Exploring the Future of Bot Technology in Multifamily

Recently, our President and COO here at BetterBot, Robert Turnbull, had the chance to sit down (virtually) with Dennis Cogbill and Steve Lefkovits at the Multifamily Technology and Entrepreneurship Conference, where he examined the virtues of conversational leasing and the future of bot technology in multifamily. 

As he explained, leasing teams are often faced with an overwhelming amount of leads to track and follow up with. Add in rapidly evolving consumer expectations and you have the perfect entrypoint for bot technology to come in and really transform the leasing experience for the better. As Robert mentioned, “Sometimes the best renters are the ones you never talk to!” With bots, gone are the days of letting valuable leads slip by without notice.

Along with helping renters view floor plans and schedule appointments, chatbots are able to give time back to property management teams. “When you look at the bot just in terms of work on behalf of your leasing team, it’s saving about 80 hours per property per month,” he notes, “quite literally, your bot is working for your leasing team when your leasing team may not be working.” 

Some of our favorite highlights include:

Different Types of Chatbots

“There’s the prospective renter and what they want today – they want real-time, accurate conversations, wherever you are on the internet.” – Robert Turnbull

What’s the Next Move?

“Automation technology and the way that it can represent your product and brand and content – you will no longer be reliant entirely on some of these very large marketing sources. Management companies are going to get some of the power back in their hands because of this.”  – Robert Turnbull

How Using a Chatbot Can Save You Money

“I’ve seen shiny toys come through this industry for 22 years. Some work, and some don’t. The proof’s in the number. I say, take a handful and [put them up to] task. Test 2 or 3, put them on a community, give it its due diligence, and look at the data.” – Robert Turnbull

Check out the full recording and learn more about the benefits of bots here!

See the full transcript of the interview below!

ROBERT TURNBULL: I’ve got a large amount of data and a very short time, so I’m just going to buckle up and dive in. This is not a commercial, but there is a lot of our data in here. Some of it’s not our data, but I want to dive into that. If you want any – any of this of course, you can email Dennis and Lefkovitz. Okay, so you probably fall into three buckets when it comes to, I’ll say bot technology. You either haven’t thought about it at all – and hopefully this will make you start thinking about it. You have thought about it but aren’t sure where to go, so hopefully this will give you some guidance and some thinking around next steps. Or you’re using bot technology and you want to either validate what you’re thinking, maybe challenge your thinking, or maybe learn some best practices around bot technology. So, that’s what I’m going to dive in – and let’s do this. 

There are two things that are actually driving what I would call the bot proliferation that you’re seeing right now. Everywhere you go, banks, travel places, you’re seeing bot technology and you’re seeing it in multifamily. So what’s driving this? There’s really two parts. There’s the prospective renter and what they want today – they want real-time, accurate conversations, wherever you are on the internet. They want it 24/7, 365, they want control over the leasing process. They can order – we can order food from any place now and have it delivered, we can pick the aisle window on a plane, we can upgrade our hotels, so we have this at our fingertips, and they want the same thing for leasing. And here’s what they don’t want: they don’t want lead forms. Nobody wants to fill out lead forms anymore. They want fast, simple access to information. Now on the other side of the coin on multifamily and what’s driving this is – this is amazing because my business partners and I 20 years ago started ApartmentGuide.com in 1999 and a few other sites, and 50% of the renter leads sent 20 years ago were being unanswered. 20 years later, they’re still being unanswered. That’s a metric that hasn’t changed, shockingly enough. So you know, these marketing dollars are being wasted. Multifamily has a 34% leasing staff attrition rate – that is higher than retail. And the number one reason given? They’re overwhelmed. They have too much going on with the property. And technology – we talk to management companies and they say, “I don’t want another technology that’s going to cost me more money and cost me more time. So if you’re introducing something to me, it better save me money, it better save me time, or hopefully, both.” And that’s where conversational leasing technology comes in. Because renters are getting information faster, and the properties are not having to be there when information is being given, it speeds up the leasing cycle. You can focus on conversations.

I’ve said this before and people have quoted me. Our industry has “lead fatigue”. We have more leads than we know what to do with. So let’s focus instead on conversations. Your goal here is to get rid of repetitive, low-reward leasing tasks for our leasing team. Okay, so I’ve seen a lot of data over the years, and it’s all about the data. When you deploy a bot – and again, this is our data, but this can be a lot of other bots as well – when you deploy a bot per property per month – and anywhere else on the internet, Google My Business and so forth, we see an average of 200 unique renter conversations. That means they may have 2 or 3 conversations, but that’s still just one conversation answering about 150 questions. Sometimes the best renters are the ones you never talk to, because it answered the questions – they found it’s a fit for them. We then notice that there’s about 26 handoffs, and that’s where our consumer engages with the property through the bot. Those we call “high-value renter follow-ups”, so that’s like when they have a specific question that the bot can’t answer. And of those, 13 of those are scheduled appointments, so what’s interesting about that is 92% of appointments being scheduled through the bot are actually showing up for their appointment. Call centers have about 50%, according to my data. Properties have about 60-70%. Bots have upwards of 90% because it’s actually giving them information before they’re asking for information. So we see about a 92% show rate. Did a ton of lease matching we found out that bots are participating in about 4 leases per property per month. We recognize the bots didn’t materialize the leases, but it certainly helped facilitate that. And what’s really interesting is that almost 60% of that is happening after hours. So quite literally, your bot is working for your leasing team when your leasing team may not be working. This is after the hours of 6pm and before 8am. 

A few more things I want to throw your way: We’re not limited anymore. Bots just don’t sit on your property website, you can put a bot on your Facebook Messenger, Marketplace, Google My Business, which has up to 40% of the conversations we’re seeing as happening and originating in Google My Business. Google Ads, Yelp and the list goes on. So wherever consumers find you, let the bot answer it 24/7, 365. This is a great example of a consumer actually, on Instagram. They may look at some photos and then they want to click on a floor plan, and then boom – the bot – they don’t even leave Instagram, it’s embedded inside the experience they’re having. And this could be at 2 o’clock in the morning. The agent is responding to them right then and there. And you can see photos, see floorplans, schedule appointments and so forth. Because the bot can be put on all sorts of places like this, you want to arm it – just want to pack some virtual tours on it, you want to put appointments, COVID protocols, put everything you can in that bot because when it’s on Yelp or Google My Business or Facebook, it’s going to be able to show those virtual tours without ever even having to come to your website. Make sure you’ve got your virtual tours and video in there as well. I always get asked the question of cost. When you consider the bot works 24/7, 365 and are less than $100 on average, that’s $3 a day, 14 cents an hour, assisting with 4 leases, 60,000 annualized revenue. And more than that – and normally I’d dive into this in detail, I can’t do that, don’t have the time, so I’m going to get you a couple of highlights. 

When you look at the bot just in terms of work on behalf of your leasing team, it’s saving about 80 hours per property per month. That’s over $1300 after you pay for the bot and just time’s sake, doing those menial, repetitive tasks that your leasing staff is not having to do. So saving you time and saving you money. What’s also interesting is that you have a general agent now watching all the traffic come to your website, where it’s launching from all these channels, so you can begin to see patterns that some sources – some marketing sources – drive a lot of traffic and not a lot of engagement. Others maybe not so much traffic but lots of engagement. So a bot can actually look and use algorithms based on how much was engaged, was it a conversation, did it become an appointment, was it a lead? You can look at your best volume drivers, conversion drivers, your overall best channel. We had a client once ask, “hey, can you give me the worst channels?” Sure, so we actually put in some of the worst channels. We’re thinking of renaming that, but nonetheless it tells you your least performers. 

While I wrap this up, a couple things I want to leave with you: The bots can actually do email. And the challenge is we’re getting flooded with so many web leads coming through. In the old world, we said, you know, on ILS, it might be a marketing source, sending it to your CRMs, and then the problem with that is, you still have humans that have to do all the work. Well, what if you had the ILS or marketing source send it to the bot and have it say, “Hey, my human friends are busy but I can help you now!” Converting that asynchronous conversation and emailing it to a synchronous bot conversation and sending that appointment or higher value lead into the CRM. Let your digital agent do the work for you instead of you having to do all the work and your respective CRM. Uh, I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a little bit of a situation happening in our industry. It looks like our sites are looking like Las Vegas. There’s so many widgets and ‘talk to renter’ – which is a great concept by the way, specials, and it’s like clouding our sites, so let the bot handle that. Put it all in there and it’ll direct you to the place you want to go – let’s ‘socially-distance’ our widgets on our website. 

A few things I want to leave you with: I hear all the time, “What about [live] chat?” Look – I actually ran the real estate division for the largest chat company in the world for 3 years, all over the world for real estate, and let me tell you what I found out. Chat just doesn’t work. It’s very, very hard to get chat to work. Here’s just some metrics – usually I dive in deeper, but here’s some data. Chat typically gets 2% click-rate – bots get 12%. That’s 6 times the results. There’s a lot of reasons for this, I could dive in another time. Time gap: Well, when you do live chat, it takes a minute and 45 seconds to connect, and once you’re connected it takes upwards of 76 seconds to have dialogue and 8 minutes to have a conversation. Bots respond in 1 second, and you’re done in 90 seconds. Available people? That’s the point – they’re not available. Call centers don’t know properties as well as the property does. With bots, you don’t need them! And they can usually answer 80% of those questions 24/7, 365. 

Here’s the other thing I get asked – hot transfer. “Hey, sounds really cool, can I have the bot transferred to human live?” And it sounds awesome, but don’t do it – and here’s why: If your prospect is given the option to talk to a human, they’ll probably take that option, so the bot’s doomed from the start. The average response time is less than 2 seconds, and you can see all the problems with replied chat. When transferred to a human, it goes from 60 seconds to 5 minutes to find the human. It’s transferred so that means they have to review the conversation, it went from 1 second to now upwards to a minute and a half. The CSAT scores for bots are up to 90%, and when you look at human transfer it’s less than 35%. 

And finally, NLP – natural language process. We have one of the largest NLP engines in all of multifamily. The problem is that NLP just isn’t there yet. 3 times out of 10, [NLP] fails. The top NLP bots in the world are still breaking 30% of the time. Guided conversation is what all the biggest generalist bots are going to because you can’t break the bot. 

So do’s and don’ts – the last 10 seconds. 

Dos: Customize your bot and build your brand. Put a bot everywhere. Put COVID protocols in there if you have them. Make sure it has deep industry integrations. 

Don’ts: If they say, “Hey, you can help train the bot,” run! It takes a month to 3 months, and that’s not your job. Don’t put all these widgets on your site. Beware the lead snares that actually hold content hostage. And NLP’s gonna be awesome, but it’s not for another couple years. 

So there you go, there’s consolidating 30 minutes of information into 12 minutes. 

STEVE LEFKOVITS: Robert, man, a few questions?

RT: Yeah, please! 

SL: So, uh, I very much feel humbled by this presentation because, it’s an area that I have no background or experience with. I didn’t learn it in graduate school. So for someone like me who’s curious, how do you advise us to try to understand what is a quality offering in this area – without, you know, promoting BetterBot. 

RT: Sure. 

SL: Just, I think about what I’m looking at when someone calls me up and says, “I have a new thing”. 

RT: Yeah, so you’re saying, “How do you assess bot technologies?” 

SL: People call me and they want to run bot technology past me and I go, “I’m just not the guy”. 

RT: Yeah, you know for me – look, I’ve seen shiny toys come through this industry for 22 years. Some work, and some don’t. The proof’s in the number. I say, take a handful and [put them up to] task. Test 2 or 3, put them on a community, give it its due diligence, and look at the data. The data is going to tell the story. The data always tells the story. If you’re seeing incremental lead lift, if you’re seeing spending less time, one of the things we like to hear is, “hey, we’re not answering as many emails and we’re actually getting more appointments than we used to”. That’s great! 

So, compare the data. And you can compare bots. And some AI technologies are not all the same. Some are handling like, email and text. Others are handling the front-end on Google. So they’re really not the same either. Plug it in, look at the data, and compare 2 or 3 and at the end of 30 or 60 days, you’re going to see a big difference in the data set. 

SL: Okay, fair enough – I understand that. And because this is an entrepreneurship conference as much as it is a technology conference, can you talk a little bit about the investment environment for automation technologies and where the level of investment is in our industry relative to the need?

RT: [Laughs]

Oh, yeah, that’s an interesting question. So when we came into the space there was like, one or two other folks, and I think some of the big companies were thinking, “Well, let’s see what happens, let’s see how these guys do”. And because we had such success and growth so quickly, I think what we did was we told the rest of the industry, “Hey, there’s something here”. So now you start seeing all these other entrants coming into the space, which is good. It just gives you options, that’s fine. So that tells me, when I go from 2, maybe 3 bots a few years ago to 8 or 9, that tells me people are investing in this industry. And it’s not a passing fad, it’s here to stay. And you have some of the biggest companies investing in some of this technology. At the end of the day, we’re all pushing each other very hard. And so, you’re going to get a better product. The life cycle is, I’d say in the next 2 to 5 years you’re going to see significant growth, so this isn’t a fad that’s going to come and then go. This is going to continue and create new options. So for investors, they’re looking at – this is a long-term option for them. And the technology is going to grow in the next 5 years. 

SL: What about the property sales side of the business? I mean, we focused so much on renters, but isn’t the technology also useful for people who are trying to market assets for sale? Why don’t we see more of that?

RT: Market assets – oh, you mean actually, owners trying to – that’s interesting. I’m not delved into that. 

SL: You just got it at MTEC, there you go. 

RT: Alright – that’s our next business model! I’m calling you tomorrow! 

[Laughs]

So I don’t have as much experience, but I love the idea. 

SL: This is fantastic, thank you for this – I really appreciate it. And maybe one more question: I understand the widgets on websites – what is the next move in this product category? Where does the product extend to in 2022 or 2023, where do you hope for?

RT: Yeah okay, so I gotta be careful. 

SL: No, no no. 

[Laughs]

RT: Okay, so no one’s going to record this and say, “Well Robert said…”. The way I couch that, it’s a great question. The way I couch that is, whatever an agent is doing today, the bot and automation needs to start doing that tomorrow. I mean, I don’t want to say, and I don’t want to say this, but, can it replace agents? Well, yeah, overtime. But it can certainly give some of their time back. I think it can start doing more email, more text, more coordinations, more guided tours, automation is going to help us do a lot of this stuff, and I think it’s going to change the way that – so mark my words, because I want to talk about this this time next year – it’s going to flip the script between how property management companies see themselves with major marketing sources, and that’s going to change in a year’s time. Automation technology and the way that it can represent your product and brand and content – you will no longer be reliant entirely on some of these very large marketing sources. Management companies are going to get some of the power back in their hands because of this. You’ll start to see that over the next 6 months to a year, so that’s my teaser for this time next year. 

SL: Alright, fair enough. We’ll let you have the last word on that, and I’ll just note that you used to work for one of those big lead sources, so. 

RT: [Laughs]

I know, that’s part of the problem! So I think it’s my destiny to help sell it so, I’m tilling at it – that’s my penance! 

SL: Gotta pull the sword from the stone – I love it. Well, thank you very much, Robert. We’re going to end day one of MTEC right here.