AI in SA real estate need not be feared

Oct 28, 2019, 8:00:00 AM

We live in an age where technology have made some jobs obsolete while others are listed as threatened. Hearing that in the US there are some agencies that use robots to show properties to clients could have one worried that the estate agent is also slated to go the way of the milkman, but property leaders say no.

The terms ‘artificial intelligence (AI)’ and ‘robots’ recall images from futuristic sci-fi movies like I robot where robots take over the roles of humans in public service jobs in 2035. A futuristic reality that you may think will either never happen or is still many years away?

Not so, in San Francisco in the US there is a rental management company, Zenplace that uses robots, actually moveable video monitors, to guide prospective tenants through a home. The face visible on the monitor is that of an actual rental agent in another location that talks to the tenant and can move the robot throughout the home. The robot can supply real-time data about the neighbourhood, rental pricing trends etc as well as supply a lease agreement.

Perhaps a possible solution to the safety concerns local agents have towards showing properties to prospective buyers they haven’t met?

Daniel Faggella, an international expert on AI application in business, says that AI and machine learning could greatly benefit the real estate industry, but says it is important to discern what would be useful and what not as there is a lot of information published about AI that is more wishful thinking than facts.

Faggella suggests that the two major AI application categories that the real estate industry should pay attention to is consumer-facing technology such as chatbots and applications that match people with properties, and also predictive technologies. Both of these technologies could help towards making the buying and selling of properties more efficient.

South African property leaders say they recognize the importance of keeping up with technological advances to deliver service to customers at the levels they expect. Craig Hutchison, Engel & Volkers Southern Africa CEO, said technology advancements are always at the forefront of considerations, such as the use of AI in providing a more streamlined brokerage process amongst other technological advancements in the property sales process.

AI could benefit the real estate industry in South Africa in two material aspects says Anthony Stroebel, head of strategy for Pam Golding Properties. These are: making the process of buying and selling real estate easier, more intuitive and more efficient for the general public by better empowering and servicing the consumer early in the process – while also increasing the efficiency of estate agents in servicing those clients; and being able to offer greater value, both during the transactional journey, but also before and after, due to being better informed about the client’s needs.

Chatbots – one way of engaging with clients 24/7

Most of us are familiar with chatbots which is a form of AI. Stroebel says chatbots for example provide a way for an agency to interact with homebuyers 24/7 as they navigate their first steps into the market in the discovery phase of the homebuying process. At this time people are often not yet ready or willing to engage personally with an agent and don’t want to be inundated by third parties pursuing them as a lead. After a buyer has worked through the process of selecting home preferences, this information can then, with consent, be transferred to an agent. This keeps buyers engaged and provides agents with more information about their clients than they would normally have at this point, thereby enabling them to offer more tailored and personal advice and property recommendations. Agents can also monitor these conversations between buyers and the bot and intervene if and when needed. And the bot can in fact alert the agent when it believes human intervention is needed. Essentially, better lead qualification benefits both buyer and agent as far as timesaving and immediate value and service are concerned.

“Taking this opportunity even further, it is now even possible for these bots to have ‘human-like’ conversations that touch on matters other than real estate, for example, where the bot can express condolences if someone mentions a divorce or a death in the family. AI already can ’empathise’ with leads in a very human-like way!” Stroebel adds.

Potential for AI to turn data into leads

Stroebel continues that more broadly, and as seen by growing trends in the USA and globally for example, AI can be used to refine the recommendations provided to clients, by tracking how users interact with a website, looking at ‘everything from the homes you share, save and make contact on, to even the places where you linger’, to then start shortcutting that whole process of looking for a house, where would-be buyers can even do home searches based on kitchen or bathroom photos, for example.

“From an agent’s perspective, there is the potential for AI to be used to turn data into leads, whereby propensity to buy or sell can be modelled, by cross-referencing databases with internet search and other data. The broad goal in this instance is to build a profile around the which ideally should pertain more to improving the overall service standards of the industry, alleviating intrusion, rather than further exacerbating historical frustrations experienced by clients in this regard.

“Another very useful application, for example, is allowing sellers to virtually stage the interior of their home with different colours and furnishings in order to appeal to different markets,” he explains.

AI works best alongside humans instead of replacing them

Contrary to popular belief, utilizing AI in the real estate business does not necessarily mean the replacement of agents says Stroebel. The emphasis is more on immediate access to information and the saving of time and frustration on both sides. “The main advantage is to help people do things faster. People no longer are prepared to wait, they will just move on to some other website, some other realtor, if they don’t get the ‘immediate’ service that they are increasingly coming to expect in this modern, technologically-enabled era,” continues Stroebel.

“The good news is that AI is actually at its most effective when it’s working alongside humans instead of replacing them, and the most successful real estate companies are likely to be the ones which accept this and which embrace AI and use it to revolutionise the way they do business. It’s all about finding smart ways to help AI to help deliver greater efficiency and service – and at a much more effective level,” Stroebel ends.

Tony Clarke, managing director of the Rawson Property Group, says he strongly believes that AI and robotics cannot fully replace the knowledge and experience of estate agents, but it can certainly enable them to do their jobs faster and more effectively. “Estate agents must make sure that they’re able to embrace both technology and the human touch in order to flourish. Embracing tools that assist with lead generation, automated communication, scheduling appointments and reminders will go a long way to deliver almost instant value at every step of the customer’s journey, and will also help with responding to their needs quicker,” says Clarke.

“A vital part of survival for this industry is going beyond the basics to deliver valuable services and build long lasting relationships with clients, which can definitely be achieved by estate agents adapting, understanding and making use of technology, working with it rather than fearing it,” concludes Clarke.

If your company is already making use of AI or robotics in innovative ways, send an email to editor@propertyprofessional.co.za.

Topics: Real Estate Agents, Harcourts Real Estate, Artificial Intelligence