Ellen Bathgate: The age of automation

There's good and bad in everything, including technology. It can save you time but it can also hinder progress in your business if not used the right way. Here, Ellen Bathgate assesses some of the most popular automation and tells us two things that worked for her - and one thing that didn't.

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but back in the early 2000s, in property management, we used good old Epsom printers to print out end-of-month statements – in duplicate!

Once the duplicate statements were printed, we manually separated every single statement from its duplicate, hand-folded them, and hand-stuffed hundreds of envelopes to send out to our landlords.

In my office, it took three of us an entire day to finish end-of-month.

It was such a big deal that we weren’t allowed to book any other appointments for that day. It was all hands on deck.

Fast forward 20 years and end-of-month is over in about 15 minutes, thanks to technology.

There’s no denying technology has played a powerful role in the improvement of property management service and experience.

But that doesn’t mean technology is always the answer to improving service and experience.

In this article, I’ll share the two areas where you should be using technology in your property management business and the one area where you want to avoid technology.

Two things that worked great

1. Open home booking technology

I remember when I first started using open home booking technology in my agency.

I was one of the first agents in my town to use this type of software, and tenants loved it.

I received so many compliments and thanks for how quick and easy it was for tenants to schedule a time to inspect a property. 

Landlords loved the technology, too, because it gave them instant feedback on the outcomes of their open homes.

I loved it because it helped me lease properties quicker than before, and ensured that any price adjustments were made promptly if the feedback indicated it needed to be changed.

But be warned, there’s another side to open home booking technology that you must be aware of.

In strong rental markets, you’re likely to receive requests for alternate inspection times or requests for additional information about the property.

You need to have robust systems in place to handle these requests too.

Again, you can rely on the automation built into your open home booking technology to answer frequently asked questions and respond to requests for alternate inspection times.

Just remember to keep an eye on your software so that no request is ignored.

2. Chatbots

One of the things that I love about this 24/7 world is the chatbot.

You know, a little piece of technology that can chat with your clients for you at 11pm on a Wednesday.

Using chatbots on your website can allow you to capture landlord leads while you sleep and handle non-urgent maintenance after hours.

You must do two important things if you’re using chatbots in your property management department.

  • Invest time upfront in setting up templated responses to all of your most commonly asked questions.

If you don’t invest this time upfront, the chatbot won’t work, and your clients will just get frustrated with it.

In fact, if your clients (and prospective clients) are getting frustrated with your chatbot, it’s probably worse than if you didn’t have one at all.

When you’re doing the initial set-up of templated responses, make sure you go through your maintenance software to see what types of maintenance requests are most common.

You’ll also need to go through all of your new landlords leads for the past few months and see what the most common questions are, so you can optimise your responses to capture new leads via the chatbot.

  • Bring a human into the conversation quickly. 

Ensure that your chatbot is set up to quickly recognise if it doesn’t know the answer to the question.

You want to redirect the conversation to let the client know that a real person needs to answer this question and reassure them of exactly when and how to expect a response.

There’s nothing more frustrating than going in circles with a chatbot.

So, having a strong system to redirect the chat offline or to a real person on your team, will ease that frustration.

And, here’s one to avoid

Automated rent arrears emails

Property Management trust accounting software has come a long way in the last couple of years.

And the automation that is built into this technology is brilliant.

The time savings for property managers is outstanding, and I’m excited to see even more innovation in property management trust accounting software in the next few years.

But there’s one thing I don’t love about this technology – automated rent arrears emails.

This is my pet peeve.

Before you throw tomatoes at me, let me explain.

When a tenant misses one single rent payment, an automated rent arrears email can work well.

It’s a once-off, the tenant catches up on their rent, and we all move on.

But when you have a serial offender, someone who regularly (maybe even deliberately) pays their rent late, your automated rent arrears email looks, well, automated.

If they receive the same email every day, you start to sound like the boy who cried wolf.

In fact, if a tenant receives enough of these emails, they’ll start ignoring your other emails too, because they realise, you’re a ‘toothless tiger’ – someone who makes a lot of threats but doesn’t follow through on them.

If you have a tenant who is regularly in arrears (provided they’re not at a stage where you’re required to issue a breach or termination notice), it’s time to turn off those automated emails.

It’s time to get on the phone, or at the very least, send personalised (and slightly different) emails to your tenant.

The goal with rent arrears is to get it paid, and the best way to get it paid is to get the tenant to talk to you about what’s truly going on.

In my experience, there’s always a reason a tenant falls behind in their rent, especially if the rent arrears are ongoing.

It’s your job as the property manager to find out what’s really going on and work to fix the problem or terminate the tenancy if that’s the next step.

Sending an automated email to a serial offender every day isn’t the solution. Proactive rent arrears management is. 

Yes, it takes more time, yes it’s frustrating, but in my experience, it’s always the most effective way to get a tenant back on track.

Whether you’re adding new technology to your business this year or turning off some technology to add the personal touch, I hope you’ll enjoy and maximise the power of technology in your property management department.

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Ellen Bathgate

Ellen Bathgate is the founder of Rent Roll Starter, and helps rent roll owners to start and grow their own rent rolls using affordable growth strategies. For more information visit