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PropTech Today: Demand for ‘robo-advisors’ is increasing

As someone who spends his days peering into the PropTech world, one thing I’ve observed is the way in which certain tech prompts a race to arms, where firms compete to deliver the most advanced version of an emerging technology. 

One such technology is the ‘robo-advisor’, often referred to as ‘chat bots’. 

You would be hard pushed to find a property website where, after a few seconds or a couple of scrolls, the bottom right-hand side of the screen doesn’t burst into life with a Facebook Messenger-style chat box popping up to try and engage you in conversation. 

Invariably, the first question you are asked is: “Good afternoon, my name is Debbie. What can I help you with?”

These robots aren’t just frivolous attempts to adopt zeitgeist tech, their increasing popularity is due to the fact that the majority of property enquiries are now made outside of traditional office hours.

Internet registrations research, carried out by Reapit, the property CRM provider, shows that only 39% of applicant enquiries take place during working hours, a direct result of the digital transformation’s effect on the way we browse and shop. 

Interestingly, most online registrations for property sales and lettings now occur between 9pm and 10pm, Monday to Thursday.

In a society as immediately expectant as ours, providing a fast response to an enquiry is increasingly important. And if you want to accept and process those enquiries out of office hours, the only financially viable solution is so-called ‘Artificial Intelligence’. 

In the most basic sense, AI robo-advisors are pieces of software upon which a human programmes appropriate prompts and responses for frequently asked questions. 

As technology improves, the AI becomes less reliant on human programming, able to learn from historic action and develop improved and more accurate responses. A simple example of this would be automatically learning to recognise the varied ways in which a human would naturally ask a question. 

When the bot asks: “What can I help you with?” The response could be: “How much is my house worth?” But it could also be: “I would like to have my property valued.” 

As the tech advances, it becomes far more eloquent and intuitive. The more sophisticated your robo-advisor, the more likely you are to successfully respond to enquiries and, thus, secure new business. 

Reapit’s report states that 29% of all online residential enquiries remain unprocessed. If firms can introduce high quality robo-advisors, this inefficiency can be drastically reduced. 

Robo-advisors: Good or bad?

Robo-advisors certainly have their critics, many of whom cite their main concern as the elimination of human jobs. But, as I’m always saying, the tech that will become successful will be the same that fully integrates the digital and human experience. 
The best robo-advisors will, however, help eliminate some of the baggage that comes with human beings.

As Kunal Bajaj, founder and chief executive of Mumbai-based Clearfunds, puts it: “A good robo-adviser is transparent, unconflicted and unimpeded by human biases and prejudices.”

I think it’s fair to say that, for the past few years, robo-advisors have suffered from limited capabilities; able to respond only to base level questions but little else, and, when getting flustered, they respond by offering a multiple choice prompt to try and get the user back on track. 

This is due, in no small part, to governments around the world being reluctant to give AI research too much funding. There are an awful lot of voices warning of the potential risks of advancing AI too far, many of which are coming from highly credible figures. As such, some authorities are keeping their distance. 

Only recently, AI came under fire when figures, including Elon Musk, pleaded to the UN to ban research into AI weaponry. I appreciate weapons are far a cry from property, but it illustrates why funding has, until recently, been minimal. 

But that’s changing. Microsoft has set up the Microsoft AI Research Group to oversee five thousand computer scientists and engineers in their efforts to push AI into the company’s products. 

This includes a key focus on search, digital assistants and robotics. When governments prove lacklustre, private industry often steps up. We are finally seeing that happen for AI. 

It’s simple supply and demand

The fact of the matter is, people have to carry out their property search outside of work hours; most of us are increasingly time-poor. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the most enquiries are coming in on weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons. 

They are the only times that people are free to focus on their search, away from the distractions of work and children. With this in mind, it’s clear that the property industry needs to respond to the obvious demand. 

Robo-advisors are the most efficient and affordable way to be there when the client needs you, no matter what the time. Failure to respond promptly is a sure-fire way of losing potential leads. 

The firms that employ the most sophisticated bots will have the best chance of fulfilling enquiries, many of which will come after a previous firm has failed to respond in good time.

*James Dearsley is founder of the Digital Marketing Bureau and a PropTech communicator. To sign up to James’ Sunday PropTech Review, click here.

  • Mark Hempshell

    Though they seemed clever at first I think most people immediately realise 'Debbie' isn't real, and the fact you're being dealt with by an automated system tarnishes the image of the company you've contacted. (In any case the usual advice after a lengthy 'chat' is 'call us', doh!) Think they would need to get a lot better before they could add any real value, or perhaps it's already too late?

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