What if your property management office could make like a convenience store and stay open 24/7? As impractical and costly as it might seem, following the lead of 7-Eleven, particularly when it comes to handling hot-button issues like maintenance requests, might help you retain residents, lure new ones, and boost your portfolio's bottom line.

In today's difficult rental market, apartment properties need to keep their tenants—or lose serious money. Each time a resident moves out of a community, it costs a property at least $3,000 (and possibly much more) in vacancy losses, concessions such as a free month's rent, marketing costs, staff time, and unit repairs, according to SatisFacts Research, a Lutherville, Md.-based firm that regularly surveys more than 200,000 residents throughout the country. Even worse, SatisFacts' surveys show that most renters who leave properties do so because of controllable factors like poor customer service at their apartment building and their relationship with the building's management.

Obviously, an answering machine that picks up all calls after 5 p.m. just doesn't cut it anymore.

How can apartment firms make their property management operations more accessible and responsive? For most, the answer certainly isn't to hire more people. To stay open 24 hours a day, “you're looking at one to two additional people on site 16 hours per day and that is absolutely cost-prohibitive,” says Greg Bonifield, vice president at North Carolina-based Summit Properties, which recently merged with Camden Property Trust. “The only way to do it is through [technology].”

24/7 Solutions Technology can easily be used to handle the outstanding work order or service request, a particularly thorny area for residents and management alike. “What drives the likelihood to renew [a resident's lease] is the service request and how to handle the speed of the work order—their responsiveness to get it done,” says Doug Miller, founder and president of SatisFacts. “Having maintenance serve donuts to residents (a time-honored tradition in many communities) and building better walking paths through a community aren't going to [convince] them.”

Instead of handling out donuts, perhaps maintenance should be dealing with those work orders. According to SatisFacts' research, 79 percent of residents made service requests in 2003. At the same time, residents report a greater number of outstanding maintenance requests—27.9 percent remained outstanding in 2003 compared to 20.71 percent the year before.

That uptick isn't surprising, though, considering the way that many properties still process service requests manually, which ultimately causes delays. The longer the problem lingers, without being addressed by the front office, the more likely that a resident will perceive management as unresponsive, notes analyst David Warren at Opportunity Research.

Technology can ease the burden, though, because it “shows maintenance right where to go,” says Miller. Requests can be generated in electronic form and offer residents the opportunity to be more specific about a maintenance problem.

That functionality is finding its way into a growing number of solutions, from resident portals to property management systems to maintenance automation programs. Yardi, AMSI, Realeum, RealPage, and MRI are just a few of the vendors offering property managers a way to receive maintenance requests from residents, assign them, and then track their progress. Rockville, Md.-based Realeum recently released an enhanced version of its Foundation that more fully automates the service request process.

And RealPage, based in Carrollton, Texas, just announced that more than 2,500 sites are now using OneSite Facilities, a system that automates maintenance work orders, letting service technicians receive requests through wireless handhelds and instantly transmit back the status of a job. The software generates reports that are sent back to both the home office and site management, says product manager Steve Reichenbach.