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Modern consumers can purchase nearly anything they want online without any human interaction. While it’s become commonplace to buy lower-cost products and services exclusively online, many customers still want to speak with a professional before making larger purchases, like cars and homes. However, a growing number of renters have become more willing to lease an apartment without ever speaking to a leasing associate.

New leasing strategies, content initiatives, and technologies are making renters more comfortable selecting a new apartment without human interaction. Consumers like doing their own research before making a purchase. As more and more apartment communities provide visually rich, contextual, and interactive information online and send timely, hyper-personalized follow-ups to prospects, renters have all the information they need to make a confident decision—without speaking to an expert.

According to a 2022 Renters Preference Survey Report from the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and Grace Hill, 26% of respondents noted that they prefer to take a self-guided tour—a 10% uptick from two years ago. Sixty percent of prospective residents also search for an apartment outside of regular business hours. Modern consumers have a need for speed, convenience, and flexibility, and when they request information about an apartment, they’d like to receive an immediate response.

This shift in consumer preferences and expectations along with new tour types has created a new era of leasing—one that’s predominantly automated. Operators have implemented AI chatbots and automation to meet new customer needs and rapidly get apartment information back to prospects while saving time for on-site teams to focus on customer service. As 60% of all prospects sign a lease at the first community they hear back from, automated leasing has become the essential foundation of the modern customer journey.

“Automated leasing is now a necessity in our industry,” says Robert Hicks, chief operating officer at Portico. “A large percentage of renters expect the ability to either lease completely online or have some form of automated or self-service leasing.”

The Benefits of Automated Leasing

Automating the early stages of the leasing experience facilitates two primary benefits: Leasing teams don’t miss any leads, and hyper-personalized follow-ups engage prospects while seamlessly moving them through the funnel without the need for a leasing associate.

Operators that couple their customer relationship management (CRM) systems with automation have reported tour-to-application conversions nearly 12% above the industry average (35%) and lead-to-lease conversion increases of 11%.

“Increasing lease conversions used to depend heavily on the amenities or concessions a community was offering, but operators recognize the value in catering to customers in hyper-personalized ways that enhance the overall customer experience,” says Jacob Carter, CEO of Nurture Boss. “Renters need that immediacy, and they’ve come to expect completely customized information.”

Online shopping helped fuel the need for instant gratification. Customers can buy whatever they want, whenever they want online, and an apartment is no exception. More and more renters are searching for apartments online and engaging with virtual tours, videos, photo galleries, 3D floor plans, interactive maps, and more. They can gain a comprehensive understanding of a community before even visiting.

“The industry has developed some excellent online formats, especially with video production, and we need to continue evolving our platforms to take them to the next level,” Hicks says. “Renters have become more comfortable with automated leasing due to the pandemic, multiple tour types, and a new generation starting to rent. Other industries have evolved with the consumer, which has really forced multifamily to do so as well because it’s now the expectation of the consumer.”

In the fast-paced leasing environment of today with the consumer desire for instant gratification, prospects are not going to wait for a community to respond. Leads are pouring into apartment communities from multiple platforms, and while there is no time to waste in contacting prospects, it’s also nearly impossible for on-site teams to field every single lead.

“The Great Resignation has definitely impacted multifamily on the leasing side, and we’re working with leaner on-site teams, but also more leads,” says Lindsay Duffy, director of marketing and training at Western Wealth Communities. “Automated leasing streamlines the leasing experience for prospects while alleviating that work for on-site teams so they can focus more on the customer service aspect. It creates better communication, and we’ve seen an improvement in overall resident satisfaction.”

The Challenges of 100% Automated Leasing

The consistent and timely communication from automated leasing elevates the standards of the leasing experience and refines tactics to attract and retain residents. However, it cannot do 100% of the job.

Operators have said it over and over: Automation is not here to replace on-site teams. While it’s true more renters have become comfortable with a fully self-service experience, many still value speaking to an expert before moving forward with a lease.

Yes, more prospects prefer a self-guided tour than a few years ago. But the full data tells another story: Most prospects prefer a guided tour. Sixty percent of respondents to the NMHC/Grace Hill Renters Preference Survey Report said their preferred property tour type is one with a community representative. Ninety-two percent indicated the benefit of touring with a community representative is the ability to have their questions answered, and 62% said it’s because the representative can provide information on the community and neighborhood.

“Establishing an immediate line of communication with a prospect is crucial to the next step, whether it’s taking a tour or moving forward with a lease,” Duffy says. “Automated leasing does a lot of the heavy lifting, but, ultimately, it’s really about making a connection to a community, and many people find that through human interaction. Many prospects want to talk things out or just have some empathy before making a commitment to a new community.”

Residents are also more likely to stay at a community when they have an emotional connection to it and a relationship with their on-site teams and neighbors. Automated leasing may streamline the leasing experience, but leasing teams really close the deal when they have time to do what they do best: cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships with prospects and residents.

“The relationship between residents and on-site teams drives success at any community,” Carter says. “When on-site teams have the necessary time to cultivate those relationships, residents have a better experience and are more likely to stay long term.”

Apartment companies are focusing more on the customer experience through the lens of the customer: immediacy, convenience, personalization, and flexibility. While automated leasing checks all those boxes, it doesn’t provide what many renters still want: human interaction. Much of the leasing process can be automated, and the industry has really evolved with the customer to refine automated leasing strategies. But the piece that can’t be automated is the heart and soul of any community: the people.