Connect the Speakers: Sarah Bell on building artificial intelligence into your agent toolbox

Technology has the ability to transform or torture real estate agents

Sarah Bell is intimately acquainted with artificial intelligence (AI) as one of the creators of Rita, an AI-driven assistant who just had “her” first birthday in August. Rita’s job involves integrating into real estate brokerages and helping them with their technology, and Bell’s involves making Rita more intuitive and intelligent with every iteration.

She’ll be participating in a panel discussion about how AI is changing the game for consumers at Inman Connect New York, January 29 through February 1 at the Marriott Marquis Times Square. We talked to Bell about how AI can help both agents and brokers do a better job, and what her plans are moving forward with Rita.

Tell us a little more about your session. How will it address how the industry can embrace the shifting market?

This is something I feel really passionately about; we came into the industry and wanted to create technology that was of value to brokers because so much of the technology we have today can be quite dangerous in terms of disintermediation where we’re not needed in the transaction anymore. They call this the fourth industrial revolution with AI, things like chatbots and search matching. Those technologies are relatively narrow and they’re not equivocal to genuine human intelligence, they’re not as good at customer service because they can’t handle complex inquiry and emotion and all that soft stuff that real estate agents are really good at and people engage them for that more than they realize.

People have always been able to sell their own property and those tools that are available, you’ve always been able to do that without an agent, and people did that before. But when you think about the complexity and what’s involved in it, not a lot of people have the nerve to leave that amount of money on the table and handle it themselves. I think real estate agents will be relevant so long as they can continue to provide a professional service that’s valuable.

In terms of strategic applications and moving forward, I understand why people are nervous because technology has the ability to transform or torture real estate agents, and it comes down to how we adopt technology. What we saw in Australia was this human era that lasted from the last industrial revolution up until eight to ten years ago when you had humans dealing with humans and agents dealing with banks and everyone coming together to do business, but the issue with that is it became difficult to scale with any kind of profitability. What we did was adopt a whole bunch of tools, from things like bulk email tools and even text message blasts, they’re all geared at taking a human real estate agent and genericizing that and broadcasting it.

What we think is that once you get to that point, when a human real estate agent is genericized because everyone’s got access to the same tools, you run the risk of being commoditized, and when you can’t tell the difference between one agent and another, you start losing the battle for relevance. I think that’s where we are now, because what that digital revolution didn’t give us was the ability to personalize. We could scale but we had to trade off our personal customer service. What I think will safeguard and maintain real estate agents is where they can provide personal customer service to people willing to pay for it at scale, and that’s where AI can help.

Our vision is not to put more technology in between the humans and the transaction; you think of sitting down at a dinner table and there’s a computer screen between you, that’s a less valuable conversation, but if you can make the computer part of the team that’s driving your performance, you can help agents embrace collective performance. The best agents moving forward will be the ones who are using this new technology and can double down on the soft skills and all the things machines can’t do. I don’t think agents should be spending all day in front of a machine, they need to put the machine behind them and not between them.

What do you think are the biggest opportunities to focus on in the real estate industry right now?

One of the biggest things that we see is the CRM or the data in the real estate business is super-underutilized. I think we’ve got the value of collecting data and we’ve turned into an industry of hoarders. Real estate agents have got some of the most powerful data you can imagine, you know where your customers live, and so I think when you take that data asset, it’s been built up over years and often messy and stale, and we don’t know how to leverage it beyond mailing lists and stuff like that. What we see is an opportunity to harness the power of that data, and if you want to look at how big tech companies are trying to get access to that data — if you look at things like Google Home or Alexa, all of that is an asset to get the technology company into the lounge room, which gets you really close to the life events that drive purchase decision-making.

Rita — her job is to work with the CRM with a massive track of data, and she can provide some unique insights like “when was the last time you had a natural conversation?” She’s going to look at those actual human engagements as opposed to just contacts. She then brings in open-source data as well as monitoring the marketplace, so she works like a suggestion engine and uses all the data available in the CRM and outside the CRM to come up with suggestions from the CRM for you to connect with during the day so that you don’t have to think about who do I call and what do I say? You can just kind of choose to do it or not do it.

The way I describe that functionality that she has, it’s just one of the things she can do — she can process tenancy applications, respond intelligently to buyer inquiries through the portal. It might be that she’s noticed a new house come on the market on a street where you know one of the property owners and she’ll suggest you call your clients and let them know about that new listing so you can send that message that you’re on top of the market and how it’s impacting that particular person; it allows you to get a very focused strategy without having to do any of the pre-admin work or analysis to get there. Kind of like Netflix — based on movies you like, Netflix suggests other movies, and Rita does that as well. If you’ve only got time to call four people, you need time to know who to call or what to say, but you can just call the suggestions Rita gives you.

To stay competitive, agents, brokers and companies need to execute quickly. What do you feel are key areas where quick execution can vastly improve the customer experience?

If I can go broad on that, I go back to my strategic planning days and the classic strategy of any business — your cost leadership strategy, your differentiation strategy and your focus strategy. The cost leadership is making people increasingly nervous. These disintermediating platforms and these low-service, low-cost, high-tech agencies — they haven’t gained much traction over here. It is an option for people and it is an option in the ecosystem, but it’s not a profitable option unless you can execute it at scale and I don’t think anyone’s really got there, in our marketplace anyway. And I think it’s a losing proposition anyway, you’re taking a product that’s inherently valuable and diminishing it. Then you look at differentiation, and I think we’re in a place where everyone has the same toolbox and there’s very little to differentiate one agent from another in a tangible way, and when you don’t have differentiation it becomes the battle of the brands and it becomes a competition of who can scream the loudest, and that becomes a very expensive game to play and there’s no substance to it. The third generic strategy is focus, and when you look at the focus strategy, it’s about creating hyper-personal hyper-local experiences for people as they transact in this significant milestone in their life, and if you can do that with efficiency, not only are you going to be more efficient, you don’t have to be more efficient in the trade-off of lowering fees and service. That’s what it usually costs us.

What’s cool about AI is that we can execute on this focus strategy, this high-service, concierge model, and we can do it in any type of personal way for clients, but we can do it at scale. All of that customer service that’s going to keep that real estate agent hyper-focused on their relationships and engaging as a broker as well as having all of that local knowledge, things change street by street and block by block, and if you know that information, it’s valuable.

What are your hopes for the next 12 months, and what will you be working on?

Rita is turning two next August and we’ve just redeveloped our platform, a full technical rewrite that will allow us to be even more flexible and apply her intelligence and skills to even more areas, so we can create a bunch of different strategies and apply them to her. Now Rita is able to see every discrete unit of work as an opportunity to optimize the human, so you can imagine any requests for service, everything we need her to do and everything that should be done so the human can act really quickly and in a really cool way. If you take anything that happens in a real estate business between that phase when someone is converting a buyer to an offer, the ability to assign opportunity to a mortgage broker and the ability for an agent to see an opportunity as a buyer who’s interested in a property, assign it to a mortgage broker, track it and wait until it’s ready to go and then act once they’re approved — we’ll just continue to find ways for the best people to be put in front of the right people at the best time, and that ecosystem and capability is just going to get bigger. That’s what machine learning is all about; Rita’s getting smarter every day, doing more, using more data.

Discover the opportunities in a changing market at Inman Connect New York, January 29 – February 1. Jumpstart 2019 with tactical takeaways, unlimited networking and thought-provoking speakers. Learn more.

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