Touch Points: Top-notch assets are just the start at Shea Proeprties, where the use of resident surveys has helped improve renewal rates.
Shea Properties Touch Points: Top-notch assets are just the start at Shea Proeprties, where the use of resident surveys has helped improve renewal rates.

Paradigm Properties president Eric Blevins was looking for some objective feedback on nine geographically diverse properties when he initiated a resident survey program from Houston-based J. Turner Research last June. At the end of March 2009, Gainesville, Fla.-based Paradigm had decided to implement the survey program across its entire 8,600-unit student housing portfolio from Florida to Oklahoma. “We were doing some of our own surveying, but we were fairly inefficient,” Blevins says. “Initiating a program allows us consistency across the portfolio for objective feedback from our clients on a wide variety of topics from the leasing process to physical conditions of the property to our models. It’s instantaneous, independent feedback on the basic fundamentals that you need to be successful.”

With the economy taking its toll on multifamily rent and renewal rates, Blevins and other industry players are finding an ally in resident survey programs. Companies such as J. Turner, Lutherville, Md.-based Satisfacts, and Los Angeles–based CEL & Associates offer outsourced mail, phone, and Web-based resident surveys that typically cover a core regimen of customer satisfaction topics while also allowing clients to customize questions. The data itself is often a powerful way to gauge resident sentiment, but users of the survey say the real value is unlocked by consistently following up on the results with changes to site-level operations.

Satisfacts awarded Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Shea Properties’ portfolio a “superior” ranking for its 2008 survey results. It’s the fifth year in a row that Shea cracked the superior list, but property mangers nonetheless conduct a 10-minute briefing each morning to address current survey results and other customer service and operational issues.

“We learned a long time ago that you have to consistently act on the results,” says Shea senior vice president Steve Gilmore. “If you don’t maintain superior levels of customer service, you fall behind quickly. That’s not good in an industry where customers walk in the door every day and because of natural turnover you are striving to woo current residents with every interaction.”

Shea’s properties across California, Arizona, and Colorado are currently renewing at 60 percent on average—a metric that Gilmore says is impressive given concessionary conditions in his market. “Without the implementation of customer surveys and our reaction to the results, that renewal rate would easily be 5 percent to 10 percent lower,” he says.

Providing residents with a forum to address topics and concerns can impact everything from property design to amenities to lease terms. At Paradigm, resident surveys have helped eliminate possible criminal elements, resulted in changes to lease-up specials, and even resulted in a couple of bike racks being installed at a property.

“In Tampa, Fla., we learned that the concession program we were using was confusing. And in Norman, Okla., we learned that some of the existing residents didn’t like the fact that we didn’t have bike racks,” Blevins says. “The surveys have allowed us to target questions to our renter demographic and figure out what we are doing well to expand on those as well as figure out what we are not doing well so we can change those.”

J. Turner Research president Joseph Batdorf says that’s what it’s all about.  “Everyone is talking about operations, and the smart operators are focusing on what their residents are thinking,” he says. “Residents understand what is going on at a property better than anyone. They live there, and they feel it. Operators need to react.”