The apartment industry has a long history of providing high-touch customer service to our residents at every point in the tenant life cycle. Once upon a time, it was commonplace for us to water our residents’ plants and walk their dogs at lunchtime, as one industry executive recently reminded me.

Today, consumers seem to be trending the opposite way. Technology has allowed us to hand over to our residents the proverbial keys to the palace, giving them an increasing amount of autonomy over their living experiences. In many communities, however, we remain the middleman, providing what we think is excellent customer service but what may increasingly be viewed as antiquated and inefficient.

We fear that by removing ourselves from those daily transactions and interactions, we’re sacrificing some part of the experience and value we aim to deliver. This concern is natural given our history, but I believe technology done right can enhance rather than erode our brand values.

Less Is More
It’s been 10 years since Time magazine named “You” as the 2006 person of the year. Since then, “you” as a consumer and online aficionado have revolutionized industry after industry, taking control through e-commerce, online postings, and ratings and reviews. Today, the newly empowered consumer is at our doorstep, and she is used to getting what she wants, whenever she wants it, and in a seamless and frictionless process.

Mies van der Rohe’s revolutionary pronouncement that less is more may offer guidance here. Not less customer service for our residents, but systems that are less complicated, less dependent on someone else, and less time-consuming and, therefore, more valuable and enjoyable.

Giving more while doing less requires do-it-yourself tools that are simple, intuitive, transparent, and available 24/7. NMHC and Kingsley Associates recently partnered on a resident preferences survey to determine tenants’ priorities for home features and community amenities. Importantly, the survey also asked about the kind of renting experience respondents wanted—both in person and online. Nearly 120,000 apartment residents weighed in.

Their responses tell us a lot—too much for me to cover here. But, here are a few takeaways to help you navigate the new world of the empowered consumer.

Rethink Your Online Strategies
Although nearly all of us have made a significant push to social media, it appears we haven’t been extremely successful in our deployment. Roughly 58% of our survey respondents said they would not “like” or follow their community Facebook page, and more than 50% said they’d never check it. Only 13% listed social media as their preferred communication vehicle with community managers.

I’m not sure this means we should abandon social media but, rather, deploy it effectively, at the right time to the right people.

While residents might not be checking your Facebook page, they sure are looking at your ratings and reviews. Almost two-thirds of the survey respondents said they referenced these sites when researching communities to rent. Almost 54% said doing so influenced their leasing decision, and over 52% said bad reviews stopped them from visiting a community.

If having a robust policy for managing your ratings and reviews isn’t a priority, it should be.

Get Your Resident Portal in Top Shape
The study highlighted that residents really like the DIY approach that can be achieved through apartment companies’ resident portals and interactive websites. The survey results showed that 68% want to be able to complete the prequalification forms online, while 85% want to sign their leases online. If that weren’t enough, 85% also want to be able to renew their leases online.

Most strongly, 93% of respondents prefer to be able to handle maintenance requests online. Running a close second, 92% want to be able to make online rent payments. And 77% want to be able to access the portal from a mobile device.

Take a Page From Retail
The bottom line is, residents want to make regular transactions quickly and easily online. Existing technology allows us to execute on these transactions, but I think in the future, the experience will be more streamlined, more transparent—just better. The retail industry seems to be showing the way here, setting a standard for efficiency and transparency that our consumer residents have now come to expect.

While this shift in the balance of power is changing the relationship between residents and property managers, the need for humans to support residents will still exist. By empowering the consumer, we ultimately empower our managers, freeing them to focus on the interactions and business areas where they can add real value to our brands.

Rick Haughey is vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC). He can be reached at [email protected].