How do your on-site leasing agents spend their time? Processing lease paperwork? Tracking down maintenance work orders? Inputting data multiple times? Accessing multiple sources to find data?
If this is how your agents spend the majority of their time, imagine how much more revenue they could generate if they were freed from these tasks.
A large amount of time is wasted in organizations because technology is not integrated – it’s not made to work together so that actions that formerly took manpower and valuable time can be handled automatically, seamlessly, and immediately. So, instead of using one resource to process a transaction, associates must use multiple systems, and they are more likely to make errors. Technology integration streamlines processes, improves efficiency, and reduces errors.
Best of all, when processes are more efficient, your staff has more time to sell. More sales and fewer errors will help increase your net operating income (NOI). However, technology integrations must be done well to be cost effective. Real estate investment trusts AvalonBay Communities and Archstone-Smith are at the forefront of successful integration of their technologies, and they offer insights for other companies looking to get the most out of their investments in technology.
At AvalonBay, resident screening, renters’ insurance, online leasing, rental payments, collections, and Statement of Deposit Account (SODA) refund processes integrate with Realeum Foundation, a property management system. Instant screening decisions are delivered directly through Foundation. Agents no longer have to use a separate Web site for screening. Residents can purchase renters’ insurance through AvalonConnect, a resident portal. All policies and their expirations are automatically tracked in Foundation. Residents can make payments online. Collection time has been reduced because overdue accounts are automatically sent to a collection agency. SODA refunds are faster due to electronic transmission of refund requests.
“Technology integrations make life easier for both our on-site associates and customers,” said Mona Stahling, vice president of operations at AvalonBay. “AvalonBay is committed to our [motto] of ‘Enhancing the lives of our residents’”
Tying in self-service automation features with your software can also benefit your organization by enabling residents to conduct leasing and resident services on their own. To keep usage high, self-service technology has to be convenient, easy to use, and provide a good customer experience.
Prospective residents can spend the day viewing available apartments and secure the preferred unit that same evening at home from a Web browser. From resident screening to payment, the entire application process can be conducted by prospective residents at their convenience. This frees agents to show more units and focus on selling instead of processing paperwork.
Some skeptics question whether residents will use self-service automation, possibly due to experiences with poorly designed and implemented technology integrations. But Archstone-Smith has compelling results from the technology integrations it has implemented. Currently, 10 percent of its residents lease online, 15 percent submit payments online, and 12 percent place work orders online. Online payments increased from $4 million to $15 million over the past year. Archstone-Smith has found that residents will use properly designed self-service automation that provides a good customer experience.
Effective integration takes planning
A developer would not build a new apartment community without blueprints, a contractor, and scheduled building crews. Technology integrations, which are more cost-effective when done with a process plan, need a similar approach.
So create an integration plan. Start by specifying requirements, and get agreement from all involved parties before moving on. To truly understand the costs, you must take the time to establish thorough requirements. If requirements are vague, there will be a greater likelihood of unforeseen costs.
During analysis, determine if the products that will be integrated with the property management software system will be supplied by a vendor or created internally. Once an analysis is complete, you are ready to implement and test before final rollout.
Centralize data. Make sure real-time information is available to your residents online. If online information is not current, residents will not use the technology, reducing your return on investment. Centralized data makes it cost-effective for everyone to access data and information in real time. The property management software system used at Archstone-Smith, MRI Residential’s property management suite, accesses real-time data stored on a centralized server. Because all products integrate with the software, agents and online residents access the same current information, and that feeds into a desire to use the technology regularly.
Provide staff support. Archstone-Smith experienced a culture change as the organization increased its technology integrations two years ago. Previously, community managers handled all resident issues. Today, resident issues require involvement from the technology group. At the same time, managers are much more dependent on technology.
To manage the culture change, Archstone-Smith provided support to its staff. “As a company, we place a lot of emphasis on our field training organization. We believe training is one of our core competencies,” said Daniel Amedro, Archstone’s chief information officer. “In addition, we place a lot of emphasis on field involvement. Several times a year we meet in markets with various representatives for candid feedback sessions. They have proved quite useful.”
Products to consider integrating
Before you begin product integrations, make sure you have a current Web-based property management system that can integrate all of your business processes into one connected and accessible solution. This reduces the costs and time involved with integrations. The Web also gives you more freedom to pick the product of your choice without limiting your selection to only those products that can integrate with your property management software’s specific programming platform. There are many types of products that will streamline management operations. Here are a few to consider.
Resident screening. Your staff can save time by integrating resident screening with your property management system because data entered during the screening process is automatically copied into the property management system. By integrating resident portals along with resident screening, AvalonBay and Archstone-Smith offer the ability for prospective residents to screen themselves as part of the online leasing process, saving even more time for the on-site agents.
Renters’ insurance. “At AvalonBay, renters’ insurance is required in the lease agreement to ensure our residents are protected and to increase potential recovery of property damage expenses,” said Stahling of AvalonBay. “Renters’ insurance is one of the safeguards we use to protect our NOI.” All new and renewing residents are required to show proof of insurance when signing a new lease. As a customer service, residents are pre-qualified to purchase renters’ insurance online.
Check imaging. Through integration with RentPayment, agents can scan and image checks in compliance with Check 21 (a federal law covering check processing). Community and overhead administration is reduced at AvalonBay, freeing associates for sales and customer service. Payments are collected faster, check float time is shorter, and less check processing is done by the bank, thereby reducing fees. n
Nevel DeHart is executive vice president of First Advantage SafeRent. He can be reached at [email protected].
THE WORLD WIDE KEY
Forty-six percent of APARTMENT FINANCE TODAY readers who participated in our second annual Apartment Technology and Software Review survey indicated that it was important that their property management software was Web-based.
The World Wide Web has become a great enabler of self-help and technology integration for apartment companies. Users of Web-based property management systems such as Domin-8 Enterprise Solutions’ Paradigm, First Advantage’s Realeum, RealPage’s OneSite, Yardi Systems’s Voyager, and other systems know that users are already familiar with using Web browsers, so it’s a user-friendly “infrastructure” for companies.
View the results of the survey online at www.housingfinance.com/ aft/articles/2006/may/022_aftmay06.htm.
– John Zipperer
Technology integration tips
- Allow residents to conduct all transactions at one Web site so they do not have to remember multiple passwords or learn multiple interfaces.
- Allow plenty of time for testing, and choose a variety of users. Most lessons are learned during this phase. Consider piloting product integrations before final implementation.
- With increased technology integrations, software releases and upgrades now have an impact on more systems. To account for this complexity, AvalonBay has increased the time it allots to implement and test releases.
- Check all supplier references thoroughly and consider how many similar integrations the supplier has implemented.