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    Credit: Colin Anderson

though apartment firms (like most service providers) may have differing interests, they share one goal—to find out what their customers want and fulfill their needs. The best way to obtain that information is often through surveys. For apartment owners and managers, that means asking about how a service experience went, whether a leasing agent was professional, and so on.

Unfortunately, in this day and age of information overload, with consumers’ time at a premium and heightened suspicions of anyone asking for information, getting feedback is harder than ever.

Gregory J. Lozinak, COO of Chicago-based Waterton Residential, which manages 15,000 units across the country, recalls his company once surveying a potential customer for information multiple times. On the third try, they received what he calls a “sarcastic” response. “The guy was put out because we had, from his perspective, surveyed him too many times,” Lozinak says.

But that kind of resistance doesn’t dissuade most apartment companies. Though the frequency and length of their surveys can vary, apartment owners are taking steps to find out what their residents think. The challenge? To do so without being overly intrusive.

Multiple touchpoints

In the past, apartment operators were mainly focused on sending questionnaires to their residents once a year. That’s changing. “We used to do [surveys] on an annual basis,” Lozinak says. “We decided that was much too infrequent.”

Joseph Batdorf, president of Houston-based J Turner Research, a company that conducts resident surveys, says this attitude is prevalent within the industry. “People who are focused on customer satisfaction will be more in touch with their residents than just on a yearly basis,” he says. “An annual survey just gives you an idea of what has happened in the past year.”

In contrast, the more immediate “touchpoint” survey lets an owner or operator know how it did on a certain task. “We want surveys that are targeted, directed, and focused on a specific issue, like a service request,” says Lynette Hegeman, vice president of marketing at Atlanta-based Gables Residential, which manages 37,610 apartment homes and has ownership interest in 16,339 units.

Christopher Lee, CEO of Los Angeles–based CEL & Associates, a provider of real estate consulting services, says there are other times to conduct a survey as well, such as after a management initiative at a property or before a management takeover. There are also reasons to conduct an annual survey. “[The annual survey] gives you a good handle on residents’ opinions and provides you with the proper tools for budgeting, allocating resources, and setting priorities going forward,” Lee says. “It provides performance feedback that makes sure the on-site team doesn’t view service as a one-week or one-month event.”

No Set Formula

Denver-based REIT AIMCO, which manages 109,351 units, surveys residents five times throughout the resident life cycle: upon initial contact (a post-chat survey that gets a 10 percent response rate); via maintenance requests (an e-mail after every closed request); upon lease expiration (contacting every resident 120 days prior to his or her lease expiring); at renewal (through phone surveys); and upon move-out (post–move-out surveys to find out what AIMCO could have done better).

For other firms, surveying may not be quite as frequent but is just as important. Waterton, for example, has four key touchpoints, or times throughout the year, when it surveys residents: during the leasing process, after the move-in, after a service request, and 90 days before lease expiration. “Our goal is to be able to fix things before they become a bigger issue,” Lozinak says. “That’s the intent behind doing it more frequently.”

Gables doesn’t survey quite as frequently but has similar goals. The company sends residents a survey within three to five days of move-in to find out how the leasing and move-in processes went. Then, it surveys again after a maintenance visit and 90 days before lease renewal.

Other companies, such as Cleveland-based Forest City; Greenbelt, Md.–based Bozzuto Group; and Boston-based Berkshire Property Advisors, use J Turner ­Research’s resident survey program to sample a proportionate amount of their residents each month so that the entire community is surveyed twice a year. Each resident is asked a dozen questions online, which usually take about 40 seconds to answer. The approach is designed to prevent “oversurveying” while delivering a consistent flow of data to the owner/operator throughout the year.

Gables has 10 questions on its move-in surveys, seven on its maintenance surveys, and another 15 on its survey before renewal. The questionnaire takes about three to four minutes to complete. Waterton’s survey takes less than five minutes. Companies want to keep it short, but there’s often a fine line between getting the information you need versus taking up too much of the respondent’s time. “The hard part is not just the survey but the length of the survey,” Lee says. “How much value is there in two questions?”

Ultimately, Doug Miller, president of Lutherville, Md.–based SatisFacts, a provider of resident surveys, says the length of the survey has to do with what type of questionnaire it is. An annual benchmarking survey, for instance, can run longer than seven minutes. “The touchpoint surveys are very focused—two or three minutes—because you’re focused on a specific event activity and specific best practices,” he says.

Best Practices

Even though most apartment owners and their survey providers try to make the experience as painless as possible, the question still lingers—can you ask for too much information from residents?

Miller says people pay so much for an apartment that they want to know their apartment owner cares about what they think. “This is a $15,000 to $30,000 a year investment they make,” he says.

Hegeman agrees. In fact, she says, the only time that people are really turned off is when owners don’t react to the survey responses. “People like to feel that they’re heard,” she says. “If they feel like it’s a waste of their time, they won’t be inclined to [fill out a survey].”

For annual surveys, which are longer than others, Lee says it’s best to notify residents that they’ll be receiving a survey yearly. And then, “you follow up with whatever feedback has been given so that they know that there’s value in their opinions,” he says.

When residents don’t respond to the first couple of attempts, Lozinak has learned when to stop sending surveys. “If we don’t get a response by the second time, we let it go,” he says.