Josh Epps – Fickling & Company
After nine hours of bathroom breaks and arguments over which kid gets to use the iPad, you’re finally here: a beautiful beachfront rental house on Florida’s St. George Island.
A four-digit key code quickly gets you in the door, where you’re instantly greeted by automated lighting. Too drained to figure out the sleeping arrangement, you leave the luggage in the entryway and collapse on couch.
“Dad?” shouts the six-year-old. “When are we going to eat?”
Your eyes light up. For what feels like the first time all day, you know exactly what to do. “Alexa, order two large cheese pizzas from the closest pizza place.” At that moment, your vacation has officially started.
These are just a few of the tech amenities that Georgia-based Fickling & Company has been incorporating into its growing real-estate portfolio. And according to Chief Information Officer Josh Epps, there’s plenty more on the way.
“We’re just scratching the surface on smart-home technology and automation,” Epps says. “The real estate sector has traditionally lagged behind the IT curve. But that’s starting to change.”
Since 2016, Epps has led efforts to bring the internet of things (IoT)—where your appliances are internet connected—to Fickling’s growing portfolio of apartments and vacation rental properties.
Fickling’s use of voice-controlled smart speakers (Amazon’s Alexa) is perhaps the most recognizable feature, allowing users to request everything from the unit’s Wi-Fi password and checkout times to local restaurant listings. But the company’s offerings don’t end there.
Thanks to things like automated lights and climate control, Fickling is finding ways to bridge the gap between tenant comfort and energy efficiency. Meanwhile, keyless entry provides greater security by allowing Fickling to “change the locks” as often as needed.
According to Epps, the potential for IoT integration is even greater on the apartment rental side. For example, by linking the unit’s devices to Fickling’s property-management system through a mobile app, the company can send rent reminders, receive maintenance requests and even set up automatic payments.
“When you live somewhere all the time, there are a lot more opportunities to leverage automation and intelligence behind these systems,” Epps explains. “Just because you live in an apartment doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the same amenities as you would if you lived in an IoT-powered house.”
Agents of change
So far, these customer-facing gadgets have garnered plenty of positive feedback. But it’s Fickling’s back-end upgrades that could prove the biggest boon to the company’s bottom line.
Currently, Epps and his team are in the process of rolling out a new sales-management system aimed at creating better visibility for their 60 residential agents.
It starts with the company’s website. Now, whenever a user conducts a property search, that information is automatically saved to Fickling’s data stores. If the user chooses to register with the site, bonus features are unlocked, including search saves, a favorites list and more, creating even more data for Fickling to use.
As the customer moves further down the funnel—say, by sending a message inquiring about the size of a property’s kitchen or local property taxes—a Fickling agent will be “triggered” to engage, ideally though the company’s mobile app.
“What we’re trying to understand is what really moves the customer through that process,” Epps says. “The more they’re on the site, and the longer they’re on it, the more data we get, which helps us build a more complete picture of buyer demographics.”
As the country’s housing inventory continues to contract, Epps says the level of user engagement has grown in tandem: longer time-on-site, broader searches, more interaction between the user and Fickling agents, and so on.
Never mailing it in
Looking ahead, Epps wants to use predictive analytics to help bolster Fickling’s customer outreach efforts.
For decades, the default strategy of most realtors involved targeting a defined geographical area—be it by neighborhood or zip code—and bombarding it with postcards and other promotional ephemera.
“If you got 10 responses to 5,000 postcards, that was considered a success,” Epps says with a laugh. “The tools we use allow us to be much more targeted.”
Using factors including local median home price, demographic data, new-home builds and business development trends, Fickling is better able to predict who in a given area is most likely to sell their home within a specific timeframe (typically six to 12 months).
Depending on the depth and detail of the data, Fickling could do anything from sending a friendly email to delivering a brochure. If the company successfully lands a seller, the chances of representing them on the purchasing side increase dramatically.
“We’re seeing technology fuel a lot of rapid change in our business, and there’s a very real risk of traditional brokerages getting left behind,” Epps says. “What’s going to be critical over the next five years is how we embrace technology and leverage our value proposition.”
Though he’d happily welcome a week or two on the sands of St. George.
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