Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Business Benefits of Voice-Assist Devices
Artificial intelligence gadgets such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are providing a new avenue to connect with clients and alleviate basic office tasks.
April 20, 2017
Alexa is Tristan Ahumada’s sidekick at open houses. Ahumada, the team leader of Tristan and Associates with Keller Williams Realty in Westlake Village, Calif., has been bringing his Echo, a portable nine-inch wireless Bluetooth-enabled device, with him to open houses for the past year. Ahumada has programmed Alexa, the voice behind Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap devices, to be able to answer open house visitors’ questions about nearby schools, the home’s square footage, price, and about a dozen other listing-related topics.
When visitors arrive to the open house, Ahumada hands them a brochure with photos of the home along with a list of questions they are welcome to ask Alexa. Ahumada has found that using a voice-activated device equipped with artificial intelligence at open houses is a simple way to stand out and be more memorable to potential clients. “People are loving it,” says Ahumada, who also commands Alexa to play soft music in the background when welcoming buyers.
Brokerages are gradually discovering more business applications for AI voice-powered assistants, such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. These voice assists could one day take over the chores you do manually in your office and power some of your business applications hands-free—no longer needing to glance at a smartphone or computer screen.
For example, voice-activated desktop companions can order office supplies, set calendar reminders, and control the office lighting, and users can ask the device questions about weather, traffic, or any other topic. In REALTOR® Magazine’s companion story, we look at five ways this technology is lightening the office load. But some brokerages are even using these devices as a way to court prospects, with apps that allow consumers to perform their home searches using their voice.
Voice Labs estimates there will be 24.5 million voice-activated devices shipped in 2017, which amounts to 33 million in circulation by the end of this year. The concept of voice assistance is being added to numerous programs, from vehicle GPS units to a home’s thermostat or lights.
But it’s the growth of AI voice-enabled devices that are getting more companies’ attention for workplace applications. The investment firm Morgan Stanley reported in January that more than 11 million Echo devices alone were sold between mid-2015 and Dec. 1, 2016, showing the explosive growth these devices are having in the general marketplace.
Miguel Berger, president of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Tech Valley in Colonie, N.Y., says these devices provide a way to reach out to more real estate customers. In 2014, his son, Ami, graduated from Cornell University with a computer engineering degree and asked for his own Amazon Echo device. Berger agreed to buy him one but asked for something from his son in return: create an app for Berger’s real estate company that would work on the Echo.
“It started out as a joke,” Berger says. But as the voice technology got more sophisticated, the two got serious about it. Through their joint tech firm, Voiceter Pro LLC, they developed software that is compatible with Alexa, allowing consumers to conduct searches for MLS-listed homes with spoken commands. They launched the platform and offered the Real Estate Skill app in December 2016 in the Albany, N.Y., market.
Here’s an overview of how it works:
A consumer can say, “Alexa, open real estate.”
Alexa: “Welcome to your virtual agent. This service is provided by Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Tech Valley. Are you looking to buy a home, sell, or rent?”
Alexa: “Let’s find you your dream home. What is the minimum price you are looking for?”
The consumer can then verbally narrow his or her search based on preferences, such as bedroom and bathroom count and desired location. The search results currently include only homes in the Capital Region Multiple Listing Service. (Watch a demonstration on YouTube.)
After Alexa completes the search, it will verbally report on the top three matches and then send an email with the complete listing details to the user. At the same time, the broker also receives an email with the consumer’s name and contact information for follow-up. A similar program from the duo, “Real Estate Search,” available to consumers for free on Google Home, enables users to ask Google Assistant to open the app and begin a conversational search to guide them through their house hunt.
Berger and his son are also creating customized, branded versions of their software for brokerages in other markets across the country. (They have an exclusivity rule and so create the app for only one broker per market.) So far, in addition to Albany, their service is available in Staten Island, N.Y.; Bryton, Mich.; and Phoenix.
“Voice-powered devices could change the way we interact with consumers,” Berger says. But the technology is still in its infancy as more consumers are figuring out how to use it in their daily lives. Berger sees more business applications for the devices in the future, as more programs allow voice-to-text features to set showing appointments or listen to the newest listings on the MLS each day. For now, Berger mostly uses his Echo for appointment reminders and to conduct his real estate research.
Still, one of the biggest problems with digital voice assistants is that they have difficulty recognizing distinct voices in a multiuser environment. This hampers its usefulness in an office setting. Google recently addressed this issue announcing a new update to its Home app, which, as of April 20, is able to identify up to six voices and then gather individual users' personal calendars and preferences on just one device. No longer do users have to open the Home app on a phone to switch accounts. (Learn more about how to set up multiple accounts on Google Home.)
“Consumers want these machines; otherwise they wouldn’t be adopting them at such a fast rate,” Berger says. “As real estate professionals, we have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this. There are so many applications that brokers should understand, both from a broker-to-broker angle and a broker-to-consumer one.”