Back to (Maintenance) Basics in a Shiny-Penny Tech World

How much tech is too much tech? And does this detract from the fundamentals of responsive maintenance and good old-fashioned customer service?

FullSizeRender-1Does the current abundance of riches in technology distract from the basics of providing a hassle-free place to call home where everything works?

It’s a great question, and there’s ample research on renter preferences that points to maintenance as a key factor in overall resident satisfaction. But let’s face it—the typical renter is also living in an age of convenience through technology. Whether it’s features that make a unit “smart”—automated control of everything from door locks to lighting to climate—or tech that facilitates communication, there are so many options facing multifamily operators. How much tech is too much tech? And does this detract from the fundamentals of responsive maintenance and good old-fashioned customer service?

According to Kingsley Associates, which specializes in business intelligence for the real estate industry, there’s a direct correlation between maintenance satisfaction and retention:

case study chart

Click on image to enlarge.

“It’s interesting,” says Alan Dooley, senior vice president of Heitman. “We know that the average industry retention is 50 percent, and this shows that you can do just an OK job and be near that. Or you can work really hard to do a great job, but still only move the needle so far on retention; but that difference is impactful to the bottom line. Keeping up with the right new technologies is important because it helps us win as a marketing differentiator for new leases. Once these individuals become residents, however, they become comfortable in their space and moving becomes a hassle; as long as you stay on top of keeping them happy, you are well on your way to stabilizing 60+ percent of your rent roll. They have far more interaction with the maintenance staff than the leasing staff at this point, and this non-market transaction is critical to resident satisfaction.”

Girish Gehani, partner & COO of Chicago-based Trilogy Real Estate Group, believes it’s about balance. “This is a constant dilemma for a company that wants to be very tech forward. The desire to be on the bleeding edge has to be tempered with the need not to impact our people in a negative way. We have to make sure the implementation of a new technology serves everyone’s best interest from our teams to our residents. First, it must be sound technology that integrates with our current workflow; and second, it can’t add time to what we are currently doing. We made mistakes with trying too many shiny new things too quickly, and we realized that we have to do a lot of due diligence to understand comprehensively how the technology is going to impact us.”

Evolving with demand

The need to evolve with customer demands to stay current with technology is a very real competitive dynamic. “I don’t think we ever can forget the basic demands of quality and great customer service, but we have to cater to today’s renter,” Gehani said. “Our residents communicate differently today than they did a year ago and much, much differently than they did five and 10 years ago. I think if we focus on what we’ve always done and supplement that with great technology, it certainly helps us maintain our appeal and relevancy.” 

No matter the cool tech employed, ultimately the customer experience isn’t a good one if the rattling refrigerator doesn’t get fixed, and quickly. “There is no doubt that we live in a high-tech world,” said Dooley. “We have to be thoughtful about being on the leading edge rather than the bleeding edge. There’s an old adage that reads, ‘pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land.’ We want new tech that will help us be more efficient and provide better service, especially in the maintenance arena, without making major sacrifices to get there. If we overburden our staff with the wrong tech, or something that doesn’t integrate seamlessly, that doesn’t help us with the resident relationship.”

Customer Experience

Gehani is a fan of maintaining a personal touch, redefined. “People gravitate towards positive interactions and that will always be part of our DNA,” he said. “I do think that the avenues for these interactions can and have changed. There are many ways that you can let your customers know you care about them and their experience, and the personal touch can be facilitated in a variety of ways: text, social media, community apps and other forms of communication. Our younger renters, in particular, have grown up with tech and define ‘personal touch’ differently; deploying new technologies can really help us become even more efficient and effective in that arena.”

At the end of the day, providing a great customer experience—especially around keeping residents’ units maintenance and worry-free—should mean a positive impact on everything from retention to referral and reputation. And that means an impact on NOI. “Our maintenance platform is something that I have become very passionate about,” said Gehani. “I think most people in our industry will agree that we tend to focus more on the front of house, and I think that is a mistake. Our maintenance teams have significantly more touch points during the resident life cycle than our office teams, and they generally receive the least amount of training. Most operators have a plug and play mentality as it pertains to maintenance teams and that leads to a lack of direction, and ultimately teams who are not happy. We are transforming how we look at maintenance and are building a better platform for onboarding, ongoing training and education, career development, and integration of technology. A great maintenance team will positively impact performance, period.”

Dooley agreed, adding, “We are in a tight labor market; one that will become even tighter with the recent hurricane devastation in the gulf states. The industry is faced with the challenge of doing more with less. We need tech to help run things more efficiently; that means ensuring our maintenance staff have what they need, can operate more smoothly, communicate more effectively and eliminate wasted time and resources. That’s where we can put new tech to work most effectively.”

Bob Matteson is the CEO and Founder of Mobile Doorman, multifamily’s premier customizable apartment app. Matteson has 10+ years in real estate sales and start-up management. He was an integral part of both starting Groupon in 2008 and developing the sales operation during their meteoric growth stage. After Groupon, Matteson transitioned to Bling Nation, a company in the mobile payment space based in Palo Alto, CA. Matteson moved backed to Chicago in 2011 and spent time helping a variety of early stage companies. He also has experience as a commercial real estate broker in multifamily.