Taken as a whole, the multifamily industry isn't exactly known for moving with lightning-fast speed to implement new technology and processes. But in 2020, operators across the country had to do just that.
With on-site leasing severely curtailed and social distancing protocols in place because of the pandemic, apartment managers had to turn on a dime and find new ways to serve prospects and residents. Self-guided and video tours are some of the more high-profile and well-known adaptations, but they are far from the only examples of multifamily innovation and ingenuity the industry saw this past year.
Creative operators engaged artificial intelligence (AI) leasing agents, cutting-edge resident referral platforms, and more intensive lead management, to name just a few of the innovations. They also emphasized thorough and frequent communication to associates and residents.
"The industry was challenged in so many ways in 2020," says Wendy Simpson, vice president of marketing for Edgewood and Vantage Management. "It was no doubt a difficult year for all of the obvious reasons, but it was refreshing to see operators find new ways to provide the right experiences for prospective renters and residents."
A Range of Responses
When the pandemic struck, Edgewood Management and Vantage Management, like operators across the country, moved quickly to adapt.
Among the first changes the sister companies made was to increase their use of the Microsoft Teams platform for project management and communication between associates.
"One of the initial challenges we had to overcome was maintaining effective and timely communication because we were no longer in the office or in the field side by side, at least not as much as we were used to," Simpson says. "This made the ease of communication even more critical than ever."
The companies also implemented resident portals, which were already in place at a portion of their communities, across their entire portfolios to make sure residents could easily pay rent and make service requests online. The portals also provide an efficient way for community managers to connect with residents. They ramped up their use of live and prerecorded video tours and made sure community websites had clear, visible language directing prospects to a self-scheduling tour solution.
One of the most impactful changes Edgewood and Vantage made, according to Simpson, was to install Rentgrata across a portion their portfolio. The messaging platform appears as a website widget and allows prospects to contact current residents directly to ask questions about the lifestyle at a community.
A pilot project conducted early in the pandemic showed that the platform resulted in more than $528,000 in leases that might not have been secured otherwise.
"In any circumstance, we feel it's incredibly beneficial for a prospect to get genuine feedback from a current resident. These conversations really help a prospective renter make a quicker and more informed leasing decision," Simpson says. "And over the past year, it's been a particularly important resource for prospects who haven’t been able to physically tour our properties because of the pandemic."
In the case of the lease up of Abrams Hall Senior Apartments in Washington, D.C., the Edgewood team responded to the pandemic by going "old school."
Because the property's prospective renters often were not fluent in technology, Edgewood associates often drove applications to the homes of prospective renters and, if necessary, would discuss the application with the prospect over the phone. Associates would arrange to come back and pick up the application at a later time. The property would sometimes overnight the paperwork to prospects and provide a prepaid envelope for them to return the application.
"It was back to basics with a high-touch approach of customer service, and that was really the best way we could have successfully accomplished that lease-up," Simpson says.
Pegasus Swings into Action
Before the pandemic struck, Pegasus Residential already had implemented self-guided tours across a portion of its portfolio. The company had been impressed by the results and was planning on expanding their use when COVID arrived.
"The pandemic hit, and we're like, 'OK, we have to shut down our offices, and this is the perfect opportunity for us to mass roll out this product,'" says Yakov Belousov, executive director of operations for Pegasus.
The company also expanded its use of video tours and began using an AI platform from Diffe.rent to serve as a leasing agent. When needed, the platform can communicate with prospects over the phone and by text, chat, and email.
"If someone was chatting with this AI, they would have a hard time recognizing that they're talking to an AI program," Belousov says. "If they want to talk to a human being, all they have to say is, 'Hey, I want to talk with someone that's on-site.' Then it will automatically connect them with our folks. That has helped us tremendously."
Pegasus also innovated by unveiling a mobile app that provides its owner-clients with around-the-clock access to real-time information about their communities and allows the clients to communicate quickly and easily with the company. It felt the app was an ideal way to make sure owners felt in the know during the ups and downs of the pandemic.
Pegasus also quickly realized the importance of helping its residents feel connected, Belousov adds.
"Some of our residents don't have a lot of social connections, so they rely on their interactions with our teams and with their neighbors," he says. "Since we haven't been able to have a lot of face-to-face interactions, we have online events where we eat meals together and play games together. We have tried to connect in the only way that we can, which is in the digital universe. It's been a lot of fun.
"In the multifamily industry, we wear many different hats. Sometimes we're moms. Sometimes we're dads. Sometimes we're psychologists, psychiatrists. Sometimes we just listen to our residents. We have to be there in many different ways, and we've been reminded of that during the pandemic."
Major-League Lead Management
When Mill Creek Residential couldn’t offer in-person tours because of the pandemic, the apartment company saw the number of leads who initially reached out online or by phone jump dramatically—by up to 50%, says Stephen Prochnow, senior vice president of property management for Mill Creek.
As a result, the company intensified its emphasis on "providing prompt and thoughtful responses to customers," Prochnow says.
To ensure those responses take place, Mill Creek created a robust database using a variety of sources to track the response time to each lead. The database also tracked which kinds of tours a prospective resident took (the company expanded its use of in-person, self-guided, and live video tours).
"We expanded our lead reporting to track which of those tour types were most effective and led to closing," Prochnow says. "It was a focus on analytics and KPIs around the lead management and reporting process."
Mill Creek also offered different programs to help residents who are having difficulty paying their rent.
"It was really important to us to engage directly with our renters and to try and keep them in their homes if at all possible," Prochnow says. "So, we gave our residents options. One option was a rent deferral option, and another allowed them to extend their lease for no increase and defer some element of rent in the process.
"And then, if they had some change in their situation that was impacting their ability to continue to rent with us, we did allow them to break their lease if we weren't able to find a rent deferral option that worked for them."
In addition to these various adjustments, Mill Creek focused on frequent and clear communication with associates and overall associate well-being.
"2020 resulted in being one of our lowest associate turnover years we've had as a department, which is great, considering all the challenges that the on-site teams faced," Prochnow says. "We really focused on transparency and frequent communication. We tried to put in place policies and practices that put associate safety first. I think our associates have been very resilient and flexible throughout the year."
Looking into 2021
Morgan Porter, director of digital marketing for Birchstone Residential, recognizes the significant lessons learned throughout 2020 and believes the most important one is balancing technology and people.
“The ability for our industry to so quickly adjust to the ever-changing impact of the pandemic on our operations is nothing short of phenomenal,” Porter says. “We should be proud of our teams and celebrate their successes to overcome and thrive in such a tumultuous time. However, even though technology has grown in importance in our industry, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to our people.”
Birchstone closely evaluated each technology within its stack to ensure the solution would complement its culture and team member-centric philosophy.
Moving into 2021, Porter and the Birchstone team anticipate that convenience-based technologies like self-guided tours, AI technologies, and solutions that enhance communication between residents and communities will continue to evolve, further bringing the face-to-face customer service the multifamily industry is known for back to the forefront.
"The challenges of the pandemic have made it clear that you have to support your associates," Porter says. "Technology is a great catalyst to do so, but it is also imperative to recognize that technology should help not hinder the ability to provide great customer service.”