Nordstrom. Diners Club. The Ritz-Carlton. When you're paying top dollar, you expect excellent service–and these companies know how to deliver it. No wonder apartment executives such as Julie Smith, president of Bozzuto Management Co., and Todd Pope, president of Simpson Property Group, found the luxury hotel chain a source of inspiration for customer service programs at their own companies, as they shared last month ("Putting on the Ritz," September 2005, page 38).

But as these leaders know, inspired ideas only go so far. So, in this edition of Conference Call, Pope, Smith, and two colleagues–Mark Sadosky, Equity Residential's vice president, customer service center, and Lynn Klug, vice president of marketing and training for the Sares-Regis Group–share their personal and corporate approaches to taking care of their customers.

What are the greatest challenges to delivering good customer service to apartment residents, particularly at more moderately priced properties? It's very easy to provide good customer service when someone is paying $300 nightly for a hotel room. The guest expects it, and the hotel is staffed to deliver it. How do you do that when a resident isn't living at the Ritz?

Getty Images LYNN KLUG, Sares-Regis Group: The biggest challenge is finding the right people. You need to hire people who like people, don't see complaints as a personal affront, and enjoy making residents happy. Some of our best managers are at [moderately priced properties]. They see a resident's challenge or issue with their apartment as something for which they are responsible, they're sorry the resident is unhappy about it, and they are motivated to fix it.

JULIE SMITH, Bozzuto Management Co.: I absolutely agree. That's probably where we have the most problems, because our industry has a lot of turnover. [Regardless of product line, though,] our job is to create a valuable experience to our residents, and value is relative to what a person is spending. If a resident is stretching to pay $600 a month [for an apartment], that feels as expensive to them as a $3,000 apartment might feel to a resident in one of our high-end high-rises. Our approach is to give people what they need when they need it, and that's going to be different for every single resident. Sometimes you may have an elderly resident who's sick and needs you to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, or you may need to orchestrate a big surprise for a resident who's trying to surprise his wife.

MARK SADOSKY, Equity Residential: When you tour properties, it's always refreshing when you [connect] with our maintenance people, who often can name most of the residents in a property. [Or] they'll say, "I don't know her name, but she's in 101B."

How have the customer service expectations of residents changed? Some say the average person is not as civil and polite as they might have been in the past.

SMITH: I don't think the residents have changed that much. I think their needs have changed. A lot of that is driven by technology. We get a lot more packages than we used to [because of online shopping], and we have to keep our business centers more up to date. But what I hear from my team is that there's always something that initiates a move, whether it's a job, a marriage, a divorce, the death of a spouse, or something else, and so what people are looking for is connections. That's what they value the most: the ability to pop into your clubhouse, grab a cup of coffee and a cookie, and make a human connection.

What specific programs have you established to deliver the type of customer service you expect for your residents?

TODD POPE, Simpson Property Group: We established our own credo of customer service with guiding principles. Some of our regionals and properties get together weekly or so for morning coffee to discuss [customer service expectations]. We encourage folks to let us know when they get a nice letter or compliment; we share [that feedback] with everyone via email each Monday. Our emphasis on the program has receded a bit, but I think that's a good thing, because you would [prefer that employees not just respond to a specific customer service program], but [just provide good service as] they do their jobs every day.

What results have you seen?

POPE: We started doing this at the same time as we began surveying our residents through CEL & Associates, and we've seen our scores go up each year. We've also won their "A list" award for the highest service score for our size company for the past two years. (We've gotten our response rate up to 37 percent as well, so we feel like we're getting an excellent cross-section of residents.) We've also made a portion of our incentive compensation for everyone from the maintenance supervisors to community managers and on up to me dependent on how we do on our CEL scores.

SADOSKY: We're embarking on the implementation of an enterprise-wide system that will address not only on-site leasing, maintenance, procurement, and yield management, but will also include tracking maintenance calls, timing, and so forth. ... For us, the big [project] over the next 12 months will be centralizing our data so it can be at everyone's fingertips. We're also upping the number of computers at every location so every employee has access to a computer. Don't get me wrong–I don't mean to keep coming back to technology, because technology is only one piece. Without hiring the right people, training the right people, and continually working with the right people, technology will only see limited success.

SMITH: We are [focusing on hiring]. I'm fascinated by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, because they are pretty consistent throughout the country [in terms of customer service]. I've rented a lot of cars from them, and they are fun. They are also one of the top hirers of college students across the country. We're trying to learn from what they do so we can attract more college grads that are looking for a career. ... We also do a lot of surveys. We just did our first electronic survey, which was pretty successful. We're measuring not only how people are rating us, but how they rate us relative to how important they feel the particular item is. That's been a big eye opener.

Can you give an example?

SMITH: A surprising thing to us was the relevance they placed on the interiors of their apartments. Regardless of whether the property was a class B or class A, the finishes and interiors were very important to residents. On a scale of 1 to 5, they might have rated them a 4.5, and then they rated how they felt about their own apartment. We asked questions with regards to service, courtesy and professionalism, response time, and problem resolution. It's been instrumental in giving us guidance in what we want to do.

Did you learn anything?

SMITH: We learned that we need to spruce up our apartments! We're in Washington, D.C., where the housing prices are so high–anyone in California has the same issue–and so people are in apartments longer than they want to be. They'd like to buy a house, but they're not getting there. So they're watching their friends buy houses or condos, and they're looking at Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn catalogs, and that's what they want their apartments to look like. We were a little surprised–we were looking for ways to improve our service, and we realized what we need to do is replace our appliances! But that's all about listening to your customers.