Technology is now available to help housebuilders before, during and after the sales process, and while early adopters are reaping the benefits, some are not yet switched on. RUPERT BATES explores the latest marketing and customer care tools available to the industry.
It may be a world where human interaction is still worth a thousand apps, but digital technology and a host of innovations from a supply chain forever pushing the boundaries are slowly transforming the new homes space.
Whether it is employees and sub-contractors being given new tools to help track defects and improve accountability and delivery, or the advance of marketing technology to engage and inform consumers, the housebuilding industry is slowly evolving. ‘The customer journey’ may have become a marketing cliché, but in the construction sector hotwired to think primarily in terms of bricks and mortar, the customer journey, says
“In some companies we have visited, the customer care or complaints file is still passed around the office like a poisoned chalice,” says Farrell.
“There are some very capable software solutions that were designed initially as accounting tools, which later added a customer care module to their product offering. These on premise products were very expensive, complex to get up and running, charged per user licence and lacked that true collaboration between all parties.
“So a lot of housebuilders who couldn’t afford or didn’t rate the on-premise software have defaulted to creating Excel spread sheets to log all reported issues. I often wonder if Bill Gates realised that when Microsoft designed Excel, that the product would be the industry leader in storing customer care data for UK housebuilders!”
clixifix®is a customer care management application developed by people with many years of experience in new homes sales and marketing and customer care departments.
It is a cloud-based application – there’s no software to install or download – designed to issue unique ticket numbers for every defect or repair reported.
“Every defect is either an emergency, or a high, medium or low priority repair.
Depending on the company, which can set its own internal KPIs [key performance indicators], the response times could range from four hours to 28 or 60 days,” says Farrell.
“Once you create the ticket, there is a chronological countdown until the ticket is closed or resolved. Every one of the team has a unique user name and password to log-in and they can see the dashboard, which shows them how many tickets are open; it’s all in front of them and very transparent. The sub-contractors are nominated on the ticket so they know how long they have to respond, and the process goes from there,” says Farrell, with the ability to upload support documents from a mobile, or create appointments on the move.
“There is a clear audit trail from the very first contact from the purchaser or resident, which can’t be deleted. It brings transparency and accountability to the process.”
Housebuilding is a very traditional industry – a polite way of describing the sector’s use of out-dated systems and practices and failing to embrace or keep pace with technology.
“I do feel the industry is slowly coming round to the idea that you don’t need to have all your software in the office. Just because your business is not in the technology sector doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t important to facilitate improvement,” says Farrell.
“With improved IT infrastructure and instant application deployment among your remote workforce, clients and sub-contractors, SaaS [Software as a Service] is something to consider as it becomes more prominent in the construction industry.”
Farrell says a collaborative platform to work together on defects and repairs, sharing documents, encouraging teamwork and creating efficiencies ensures your subcontractors and supply chain feel valued and trusted.
He stresses the need to work on aftersales care too, as a poor customer experience can end up online and dispersed across social channels and blogs, damaging your brand.
“Empowering your consumers with the resources and functionality to find answers and report issues quickly through online platforms is the present accepted norm for
aftercare in numerous other sectors but not in our construction Industry. “Enabling owners and clients to log in to their personalised dashboard for updates on reported defects and repairs, view support documents, product information and even help videos instantly can be invaluable.
This omni-channel approach is consistent with their pre-sales experience and could cement your company’s reputation for excellent customer care,” says Farrell.
ThinkBDW is a full-service property marketing agency, providing brochures, websites, signage, bespoke marketing suites, advertising design and media bookings, PR and the latest CGI and digital marketing tools such as touchscreen technology and iPad apps.
Simon Mead, digital director of ThinkBDW, says: “It’s not enough simply to produce a site plan of a new development and expect potential customers to visualise themselves at home there. So we offer our clients digital marketing technology to help deliver leads and sales and enhance customer care.”
ThinkBDW creates interactive 3D site plans, allowing the user to navigate around a site and explore in detail, with the information accessed via touchscreen tables in a marketing suite, or anywhere via a mobile device.
“By selecting a plot, a computer generated image of the property appears, along with details including its current build status, specification and price. The viewer can then view individual floorplans and take an animated tour around the house or apartment,” says Mead.
A digital 3D kitchen selector gives purchasers an idea of what finishes they can select for their new home.
The options are shown as swatches, so the user can choose between different types of flooring or worktops.
“When selecting a swatch, the 3D model is updated instantly with the chosen finish displayed in situ. This is a great tool for selling granite worktop upgrades or higher specification appliances. Information on preferred choices can be saved and emailed to the customer,” adds Mead.
The latest CGI technology allows housebuilders to visualise all aspects of the project prior to construction, while touch tables and video walls are available in marketing suites or
at exhibitions. Prime minister David Cameron is a fan, having tried out the digital technology when opening ThinkBDW’s new head offices earlier this year.
“Housebuilders are extremely engaged with new technology. They know that a large proportion of customers have a smartphone or tablet and that touchscreen technology is therefore becoming more and more vital in the marketing process,” says Mead. “They’re aware that, by investing in such modern tools, they are showing faith in their product, at the same time as highlighting an understanding of their customers’ needs and likely preferences.”
Mead says prospective purchasers do their homework prior to visiting a development and there they expect the marketing suite and the sales staff to be at least as connected as they are.
“It opens up new opportunities for negotiators because buyers are looking for confidence and
reassurance that what they look at online is as good in reality. It gives the sales person more time to build a relationship,” says Mead.
“A recent retail survey showed that some 63% of people, even with the technology available, would still want that reassurance that only a good negotiator can bring. So the two go hand in hand and can be very effective when used together.
“People buy from people and buyer-seller relationships are incredibly important. At the same time, consumers are extremely savvy when it comes to interactive digital technology, and frustration can easily arise through a non-responsive website, or when an app is substandard.”
Axeo Systems produces what its managing director, Pedja Guzvica, describes as “an entire ecosystem of interactive sales and marketing tools specifically designed to help off-plan sales of new homes”.
“My goal was to achieve the transition in functionality from being ‘nice to have’ interactive marketing gimmicks to truly useful sales tools,” says Guzvica, stressing the importance of talking to sales staff on new developments, finding out their experiences and ideas and how technology can help them and their customers can help them and their customers. “The construction side of the business is on our radar too and we already have some interesting ideas how to streamline the communication flow between the technical and the sales and marketing teams.”
While acknowledging that housebuilders are slow adopters, with notable exceptions, Guzvica says the UK is more proactive in this space than the United States.
“My top three questions I have heard in the last 15 years are: ‘Why do we need CGIs when we have watercolours?’ Then: ‘Why do we need a website when we have a brochure?’ and now: ‘Why do we need an app system when we have a website?’”
Classic Folios has developed its homeowner portal, myHomefiles, which has been taken up by seven of the top 10 housebuilders, as well as 200 other developers.
“It empowers developers to improve delivery and reduce buyer stress levels. Consumers expect access to the information they want immediately and in context, often on their smartphone or tablet. Our system is geared to create that brand experience,” says David Graydon, joint managing director of Classic Folios. myHomefiles can be engineered to help at the pre-sales stage too, by integrating and synching with a client’s existing CRM system and allowing potential purchasers to review the developments and properties they’re interested in.
“From reservation, when customers are hungry for information, through to exchange and completion and beyond, when many customers feel communication starts to drop off, myHomefiles is an essential online tool to enable housebuilders to communicate easily and efficiently with their whole database as well as providing a host of smart features to help make the buying process as personal and straightforward as possible.”
“There is a real opportunity for developers to gain market share by embracing the technology solutions that customers are already using in their everyday lives – a massive prequalified, lead-generating marketing opportunity, particularly for national builders,” says Graydon.
Pelican Media provides interactive property marketing apps, CGIs, animations and development films, with its new software focusing on the customer journey.
“The majority of our clients are London based and we find that their marketing teams are the earliest adopters of new technology. Over the last five years we have gone from trying to convince clients of the benefits of new technologies, to them actively seeking the latest advancements,” says Tony Nicol, managing director of Pelican Media. “Technology has changed the way we do business beyond recognition since the launch of smart devices, and using these devices as a platform to reach customers has become the norm for the industry.
Being part of the digital age is now a necessity, not a luxury.” He believes that in the future buying a house will become more like buying a car, with unmanned, on-site marketing suites housing all the latest technology, where a customer can leave their information before being contacted by the housebuilder.
Veritii is an interactive 3D property sales tool, with its tablet-based platform used by the sales team either in their site office or remotely to cross-sell developments, allowing potential buyers to view all house types across all developments in 3D before they are built.
“We work closely with the suppliers to create a 3D real-time environment that allows the homebuyer to specify every element of their new home.
We are also working with furniture manufacturers to host their products in 3D, which gives the customer the ability to judge space and scale more effectively than the alternative
2D plans or CGIs,” says Richard Williams, founder and CEO of Veritii.
The customers are then prompted to email their newly configured homes to themselves and forwarded to the sales team for further sales enquiries, also acting as a warm lead generator.
Williams says housebuilders are increasingly adopting the latest technology to engage with buyers, although the latest virtual and augmented reality products need to add genuine value to convince developers, especially those outside London, and overcomplicated 3D models and tools can frustrate the user.
“While sales and marketing software can’t speed up the building process, it can be used to create an immersive environment that the housebuilders can use to keep the homebuyer informed, and happy that the process is running smoothly,” says Williams.
Modelworks Media offers augmented reality applications, 3D apartment finder apps, media tables and real-time 3D walkthroughs.
“It’s important that as products they are visually attractive, but also drive the marketing and sales of property in a practical sense that the industry is familiar with. We also look to drive the longevity of our products in the market to ensure our clients get the most from allocated budgets,” says Peter Rogers, business director of Modelworks.
“For example, we will build an augmented reality app to aid the visualisation of a scheme at planning and reuse assets in the 3D apartment finder system to aid marketing and drive sales. This same app can then be used over the duration of the development as a customer
care tool to push notifications through the various app stores, informing customers of new phases to be launched, or new restaurants and local amenities.”
A bespoke content management system then communicates updates of sales and reservations to all platforms globally.
Rogers says London developers and international projects are well engaged with new technology.
“Traditionally we have seen the building industry slightly behind other sectors, such as retail, but the gap is shortening. Our challenge is to ensure we are at the forefront of this curve and able to offer the very latest in technology solutions.”
Rogers says client interaction at point of sale is “a deeply personal service” that can’t be replaced.
“Technology mainly aids the presentation and helps people to make more informed decisions while also offering the ability to drive new marketing streams.”
Even the art of answering the phone is proving more sophisticated and a marketing as well as sales function.
Moneypenny has property receptionists who specialise in the needs of the property sector, using clever technology built in-house to guarantee housebuilders never miss a telephone call, while delivering the high levels of service customers expect.
“A missed call can be a missed sale and very probably a customer care fail, so housebuilders engage Moneypenny to handle any overflow calls they are struggling to reach themselves,” says Joanna Swash, commercial director of Moneypenny. “Providing a consistent telephone response can be an issue for housebuilders with traditional opening hours not necessarily matching the needs of the buyer who is looking to call at a time to fit in with
their busy lifestyle.”
Moneypenny’s bespoke technology recognises previous callers, providing receptionists with all the caller history they need to handle the call as though based in the client’s own office.
“In a highly competitive arena, a stand-out new-build is not simply measured on the property itself, but the service that lies behind it. It is pointless housebuilders spending money on advertising and on-line marketing if they aren’t supporting the activity by getting their response right when the phone rings. Those who are delivering well at every touch point, will be gathering more leads, delivering a first-rate customer experience and ultimately boosting sales,” says Swash.
Technology is ever evolving, but key suppliers of marketing, customer care and trade tools to the industry crucially understand that however well connected builders and buyers are digitally, there must always be human connection too. That remains the most sophisticated and valuable technology of all. SHOWHOUSE