Resident retention seems to have taken precedence over just about everything the past couple of years. And it’s no wonder with vacancy levels reaching a high of 8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to New York-based research firm Reis.

As a result, apartment companies have gone back to an old adage to guide their customer service: First impressions matter. “The renewal process starts the day they move-in,” says Heidi Jehlicka, director of marketing for Dominium, an affordable and luxury apartment owner and manager based in Minneapolis. “It doesn’t happen 120 days before expiration [when renewal notices go out].”

To ensure residents are getting the best experience possible, apartment firms are taking all sorts of steps. The process starts with teaching the staff the importance of move-ins and educating residents about the move-in experience before their arrival.

Of course, property managers still need to focus on the basics, such as having a spotless apartment ready or offering new, personal touches in the form of setting up utilities. But apartment owners aren’t finished then—many are following up with resident surveys to ensure they have a satisfied customer. It’s that investment early on that can make or break a lease renewal when the time comes.

Make Them Happy Early

When the financial, job, and real estate markets bottomed out in 2008, the mantra amongst apartment managers around the country became “keep heads in beds.” The idea: Keeping a renter in his or her unit—even at a reduced rental rate—is cheaper than combing the market for a new renter, turning a unit, and going a few months without an occupant or cash flow from rent.

AIMCO, a Denver-based REIT and one of the largest apartment owners in the country, took this mantra seriously. It wanted to find out why residents were moving—and what could have been done to keep them happy. So in July 2009, AIMCO began sending its residents seven surveys annually.

“We implemented move-out surveys to understand why residents were leaving, which is one of the first places you want to start,” says Melanie French, AIMCO’s senior vice president of property operations. “If you understand why a resident left, you can create a situation where the next one won’t want to leave.”

What AIMCO found was that the best way to keep residents happy was to take care of them from the very beginning. “We do a survey within three days of move-in and another within the first 30 days,” French says. “From just those two surveys, we found out what we could have possibly done better or improved. We learned that, historically, individuals with a positive move-in experience have a much higher likelihood of renewal.”

AIMCO isn’t the only company discovering the importance of the first 30 days. “I think in the first 30 to 60 days, a customer will be able to know if he or she made the right decision,” Jehlicka says. “We have 60 days to make that first impression.”

In fact, Stephanie Graves, training and marketing director for Houston-based apartment manager Asset Plus Cos., pinpoints the weeks of move-in as the most important time. “Once they get that bad taste in their mouth, it’s really hard to overcome,” she says.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Making sure that the first impression is top-notch can start well before the resident shows up with a U-Haul. AIMCO’s process starts before move-in. “In the past, people would come in, get their keys, do their move-in, and be gone,” French says. “Our move-in orientation now can take an hour. We go thoroughly over everything, even covering the move-out expectations at the time of move-in.”

Education is one thing. Preparation is another. Graves says the most basic thing to get right is to have a clean apartment when a resident moves in. “The week you know they’re moving in will be the most important,” Graves says. “Once they move in, walk into that apartment, and it’s not perfect, it’s a bad first impression. They’ll think, ‘The apartment was empty, and they still couldn’t get it clean. I wonder if they really will fix my toilet?’”

This is an important step for other companies as well. “We make sure that their unit has been inspected and ready when they walk in the door,” says Woody Stone, senior director for the project management office of Seattle-based Pinnacle.

Ensuring a pleasant move-in goes further than making sure the basics, such as a clean apartment, are covered. As AIMCO discovered, there are also services a company can offer to go above and beyond the resident expectation of a pleasant move-in.

“We found the resident would like to make the turning on of utilities a non-issue,” French says. “We implemented a program to do that for them. We have welcome calls where we’ll call them after they’re approved and tell them if they have 10 minutes, we can also help them get their utilities turned on. They love that.”

Measuring the Experience

French says AIMCO discovered via its extensive surveying process that residents want help turning on utilities. That sort of follow-up is important. Manager after manager insist that the key to ensuring a successful move-in is keeping in contact with residents after the lease is signed.

“They don’t want the management or service team to be in their face or contacted on a daily basis,” French says. “But they do want to feel like we care about them enough to contact them regularly.”

Dominium sends a survey or comment card to its residents immediately after they move in. “We make sure there wasn’t anything missed in the apartment and everything is meeting their expectations,” Jehlicka says.

Stone says that his company doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all way to handle new renters through the vast Pinnacle portfolio. “We walk them through the unit; we check in with them periodically,” he says. “We have programs and best practices that we do over that first 60 to 90 days. We incorporate flexibility in the process because we’re in so many markets and at so many property types.”

Asset Plus has a system that it calls the “two, four, six” program where the company standardizes its follow-up with residents. Two days in to a new lease, the leasing agent visits the resident’s apartment to make sure the moving process went well. At four weeks, the office contacts the resident. At six months, management and a maintenance person go to the apartment to ensure the apartment is still OK, and the unit doesn’t have any immediate maintenance needs.

“In the first 30 days, we try to make at least three points of contact to make sure everything worked OK,” Graves says. “We want to make sure they don’t have buyer’s remorse and everything is good.”