By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Writer
At Chicago’s new K2—a high-rise downtown luxury rental property—would-be residents don’t have to walk around available apartments with tape measures. An interactive “floor plan organizer” screen lets prospects drag icons representing beds, furniture, TVs and exercise equipment around available floor plans, to learn just how well different units might accommodate their furnishings.
It’s only the latest in what is a rising tide of high-tech tools designed to help make the leasing process simpler and more efficient for both renters and property managers. Noting high-tech leasing tools “are evolving pretty quickly,” Michelle Janis, marketing manager of Denver-based Riverstone Residential Group, representing K2, adds, “I remember two or three years ago [when] the iPad was being demoed at the site level, but no one was really using it at the site. Now the clientele almost expect to have that level of technology there.”
Helping lead the way in advanced leasing technology is Denver-based Pynwheel, the company Riverstone Residential Group is looking to for many of its leasing solutions. “We created Pynwheel with the idea we could transform the on-site sales process with interactive technology by doing things a little differently,” says Jennifer Cyphers, president of the one-year-old company.
The company’s software is Pynwheel Swoop, which integrates with the property management system and any third-party software systems to help make the leasing process far more efficient, Cyphers says. It is used on touch-based interfaces such as touch-top table, panel and tablet. In the past, software used in these ways replicated company website content, which many prospects had already viewed and deemed not very helpful. Worse, a large percentage of prospects, particularly Gen-Y’ers, are more comfortable with technology than with strangers. They want to be in control of the process and don’t feel they are.
The multifamily industry has done a good job with websites and search marketing, Cyphers says. “But when the prospect enters the leasing office, the process breaks down. That’s when the prospect feels they don’t have control and are being sold to. This sales technology helps prospects feel they still have situational control once they walk into the leasing office—that they’re in the driver seat. They’re holding their phone or tablet or standing at a panel or touch-top table and can go through the sales process looking at available units matching their needs. Because they’re making choices along the way that affect the end result, they’re much more comfortable being pushed through the sales funnel.”
This tendency is consistent with the findings of Stanford professor Clifford Nass, who has probed the way humans interact with technology, Cyphers says.
The work of Nass has proven the rule of reciprocity applies to human-to-technology interactions the same way it does to human-to-human interactions.
“That means if they feel like the technology they’re interacting with is helping accomplish their goals, they’re more likely to cooperate with the technology and go further in the sales process,” adds Cyphers.
In keeping with this realization, many new leasing centers are welcoming settings with plush furniture and touch tables that encourage prospects to feel comfortable and in control, Cyphers says. “It’s not the leasing agent sitting across the table from the renter with a computer between them,” she says.
Israel Carunungan, director of marketing for Washington, D.C.-based Greystar—the nation’s largest property management company, has seen that same quest for autonomous, in-control decision making by prospects. “I’ve been in leasing offices where prospects go straight to the kiosk on the wall, pull up floor plans, local restaurants, and what units are available based on the search they’re doing—even before they speak to a leasing agent,” he says.
One important way Greystar leverages technology is to help prospects gain information more easily at the time they need it and through the most convenient channel. “We want to make sure we’re operating on their time and for their needs,” he says, citing real-time floor plan availability and pricing.
“That’s available in our property websites and online advertising sources,” notes Carunungan. “We also emphasize 24-hour call answering services and online chat services. We know potential renters are not only calling during regular work hours; they will call us after getting off work, and sometimes in the middle of the night. We want to be there and answer questions they might have at the time they’re available.”
All Greystar properties are required to have websites configured to mobile screens to serve growing legions of prospects accessing information through smart phones or tablets. Many of its leasing centers offer interactive kiosks with touch screens, giving prospective renters information about the properties and the communities surrounding them. And all company leasing agents are able to access information about pricing and availability during tours of the properties. There’s no need to return to the office with a prospect to check a detail or two.
The industry and universe of renters have also been aided by the many transformative mobile apps created to smooth leasing. “There are definitely a lot of apartment-related mobile apps that allow renters to search for apartments from their smart phones,” Carunungan says. “Most if not all are geo-targeted; the mobile phone can detect the location of these prospects, so that the surrounding properties near their current location will show up in their search.”
One mobile app used by Greystar is both a selling point to prospects and a tool to retain current customers. The app allows residents to identify discounts retailers within, say, a five-mile radius of the property. “By living in the community, they get that additional benefit that might save them—for instance, five percent on their dry cleaning,” Carunungan says. “We will show that [to prospects] during the leasing process and also provide accounts to residents who download the app.”
At Riverstone Residential Group, Janis reports the company marketing team is developing an interactive and dynamic site map for K2. It will feature a rendering of the building on the website, allowing visitors to bring up a map of floor plates by hovering over specific floors. From the floor plate, visitors can progress to floor plans of individual apartments, showing them everything from the window views to apartment pricing and availability.
The company is also creating a custom e-brochure for use by leasing agents. When prospects visit, agents can use their iPads to fill in specific information about the clients’ needs and desires, then use that information to pinpoint specific floor plans best for the clients. The technology will email them a copy of those optimal floor plans. “They’ll get an email saying, ‘You liked this specific floor plan and this specific apartment,’” Janis says.
In partnership with Pynwheel, Riverstone Residential Group is also working on creating a touch screen leasing kiosk for K2. Janis adds, “We’re in the production stages with Pynwheel in creating software that our leasing agents will use on their iPads to create an interactive leasing experience.”