It's no secret the apartment industry has long been saddled with a reputation for being behind the times when it comes to implementing technology.
But multifamily executives say that stereotype may need to be updated.
"It wasn't even a decade ago that many operators were still receiving leads by fax, typing leases on typewriters, and taking credit-card payments by hand," says Kortney Balas, vice president of technology and business process for JVM Realty Corp. "But I would say within the last three to four years, we've seen the most advancement technology-wise we've ever seen in multifamily."
The impact of technology can be felt in every stage of the resident life cycle, apartment executives and suppliers say.
"As a whole, the industry is doing a much better job of using technology to improve efficiencies and also deliver the kinds of experiences that drive satisfaction for prospects and residents and ultimately lead to renewals," Balas says.
Lead Management and Leasing
Operators' ability to manage their prospects has taken a big leap forward with the proliferation in recent years of lead-management software. Broadly speaking, these solutions allow operators to pinpoint exactly which advertising sources are delivering qualified leads and to adjust their advertising spends accordingly.
Such software also enables apartment managers to identify any conversion issues on-site teams may have; locate leads in the demand funnel; and provide lead scoring to allow leasing agents to zero in on the prospects most likely to sign on the dotted line.
Furthermore, forward-thinking operators have lead-management solutions in place to provide some kind of quick response to prospects who contact an operator outside of regular business hours, Balas emphasizes.
“This is when you get into your call centers, your auto responses, and your chat bots," she says. "This is so critical, because leads expect such quick replies."
It's also imperative for a lead-management system to keep track of which communication channel—text, voice, or email—a prospect prefers, Balas adds.
As for leasing, it's become much more common for prospects to be able to complete their applications and sign their leases on their smartphones and desktops. "This was one area where the industry was really lagging," Balas says. "People were wondering, 'How come I can apply for a mortgage in two minutes, yet online leasing is so incredibly cumbersome?' I think that's one of the things that’s really started to pick up speed in the last couple of years."
Improved Communications With Residents
Through channels such as online portals and mobile apps, operators have also used technology to improve their communications with residents.
Operators note that, not too long ago, they often relied on flyers to promote community events or pass along word of renovations to common-area amenities or other news affecting residents. The method was inefficient for on-site staff, who had to write, print, and distribute the flyers to bulletin boards and residents' front doors, and it was too easy for residents to miss the announcements, for various reasons.
Now, on-site team members can communicate with residents where they're spending so much time—on their smartphones and other devices. Portals and apps can also enable residents to interact with each other and form strong bonds, which in turn increases their connection with their community and strengthens the possibility of renewals.
Giving renters the ability to pay their rent, make service requests, and even renew their leases online has further bolstered the resident experience, Balas notes.
"These kinds of services are more or less required at this point," she says. "Prospects and residents are going to expect these kinds of conveniences, so if you're not providing them, you should consider doing so as soon as possible."
Moving forward, maintenance services—a fundamental part of resident satisfaction—will benefit from technology as more apartment companies equip their service techs with mobile devices on which they can access and update work orders while in the field. This will help techs spend more time servicing residents and less time in the office handling paperwork. JVM, for one, will be launching such an initiative soon.
As a general rule, with advances in technology, operators will become much less reliant on getting work done at their desks and in leasing offices, notes Sara Sharpe, senior vice president of product for property management software supplier Entrata.
"Paperless payments are commonplace," Sharpe says. "The current wave is making your office completely paperless and having all on-site operations handled through mobile devices and tablets instead of at desks."
And what’s the ROI for upgrading your technology? The ultimate payoff is renewals, Balas notes. When systems are in place that create a great prospect experience, facilitate effective communication between management and residents, promote the swift execution of work orders, and improve staff efficiency, that paves the way for great resident experiences. And when residents are happy, the likelihood they’ll renew their lease increases.
Room to Grow
The apartment industry may be a more enthusiastic adopter of technology today, but it still has room to improve.
For one, getting different systems to integrate with each other can be challenging, notes Balas.
"In general, I think operators often have to cobble different systems together to meet the needs they have, and those systems don't necessarily always 'talk' that well to each other," Balas says.
Karen A. Gladney, co-founder and principal of Power Pro Leasing, an iPad-based leasing technology, agrees that integration between products must become easier, but she says the industry has made substantial progress in this area.
"When we first started, we were pulling teeth to find any integration paths with different vendors, and now it's just so much better," Gladney says. "Vendors need to have more open platforms and continue to work together, because that's what will tee up the best experience for everybody involved in this industry, from operators to suppliers."
Additionally, apartment employees traditionally haven’t been especially tech-savvy, and they can resist the implementation of new solutions and systems. Operators should stress to associates how these solutions can make their jobs easier, however, and emphasize that their people skills and personal touch with residents will remain a vital component of prospect and resident satisfaction, Balas adds.