Multifamily might no longer be the tech neophyte we used to know. While the apartment world has traditionally lagged the rest of corporate America in terms of technology platforms and integrated data, our 2013 technology roundtable of industry experts had a decidedly seasoned tone. Instead of streamlined ledgers and souped-up spreadsheets, apartment technology today is all about biz intel, big data, and getting every process possible off paper on the leasing desk and into bits that live on a server.
To get a handle on where technology is going in 2013, we held a virtual chat with three of multifamily’s tech titans. On the electronic horn were Houston-based Camden’s Kristy Simonette, Phoenix-based Alliance Residential’s Scott Pechersky, and San Diego–based Sunrise Management’s Joe Greenblatt.
Multifamily Executive: What technology was most important to your organization in 2012? How did it make your operation more efficient?
Kristy Simonette, senior vice president of strategic services, Camden Property Trust: So many to choose from. Our focus is on communication. We've implemented SharePoint for our employee portal. With so many decentralized offices across the country, it’s been a big help.
For residents, we implemented ActiveBuilding, which we brand as myCamden.com. We’re way beyond your typical PMS [property management software] portal—it’s really a private social network for our communities. Our residents tell us how they want to communicate—a text message for packages, an e-mail for community events.
Talk about efficiency; we’re not making copies and sticking them on residents’ doors anymore. They hate messages stuck on their doors.
Scott Pechersky, vice president of technology, Alliance Residential Co.: We revamped our portal too—it was the most important step we took for prospects and existing residents.
We added functionality so that it’s a more robust experience. We added an integrated lead management component, so associates can follow up with prospects more effectively.
We upgraded our back office, too. We deployed a new HRIS [human resource information system], and it’s helped a lot in terms of increased efficiency.
Joe Greenblatt, president and ceo, Sunrise Management and 2013 president-elect, Institute of Real Estate Management: We transitioned to a new website platform for our properties that really ramped up our SEO [search engine optimization], 3-D floor plans, and ability to customize the look and feel of our in-house and mobile capabilities.
The real key was that it allowed us to capture more traffic from our property websites. As Kristy pointed out, it’s amazing what you can do when you shift from paper to online. Everybody wants to interface online.
MFE:From a technology perspective, what do you plan to focus on in 2013? What are your top technology priorities?
Simonette: We are upgrading our data center. We decided to co-locate to get ourselves out of the facility management business. Then, at our communities, we’re making a big push with our broadband capabilities that should have a big impact on upload and download speeds.
We’ve also decided to bring our Camden contact center in-house for a 24/7 solution so that Camden employees can own every customer interaction. We’re also implementing a new reputation management tool, Binary Fountain.
Pechersky: Big data is still a big push for us. We made huge strides in 2012, but I still think we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of using data effectively.
In 2013, we’re working on an internal ranking system that’s going to look at data from our PMS, LMS [lead management software], and other survey software. We want to better identify trends and triggers.
Greenblatt: We’re also looking at SharePoint to streamline internal operations with team members who work remotely or in multiple locations.
For us, it’s really about getting rid of the paper. We’re driving toward paperless wherever possible. We’re also trying to take advantage of data. We’re constantly tweaking to measure adoption, penetration, and effectiveness.
MFE:In the past few years, it has been relatively easy to raise rents, but for 2013, that may change. How are you using technology to ensure your team doesn’t become complacent in this environment?
Simonette: Staying ahead of that curve is all about revenue management. We’ve also implemented Microsoft Business Intelligence, and that lets us slice and dice our data. It feeds into one of our core philosophies: If you can’t measure it, you can’t spend it.
Pechersky: I agree—you’ve really got to leverage revenue management. It just adds a level of sophistication that lets you be better prepared for fluctuations in the economy. We’re also measuring how our people are doing. We compile monthly KPIs [key performance indicators] so we can keep an eye on customer service and maintenance.
Greenblatt: Ditto on the revenue management. You’ve got to have it to stay competitive.
We’re using resident feedback tools to better understand our customers’ wants and needs, too, to benchmark performance and set expectations for our associates.
MFE: Let’s talk about social media. I’d like to know if you’ve actually made money being there. Did it add to your bottom line in 2012? What do you plan for 2013?
Pechersky: It’s really tricky to track conversions that are directly related to your social media push. During the latter part of 2012, we improved our tracking with a direct interface between our lead management software and Facebook. We think that will give us a lot better sense of how it’s hitting the bottom line in 2013.
Greenblatt: That’s what we’re seeing too. We know it affects our bottom line, but it’s not always in a way that’s measurable. We see social media first and foremost as a resident retention tool that helps us be more responsive to existing residents. But it attracts prospects, too. I think that as the metrics grow, we’ll see more clarity.
Simonette: For us, it’s really all about the ratings and review sites. Our internal focus groups indicate that 100 percent of prospects visit a ratings and review site prior to signing a lease. We just recently piloted 50 communities with something called Reviews Done Right, which is a new RentAdvisor product. It raised our “recommend” percentages on ApartmentRatings.com by 20 points. Our closing percentages went up too, by 13 percent.
MFE: What core property management software are you using today? What new features have been helpful in 2012, and what would you like to see added to it in 2013?
Simonette: We run RealPage OneSite. In 2012, we added high-speed scanners, which made a huge difference. This year, we’re awaiting an improved prospect experience with revamped online leasing.
Pechersky: We’ve got Yardi Voyager at the majority of our communities. In 2012, we were able to implement MITS [Multifamily Information and Transactions Standards] with our vendors on the collection and renter’s insurance side. That really helped. This year, our main focus is on effectively using our data as an ad hoc reporting tool within our PMS.
Greenblatt: OneSite. In 2012, we focused on new payment options for residents and added the call center, lease tracking, and spend management tools. In 2013, we’d like to see more energy management reporting and a growing business intelligence platform.