Balancing Tech With In-Person Engagement in Property Management
An increasing number of tasks previously performed by employees have been replaced by innovative technologies. But can tech do it all? Stacey Darden of New Standard Equities weighs in.
Technology is omnipresent, having seeped into every industry and changing (for the better) the way we go about our daily tasks. Its rampant progression continues, bettering, speeding up, complementing, or even replacing where needed. The multifamily industry, although slower than others at adopting and adapting technology, has also made strides—from ILSs to analytics platforms and websites with virtual and self-guided tours to online service requests to amenity booking platforms.
Multi-Housing News talked with Senior Director of Innovation and Compliance Stacey Darden at New Standard Equities about technology’s role in successful operations at multifamily properties.
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Multifamily technology was forced to progress during the height of the pandemic. From a property management standpoint, what advancements have you seen?
Darden: The pandemic showed property managers that not all customers need to be personally toured around a community. Customers are no longer visiting seven to 10 communities in person as they have in the past. They can do their research at home and will only visit up to three communities they are seriously considering. This requires a robust community website showcasing the community in the best light, self-guided tours, a paperless and seamless application process through the lease signing and move-in.
The main step that may need in-person interaction is the move-in step, all others can use various pieces of technology to supplement the former human interaction. Many of these products have existed for quite some time, however, the utilization of various pieces was not as high as it is today. In addition, as staffing continues to be a topic of concern for many, the residents’ ability to pay rent online and submit service requests online continues to be an area of focus for many property management companies.
More residents are working from home now. How have the communities adapted?
Darden: When a customer is looking for a one-bedroom and mentions working from home, many communities started presenting a smaller second bedroom as a potential office, emphasizing its benefits even if it’s a smaller two-bedroom apartment. Also for customers looking for a second bedroom to be used as office space, giving the option of a one bedroom with a den can satisfy their needs.
Another change brought on by working from home was more residents home during the day, which impacted maintenance—service requests must be completed in one, or minimal visits, to limit the disruption to the resident. This also means that more information must be gathered from the residents when calling in a service request, and residents should provide as detailed information as possible to help the maintenance team come prepared when they visit the apartment.
Which tech do you use in your day-to-day operations?
Darden: We have an analytics platform we use to help us review property performance in real-time, a CRM platform to centralize the flow of communication with prospective and current residents with voice call, email and texting capabilities, and our PMS, which is a repository for our financial and resident data. We have select communities utilizing self-guided touring technology.
The majority of our marketing efforts are all online from our ILS to our websites, online leasing and resident portal. Our resident portal allows residents to pay rent and submit service requests at any time from their mobile device or web access, limiting the need for them to contact the office.
What tech do you feel is missing to serve your property management needs?
Darden: While many companies in the prop-tech space breed competition, companies working to improve their product is extremely beneficial to property managers. Yet, trying to make too many systems integrate perfectly with one another is a significant hurdle.
I am not sure any tech is missing currently, the space is becoming very crowded and it can be difficult for property managers to decipher the slight differences in what one company offers versus another and from which they are truly going to gain the most momentum once implemented.
How advanced is artificial intelligence in multifamily operations? Do you use AI at your properties? What stands in the way of a wider adoption of AI in multifamily operations?
Darden: Today’s AI products can answer phone calls and provide community information over the phone, via email, or in chat form. While many younger generations lean toward texting and chat functionality, there are still customers who want to be able to talk to someone. While the VoiceAI product is not perfect, it will still allow customers to indicate when they want to talk to a human and redirect the phone call to the community. But I think that, while a lot of companies are looking at AI, many don’t want to be the first to implement it.
AI functions are dependent on the information being provided to it is accurate, and that takes a team monitoring and ensuring the accuracy and validity of the information provided. For example, when we make pricing changes to our available apartments, we have various locations to update so that all components have our current pricing. This lends itself to human error or lack of employees able to make specific updates. A big area of concern related to the adoption of new technologies is the integration with our current systems, better yet, understanding what can be connected to our current systems and what needs manual updating.
The multifamily industry has been performing many tasks the same way for years, with slight changes throughout to address new challenges, products, or technologies, and this can make some hesitant to change. The old model of needing one office team member per hundred apartments is outdated, with more parts of the resident life cycle to be automated or centralized. Implementing many of these components requires thought into where each will fit in the customer life cycle, what each is replacing or supplementing, and who is responsible for the management of the respective component.
Also, it’s essential to make sure employees are well trained and understand that the “why” behind the implementation of these programs is to gain as much support and buy-in as possible. Employees can be the biggest hurdle when introducing new technology. Many are used to the previous way of doing things and react impulsively, but they need to understand what the new technology offers and that it aims to make their job easier overall.
For many, the shift to a more technology-driven process is the result of a staffing shortage, an identification of what can assist in the interim. Companies need to dive into their customer process and make meaningful and well-thought-out decisions on changes to gain buy-in and support.
What tech decisions should property operators make to attract and retain residents?
Darden: Identifying where there is a gap or a need in the customer experience and coming up with a solution that can solve that problem. For example, we previously identified that our communication with residents dropped off severely once they moved out. Specifically, once a resident received their initial move-out statement, many of the questions they had often went unanswered—whether it was disputing their deductions, or simply having questions about what they were charged. More so, if a resident owed a balance to the community, the follow-up actions were not being taken consistently to collect on those balances due.
To solve this, we identified a partner that integrates with our PMS. Their team acts as an extension of our office staff and takes full ownership of the post-move-out collection process, including responding to any questions from the former resident, handling disputes, setting up payment plans, and managing the third-party collection efforts. This has taken a burden off our teams, and we have also seen a decrease in bad debt across our portfolio, so it has had a positive impact on our community performance.
From a leasing perspective, if you see a significant percentage of your incoming phone calls not being addressed by your office teams, looking into a VoiceAI product may be a solution to address that gap or need.
We’ve all heard of the Great Resignation. How can technology help with the labor shortage?
Darden: Leveraging technology that allows some self-service capabilities allows the customer to address their current needs and not wait until there is an employee to interact with. Self-service capabilities include self-guided touring, online application and lease signing processes.
In addition to the self-service options, technology can allow specific activities to be centralized, hence requiring fewer employees. But while self-service capabilities are essential, they will not fully replace the need for human interaction when a customer has a question or needs more information than an AI program can offer.
CRMs allow employees to log in from a remote location enabling them to access incoming phone calls from their laptops, as well as place outgoing phone calls to customers on behalf of the community. When a customer applies online, any employee can access their information and initiate their screening. Once approved, the same employee can send the lease agreement to the customer to sign. While previously many of these tasks required completion and physical signing of documents, nowadays they can be completed remotely, both by our team and the customer.
Technology can’t do everything. On your property, what will tech never replace?
Darden: Technology will never be able to fully replace our maintenance teams. Maintenance teams provide an invaluable service to residents and can have more personal interaction with residents than the office employees.
While technology can streamline the process of submitting service requests and dispatching maintenance teams to address the request, technology will likely not be able to replace the ability to repair maintenance issues in an apartment. Most likely, there will always be a base of customers who need that personal interaction and connection to feel comfortable leasing a new apartment home. While shifting many functions to automated or self-service processes is helpful, customers still want to know there is a human there for concerns, who will hear and address them.