CHATBOTS CONTINUE TO MAKE HEADWAY
Chatbots are quickly becoming a must-have for the rental housing industry.
Like the first iteration of pretty much any tool or technology, chatbots had their initial challenges. Endless loops, the inability to understand certain dialects, and clumsy handoffs to associates were among the glitches.
But unlike nearly every other prod think of the early editions of cellphones or high-definition TVs—these AI-fueled bots can learn on the fly. Couple their learning ability with some fine-tuning efforts by their creators, and it should come as no surprise that chatbots are becoming a must-have in the industry.
“Our chatbot is another tool to help improve our customer journey,” said Elaine De Lude, Vice President of LIVEbe Communities. “It provides our prospective residents with another option to gain information about our community, and those who have used the chatbot have shared positive feedback.”
Chatbots, which allow users to ask questions about a community in instant-message fashion, should not be confused with AI-powered virtual voice assistants—although they are part of the same tech-based family. De Lude notes that chatbots are not designed to take the place of onsite associates but to assist them by answering introductory questions from prospects.
Essentially, chatbots are the multifamily version of ticket takers. If they do their job, everything is smooth, and the user won’t have to see them for long.
Although chatbots are just starting to make headway in the industry, prospective and current residents already value them. According to an Entrata study, 62% of apartment residents trust a chatbot to schedule an appointment, and 39% cite chatbots’ round-the-clock availability as their most compelling quality.
While first aiming to provide a seamless experience, the primary goal of the chatbot is to identify what the user is seeking, and then get them out of the chat and into the proper workflow. With the perpetual advancements in natural language processing that enable the bots to better interpret questions and give more detailed answers, it’s clear why many apartment operators are deploying them for assistance on the front end of the leasing process. Moving forward, they could become key components of maintenance requests and the renewal process, as well.
“As the chatbot products become smarter and capable of answering the most specific questions, they will grow in importance for our future and current residents,” De Lude said.
Increasing presence in daily operations
For operators such as Pegasus Residential, emerging AI platforms have become an integral part of the everyday leasing landscape. Pegasus uses the IM-style chatbot on its property websites and the virtual-assistant bot to answer leasing calls, emails and text messages.
“In 2020, we really delved into the AI space,” said Bonnie Spinks, Senior Director of Property Marketing for Pegasus. “Our chatbots have been a big part of our teams. We view our AI technology basically as another leasing agent. She’s an extension of our leasing teams.”
Pegasus has noticed a pronounced difference in dialogue capabilities since unveiling bot technology in the fall of 2020. The bot has learned to distinguish the dialects from some of the local areas, including a handful of slang phrases and different ways people say certain words, including references to time of day. The bot, affectionately known as “Payton” and often referred to with a “she” pronoun, is trained to notify an associate if she doesn’t have the answer, which enables the associate to join the conversation or use it as a teaching moment.
“We really want to get that tour appointment,” Spinks said. “So, whether it’s in person or a live virtual tour, Payton is really laser-focused on getting the prospects to our salespeople. With such a high-touch environment in our industry, being able to use the AI automation to work on a lot of qualifying questions and information has really allowed our teams to focus on their sales process. Especially on our new lease-ups, which have a high volume of leasing inquiries.”
First and foremost, Pegasus adopted AI-fueled bots to ensure future residents have a better overall leasing experience and get the individual attention they deserve. So far, the user response indicates that it’s working.
“The greatest feedback that we’ve heard is that our information is always available,” Spinks said, noting that Pegasus prospects are reaching out as early as 5 a.m. and as late as midnight. “She alleviates the problem of being able to operate outside of our normal business hours, so it’s really enabled our prospects to get that information exactly when they need it and meet their sense of urgency.”
Moving forward, Pegasus will use bots to handle maintenance requests. Spinks also envisions that bots will eventually assist with resident retention and take on more administrative responsibilities to take manual workloads off the plate of associates.
Because chatbots have significantly progressed from original iterations and have the capability to be updated in perpetuity, it is reasonable to surmise that they haven’t yet peaked from a capability standpoint.
Part of their continued evolution can directly relate to streamlining the user experience. For instance, some providers are already moving chatbots to more of a menu-based format, with the idea to limit the amount of typing and increase the amount of clicking. Focusing on prompts guides the user to the end result quicker, and research shows that users prefer to click through rather than type through a chatbot interface.
Research also shows that the vast majority of chatbot conversations within the industry are fairly predictable—for example, “availability” is one of the most common searches—which could further spur providers to institute something of a template-based approach on the front end.
For instance, if a prospective resident simply types in “amenities,” prompts will appear that guide the user to a community’s list of amenities, descriptions of each or the hours that they are open. By simply typing “smoking,” prompts will appear to guide the user to the community’s smoking policy or descriptions of designated smoking areas within the community. The available prompts also give users a better idea of the range of possible responses within the chatbot, which assists in the mission of getting them in and out as quickly as possible.
With these community-specific details in mind, a critical element of a successful chatbot is the integration between the chatbot and the community’s property management system. It will become even more paramount as the use of chatbots expands to maintenance requests, renewal efforts and automation.
According to the Entrata study, 52% of people are comfortable interacting with AI and nearly 30% of respondents believe they wouldn’t realize it if they were interacting with a chatbot. Those percentages will likely climb as the industry continues to deploy chatbots in a productive manner that complements the resident and prospect experience.
By: Paul Willis