When prospective renters come into the leasing office at Dunwoody Place in Sandy Springs, Ga., they're often disappointed they can't meet Joan. It's not that Lane Co. in Atlanta, which manages the property, fired Joan. And it's not because Joan has quit or taken a sick day.

These visitors can't speak with Joan because she isn't actually at Dunwoody Place. Joan works at an offsite call center, fielding inquiries the on-site staff at Dunwoody can't get to or that come in after hours.

An increasing number of apartment managers and owners are turning to the Joan's of the world. They're finding that, if handled correctly, call centers can help turn customer inquiries into site visits. “It's pretty amazing that someone across the country could handle the calls as well or better than the [site-level personnel] could,” says Tyler Kemmer, vice president for ancillary services at BRE Properties, a San Francisco REIT that uses call centers.

But incorporating a call center isn't easy. Many companies' pilot programs start with a couple of properties. Or, they could follow the example of AvalonBay Communities, a REIT in Alexandria, Va., that rolled out the program in one city (Boston). Whatever the model, it takes time and money to get the property-level staff on board.

PART OF A TEAM The big question is, how do call center representatives field queries so effectively when they're often hundreds of miles from the apartments they're helping sell? Technology helps. “The knowledge they have at their fingertips is incredible,” Kemmer says. “They can give you directions. They can tell you what's in the vicinity. They have all of the policies of the property. They know what sister properties are in the area. It's amazing.”

Still, a call center can't run on technology alone. That's where cooperation between the management company, site personnel, and phone representatives is invaluable. “Your people have to update the call center,” says Mark Richards, director of marketing for Riverstone Residential Group, an apartment manager based in Dallas and Rockville, Md. “If a property doesn't provide updates, it's a problem. They need to establish a relationship with the on-site personnel.”

Getting the call center on board with individual properties is the first step. They must also be trained in a variety of other areas, such as fair housing law and corporate brands. AvalonBay Communities did just that. “As a branded product, we conducted on-site brand presentations to familiarize them with the Avalon brand story,” says Kevin Thompson, the company's senior director of marketing.

TALK ISN'T CHEAP Kemmer is an advocate for call centers, but even she admits that apartment owners need to take a hard look before they sign up. “The downside when you roll out any program is that you expect to save time or money elsewhere,” Kemmer says. “The name of the game in property management is that if you save time or effort on one task, it's taken up in another area so you don't see the savings.”

To manage costs, most third-party call centers offer property managers a variety of packages. They range from getting all calls and emails picked up at the call center to only getting calls picked up after hours or when the office phone rings three times.

If apartment owners select the latter, they still expect their on-site people to pick up the phone. If they don't, the cost of a call center can go through the roof. Mark W. Van Tilburg, director of operations for Irving, Texas-based Archon Residential Management, is concerned costs may get too high if his property-level staff misses 25 percent to 30 percent of their calls.