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Multifamily leaders weighed in on the benefits and challenges of incorporating technology to increase efficiency and net operating income (NOI) while keeping a people-centric focus at the MFE Leadership Summit in Vail, Colorado, in early March.

“For us, we’re very much trying to focus on the customer experience, and then you have all of this technology coming. It’s easy to lose touch with that human side of it because you’re so focused on replacing people and automating,” said Ian Andrews, principal and vice president of innovation and analytics at Avanti Residential. “For us, it’s how can we use technology to strengthen that rapport and relationship rather than just focusing on the automation of things.”

Shawaun Alexander, vice president of operations software and systems at Bozzuto, agreed.

“Our goal is to be high touch using high tech,” she said. “We don’t see a place for Bozzuto where we would replace the human element because we’re helping people rent housing, and it’s one of the most important and expensive purchases that they will ever make in their life. How can we meet customers where they are? And how can we leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and technology that feels seamless, efficient, and in touch with what they need?”

She added that you have to do the work to evaluate what your customer experience looks like and where you can introduce and leverage AI, for example, along the journey. But finding that balance can be a challenge.

“What are your touch points, where are you shining, and where are there opportunities for you to get better? What functions can you automate on the back end and leverage like an AI lead nurturing tool or an AI delinquency and collections tool, and where do you need your people on the site to show up. They really are the brand ambassadors and are the ones who are responsible for executing on your brand promise,” she said.

It’s also challenging to adopt the many tech solutions that are out there. “We all have people on site who are very busy, and every tool that you introduce to them has a learning curve,” Alexander said. “You can only roll out so many things to the on-site teams in one year.”

Gigi Giannoni, senior vice president of customer experience at Gables Residential, added that while younger generations still want the personal touch available when necessary, they are not as needy as older generations. She said the personal touch is more of a welcome or walking residents through their apartment for the first time.

She said the multifamily industry is the same as any other industry that deals with people, whether it’s Amazon or American Express, and that consumers have gotten used to digital aspects of these businesses.

“I do believe that we are in an evolution, and we are going to change just like other businesses are changing, and we are going to have to figure out how to do it. The advent of AI and the advent of chatbots—all those kinds of things—are very important, and I think will ultimately drive how we get there,” Giannoni said. “We do need to still focus on customer experience because it’s a home, it’s where they are living, it’s very important. But I do believe it’s going to be a lot more prominent in the next five years, and it is going to impact how we centralize and how we maximize NOI across the board.”

Site Team Pressures

A big struggle for property managers is the number of software tools that on-site teams have to navigate.

“We’re a fee manager, and we don’t always have control over the tools we use. For instance, we’re operating 12 different property management systems, which can be a significant challenge,” said Alexander. “One, being able to delineate the responsibilities and really have [site team members] hone in on a specific set of skills they can master shortens the learning curve. Equally, pushing on vendors and partners to provide tools that are intuitive enough so the learning curve is also shortened. I think the combination of that is helpful. Then on the back end, the application support team can help identify areas of friction and quickly release patches or training materials to help them along the way.”

Andrews added that a lot of the focus on centralization is understanding the strengths of each individual employee and aligning their day-to-day jobs where they can specialize and focus on those.

He said Avanti also has AI chatbots that provide real-time answers to questions about the software programs. “It’s also much more customized learning,” he added. “We can understand employees’ strengths and weakness, which platforms they are struggling with, and then customize training.”

Giannoni said Gables Residential took a step back toward the end of last year to determine what the company’s objectives were around vetting and implementing new programs. She said the team looked at the programs that are working and decided to work with vendors to make them even better.

“Every survey to our associates comes back with the same thing—they cannot keep track of all of the software platforms on their desktops,” she said. “At the same time, it's stepping back to see what is a priority to move forward and working in that direction to make that happen.”