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PropTech, AI and Humans: Working Together in Harmony

Recap from the 2021 NMHC OpTech Session – PropTech, AI and Humans: Working Together in Harmony

Multifamily has experienced an extraordinary influx of PropTech and AI in the industry, accelerated by the pandemic. There are many who would say it’s been a long time coming. Now that the industry has finally embraced technology, there’s no turning back.

Panelists at the NMHC OPTECH 2021 session PropTech, AI and Humans: Working Together in Harmony discussed why multifamily was slow to adopt AI technology and what some of the initial challenges have been.

“We are a human-based business and we provide homes,” said Kelley Shannon, senior vice president of marketing at Bozzuto. “A lot of that is based on talking to people and caring for people. How do you infuse AI and pull humans out of it?”

Some operators have been content with systems and processes that are good enough. While there are also operators who want to advance and implement new best-in-class technologies, Todd Katler, founder and CEO of Anyone Home, said that is only about 50 or 60% of the industry. With the direction the industry is heading, it’s too hard to staff appropriately without supplementing some of the more tedious, time-consuming tasks with AI and technology.

“We have to let people trade in their own currency, whatever that currency may be,” Katler said.

“Whether it’s high human contact or no human contact at all, or some combination of the two. The strength is in enabling it. Why embrace AI now? AI and self-guided tours are necessary to accomplish centralization, and shifting staff models to centralization is critical right now.”

Utilizing technology makes it easier for human associates to do their jobs effectively and increase job satisfaction. The happiness factor is a big deal in multifamily, especially coupled with the labor shortage. Owner/operators need to hold on to their good employees and look for ways to give their teams relief from the tedious, repetitive tasks that don’t add any value.

“AI allows us to provide solutions that give everyone choice, but also eliminate some of the mundane, top of the funnel information,” Shannon said. “With AI, we have seen significant site team time savings during the week and an improvement in our conversion from lead to tour. That allows our great team members to provide the great human experiences that are important to taking care of residents.”

The reality and future of leasing and sales is changing. AI is no longer viewed as a threat to people’s jobs, but as something that helps to make jobs better. Making leasing associates’ jobs easier by assisting them with AI to really empower them is a much different objective than just wanting to cut people out of jobs.

But what is the right balance when it comes to PropTech, AI and human interaction? It’s often presented in binary terms as total AI or very little automation.

Katler believes the binary aspect is a huge deal and suggests It’s an important lesson learned because while the industry tends to want to do something a certain way, there are really a lot of different ways to do something. “AI is a ‘how’ and not a ‘why’ and it’s a really important tool everyone should be embracing at some level,” Katler said. “It’s really hard to get people to break the molds they’re comfortable with. But it’s about progress. It’s about the ability to learn being comfortable with being uncomfortable and stop letting perfection get in the way of progress.”

Session moderator and principal at Judith Lawrence Associates, Judy Belleck, believes there will always be hiccups and challenges to technology. But suggests it’s a learning curve and there is some fear from the people who are going to be using the technology that they are losing some control.

“You have to be ready to launch and not care that it’s not 100% perfect,” Shannon added. “You just have to go with it and optimize as you go along.” 

Karen Hollinger, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and AvalonBay, noted another challenge with AI adoption has not been the actual technology, but the cynicism that AI could actually handle things that aren’t so simple.

AI implementation can also enhance the customer journey in a consistent, standardized way. This is quickly becoming the industry norm as prospects and residents expect immediate answers to their questions. Quick, timely responses and information is also a crucial facet of customer service. This adds immense value to property management teams.

“We forget that customer service isn’t always a smile — it’s just the information,” Hollinger said.

There are many friction points that exist within the customer journey where either customers or employees get hung up, from fraud prevention to local compliance policies. Some of those friction points can be solved with very specific automated solutions.

The consensus is that AI is here to stay and it’s more important now than ever before, from creating efficiencies, boosting conversion rates, providing consistency to the customer journey, lowering operating costs, compliance and everything in between.

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