Converting the way it takes in and processes resident payments is giving apartment firm Archstone-Smith a competitive advantage by offering new services to residents and making better use of its leasing staffs.

Instead of having residents deliver their paper rent checks to the leasing office by hand or mail, Archstone’s tenants can have their checking account directly debited by the management office. They can also view their account online and see real-time balances, including utilities or other fees.

Archstone has been using electronic payment technology – part of its MRI Residential property management suite from Intuit – for about a year, and has seen some dramatic acceptance in many of its properties.

“Virtually all of our properties are using it – we have 21% of our payments made online at the company, on average,” said Dan Amedro, Archstone’s chief information officer. Usage ranges from a low of about 5% at some properties to a high of about 50%. Amedro said the property with the 50% usage level promotes it heavily, prompting residents when they do initial leasing, reminding them about it when they drop off their monthly checks, and even posting door-hanger promotions. “The main thing that causes penetration to take off at a site is really how much a site embraces it and promotes it,” he said.

“We look at other industries, and their payment percentages get up to 40% on average,” said Amedro. “We see no reason we shouldn’t get to 40% penetration. Having said that, we are trying to examine if there are opportunities to push that even higher by promoting it to the point where if you want to pay by check, we charge a handling fee, or we give you a discount for signing up for paying online.”

“The first week of the month, [leasing agents] are all bogged down keying in rent payments and taking checks to the bank and needing to do that every day,” said Amedro. Using MRI’s e-payment features frees up the leasing agents to do more productive work, such as “dealing with customer service issues and new products, which really are the value-added functions that they can perform,” he said. “If a resident walks into the leasing office and everybody’s heads are down keying in payments, that’s not good customer service.”

Moving to e-payments fits into Archstone’s overall strategy of adopting online business wherever possible. The company also offers full leasing and resident services (such as submitting and following service requests) online. Archstone rolled out its MRI Residential suite of online services – including e-payment functionality – in April 2005.

Amedro was rolling out an enhancement to his e-payments system at press time that will let the leasing office sign up residents (rather than just telling them how to sign up themselves). Further down the line, he would like to explore the possibility of accepting credit card payments. But before that happens he wants to see if the apartment industry can negotiate an industry-based pricing arrangement with credit card companies to reduce the processing fees. “Frankly, we’ve been working on that for years,” he said.

The Web-based MRI system can be hosted either by Intuit or by the customer, said Blaine Davis, a manager with Intuit Real Estate Solutions. Cost will vary depending on the size of the client and the degree of customization (for example, the resident portal can be branded with the apartment company’s logo and visual styles). There are also transaction-based fees.

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