Digitising – Simple, right?

Converting an analogue form into a digital format: a simple thing, you might think. But when it comes to housing application forms, this is definitely not the case in our experience.

Converting an analogue form into a digital format: a simple thing, you might think. But when it comes to housing application forms, our experience shows that this is definitely not the case.

This article was published in the March issue of Immobilia magazine by the Swiss property association SVIT Switzerland.

Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality and artificial intelligence are the buzzwords that many people associate with digitisation and hold in high esteem. This is also because many of us don’t actually understand what these buzzwords mean. However, digitisation doesn't just crop up in connection with highly complex topics like this. Digitisation also simply means transferring existing analogue processes into a digital world.

In the property sector, application forms for prospective tenants are the last great bastion of the analogue world. It is still the case for the vast majority of flat viewings that a paper form is handed out and then, after flat hunters have filled it out by hand, it is sent by mail to the relevant real estate agency, together with a printout of a debt extract form. Once this has been received by the agency, property managers check the documents and integrate them into their existing systems. This process requires a great deal of time on both sides, which can be reduced with the help of digitisation. At Flatfox, over 20,000 digital applications have already been received by professional real estate agencies. This number has more than tripled in a year. What we have learned is not to underestimate the journey towards digitisation. We would like to give you an insight into three pieces of knowledge that we have gained in recent years about the digitisation of the lettings process:

1. Added value from digitisation follows later

Thanks to the digital form, applications reach real estate agencies more quickly. Data of selected applicants is mapped into existing administrative systems and analysed, then optimal suggestions for creating contracts are generated. At the beginning, we weren’t fully aware of just how complex the process would be. Higher costs have to be anticipated during the initial transitional period because the process temporarily requires twice the amount of work, i.e. both analogue and digital processes will exist simultaneously. This will be the case for some time to come. It’s worth paying close attention to change management within the company. Changing existing workflows requires close collaboration with employees, who also need to be involved in the process. Further internal system changeovers are usually necessary as well. 

It helps when implementation is consistent and motivating, with initiation and support from senior management. It isn’t possible to measure higher levels of efficiency in concrete terms, such as in Swiss francs or minutes. This would only be achieved if the digital processes were implemented consistently from start to finish.

We recently conducted a survey among all managers who work with Flatfox and 83% responded that the digital application process had improved their work process. A master’s thesis of a student at the University of Zurich also demonstrates that a real estate company employee who adheres to Flatfox’s digital letting process has an average lead time that is 10.4% shorter than someone who doesn’t adhere to it. The lead time describes the time from the placement of a listing to the conclusion of the tenancy agreement. On average, 40% of the current applications from real estate agencies working with Flatfox are processed in an entirely digital manner. This is less than half and the added value is still modest. However, there is an upwards trend towards the majority of applications being processed digitally from the first administrative stage.

2. Easy isn't always simple - requirements for the digital application form

We stuck to a standardised form for a long time because we thought it would be easier for both interested parties and advertisers. We were convinced that more fields also meant more effort for the real estate agencies in terms of data quality, data maintenance and data verification. Furthermore, interested parties wouldn't be able to reuse their application forms. However, the requirements for the form were simply too diverse. Some real estate agencies, for example, requested photographs of pets and others enquired about the instep height. 

The importance of form requirements shouldn’t be underestimated. More fields mean fewer applications and vice versa - fewer fields mean more applications. Data protection is another issue that requires special attention. In a context of increasing levels of vacancy, customer-friendly services and tenant satisfaction have gained importance. We have already seen many real estate agencies adopt this new way of thinking. In any case, we no longer use standardisation and now offer a compromise between ease of use and configurability, depending on the type of property. We hope that in the future real estate agencies will create concise registration forms for interested parties.

3. Surprising development in mobile use - digital applications on the rise 93% of the Swiss population already uses the Internet as their main method of communication on mobile phones (according to Media Use Index 2018). It is therefore unsurprising that the property managers in our survey believe that the greatest added value - besides the digitised form - is communication with interested parties, which at Flatfox is done via messenger.

This trend can also be observed in the digital application form. Over 19,000 (5,000) digital applications were submitted in 2018 (2019). As the following table shows, there has been a significant increase in the use of mobile phones:

Device 2018 2019 Change
Desktop 66% 62% -6%
Mobile 30% 35% +16%
Tablette 4% 3% -25%

Since July 2018, the option of launching and completing the application via QR code has been added. The relative figures even surprised us:

2018 2019 Change
QR Code (Initiation) 12% 19.5% 62%
QR Code (Finalisation) 9% 12% 30%

The figures show that an increasing number of users scan the QR code with their mobile phone directly after the viewing, accessing the application form online and even entering some initial data. The form is usually then completed at home. QR code scanning has become a particularly exciting tool since smartphone manufacturers have integrated it into phone cameras.

Conclusion: tap into the potential of mobile phones

The last few years have been an exciting and surprisingly informative time. Our daily challenge is to make the work we do with our customers even better. The aim is to increase the share of digital lettings to over 60%. We will continue to be self-critical in questioning the existing system and, if necessary, change our decision-making process again. We also want to better understand and tap into the huge potential of mobile phones, with one goal in mind: for the majority of new lettings and re-lettings in Switzerland to be digital.

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