The call center rep answered the phone on the third ring. It was 6:09 a.m. local time. “Thank you for calling Camden Copper Square. This is Amber, how can I help you?”

The caller told Amber he needed more information on the pet policies at the community, general availability about 60 days out, and a feel for the Garfield Historic District in downtown Phoenix.

Amber was honest.

“I can definitely help you with the pets and what’s available,” she said. “However, I’m in a centralized office. I’m not there on site, so I’m not too familiar with the neighborhood. I may be able to tell you what stores are nearby and things like that. What kind of dog do you have?”

Not only did Amber move past what she didn’t know and keep the conversation going by immediately asking about the caller’s dog, she did something even more important: She answered the phone, even though the on-site office wouldn’t be open for another four hours.

Half Empty
That may not have been the case four years ago. That’s when Kristy Simonette, senior vice president of strategic services at Houston-based Camden Property Trust, discovered a shocking statistic at the company: For every incoming call her leasing teams picked up, another went unanswered.

“We started a pilot to try to gauge where we were at with our incoming calls and learned that we were missing 50 percent,” says Simonette. “It wasn’t for lack of trying—our staffs were doing their very best to answer what was coming in, but we could never get better than half. It’s just the nature of a busy leasing office.”

Fast-forward to 2013, and Camden is on the leading edge of solving one of multifamily’s most persistent and vexing issues: The company has gotten very good at simply answering the phone. That’s a huge leg up in an industry where prospects need information now on the place they’ll live next, and are more likely to move on to another property than leave a voice mail on a machine that may not get checked regularly.

Following the discovery that it was leaving half its phone leads on the table, Camden engaged with Carrollton, Texas–based multifamily solutions provider RealPage to roll out its call center solution in 2009. The system has helped augment Camden’s in-house call center staff by answering overflow calls and those that come in after hours or on weekends or holidays.

At the same time, Camden has been beefing up its own internal call center, dubbed the Camden Contact Center. This month, that operation will ramp up to 24/7 availability, with 30 full-time Camden agents answering calls for the firm’s 65,000 units.

“We’re ready to take it to the next level,” Simonette says. “It means our employees will now answer 100 percent of Camden’s calls.”

That’s important to the firm, which has methodically developed its call center staff from the inside out, so that anyone calling any of its communities will always talk to a leasing agent who has been groomed to sell Camden’s apartments, and no one else’s.

You In or Out?
Camden’s experience of going in house belies a central issue: If you’ve got the size and capital of Camden, the DIY approach may pay off, since your employees should know more about your apartments than anyone else.

For operators with smaller portfolios and a healthy sensitivity to head count, third-party call centers can lend an occupancy boost. Each approach has its pros and cons, and finding the right mix is more of an art than a science. And yet, one thing is clear: Whether doing it yourself or farming it out, a concerted effort to answer the phones has a dramatic effect on the bottom line.

St. Paul, Minn.–based Real Estate Equities (REE), an owner and manager of 3,500 units, has seen triple-digit increases in the prospects it talks to and, ultimately, signs to a lease since implementing Santa Barbara, Calif.–based Yardi Systems’ call center solution.

“Our biggest upside has been the total increase in traffic and, ultimately, rentals with 24/7 answering services,” says Garin ­Hamburger, director of marketing at REE, who estimates that 95 percent of all incoming calls are routed to the Yardi Call Center. “In our first year using the call center, we saw a 148 percent increase in total leads and a 122 percent increase in rentals.”

What’s more, the firm says ROI on the program was nearly $90,000 in its first year, considering an additional 92 leases signed, the marketing spend saved, and the payroll and benefits costs reduced.

All the Answers
Others say the uptick alone from just getting calls answered, whether with a third party or not, makes a significant difference.

“We were missing about 25 percent of our calls and rushing through the others we did answer so we could keep up,” says Laura Grubbs, digital marketing director at PRG Real Estate in Philadelphia, an owner of 10,000 units and a Yardi customer. “The biggest upside is we never miss calls anymore. We answer 100 percent of our calls, 24 hours a day. That helps increase traffic and turn leads into leases.”

But it’s not just about talking to the prospects who are trying to reach you. For a generation that would rather text than talk, online chat and texting capabilities are increasingly becoming a part of the call center solution. And since unique 800 numbers trigger property management systems to fill in guest cards automatically, operators using a call center solution can track exactly where each lead is coming from, and effectively target those areas at a more granular level. Auto-populating those guest cards is also less prone to human error.

“We’re maximizing our advertising and marketing efforts and expenditures by capitalizing on every lead we generate,” says Joe ­Greenblatt, CEO of San Diego–based Sunrise Management, a manager of 12,000 units that uses RealPage’s Level One call center solution. “Call centers provide wonderful metrics, call recording, and call sourcing so you can measure ad spend without additional outlay.”

Since some calls still go to Sunrise staff at the properties, ­Greenblatt says the company has a “blended” approach of using a third party to bridge the gap when on-site agents become deluged or aren’t there. The ROI for the company has been significant.

“At five properties we reviewed in 2012, we closed 62 leases from prospects handled through our call center,” Greenblatt says. “With an average rent of $1,284, that equals $79,608 of monthly revenue. The outlay for the service on those five properties was just $1,617 per month.”

Dialing in the Details
And yet, while operators say outsourced call centers usually pay for themselves in the first year, farming it out comes with its own challenges. As Hamburger likes to point out, “That call center employee isn’t going to be able to tell your prospect about the amazing Kung Pao chicken from the delivery place down the street. They can read something off a list that we give them, but they’re going to struggle to explain anything in detail.”

It’s a perspective many multifamily vets take: The person answering the phone is only going to be as good as the information you provide him. That means staying vigilant about coordinating your own relationship with the call center provider, as well as making sure using a third party doesn’t create more work than it saves.

Indeed, managing the relationship with a third-party call center can be one of the biggest challenges of implementing one. “I think the biggest burden lies with us to provide the call center with all of the information they need to be successful,” says Sara Levy, director of marketing at Philadelphia-based Pennrose Properties, operator of 9,000 units.

Or, as Greenblatt puts it, “Outsourcing is yet another thing for the staff to manage. You’ve got to keep on top of everything, from updating pricing and availability to managing ad sources with the service provider.”

You also have to consider how the first point of contact with a prospect influences the sales process. When a prospect talks to an on-site leasing agent and then meets her in person, that can have a big impact on closing a lease.

“The on-site agent who answers the phone can start building rapport with the prospective resident immediately,” Greenblatt says. “At that point, the prospect’s visit to the property builds on the bond that was already started on the phone.”

The flip side of the outsourced equation can also work in a community’s favor, however, when call center staff nail their marks. “We’ve had prospects come in the door looking for the agent they spoke to, not even realizing the call was outsourced,” says Grubbs.

For Lowell, Mass.–based Princeton Properties, which operates 5,800 units, implementing a call center has helped the firm tackle a job it realized it could never do effectively alone.

“We briefly considered setting up our own call center,” says Claire Collins, Princeton’s vice president of marketing and education. “But when we analyzed call patterns, we realized pretty quickly that, during peak call times, it would be impossible to handle the volume of incoming calls companywide.”

You Gotta Feel It
That said, Collins also points out that no matter how closely you work with your call center, you can’t make people get excited about something they’re not naturally enthused about in the first place.

“A call center will never have the passion for the community that our associates do,” she says. “You’ve got to guard against call center workers misinforming callers, even when you’ve given them the information. We’ve had owners of dogs that are over our weight limit arrive at a community, and when they find out their pet isn’t allowed, it’s unpleasant for everyone.”

Simonette says those kinds of details drove Camden to develop its own, in-house team, which she says is anything but “entry-level” at the firm.

“We feel strongly that the Camden experience is better with a Camden employee. Eighty-five percent of our Contact Center staff have bachelor’s degrees,” Simonette says. “They have intimate knowledge of all of our 200 communities, including amenities. They can really sell the Camden experience, as opposed to an outsourced provider that services thousands of communities and hundreds of different management companies with different asset classes, rules, and policies.”

They also know exactly what each call is worth. “Our employees are stockholders. With your average 12-month, $1,000 lease, that means every time the phone rings, that’s a $12,000 opportunity,” Simonette says. “We understand what every lease means to the bottom line.”

Having that caliber of staff—and the money to pay for it—is likely the exception for any leasing operation in the industry. But whether you develop it yourself or turn to a third party for help, making sure someone always answers the phone is the right call. MFE