250 million in 2016 to $2.9 billion in 2021.

How does robotic process automation work?

Since RPA is not powered by artificial intelligence, it needs some level of human interaction to work. It’s after that initial setup that the magic happens.

To get RPA working, a person must first teach it the actions that will be automated on the computer or virtual machine. Whenever an application is opened, a mouse click is initiated, a new task is started, or some other action is taken in an application, an RPA can be taught to do those same actions as a set of programmable rules and instructions. After each step is mapped out, the program can run those manual tasks back, recreating each action with incredible speed and precision.

While RPA by itself is not considered AI, the two can work in tandem to pick up how an employee completes certain tasks. Through the inclusion of intelligent bots, RPA software can actively follow a person’s actions on a computer. Once enough data is collected, the bot and the RPA it’s attached to can begin handling whatever processes it needs to do by itself.

In both instances, RPA needs some form of data input to mimic. Once it gets that data, however, it’s off to the races with those tasks, freeing up precious resources to be allocated elsewhere within your company. Both explanations are at the very basic level of how RPA works, since this kind of software can handle as many as simple or complex processes as you need it to, based on the actions you want to automate.

What can RPA automate?

It doesn’t necessarily matter how big or small your business is – if there’s any computer-based drudge work you want to eliminate for yourself or your employees, RPA technology can handle it. General knowledge points to the idea that RPA is best for tasks that rely on repetitive actions. Tasks like data entry and returns processing are ideal fits for RPAs.

While speaking with The Enterprisers ProjectOlive chief product officer David Landreman listed four basic criteria for whether an RPA is the right tool for a specific repetitive task:

  • Is the process rule-based?
  • Can the process be repeated at regular intervals, or does it have an easily defined trigger?
  • Does the process have expected inputs and outputs?
  • Does the task have sufficient volume?

According to Guy Nadivi, director of business development at Ayehu, RPA is usually used for specific business functions like customer service, accounting and human resources.

The most common uses include tasks that “tend to involve a worker moving information from one system to another,” Nadivi told business.com. “A typical example might be taking regular hours, overtime hours, [and] sick time from a timecard, consolidating them for a given individual, then inputting those numbers into a payroll system. Some have argued that a more accurate term for this category of software might be ‘clerical process automation.'”

No matter what the technology is used for, the ever-changing nature of technology and efficiency-minded software means RPA could eventually handle more complex tasks. Shay Antebi, chief technology officer of Kryon Systems, believes that to be the case because it’s “still a young technology.”

“I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what RPA can do,” he said. “RPA is the perfect technology for offloading time-intensive, repetitive processes that can drag down productivity or create a sense of boredom for human workers.”

What are the benefits of robotic process automation?

Along with the reduction in repetitive tasks and the ability to free up employees to be productive in other areas of your business, RPA has some other inherent benefits that any business would find valuable. Sagi Eliyahu, co-founder and CEO of Tonkean, said using more adaptive process automation helped his client, Shopping Angels, address the biggest operational issue in its organization.

“Instead of asking state coordinators to spend their time manually assessing which volunteers were in the closest proximity to each other and contacting them one by one, they automated that process, giving state coordinators more time to fix issues and interact directly with shoppers in need,” Eliyahu said. “That’s a huge deal for a nonprofit that wants to put all their energy into what really matters: helping people in need.”

Here are some other examples of how a good RPA can help businesses of all sizes.

Reduced costs

Automation in its many forms is well known for its ability to cut operating costs as a sort of digital workforce. If you no longer need an employee to handle a certain task because of automation, you are spending less money on that task. Similarly, RPA can cut costs that can be due to human error, since the software will handle its functions accurately as long as it was taught correctly.

More engaged employees

Doing repetitive tasks for hours on end can be a mentally and emotionally draining experience. Implementing an RPA robot to handle boring tasks frees up employees to work on more engaging activities that increase their attentiveness, boost morale and, in the case of businesses that regularly deal with the public, provide a better overall customer experience.

Easy, flexible implementation

Since RPA mimics a person’s actions when completing tasks, programming it is relatively easy. No coding knowledge is necessary, and it can easily transfer from one task to another. As businesses grow, RPA can scale with them to meet their changing needs.

Interoperability with legacy systems

Since RPA mimics a person’s actions on a computer, it does not replace any existing software to function. Operating as a virtual employee, a well-trained RPA can leverage all existing technology on your company’s computers to complete tasks.

What are some robotic process automation tools?

As the fastest-growing area of enterprise software on the market, RPA has a wide range of offerings available on the internet. If you believe your small business could benefit from a reduction in repetitive tasks so you can focus on more important matters, you may want to check out the following tools that some business owners we spoke with have used.

Automation Anywhere

Automation Anywhere touts its secure platform and AI-augmented functionality that carries out various tasks in compliance with government regulations across the globe. As a more enterprise-focused service, Automation Anywhere’s pricing starts at $750 per month for the Cloud Starter Pack, which it claims is for small businesses or teams.

Blue Prism

Based in the U.K., Blue Prism is another enterprise-level RPA provider. It currently serves more than 1,800 clients (including Fortune 500 brands) around the globe, claiming a 90% “average customer satisfaction rate” and a 98% customer retention rate. Pricing is not available on its website, though Blue Prism does offer a free 30-day trial.

Zapier

Like the other vendors, Zapier provides software that can automate repetitive tasks. Its pricing is why Zapier might be more small business friendly than the other two vendors. Packages start at 750 tasks per month for $19.99 per month when billed annually or $24.99 when billed on a month-to-month basis. Costs go as high as $3,599 per month annually or $4,498.75 on a monthly basis for 2 million tasks per month. For users who don’t need to automate that many functions, Zapier offers a free version that handles 100 tasks per month.

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. 

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.”

Chatbots & Multifamily

Do you use chatbots to provide prospective residents with information about your property or specific units? Here are some reasons you might want to.

Chatbots seem to be popping up everywhere nowadays. And not just Alexa, but those helpful “people” who IM you on every site to help with customer service.

These are certainly not new. Back in the Stone Age when I was in college and iPods were gaining popularity, Joe Millionaire was winning over our hearts, and we were constantly perfecting our away messages on AIM, there was a chatbot called Smarterchild that we all talked to. Of course, we would just curse at it and laugh hysterically at it’s “offended” response. College was a wild time.

But now chatbots are getting smarter, or at least more responsive. And people are happily using them. We’re heading for Westworld-level customer service robots, people! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. “These violent delights have free-return-policy ends.” Or something. I don’t know, I’m still a few episodes behind.

Anyway, according to a study on Convince & Convert, “as of 2018, 15 percent of American adults say they have used a chatbot to interact with a company in the prior 12 months.”

Yup, this apartment is pet friendly. Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help you today. Hasta la vista, baby.

And according to Ideal.com, 35 percent of people who use chatbots expect to get detailed responses to inquiries. Also, they found that 64 percent of people believe the top benefit of them is to get 24-hour service, and that 55 percent of people believe the top benefit is getting an instant response.

APARTMENT AIDES

All these things seem like they would be ideal for apartment community websites. Do you use chatbots to provide prospective residents with information about your property or specific units?

These chatbots can be programmed with specific keywords to answer questions about the community, which could be extremely useful for your leasing agents. This would free up their time, and when they talked to their prospects, the prospective renters would then have basic information about the property.

UNCANNY VALLEY

Though there are many benefits to chatbots in multifamily marketing, there are of course still some downsides. Some people might not yet know how to interact with these chatbots to get the right information out of them. That could end up being extremely frustrating for them, and could end up losing you a lead.

Also, and maybe it’s just me, but there always seems to be something off about talking with a chatbot. It’s not human, but it can answer seemingly random questions. Do you have to thank them? I know, I know, they’re robots, so no, right? If you talk to a different bot later, will you get different answers? And will the original bot get jealous? These things keep me up at night.

But, seriously, sometimes people do want to talk to an actual human. If your site offers chatbots, it might be beneficial to also offer that option. Then potential residents can get information in the way that makes them the most comfortable. And, who knows. In the near future, the chatbots might become so sophisticated that people won’t even be able to tell they’re talking to robots, and then the issue might become moot. Actually, maybe that time is already here. Maybe even the writer of this blog is a robot. Talk about a twist ending!

Do you use chatbots on your apartment websites? If so, what have you liked or disliked about them? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Post your comments on our Facebook page or send a tweet to @MHNOnline or @jfiur.

Webinar–From Scaling Back to the Comeback: Marketing During COVID-19

Ben Faunce, senior customer success manager at SOCi, discusses how marketing has been affected during the pandemic and what leaders should be doing going forward.

Clear communication and a strong online marketing strategy are more important than ever as multifamily property managers navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Multi-Housing News hosted a 30-minute “Snap Session” webinar last week with Ben Faunce, senior customer success manager at software company SOCi, to discuss the challenges that property management firms are facing and content and messaging strategies they can adopt.

“It’s important to get content out there now,” said Faunce, urging companies to make full use of platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to engage with current and prospective residents and make their properties stand out. Property managers can post appealing photos of available units. Companies that have taken advantage of prolonged closures to improve their amenities should let the world know.

Multifamily managers can also brand themselves as community builders by sending thanks to local hospitals and pharmacies, promoting local restaurants and grocery stores that may be open and giving weekly shout-outs to team members such as maintenance workers, Faunce added.

Companies should also use social media to support and engage current residents. Ideas include asking residents questions on Facebook and promoting fun and unique events, such as a cute puppy contest at an apartment community or a balcony dance party at a senior living center. “I see some really inspiring posts across thousands of properties I work with,” said Faunce. “At the end of the day, always be leading with empathy in everything you’re doing.”

GOING VIRTUAL

The industry is currently gravitating towards virtual property tours as leasing has become challenging over the last month or so. Google’s Tour Creator is a useful tool for creating immersive, 360-degree views of a community. Self-guided tours are also an option to consider. The tours can be scheduled on Zoom and property managers can speak to prospective renters over the phone as they navigate the property. Having a messenger bot on the company’s website and Facebook page is an easy way to weed out prospects that aren’t serious.

Now is also an opportune time for companies to create videos. If the budget is available, it’s a good idea to spend the extra money to make them look sharp and professional. If not, keep the videos loose and engaging. “Video is just skyrocketing across social media,” said Faunce, noting that video-sharing service TikTok was the most-downloaded app across Android and iPhone over the last 90 days.

Finally, as parts of the U.S. gradually lift restrictions related to the pandemic, property managers should think about putting together a social campaign around the reopening of amenities such as gyms, pools and rooftops. Each reopening milestone can warrant its own post, complete with an explanation of why it makes sense, as well as quotes from the relevant government or public health guidelines.