Alliance Discusses Chatbots with Units Magazine

Ask Alexa “How is the apartment industry using voice-activated technology and artificial intelligence to help improve operations?”

She might reply:

“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”
Or better yet, “Check back with me later.”

Like virtually all industries, property management is seeking an answer to how it will be affected by artificial intelligence (AI). Voice-activated devices such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home have consumers and software companies captivated — wondering what role they would or could play in their lives today, tomorrow or the future.

AI is alive and well in the technology hype machine. It’s moving rambunctiously along the prophetic Gartner Hype Cycle. Just what comes from AI engineers and when “it” becomes commonplace is anyone’s guess.

Speaking to forward-thinking apartment owners and managers and the technology companies that are focused on AI, one thing they agree on is that it’s too soon to say. That’s okay. High hopes have crowded the road to innovation in business before with potentially transformative technology, such as electric cars, 3-D printing, virtual reality and smart cars. Society waits and watches those who are willing to invest the money and patience in the trial-and-error efforts that innovations such as AI require.

 

Making Life Easier

Voice-activated assistance — today commonly found through a telephone call — has become an aggravating — and yet, accepted — way of life. One prominent sector that has advanced voice-activated services for its customers is financial services. It’s not unusual to pay a bill by keystroking commands on a phone’s keypad such as “Press 1 for this, Press 2 for that” or entering dollar amounts, bank account numbers and transaction dates to complete a payment.

The same applications are being offered at many large companies, seeking to streamline facets of their customer service. Voice requests and commands help them to screen consumers so the service provider can connect them to the appropriate representative, so they say. But here, customers experience confusion, exhaustion and even anger as often as satisfaction when trying to do business. Try to get answers about a product, ask questions about a phone bill or set an appointment with a doctor and the well-intended back-and-forth with the computerized voice often leads impatient callers to cry out “speak to a representative!”

Keeping this in mind, adventurous apartment owners and managers are cautiously moving forward with AI, working to see if it can help improve the resident experience.

“Offering a customer service option through AI and voice recognition might be a cost-saving or marketing advantage for the company that chooses to offer it,” Jerry Kestenbaum, CEO, BuildingLink, says. “But for it to truly be a better and enduring solution from the resident experience point of view, it has to deliver answers, information and convenience that is greater than or at least equal to other options, including what a person could deliver through conversation or what they would need to look up themselves via a web or resident portal search.

“Because if AI and voice doesn’t improve the customer experience, then it’s not worth it. Customers will quickly figure out that it is a gimmick and not a well-crafted enhancement, or they will become frustrated from wasting their time when trying to get answers or service. And when customers [residents] feel that way, that’s not good for business.”

Bozzuto Vice President of Marketing Jamie Gorski says, “Anytime we have a chance to make things easier for our residents, we are going to look into it.”

Speaking off the record, when asked if their company is working toward implementing AI in day-to-day operations, one apartment REIT with a long-standing, strong reputation for experimenting with cutting-edge technology, says, “Not now. But check back with us in the third quarter.” We will.

Alliance Residential Software Analyst Penny Stone says her company is slowly working through progressions in AI-based, voice command-led customer service software applications through chatbots. She is working with software development firm The Nerdery in an effort that could help her company save thousands of dollars in staffing while maintaining a high standard of customer service. Read more about Alliance Residential Chatbots

Like most anything technology-related, the oftentimes apprehensive apartment industry will likely rev up its AI approach only once it can determine that there is both tangible cost-savings to be had and the high-quality experience residents expect is not jeopardized.

Alliance recently hosted a symposium where it invited some of its owners to discuss technology and innovation. “When it came to chatbot customer service, the responses were mixed,” Stone says. “Some would say, ‘I think that’s great;’ others would say, ‘I would never do that.’”

She says the response she has received from Alliance Residential’s upper management so far “has pretty much been, ‘Go for it,’ when it comes to discovery because it doesn’t cost much to go through that process and figure out how much time, development effort and cost will be involved in building a new technology” Stone says.

“But when it comes to pulling the trigger and moving to phase two, they are very strategic about which technologies to invest in. Our AI project has not moved on to phase two just yet.”

 

Speak In SEO Tones

Apartment industry software companies are actively helping owners and managers improve their websites’ performance when it comes to voice search. Such SEO geared to voice is in an experimental stage, and results from steps toward improvement in some cases are negligible.

“Voice search is another medium to find the same things,” Matt Frandsen, Marketing Suite Product Executive, Entrata, says. “There are things you can do to be more appealing to voice search, but it doesn’t require a complete rebuild of SEO like some people would like to think.”

Frandsen says one trend that is showing positive results are “near-me” searches. “If a prospect is conducting searches with voice, and is looking within a specific neighborhood, they will search for something by saying something like ‘Apartments near me,’ ” Frandsen says. “Google, and search engines in general, understand the context behind a ‘near me’ search—location matters.”

Mike Whaling, President, 30 Lines, says, “With voice-activated search, having the number one result becomes far more important, because Google or Alexa are only going to read one answer.”

Catriona Orosco, Manager, Yardi Marketing Services, says measuring voice-based search performance is an inexact science.

“To date, Google Analytics and Search Console don’t provide search data specific to voice searches,” she says. “I do believe this is coming, but when it does, it will probably be at a premium.”

Kate Hampton, Vice President of Resident Pay at Entrata, says, “It is difficult to get authentic statistics about traffic use for voice commands from an iPhone because, in order to be
tracked, the iPhone user must opt-in and enable himself to be tracked, and most people don’t do that.”

 

Speak Up: Optimizing Search

Apartment industry software companies are actively helping owners and managers improve their websites’ performance when it comes to voice search. Such search-engine optimization (SEO) geared to voice is in an experimental stage, and results from steps toward improvement in some cases are negligible.

“Voice search is another medium to find the same things,” Matt Frandsen, Marketing Suite Product Executive, Entrata, says. “There are things you can do to be more appealing to voice search, but it doesn’t require a complete rebuild of SEO like some people would like to think.”

Frandsen says one trend that is showing positive results are “near-me” searches. “If a prospect is conducting searches with voice, and is looking within a specific neighborhood, they will search for something by saying something like ‘Apartments near me,’ ” Frandsen says. “Google, and search engines in general, understand the context behind a ‘near me’ search — location matters.”

Catriona Orosco, Manager, Yard Marketing Services, says measuring voice-based search performance is an inexact science.

“To date, Google Analytics and Search Console don’t provide search data specific to voice searches,” she says. “I do believe this is coming, but when it does, it will probably be at a premium.”

“It is difficult to get authentic statistics about traffic use for voice commands from an iPhone because, in order to be tracked, the iPhone user must opt-in and enable himself to be tracked, and most people don’t do that,” Kate Hampton, Vice President of Resident Pay at Entrata, says.

Meanwhile, sorting through delivered, voice-requested search results is a potential nuisance for users, cautions SearchEngineLand blogger Brian Smith, who points out that Alexa’s penchant for sharing answers that are sales-based — something a user can purchase on Amazon — mixed with organic results.

“The problem with selling ads through voice search, whether they have local intent or not, is that it erodes user trust,” Smith writes. “If the only answer Amazon Alexa provides is an ad, why would you trust any of its search results?

“Granted, no search engine would be foolish enough to go this extreme route. But even if you’re giving only one paid answer to every three organic results, it’s no longer easy to ignore those paid results with voice search. With a screen, your eye can skip right over those ads in a matter of milliseconds. But with voice search, you’ll have to wait seconds to listen through an ad. Sure, we do it on YouTube and television. But we don’t like it. And we certainly won’t like it if we came to the digital assistant for a specific answer, not entertainment, and we still have to listen through an ad just to get an answer.”

Meanwhile, sorting through delivered, voice-requested search results is a potential nuisance for users, cautions SearchEngineLand blogger Brian Smith, who points out that Alexa’s penchant for sharing answers that are sales-based—something a user can purchase on Amazon—mixed with organic results.

“The problem with selling ads through voice search, whether they have local intent or not, is that it erodes user trust,” Smith writes. “If the only answer Amazon Alexa provides is an ad, why would you trust any of its search results?”

“Granted, no search engine would be foolish enough to go this extreme route. But even if you’re giving only one paid answer to every three organic results, it’s no longer easy to ignore those paid results with voice search. With a screen, your eye can skip right over those ads in a matter of milliseconds. But with voice search, you’ll have to wait seconds to listen through an ad. Sure, we do it on YouTube and television, but we don’t like it. And we certainly won’t like it if we came to the digital assistant for a specific answer, not entertainment, and we still have to listen through an ad just to get an answer.”

 

‘Pay My Rent’

Many companies including Entrata continue experimenting with the voice interface to supplement their user interfaces, Hampton says. “Voice really is the interface of the future. You can use it so many ways. You can use it while you are driving. It’s hand’s-free. It’s quicker and easier.

“Gone are the times when a single user interface was sufficient to address user’s needs. Traditionally, this single user interface was a computer, which may or may not have had had a microphone. Now, consumers have a plethora of hardware options they use based on circumstances and context—based on what they’re doing at the time. The great majority of consumers have smartphones, cars have built-in computers, Amazon Echo or Google Home devices are becoming mainstream.

“We are identifying these contexts and aligning the appropriate user interfaces with them. Users expect us to solve their problems within the right context. For instance, as a user, I would much prefer to use voice to pay rent instead of trying to launch an app and go through the steps to perform a function. Inversely, when I’m at work, I would not want to use voice to pay my rent, because my supervisor or coworkers may overhear what I’m saying.”

“We are excited about the voice user interface. One cannot speak about voice interface without also mentioning AI. The power in artificial intelligence comes from learning how users interact with the product. Even if these interactions change, which they will over time, AI will recognize it and learn to respond appropriately.”

 

Understanding the Gartner Hype Cycle

When new technologies make bold promises, the Gartner Hype Cycle helpsto discern the hype from what’s commercially viable and helps to answer when such claims will pay off, if at all.

Gartner Hype Cycles provide a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities, according to Gartner.

Gartner Hype Cycle methodology gives a view of how a technology or application will evolve over time, providing a sound source of insight to manage its deployment within the context of a company’s specific business goals.

“AI is on the move, it has been doing so in so many forms and applications, riding along the Gartner Hype Cycle,” Aaron Beach, Data Scientist, SendGrid, says. “People are interested in hearing about AI, but what they are hearing today is about 90 percent noise. It’s okay to be excited right now. Eventually, we’ll all be brought back down to Earth on how AI will affect our lives. We can expect to see inflated expectations for one or two more years, then everyone will fall into the trough of disillusionment.

“Real estate is a top industry that could benefit from AI, but it’s way too early to say devices such as Alexa are making an impact. Even the leading breakthrough industries are not using AI regularly yet, so real estate is not behind when it comes to implementing AI.”

To further temper expectations, Beach points to other pie-in-the-sky technology claims in the past 10 years such as virtual reality.

“It was supposed to take over the gaming industry, but that has not yet happened,” Beach says. “It’s getting there. But it takes time. With smart cars, people will argue both sides about what stage progress is being made with them. You hear good news about a test drive, then bad news, then good, and then there’s an accident, it gets a lot of publicity and then the hype dies down.

“When people first learned of the capabilities of 3-D printing, everyone had their own idea of how it could be used in everything. Hype can drive conversations, which is good, but it takes time to see what specific ways a technology can effectively be used.”

 

Speaking of Alliance Residential’s Chatbots

Alliance Residential is prepared to use AI to scale customer service initiatives, says Alliance’s Software Analyst Penny Stone, having gone through the discovery process for building an AI chatbot to use on its community websites, as well as Facebook Messenger for each community.

Before becoming fully conversational, it would offer a guided conversation experience and offer prospective residents a list of options to click on, such as availability, pet policy or pricing. Once a prospect clicks one of the options, the chatbot will ask relevant questions, i.e., if a prospect clicks “availability,” the chatbot might say, “How many bedrooms do you need?” and then the prospect can click on the answer.

“Providing a guided chatbot experience at first, instead of open conversation, will help us gather the data we need to build a natural sounding conversational AI chatbot,” Stone says. “The key is to start with a very narrow, guided set of questions, and then use the information you learn from those conversations to expand the set of questions it can answer over time.

“We are able to build chatbot question-and-answer language based on our historical email exchanges that track what the most common questions are that are asked. Looking at our past emails, we can determine trends. You can see the patterns.”

Stone says that by doing this part of the discovery for this project has been valuable “because we can see all of the data that we have. Our grand vision might be to be able to train a bot to answer questions based on a specific person’s historical email inquiries, but we’re not there yet in terms of granularity.”

Alliance Residential also is tracking when people fall off of such conversations, and then working toward providing better, specific answers to keep them engaged longer.

“The ultimate goal is to have chat-bot conversation that leads them toward setting an appointment for a call-back by one of our real-live leasing professionals or to have them begin completing an online application.”

Alliance Residential currently is hiring employees who will answer chat questions from website visitors.

“We can use this as the basis for a history of these conversations to help us create and train the bots to answer these same common questions in a more conversational way.”

Stone says building this kind of technology involves many things, including software development, user-experience design, etc. Building a chatbot from scratch will cost about $100,000, but that’s just the start of the investment.

“We’re looking at strategic partners who have built AI chatbots to serve other industries that may be able to customize the experience for our use,” she says. “That will save us time and software development costs. When you look at that investment, even building it from scratch, it’s cheaper to use a chatbot than to, say, hire full-time employees (plus benefits) to answer questions online. Maybe we start out by hiring two employees and assign each of them five communities to track. If they can handle more, we increase it. But we have 350 communities. Do the math.”

 

Talk to Your Phone Much?

The act of asking a smart device a question aloud in public is potentially socially awkward, according to a Stone Temple Consulting survey.

The popularity of voice search and use of voice commands on mobile devices is increasing, however, people admittedly are bashful about doing so in public; but men are less inhibited from doing so than women, according to Stone Temple Consulting.

Full survey results, including which common areas people are most comfortable making voice requests and what types of questions are asked, are available at stonetemple.com.

 

Alexa: The Perfect Move-In Gift

In an effort to lease a, occupancy-challenged apartment home at its Upton community in Rockville, Md., Bozzuto dressed up the unit with a couple of popular tech devices, including an Amazon Alexa personal device.

“We wanted to appeal to renters who wanted to be more connected in their home,” Laura Stankovic, Marketing Manager, Bozzuto, says. “We also included a Moxie Blue Tooth shower head, Nest thermostat and Hue light bulbs. These items are all common in a smart-home set up.”

The package cost $660. Rent for the apartment, which featured what Stankovic called a “tricky” floor plan, was not adjusted for the cost of the devices.

The apartment leased within 45 days after the tech items were first installed. Stankovic figures Bozzuto will earn a lifetime return of $23,532 over the 12-month lease.

Likewise, Alliance Residential is starting to put Alexa and Google Home in its apartments as part of a smart-home package. Working with Dwelo, the devices can control things such as lights, locks and thermostats.

“We’re also using these devices as an alternative to concessions,” Penny Stone, Software Analyst, Alliance Residential, says. “Instead of offering one free month’s rent ($1,600 to $2,000), in some cases we can give the residents a Google Home or Amazon Echo, which is much more cost effective.”

 

The Humiliation of Implementing AI

To integrate AI, you have to have an internal team of expert product people and engineers that know its application and are working very closely with the frontline teams that are actually delivering services. When we are working AI into our service, we don’t go away to a dark room and come back after a year with our masterpiece.

“When you’re working with AI, you’re building things that nobody has ever built before. [No one knows yet how it’s all supposed to turn out],” he says. “If [you’re] not open to being completely wrong, and having the humility to say [you] were wrong, [you] need to reevaluate why you are attempting it.” – Ian Crosby, CEO of digital bookkeeping provider Bench, source: Fast Company blog

Locking in Voice Commands

When using voice to command something to be done such as locking an apartment door, there are far fewer restrictions or barriers within the user experience compared to doing the same thing through an app interface, such as one available on a smart phone, says Rob Martens, Schlage Futurist.

“Today’s technology is moving quickly toward app saturation, where people can only have so many screens open on their smart phones or an app itself can only cram so much information on one screen or screens. Voice interfaces like Alexa or Siri can improve the user experience, by reducing the friction that can be created while performing a task.

“When using voice command with a lock, it is critical that it does what it is told and does so on a consistent basis. If it is asked to lock, or give a status, it will, responding to the command. But when asked to unlock, it’s critical that the lock is responding to the correct voice. How does it know the person doing the asking is the one who lives in the apartment?

“Locks are life-safety devices. Bad things can happen if the apartment resident’s voice has been recorded or mimicked in some manner by someone who is unauthorized to enter the apartment.”

For that reason, currently, Schlage’s smart locks will lock based on voice command, and provide status, but will not unlock.

 

Does Technology Really ‘Change My Life’?

Interesting sentiment was provided on The Wall Street Journal’s comment board following an article published in January about 2017 technology innovation trends.

“So basically the goal is to make humans completely incapable of doing anything on our own? AI makes our decisions for us?”

“I don’t see any technologies [described] here that would help to make me a wiser or better person. Most of it will make me lazier or more self-absorbed.”

“New tech has promised to ‘change my life’ each year for ages. Many of these advances are non-starters and the goods simply allow me to do the same things I have been doing, {except} more quickly and conveniently. The costs are usually counted in surrendering more of my privacy, which often results in irritating intrusions into my life that I then have to expend effort in fighting off—[and] not always successfully. On the whole, the essentials of my life have not changed; the ‘innovations’ merely facilitate it in some ways and raise new obstacles in others.”

To view the “Artificial Intelligence? Get Real” article, visit Units Magazine.