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Tech tonics

As Brexit woes impact the sales market and the tenant fee ban hits the lettings market, most agents are looking at ways to improve efficiency, cut costs and increase their income. How much can proptech help?

The Negotiator

Proptech house image

 

A vast array of proptech solutions claim to be able to help agents, but it’s fair to say there’s also an element of proptech fatigue in the market. For many agents the latest invention is exciting, for others it can seem that every week a new supplier launches something that will transform their business. So how do you cut through the noise and work out what’s really worthwhile?

One concern expressed about proptech is that it’s tech-driven rather than agent-driven. Indeed, last year Ed Mead, CEO of the viewings service Viewber and former executive director at Douglas & Gordon, said that too few proptech initiatives had been road tested with agents prior to launch.

The trick is to find those that do come with a proven track record of solving actual problems, rather than potential problems.

Like many software providers, IRE claims its software cuts down day-to-day admin, meaning, says UK Manager Milton Jannusch, “Agency staff will be free to add more value by spending more time on winning new business and closing deals.”

Considering the company’s background it may well be particularly useful in today’s market. “The software was forged in the Australian property market, where letting fees have never been charged,” says Jannusch. “This has forced agents to find more efficient ways to streamline repetitive, time-consuming tasks while improving customer interactions. IRE has been developed in this environment and has now been adapted to suit UK conditions.”

Working with associations, such as ARLA provides us with knowledge to ensure that we keep abreast of the market, so our software is designed as a necessity, rather than a luxury for agents. Darren Clapp CEO, KPR.

Darren Clapp - KPR - imageSimilarly, at the property management app provider KPR, CEO Darren Clapp says, “Our success has come by recruiting a team of ex-letting agents to design the software.

“We also work closely with associations, such as ARLA Propertymark. They provide us with knowledge to ensure that we keep abreast of the market so our software is designed as a necessity, rather than a luxury for agents.”

Optimisation

It’s also important to realise there’s only so far software can go in terms of replacing the activities of staff, so agents and suppliers need to be realistic about what proptech can achieve – think clearing out much of the mundane to make better use of your staff rather than doing away with your staff altogether.

It is about optimising activities, opening up more time for agencies to do what they do best: building enduring and rewarding relationships with their customers. Gary Barker, Reapit.

Gary Barker - Reapit - image“It isn’t so much about replacing business activities as it is about optimising activities, opening up more time for agencies to do what they do best: building enduring and rewarding relationships with their customers,” says Gary Barker, CEO at Reapit. “Ideally, technology should do the hard work leaving you to do the smart work.”

Alex King, Chief Marketing Officer at the repairs and maintenance software provider Fixflo, which supplies 4,000 lettings branches, has a similar view. “Fixflo doesn’t replace, it supports and supplements existing processes and systems. Property managers have an extremely difficult job managing many issues at once, at different stages, with varying degrees of urgency and severity with multiple parties. How effective a letting agent is at managing this complex mix of tasks has a direct impact on their ability to deliver a great service to their clients, but also how many properties they can manage.”

Artificial intelligence

In other areas of business proptech providers are very much pitching the idea that they are working towards replacing at least some of the human contact in agents entirely. Take artificial intelligence utilisers such as EBI.AI, for example.

Henry Jinman, EBI.AI’s Commercial Director, says its property bot can answer a wide range of questions: “Residents can type or talk in natural language and the bot uses cutting edge AI to understand them and find the best answer. ‘When is my rent due’, ‘can I have a dog?’, ‘my boiler is broken’, ‘can I sublet my home’, ‘when does my tenancy end’ – all questions that the bot can answer.

“Residents require quick resolutions to their questions and queries. Agents have to minimise costs and free up time to find new opportunities. The property bot fulfils both needs and enables agents to deliver great service at a sustainable price.”

The problem with chatbots, however, is that UK businesses and consumers have been slower to embrace these than those in other countries. For example, a report released by tech company Avaya and Davies Hickman Partners earlier this year said that the UK was lagging other economies on the AI front. Marcus Hickman, co-founder at Davies Hickman Partners explains: “Our research reveals a number of instances of UK and German consumers showing more conservatism in embracing the latest technology when compared with their global counterparts.”

However, the report did also note an increase in interest among UK customers. Even if the UK is lagging other countries, companies that adopt AI-powered technology early may find they have something of an edge if and when it becomes more widespread.

Indeed, research from Gartner presented at a Tokyo summit last year found that on average, organisations reported a reduction of up to 70 per cent in call, chat and/or email enquiries after implementing a virtual customer assistant. The research giant also reported that these led to increased customer satisfaction.

Placing chat sessions with outsourced agents (in, maybe, countries like the Philippines) means placing customer conversations outside their direct control. It’s a dangerous dice to roll. Robert McGarry, Syndeo.

Robert McGarry - Syndeo - imageRobert McGarry, CCO at chatbot service Syndeo, argues that in any case, chatbots are a better option than outsourcing. “It is a more cost-effective technology enhancement to the outsourcing of live chat support. Whilst outsourced live chat providers promise extended support and increased lead conversion, without extra employee strain, placing chat sessions with outsourced agents (and sometimes in countries such as the Philippines) means placing customer conversations outside their direct control. That’s a dangerous dice to roll.”

COMPLIANCE CHALLENGES

Many of the proptech offerings in the market today are designed to boost agents’ businesses. But it’s also important that agents consider those that protect their business from the ever-increasing compliance threats.

One of the largest challenges for agents in recent years has been GDPR. “We know GDPR limits upsell opportunities for both letting agents and estate agents. That’s why Tili has been designed with GDPR in mind,” says Scott Holmes.

Richard Abbots of Inventory Hive says concerns over data control are behind an increasing number of agents using its cloud-based software, even when they continue to outsource inventories as is common in letting agencies.

“Sometimes if you are using an independent company that folds or ceases trading, which we see happen quite a lot, agents lose their data as all their reports are housed with that provider. So we are seeing agents essentially adopting a hybrid inhouse/outsource approach, so they will pay for some software to create the reports, but then they will still outsource to a inventory clerk. They will invite that inventory clerk to use their system so they control all of the data.”

One of the other big threats to agents is anti money laundering enforcement, as is clear from the recent HMRC crackdowns. In March officers targeted 50 estate agents suspected of inadequate money-laundering procedures with unannounced visits. Countrywide was also recently slapped with a £215,000 fine for money laundering failures.

To help agents comply, Zoopla is shortly launching a new instant anti-money laundering checker, integrated with Experian.

One of the big threats to agents is anti-money laundering enforcement. To help agents comply, Zoopla is launching a new instant anti-money laundering checker, integrated with Experian. Carl Oliver, Zoopla.

Carl Oliver - Zoopla - imageIt will be available as a pay-as-you-go feature in its cloud software products. “HMRC is clamping down hard on agents who aren’t complying with regulations on money-laundering procedures and record-keeping. The fines are punitive, making it even more important for agents to comply, so our instant checker guards against expensive mistakes whilst freeing up time for other work,” says Carl Olivier, Head of Product, Software and Productivity at Zoopla.

Providing leads

If you pick wisely, AI, software and apps can certainly help agents to be more efficient – there’s no question that many of the options out there do save agents time by freeing them up from mundane tasks and thereby allowing them to work on growing their business.

Julien Vidal - Blyng - imageBut what if your goal in adopting proptech is to actually secure more business? Julien Vidal, CCO at AI virtual assistant provider Blyng says its offering is aimed at “engaging leads instantly 24/7 across all platforms”.

“Blyng is not designed to replace the negotiators, it helps them to generate more business,” says Vidal. “We are not looking to fundamentally alter any of our clients’ business activity but rather to complement and increase it.

Blyng can answer questions, provide an instant valuation estimate, pre-qualify property owners, buyers and tenants while obtaining contact details and scheduling valuations and viewings – 24/7. Julien Vidal, Blyng.

“It can answer questions on a property or provide an instant valuation estimate, pre-qualifies property owners, buyers and tenants while obtaining contact details and scheduling valuations and viewings 24/7.”

Other proptech offerings designed solely to provide leads rather than customer service include Spectre, which identifies the full addresses of properties for sale or to let in an agent’s local area.

The sales offering has been around for some time, but the lettings product has just been released – a timely addition as we head into a market in which landlords may demand more from their agents.

“Spectre Lettings will identify potential upcoming new instructions, available properties, slow movers and the optimal time to get in contact with those tenants and landlords,” says Joe Gaudoin, Head of Sales. “Agents can also create targeted campaigns to secure landlords inclined to switch if their present agent isn’t as well placed to weather the storms of the coming year.”

Blyng software on mobile device image

Adding value

This is particularly true when many letting agents seek to increase the fees they charge to landlords to cover the drop in revenue after the tenant fee ban. Proptech solutions that can be seen to add value to new and existing clients may be one way to do this.

“At the start of 2019, as a result of the imminent tenant fees ban, we had many enquiries from agents who are looking to increase their fees to landlords and those agents want to show additional value for those fees. The need to ‘sharpen up’ the mid-term inspection process is one way of doing this,” says Terry Lightfoot, Director of Touchright Software, a cloud-based software platform that provides property reporting software.

Bear in mind the changing 24/7 nature of consumer demand, driven by Millennials, who already made up a huge portion of the lettings market and a growing part of the sales market.

“Consumer expectations and demands have transformed over the last 10 years. Tenants and landlords expect an instant and accessible service such as those provided by online services like Amazon and online grocers that are available 24/7/365,” says Fixflo’s King.

For this reason, Fixflo allows tenants to report repairs at any time and then receive updates throughout the process, and it is likely tenants will increasingly demand such service from agents.

In the past, some letting agents may have competed for tenants on price – while the national newspapers would have you believe that all letting agents charged thousands to tenants, in fact many charged more modest fees and attracted tenants because of this.

Now, with no such point of differentiation, it may be time savings that agents use to set themselves apart from their competition.

Moving house is regularly cited as one of the most stressful events for people; there’s no question it’s time-consuming and admin-heavy. Research shows that most people are already carrying out far more ‘life admin’ than they’d like.

A study carried out by the Association of Accounting Technicians found that the average adult carries out 109 ‘life admin’ tasks per year. So there’s a clear demand for products that save time and this is something that the home move assistant Tili aims to cater for.

Launched last year by Spark, the free web-based service aims to get home movers set up in a new property in less than three minutes. Since launching in July last year it has enjoyed considerable success, helping with 70,000 home moves.

Commission calling!

Tili’s Marketing Manager Scott Holmes says the benefits are twofold: the time saving to movers and agents and the opportunity to earn commission. “We aim to help letting agents reduce the impact of the tenant fees ban by offering new opportunities to earn revenue. We also offer estate agents ways to earn rewards when both buyers and sellers move home.”

One of Tili’s early adopters, Stephen Nation, Managing Director, Connells Group Lettings, says for the agent it’s working on both fronts, “It improves our customers’ experience by helping tenants set up their services, taking some of the stress out of moving house as well as helping us offset rising costs of delivering an exceptional lettings service to our clients.”

Tili isn’t the only provider offering commissions to agents. At Goodlord, for example, William Reeve says letting agents, “can make £200 additional revenue on an average tenancy using our platform and can also save time, use our tools to remain compliant, and increase their cross-sell rates with us”.

If there’s a silver lining to be found in the tenant fee ban, it may well be that many providers to the letting agency industry, both proptech and otherwise, have been refining their offerings and coming up with more ways to provide agents with new or improved revenue streams. Whether or not it will be enough to make sure all agents and proptech providers weather the coming storm remain to be seen.

May 2, 2019

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