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Nov. 15, 2012

Call Centers: The Bottom Line

By Keat Foong, Executive Editor

Not all call centers are created equal. Apartment industry consultant Rick Ellis, CPM, president of Ellis Consulting Group Inc., tells Keat Foong, MHN executive editor, about the pros and cons of call centers—and the pitfalls to avoid.

Q. What’s your opinion on the use of call centers to take calls and/or e-mail from apartment prospects responding to ads, websites or ILS searches?

A. Everything is relative. A well-operated call center, like several available in our industry, can be a very important and effective leasing and resident relations tool. But if the call center leasing agents are poorly trained with lackluster sales presentations, then the results will be inadequate. Most call centers serving our industry have got to be competent and measurably effective, or they would still not be in business. Our sometimes overly analytical property operators make any call center contractor completely accountable…even to the point of using third-party shopping companies to shop the call center telephone specialists.

Call centers are a terrific addition to a complete sales and marketing program for a mid-sized to large apartment community of 200 to 500-plus units. They will never take the place of a good onsite leasing professional who is working the property every day. But the well-run call center with knowledge and understanding of the apartment business is an asset in several ways. They allow the phones to be answered by a trained professional whenever the onsite staff can’t immediately answer. Prospects do not want to wait, and if you don’t take their call now, they will scratch you off the list and go to the next phone number.

This gives the onsite staff more time to spend with prospects and residents who are live and in the office. Best of all, a call center is available 24/7, a schedule [to which] many consumers have become accustomed from call centers in other industries. Many call centers also work the online and e-mail rental traffic. It makes a great impact when a prospect sending a 2 a.m. e-mail gets an immediate response.

Q. Do call centers really improve the lead-to-appointment conversion rate? Do they generate 100 percent response rates? 

A. A call center team should not be able to convert better than a well-trained onsite leasing professional. Yet the call center should generate more traffic because calls that were not previously answered will be getting immediate attention.

Q. What are the most important pros and cons of using call centers? 

A. The cons: the onsite team may sometimes begin to ignore the phone calls knowing the call center will pick it up. Onsite teams might also ignore or not be fully prepared for property visits set up by the call center professional. I have known of lengthy absences from the property by the onsite team when they had a call center available to “be there.” Also, some systems require too many automated prompts to get the caller to the correct part of the call center. Another [possible drawback of call centers] are poorly trained call center operators. There is also an occasional morale problem on the part of the onsite staff who feels the use of a call center is a reflection on their performance.

The pros include: the property can advertise 24/7 availability for phone calls. Good telephone leasing support is immediately available if the property is suddenly not staffed, [for reasons such as] termination, illness or vacations. The call center can supplement the leasing effort during the learning curve of a new onsite leasing professional. Actually, a call center gives a great onsite leasing team more time to focus on all rental prospect visitors and do what they do best—close prospects!

Q. What is the cost effectiveness of using call centers versus in-house personnel to answer calls from prospects? 

A. It would have to be a special situation to have a call center replace your in-house leasing professionals altogether. But considering that a rental prospect is worth $8,000 to $20,000 in annual rental income, an opportunity to lease a call center-set appointment is likely an excellent value.

Q. What are some of the technological innovations of call centers that you are aware of (e.g. ones that make the property manager’s work easier)? Are there automated programs that apartment companies can use?

A. Technology allows calls to the call center to be seamless and “click free.” Call center leasing professionals have screens of information that pop up on their monitors with the details of the property being called. A sharp call center leasing agent can quickly become “expert” on the property and its features and benefits by simply looking at her computer monitor.

Q. If an apartment company decides to outsource prospect handling to call centers, what should be their top considerations in selecting a contractor?

A. Shop the call center numerous times throughout the week and weekend. See [and] hear for yourself the sort of selling and closing skills the call center and its agents can deliver.

Q. If they do employ call centers, what are important steps for apartment companies to take to make sure their call centers work well? 

A. Make sure that the call center has all the current information on your community and receives continual rent and availability updates daily. Often, misinformation given to the rental prospect by the call center agent is not the fault of the agent.

Work with the call center floor supervisor to help him or her understand your company culture when it comes to leasing apartments and interacting with prospects so the call center can attempt to emulate that culture.

Q. What are the pitfalls in using call centers to handle prospect inquiries, and how can these be avoided? 

A. Some companies have contracted with poorly managed and trained call centers and concluded that call centers don’t work. This is poor analysis and does not represent all call centers. While a call center may not ever be as effective as a great onsite team member sitting in the leasing office, a good call center can come close. Each company will have to decide if “close” is close enough to justify the cost.

The bottom line about call centers: do they get prospects to your door at a price that makes economic sense?

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