From integrated customer service hotlines to online databases, the Internet is helping many apartment companies bring greater accountability to their customer service initiatives.
"We're able to capture, measure, and report, and because you have that information, it allows you to use the data to make more intelligent decisions," says Mark Sadosky, vice president of the customer service center for Equity Residential, the large Chicago-based apartment REIT.
Obviously, the days of geographically scattered paper filing systems and limited data-sharing are numbered. Today, linking spread-out communities via the Web gives property-level staffers–and their supervisors–a central place to keep track of the number of calls they receive, the nature of each request, and how long it takes a community to solve a resident's problem or connect with someone shopping for an apartment.
That shared database, in turn, is available to company officials, who can use the numbers to hasten service at a property that resolves problems slowly or to offer extra training or new programs to community staffs if the data reveal that residents everywhere have similar complaints.
David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology for the National Multi Housing Council, says centralized tracking can enhance customer service. "If you've got closer tabs on how well the properties are performing," he says, "you should be able to perform better."
At Equity, the new integrated approach emerged in fall 2005, when the national apartment company created a centralized hotline as a back-up option for residents to call after exhausting efforts to get their own property management office to solve problems.
Now, when a resident calls the toll-free telephone number to report a problem, an Arizona-based customer service operator logs the call into the online database, which tracks the date and time, the location of the property, and the names of the regional manager and region's executive vice president. Residents may also file their requests via e-mail.
Within an hour, the Internet-based system dashes e-mails to the local property manager, the regional vice president, and the executive vice president.
At this point, says Sadosky, "the clock is ticking."
Sadosky regularly compiles the data and distributes a report that shows how long it took each property to settle each issue. "When you start publishing this information, all of a sudden people start jumping on it," he says.
The goal, notes Sadosky, "is to get the resident taken care of. At the end of the day, the centralized customer service center cannot paint that unit, and it cannot fix that central air conditioning. But it can capture, measure, and provide the data to the field for them to react to."
Likewise, Equity, which owns or has investments in more than 900 properties across the country, is using the Internet to keep track of which property managers are updating their Web sites every day to reflect changes in local rent prices. Sadosky issues a twice-monthly report that reveals which properties have kept their rents up-to-date and which haven't. In four months, the number of managers complying with the daily-update edict shot up from 40 percent to 91 percent.
"What a beautiful way to work," says Sadosky, who notes the Web-based system has replaced spreadsheets at individual communities that historically did not share the data with other property managers. "They never were alerted to a centralized company point of view."
Russ Sandlin, residential manager in the business strategy group at Intuit Real Estate Solutions, says a centralized, Internet-based database allows apartment executives to "look at all of those communities at one time. Historically, you had to look at them one at a time."
Apartment executives say Internet-enhanced customer service programs and efforts also result in improved service for residents.
"It's really about returning to basics," says Dirk Herrman, chief marketing officer for Alexandria, Va.-based AvalonBay Communities, which owns approximately 45,000 apartments. "It's about how quickly you respond, how quickly you answer the phone, how fast you get up from your desk to greet someone at the door. It's about making sure the residents know you're there."
Or, how quickly you respond to an e-mail reporting a leaky faucet or requesting more information on a property. AvalonBay uses the Internet to automatically tell residents and prospects, who can e-mail the 142-property company through any of its communities' local Web sites, that the firm has received their requests.
But a "thanks for your email" message only goes so far. AvalonBay's system also keeps tabs on when those requests are filled. The computer sends each request to a designated staff person at the local community involved. If 24 hours pass without a response, the system sends another e-mail–this time to the staff person's supervisor.
Speedy responses, says Herrman, are critical to customers who are used to getting them from other companies. He points to Amazon.com's practice of e-mailing a confirmation of each customer's purchase the second the order is placed.
Other executives agree. Fredda Steinberg, who is group vice president of national marketing for Archstone-Smith Trust, says her firm is far more likely to satisfy customer requests within a day since it enlisted the Internet in its quest for better customer service.
Each of the Englewood, Colo.-based firm's 200-plus properties is connected to the firm's customer service database and, through it, can communicate with each other. The request of a resident or prospect who contacts the firm automatically appears in the e-mail inbox of the local property's manager, who has 24 hours to "close the ticket," Steinberg says.
But the customer service database is just one way Archstone uses the Web to collect information. Right after residents move into an Archstone-Smith apartment, they receive an e-mail link to a survey that will let the company know how satisfying–or not–the experience was.
Gathering such data and comparing it to other information has resulted in valuable insights for the national apartment REIT. One discovery: a positive move-in experience is more likely than community social parties to result in lease renewals. So Archstone on-site associates hurry to quickly resolve any problems that new residents identify on the move-in experience survey.
"We're using technology to gather more effective customer intelligence," says Steinberg. "It helps us be more disciplined about the simple things that really do matter to the customers.
–Sharon O'Malley is a freelance writer in College Park, Md.