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Speaking of Tech Trends

Apartment Tech Trends
May 2018

Voice-activated technology and natural language are helping apartment communities and their residents manage more efficiently.

The idea that the rental housing industry is behind the times technologically holds some weight, but mostly because much of the industry doesn’t take immediate advantage of the new innovations available to them.

In actuality, technology advancements in multifamily closely mirror those of many other industries — they just aren’t as quickly embraced. That’s not to say forward-thinking owners and operators don’t actively aim to improve their communities and operations through technology on a regular basis, because there are many of those in the industry. But it’s understandable that not all of them do, considering the industry spans virtually every socioeconomic class with varying resources to dedicate to new advancements.

For those on the cutting edge, 2018 offers a series of new innovations and improvements to fledgling technologies that have started to make their way into the rental housing industry during the past two years, with voice activation and chatbots being two of the most notable advancements.

Voice Activation

As the preferences of residents continue to evolve, expectations for modern conveniences follow suit. As widely chronicled, the number of renters by choice (as opposed to renters by necessity) continues to climb, and this variety of renters will no longer settle for barebones accommodations.

As consumers continue to scoop up devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and the recently unveiled Apple HomePod, voice activation is near the top of the list of desired amenities. Granted, it’s not only those living in apartment communities who have an increased affinity for these devices, but also owners and operators who have the unique opportunity to further cultivate their use.

“The voice-activation tool is helpful, because the resident portal app that controls all devices can be synced with the home-share device,” Krystal Weger, Director of Tactical Operations for BLDG Management, says. “You can ask Alexa to turn down the lights, play music, change temperature and many other smart-home functions, if you aren’t near your phone to control the features through the resident portal app.”

By integrating a home device with a centralized property management system, residents will have all of their smart-home features available via voice command. Want to change the temperature of the thermostat? Let Alexa know. Want to shut the blinds or set a timer on the oven? Shout it out to Google Home.

Interconnecting smart-home features to a centralized system provides a triple tier of benefits to an apartment community: It enables cost savings, increases community attachment and empowers residents. From a cost-saving perspective, residents equipped with smart-home functionality save the community management team an abundance of time.

“Anytime you can streamline operations to a single database, it leads to greater efficiency and the increased ability to adjust on the fly,” says Elaine De Lude, Vice President of LIVEbe. “When leasing agents don’t have to deal with keys or phoned-in maintenance requests, they can concentrate on tours and following-up with prospects. While the modern convenience of voice activation certainly has the potential to boost resident retention, it carries the added benefit of employee retention.”

Oftentimes, leasing professionals have the expectation of attracting prospective residents but end up being forced into managing packages and other community-related tasks because the community lacks technology. At a smart property, many of those processes are automated, allowing leasing agents to shine in the role they were intended to play.

While resident portals already begin to empower residents by allowing them to pay rent and submit service requests online, integrating them to a centralized voice-activated system adds yet another edge of control.

Some communities are exploring the possibility of furnishing residents with a specific voice-activated home device, believing the system will run more efficiently if everyone has the same brand.

“At St. Paul Collection, we will offer our premium finished residences with an integrated home-automation system and include an Alexa in each home that can be synced at move-in,” says Weger, referring to BLDG’s forthcoming community in the Cherry Creek North area of Denver. “Residents will be able to control the home automation, pay rent and place service requests through Alexa.”

Others believe the most efficient methodology is to allow residents to use the home-share device of their choice— their own personal device— when connecting to the system. This allows a connection with the residents’ personal profile and prevents the need to reconfigure the device each time a resident moves out. Each option presents a layer of proficiency.

So, how does an apartment operator go about interconnecting voice-activated devices into a cohesive system? That’s where the higher level of tech comes in. Entrata has developed a controller that pairs with smart-home devices and provides residents and managers access to it all on one, centralized system.

Many wonder about the security risks of pairing so many disparate systems, which is a fair concern. That’s why it’s recommended to implement any physical hardware with triple-blind encryption while making sure the resident portal app is equipped with payment-level security.

Chatbots

Could chatbots eventually replace customer service representatives and call centers? Chatbots (not to be confused with service robots, a rental-housing concept for another discussion) consist of a program that simulates a human conversation. This isn’t your automated cable TV operator telling you to press “3” for other options. These are programs with natural language processing systems that can engage in legitimate customer service conversations.

With the improvements witnessed to natural language processing in the past few years (think Google Home and Alexa), the idea of interacting with an intelligent chatbot that provides helpful, relevant information is one that the industry can and should embrace — as long as it’s not designed purely to replace humans.

“I believe this will help residents save time when paying their rent and making service requests and other community-related tasks,” Weger says. “However, I don’t think you will be able to ever replace the customer experience of face-to-face interaction with your community staff, as that is what makes a community special.”

While the jobs of leasing agents and call centers are safe for the short-term, consumers continue to accept and embrace digital assistants. That shifting perspective is giving consumers a much higher willingness to engage with a chatbot rather than view it as a barrier to reaching a live person, like most traditional automated systems.

Chase Harrington is the President and Chief Operating Officer for Entrata.