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Disrupting Community Management Industry Through Emerging Technologies
Andrew Brock, Executive Vice President and CIO, Associa
Technologists need to understand that the proptech market has changed, and the legacy model of standardizing every process or tool to make it easier and cheaper to support, is the wrong approach to meeting today's customer expectations. In an interview with CIO Applications, Andrew Brock, Executive Vice President And Chief Information Officer, Associa, explains that "To stay ahead of the innovation curve, tools need to be as standardized as possible while also being as flexible as possible. And that's where the art of technology comes in.
The real estate industry is making a rapid transformation to modernize itself and with the volume of new elements coming into the technological ecosystem, how are you able to cope with it from a process or company point of view?
Associa takes a leadership approach: we organize ourselves and incentivize our teams to be innovators and to move aggressively, swiftly, and effectively. That requires a top-down commitment and unwavering focus on being the industry pioneer, which permeates our culture and directs key strategies around technology, investments, and hiring. You implied it in your question, but historically, the real estate industry has been slow to make significant investments in technology, and as a result, has not been able to keep up overall market advances. However, now more than ever, residents are bringing their consumer expectations into the PropTech market, and delivery is no longer optional. If the sector can’t respond to and keep up with these expectations, then the market is opening itself up to disruptive threats.
Exceeding a customer’s rapidly evolving expectations can be difficult in a labor-intensive service industry; there are a lot of people and touchpoints involved in delivering an excellent customer service experience. But now, with the emergence and development of RPA, and the growing functionality of cloud providers and infrastructure as a service, it has become easier for us to move quickly and deploy technology at each step along the customer journey.
One of the unique dynamics in our industry is that we serve multiple customer groups. From a B2C perspective, we serve homeowners and residents, and from a B2B perspective, we serve the boards of directors of our communities. It gets more complicated when we factor in vendors, tenants, and financial partners. Each of those customer groups have unique needs that vary from market to market and community to community. We must constantly evaluate how to best meet those expectations with the right mix of personnel, processes, and technology. Once those frameworks are developed, we relentlessly examine every process to determine if technology can produce a more predictable and reliable experience at faster speeds and lower costs. This approach has been very successful for us. We’ve been able to free up our employees from manual processes so that they can instead focus their time and skills on connecting with homeowners and boards, thus improving the customer experience.
A technology purist’s goal is standardization. It’s cheaper and easier to support and deploy. However, a customer’s desire is customization with the pricing and support benefits of standardization. Customers want both. Technologists need to understand that the market has changed, and the legacy model of standardizing every process or tool to make it easier and cheaper to support, is the wrong approach to meeting today’s customer expectations. To stay ahead of the innovation curve, tools need to be as standardized as possible while also being as flexible as possible. And that’s where the art of technology comes in. It’s the mix of being just standard enough. Our approach has been to standardize the infrastructure and service layers and handle customization through products at the code level. That’s easier said than done, and at our size, architecturally complex. However, to succeed, the solution must be sophisticated enough to allow customization for the user, while at the same time be able to satisfy consumers’ expectations of pricing, performance, and availability, at scale.
Could you give a brief understanding of your role and what kind of daily tasks it encompasses at Associa?
Associa is the largest residential property management firm in the world, and we have grown primarily through acquisition.
Although we’re the largest, the market remains fragmented, so our inorganic growth strategy continues to be a key focus. Over the years, we have developed a highly effective model to help us identify management companies that have competitive advantage in a specific market. We acquire those firms and then provide them with tools, products, and our technology platforms, which help increase efficiency and fuel growth. This effort never stops. The positive market reputation we’ve developed among sellers and their employees over the years effectively drives business to us, so our acquisition pipeline is always extremely strong. That dynamic provides unique challenges to our technology organization. Our teams and infrastructure must function at very high levels of efficiency, so we’ve designed it to run like a M&A shop.
Technologists need to understand that the market has changed, and the legacy model of standardizing every process or tool to make it easier and cheaper to support, is the wrong approach to meeting today’s customer expectations
As Executive Vice President of Associa, I oversee acquisition integration, investments, project management, security, and corporate real estate. As Chief Information Officer, I’m responsible for our global technology organization, enterprise data team, and cybersecurity. I am also CEO of Associa’s Digital Services division, where I lead all of the digital initiatives and transformation programs. Since Associa operates at an immense scale, it’s challenging to find software products that meet our needs and the way we work. To that end, we have five software companies around the world that fall under my oversight. These companies operate independently and develop tools for our company and the industry.
Kindly provide a detailed overview of the latest project you’re currently working on and what kind of technology or process elements have you leveraged to make the project successful?
As I mentioned before, the voice of the customer is key. We are relentlessly focused on customer feedback and customer experience. Five years ago, the definition of customer service was an IVR, a phone tree, and/or warehouses full of customer service agents. However, customers always felt like they were calling a call center and struggled with wait times and issue resolution. That singular approach to customer service wasn’t necessarily effective in creating brand loyalty and customer satisfaction, and many of our competitors have struggled as a result.
For us, we always start with understanding the customer and monitoring the top reasons our customers reach out to us across each channel. Consistent with our engineering approach, we then experiment with how technology can most rapidly address their concerns. In this digital age, the emergence of enterprise-hardened bots is interesting to us. We’re also experimenting with robotic process automation and how we can digitally respond to homeowner inquiries and customer service requests. For example, bots can deliver a copy of a bill to a homeowner, without anyone ever having to touch the keyboard.
Another piece that has always been important to Associa is making sure that every customer’s concern is heard and that issues are quickly resolved. We have started using cloud infrastructure and technology to track homeowner requests and provide real-time updates via our mobile app or through text and/or email. We can consistently follow up across several communication channels to ensure the customer is satisfied. Through technology, homeowners can conveniently respond on their own time, no longer being constrained by our office hours.
Do you have any suggestions for your fellow CIO’s and peers on how they can cope up with the changing dynamics of the technology and processes in the prop-tech sphere?
First, I would encourage fellow CIOs to surround themselves with people who represent the voice of the customer and who are incentivized to challenge the status quo. For example, on my leadership team, I have both industry veterans and those we’ve hired into the industry. I also have a seasoned technologist who lives in one of our managed communities and millennials who are the first-time homeowners. Each of these individuals represents a different way that our customers like to do business, and their voices are vital. Equally as important, having varying generations represented across my team who understand and perceive newer technologies differently naturally forces a dialogue, at the leadership level, about how best to address each business opportunity. It’s crucial for me to have leaders at the table who challenge the way we do business, always push us towards the cutting edge, and represent the voice of the customer.
Secondly, CIOs need to partner with great legal support and software providers. The changing dynamics of privacy and cybersecurity in PropTech are years away from leveling out. In fact, I believe it’s just going to become more complex, as we’ve seen most recently with GDPR and the California Consumer Protection Act, for example. There’s a massive rush among companies to try and become the “one single technology provider” for homeowners, and as a result, I see them more aggressively pushing the boundaries of privacy. And that legal landscape is rapidly changing. So, it goes back to what we talked about earlier. If the company’s software is not flexible enough to be customized at the market and user levels, while being standardized enough to support and perform at scale, those companies are quickly going to get themselves in trouble. This is where the right software talent and legal expertise is critical, and those voices must guide the effort from design to implementation. Recently, I have noticed companies taking more and more shortcuts, either due to lack of appropriate funding or because they’re trying to find a cheaper and faster way to get into the market. From my perspective, that’s a highly risky move. As a CIO, it’s critical that your board is educated on these topics so they can allocate the appropriate investment funds to approach the market dynamics correctly. That is not a challenge at Associa. We are lucky to have an incredibly forward-thinking and supportive Chairman & CEO. We are aligned across the executive team on vision, strategy, and values which creates a strong environment for success.
Approaching technology, the right way is critically important. It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum and marketing of all things digital. Emerging technologies certainly have significant potential for disrupting the way we do business. However, it’s important to remember that even in an environment of rapid change and business model evolution, a CIO must always be guided by established, business fundamentals – those haven’t changed.