Building Rapport with Prospects

Guest cards test the ‘people skills’ of leasing consultants. Here’s how to gather the information effectively

What can be more complicated than filling out a guest card? Ask the prospect the questions, fill it in on the computer screen, and you are done, right? Think again. The guest card requires more finesse—and is a greater test of the people skills of a leasing agent than one may think.

Filling out the guest card is so important that it is even a focal part of Camden University’s leasing course, says Teresa Watson, director of employee development at Camden Property Trust.

The challenge presented by the guest card—whether filled out over the phone, which may be a little easier, or in person when the prospect pays a visit—is for the leasing agent to build a personal relationship while trying to complete the card. The danger can be that collecting the information can set the tone for a mechanical, stiff, relationship with the client. Leasing consultants need to overcome that obstacle.

“You can get into trouble when the guest card takes the personality out of the process, so you lose the relationship with the customer while taking down the name, the address, and so on,” says Michelle Flowers, president of The Training Factor, which supplies online training for the industry.

Every company may use its own customized guest card. The basic purpose of a guest card is not only to match the prospect with an apartment home, to contact them via phone or email if necessary for follow up and to keep notes of the results of the visit for future reference. It also provides information for  marketing purposes, including what brought the prospect to the property, and serves a purpose in the possible event of Fair Housing complaints.

As such, basic questions in the cards, says veteran apartment trainer Anne Sadovsky, commonly include: What types of apartments the prospective residents are looking for; when they need to move; how many persons will occupy the apartment, whether they have pets; their monthly budget for rent; how they found the community; and, last but not least, their phone number, email and any other contact information.

Apartment companies’ goals should be to make the guest card an invisible part of the leasing process, says Flowers. “You have to train leasing consultants on conducting a conversation with the prospective renter to find the information that you need, but to do it in a way that is personable so that it appears you are actually interested in them, not just filling out information on the form.”

It all comes down to the importance in apartment leasing of developing personal relationships with prospective renters—a skill that is so important for winning customers. “This is a business of relationships,” says Watson. “It is important that we establish good relations with the customer so that they become comfortable. We are providing homes for people, and that is very personal. If the card becomes a barrier, that part of the relationship will suffer.”

As more cards move to electronic form, this creates mostly greater benefits, though also some challenges. “The biggest benefit with electronic cards is keeping the consultant from handing the card to the customer and asking them to fill it out. Talk about no personal touch!” says Sadovsky. On the other hand, when using an electronic guest card, the consultant has to sit facing a computer screen rather than the customer, and in that case you face the same danger of losing a connection with the customer, says Sadovsky.

The best solution in terms of the physical arrangement for filling out the forms, says Sadovsky, is for the consultant to use a portable laptop with a smaller screen, with the leasing consultant chatting over a table, not a desk, with the prospective resident. Indeed, in this regard, companies might also consider going one step further beyond the laptop and using the next hot thing—the iPad.

Real estate development firm Insight Real Estate Strategies Inc. has been using iPads for guest card applications. “The iPad technology is new, fun, easy,” says Joe Petersen, president. Additionally, the use of an iPad really impresses customers, says Petersen. “When prospective residents see how advanced we are in our daily use of technology, they may automatically assume that all of our management practices are just as professional or ‘customer-focused,’” he says.

Sadovsky advises that leasing agents maintain a conversational and friendly tone. The leasing consultant must maintain eye contact, says Sadovsky, and look back and forth, looking at the customer and then the screen. Sadovsky suggests an opening comment can be, “I am keeping your information electronically, so I can refer back to it during your apartment search. This will make it much easier for me to access and contact you when apartments become available and when yours is ready.”

How to ask questions

To keep the process conversational, companies have a list of questions the leasing agents can ask, as well as ways to phrase them. “These tips in prompting questions help the consultant go through the flow and be very conversational,” says Watson. Instead of asking, “What’s your name?” for example, says Flowers, the agent can query, “Great, I can help you with that information. Let me gather some information. My name is…And your name is?”

All the questions on the guest card “are sensitive questions, feel personal to the customer and should be handled carefully by the consultant,” cautions Sadovsky. “Online, there can be a prompter such as “May I ask you a few questions? I can then be of better service to you. What is the most important thing to you about your new home?” says Sadovsky.

Whether or not these prompted questions are added to the electronic card as an aid to the leasing consultant, the consultant needs to have the questions memorized, says Flowers. “They should know the guest card back and forth, understand all the questions and have them in their heads, so that it is not necessary to read them,” says Flowers.

Apartment companies may also want to avoid requiring all the questions on the cards to be answered, so as to allow a degree of naturalness and flexibility in the leasing consultant’s interactions with the customer. In the same spirit, Camden, for example, keeps questions on its electronic guest cards to a minimum. The cards contain only five questions: Name, contact information, when the prospect needs the apartment, what size apartment the prospect is seeking and the number of people who will be living in the unit.

The real purpose of the guest card is to create a sense of urgency for the prospect, says Watson. Based on the information provided in the electronic guest card, a quote will be generated for that particular customer matching his or her exact needs, says Watson. “That quote is good for three days,” she says. “Those fields are highlighted on the screen. You cannot generate a quote unless that information is collected.”

At Camden, a leasing course is provided through Camden University, which the consultant takes as a part of his or her work schedule. But more than theoretical learning, the bigger part of the leasing course comes in on-site practical training, says Watson. Leasing consultants at Camden are matched with an experienced mentor in the same position. They sit side-by-side with the mentor and observe the mentor in action. “You can learn a lot by watching how the flow works,” says Watson.

In the end, says Sadovsky, “something that does not change, whether paper or electronic is used, is appropriate training and testing of the consultant’s people skills. If they are deficient, it will show up no matter what they are using to pre-qualify and store records of the prospect’s visit.”

To comment on this feature, email Keat Foong at kfoong@multi-housingnews.com.