Coming from a consumer marketing background, I've always been focused on building brands. The success of any brand depends on its reputation with consumers. For most products, that reputation is based on the product's appearance, taste, or performance. In our industry, it is based on our customers' experience while they live with us. While our product–their apartment–is central to this experience, so is the customer service we provide. And while many apartment companies say that customer service is important, they fall short because they fail to make it a part of the DNA of their organizations.

There is no doubt that the multifamily business presents a challenging customer service environment. On a typical day, a community manager might be confronted with a breakdown in the HVAC system, the need to clean the pool before the weekend barbecue, and a mess of illegally parked cars, not to mention residents complaining about missing packages, noisy neighbors, blown-out light bulbs, and a million other operational headaches.

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Unlike other consumer products, which are generally bought, consumed, and then forgotten, our product is actually lived in and experienced every day by our customers. When they are happy, we may never hear from them. When they are unhappy, we hear from them plenty. And unlike when they have a bad experience with other products, with rental apartments they can't simply switch brands. They are obligated by contract to stay until the lease is up, but all the while they may complain to neighbors and friends. They may even renew their lease rather than go through the inconvenience of moving. It's all part of apartment life.

When I joined AvalonBay, I had been told that we had "Legendary Service," but the results from our first customer satisfaction survey revealed that we were becoming legendary for the wrong reasons. Our overall customer service scores ranked seventh out of eight among our peers. AvalonBay was growing and revenues were surging, but could we sustain this growth without satisfying our biggest asset, our customer? It was time to take a closer look at the customer service link in our corporate DNA.

Culture Cultivation

Creating a customer service culture is not something that happens overnight. It is not something that can be simply mandated into a busy person's job description. Nor can it be the responsibility of a handful of customer-centric people. To succeed in customer service, you have to make it a part of your corporate culture.

It has to become a part of your organization's DNA.

To achieve this at AvalonBay, we dedicated resources, staff, and–perhaps most important–visibility to our customer service initiative. We made it a corporate-wide initiative that began with our board of directors and included all departments, not just the property management team. I sat down with the heads of each department, including construction, development, and finance, to talk about customer service and what they could do to help improve the company's survey scores. To ensure everyone was invested in the outcome of the initiative, we also made these scores a part of the bonus structure for all associates.

We recognized that customer service starts with customer-focused associates. We dedicated key staff to the initiative and changed our hiring model for on-site associates from a financial/business focus to a customer service focus. We created tools to help our associates incorporate customer service into their daily routine. We created customer service awards programs to recognize our successes. And we regularly reviewed the results of the initiative with all levels of the organization and reported back to the board of directors on our progress.

Even with that process in place, however, it is all too easy for associates to assume that what they do does not affect the customer directly. Comments like "What can I do, I'm in construction?" or "I work at headquarters, so I never see customers" were all too common. To help strengthen their connection to customers, we created a program called "Community Link" in which all corporate and regional office associates spend two days a year working on-site at one of our communities. Off-site associates see firsthand how their efforts can help a community resolve a customer issue or how doing a good job on construction can translate to less maintenance later on.

An example: One of our vice presidents of development spent two days painting the fence at a community's trash area and discovered how difficult it was to maintain this space. He then led an initiative that switched the fencing at trash areas to resin materials, saving time and maintenance expense at the communities.

Real Empowerment

Even with our best efforts, in our industry things will still go wrong and residents will still be upset. With more than 46,000 AvalonBay apartment homes, management cannot be there every day to ensure that things are always done right. Instead, you need a culture that sees customer issues as opportunities for relationship-building and empowers the local associates to resolve situations on their own.

AvalonBay associates are proactive in customer service by being accessible to their residents and by making sure that critical customer areas, like the fitness center, are always well maintained. We also empowered them to resolve resident issues directly with "recovery funds," which allow them to spend up to $100, without prior approval, to soothe a resident who was seriously inconvenienced. By sending flowers, a gift certificate, or restaurant dollars, associates are able to quickly acknowledge they understand a resident's issue and want to make things right.

Measuring Success

Finally, in any successful initiative it is critical to have clearly stated objectives and to measure success against those goals. The old adage, "You get what you measure," is as true in customer service as it is anywhere else. At AvalonBay, we also recognized that we had a corporate culture that thrived on competition, both inside and outside the company. Therefore, when we selected a survey company for our annual resident satisfaction surveys, its ability to provide peer comparison scores was critical. Through this approach, we were able to fuel the friendly competitive nature of our associates, generating even better customer service scores.

Part of our measurement efforts, however, also included talking directly with our customers. We conducted town hall meetings at our lowest-scoring communities with senior management and residents. We also created our own comment cards that were distributed at key customer "touch points": move-in, move-out, and renewal. We listened and we learned to find out what works and what doesn't; not all ideas that seem smart at headquarters play out that way in the field.

Case in point: We established a "warm call" program, asking associates to call residents simply to say hello and ask how we are doing. We thought it was a great way to form a relationship with the residents by touching base when there was not an issue at hand. But we quickly learned that residents either weren't home or didn't want to be bothered if there wasn't a problem–a good lesson.

Dirk Herrman is sen-ior vice president and chief marketing officer, AvalonBay Communities.
Dirk Herrman is sen-ior vice president and chief marketing officer, AvalonBay Communities.

By listening to our customers, we learned the most important lesson in improving customer service: Focus on the basics! Our customers are our residents, they live in our product, and therefore what they care most about is that their plumbing works, their appliances work, their HVAC works, and when a package is delivered, it gets to them quickly. When mistakes happen–which they inevitably will–residents just want to have them resolved promptly, professionally, and with a smile.

Today, I'm proud to say that our customer satisfaction scores have risen 40 percent since we started our initiative five years ago. By making customer service a corporate-wide initiative and embedding it in the DNA of the company, AvalonBay has risen to the top of the industry in customer satisfaction scores. We have one of the highest retention rates in the industry for both residents and associates. And concern for our customers now plays an important role in the decisions we make across all aspects of our business, ensuring that we remain true to our corporate mission of Enhancing the Lives of Our Residents.