There will not be a single business within the property sector that did not start the year in vastly different circumstances to the ones we now find ourselves in.
As offices closed around the UK and staff got used to working from home under the strict government guidelines, companies quickly had to adjust to the challenge of working remotely and re-evaluate how they use technology.
As a result, estate and lettings agents are increasingly looking to artificial intelligence (AI) and business process automation as a means of better coordinating their dispersed teams and enhancing business processes.
Surviving the lockdown
Unsurprisingly, most property businesses were unprepared for the scale of change required during the pandemic.
Even those with remote access to business systems and team collaboration software still had significant gaps, with processes simply not available for many day-to-day tasks.
Those heavily reliant on large workforces, rigid operational systems, and huge amounts of on-premise IT infrastructure, have found that processes were not particularly compatible with their new circumstances, so needed to adapt quickly.
Property businesses have been seeking a better way to operate remotely, manage teams and communicate with stakeholders in the most efficient and productive manner. What has become clear is that estate and lettings agents faced a host of unforeseen problems that required changes to existing processes or brand-new ones:
• How do you distribute incoming mail, without either putting staff at risk or creating considerable overheads and time delays? Process automation can prioritise and share incoming communications to relevant team members, while minimising human intervention.
• With employees working remotely, many businesses have no oversight of response rates to incoming emails. This makes it impossible to measure performance. Implementing a single-view dashboard with automated monitoring, underpinned by AI capabilities, they now have full visibility of email response times and peace of mind that enquiries are not being ignored.
• Many property businesses have complex phone systems with interactive voice response. With offices closed and no visibility who is available, it is no longer possible to offer a comprehensive choice of options. Only with some form of process automation is it possible to ensure calls are still rapidly connected to the most appropriate, available person.
Property businesses have had to quickly look at new ways of handling activity that previously relied on an office-based function. Many have realised that with teams working remotely, issues existed with internal and external communications. This makes customer, colleague and stakeholder engagement disorganised, ineffective and difficult to oversee. This has led to many agents considering better use of technology to manage their businesses remotely and accommodate new ways working moving forward.
Using AI and business process automation, managers and business owners can quickly gain visibility over operational performance, with a real-time view of the status of all tasks as well as the activity of teams and individuals.
This allows organisations to maintain productivity by better monitoring critical workflows, while supporting remote staff by simplifying, automating and digitising key processes. For example, the contract renewals process is a key area of focus and income for many property businesses, so it is possible to make all communications, checks, paperwork and payment are handled electronically.
Having the ability to not only capture information, but also analyse and report on the findings, also enables workflows to be assessed, identifying any issues and bottlenecks, so corrective action can be taken quickly and efficiently.
By gaining added insight into working practices, managers and owners can target continuous improvement based on quantifiable data and real-world scenarios, which is essential during this period of working from home and beyond.
Intelligent process automation
The coronavirus crisis has underlined the need for greater technology adoption. There is now a huge opportunity for estate agents and property businesses – operating within the commercial, residential, co-working, co-living, student accommodation and retail sectors – to streamline business processes.
This means they can automate routine tasks and eradicate laborious activities that free-up and empower their staff to focus on the personal side of their roles to drive growth and increase profits.
Intelligent process automation can enhance a wide range of common workflows such as pre-tenancy paperwork, contract renewals, office reservations, maintenance requests, account reconciliation, credit control and retail enquiries.
Up to 85% of business processes can be automated, which means a property company can fundamentally change the day-to-day role of staff and maximise their potential. In some instances, this has already resulted in the doubling of the number of properties managed without the need to increase headcount, so there are huge opportunities.
Many tasks can be accomplished far more quickly, accurately and efficiently than a person ever could. It takes an average of 12 minutes to register a tenant’s deposit, but an automated process would complete the same action in just 16 seconds, even interacting seamlessly with major deposit protection schemes such as TDS and The DPS. This is just one of the numerous improvements available, which can reduce pre-tenancy workload by typically increasing efficiency by over 60% that could translate to hundreds of saved hours every month.
There is a delicate balance to be found, so effective collaboration between technology and people can help overcome current and future challenges. By removing time-consuming and repetitive tasks, it is possible to fundamentally change the day-to-day role of staff and maximise their potential.
Property businesses need to be best prepared for when we reach the other side of this crisis, but we must also ensure we do not simply slip back into old habits and previous ways of working.
We will need dynamic and innovative companies to kickstart the economy and take advantage of the opportunities that exist.
*Tom Reiss is CEO of Roby.ai