This session on best practices kicked off with an embarrassing story from each panelist. Why? "It's the failures that make us do our jobs better," said moderator Steve Heimler, founder and CEO of Stratus Real Estate. The story that generated the biggest laugh from the audience: Bill Donges, CEO of Lane Co., recalled an instance three years ago when his employees were asked to send a copy of property data to company headquarters. One employee literally placed a disc on a Xerox machine, photocopied it, and sent it in.

In just a few years, Donges has elevated Lane Co. to an extremely tech-savvy multifamily company by changing the company's culture, he said. Donges, along with fellow panelists Ed Lange, CFO of BRE Properties, and Steve Hallsey, president of AMLI Management Co., revealed strategies for finding and spreading best practices at their companies. The biggest tip: Keep your eyes focused on outside industries. "Multifamily as a business hasn't evolved with other businesses," Lange said. "Be open to looking to outside industries."

The panelists all highlighted best practices they've borrowed from outside industries. They include call centers, which are quickly growing in popularity as they free up the leasing staff to actually lease units; the data-driven six sigma approach that Lane Co. used to dramatically reduce the production time of financial statements; and interactive leasing centers designed to mimic the Apple store experience.