- May 23, 2012
Property management companies that value resident satisfaction and staff efficiency are increasingly reliant upon resident portals. These portals are one-stop web-based solutions that allow residents to handle tasks from making maintenance requests to selling personal items on a kind of property-level eBay.
And with more and more renters wedded to their mobile devices, it’s becoming increasingly important that portals are optimized for those devices.
“Resident portals are a critical part of the multifamily business,” says Esther Bonardi, industry principal-RENTCafe Solutions with Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Yardi Systems Inc. “Today’s renter expects 24/7 convenience. Of course, it is impossible to keep the leasing office open ’round the clock. Yet with a portal solution in place, business does not stop when the door is locked for the night.”
Resident portals provide apartment community residents with the ability to pay rent online. This eliminates the need for them to visit the office during office hours or drop payments into overnight drop boxes, she says. Residents can also use the portal to view their rental accounts and determine their current charges or confirm past payments. Increasingly, residents submit online maintenance requests through the portal. They can even view lease renewal options and sign renewal leases electronically without having to drop by the leasing office.
Les Eldredge, user experience director at Provo, Utah-based Property Solutions, another leading technology solutions provider to the industry, reports that his company’s own research has shown resident portals are very important to residents. “We’ve found that, as prospects research properties, they regard the ability to pay online a selling point for the property,” he says. “And for the property managers, [a resident portal] alleviates some of the routine interactions that take place, freeing up staff time and putting more meaning behind those interactions that do take place with residents.”
Coming to a portal near you
The future of the portal will be shaped by the needs and desires of the renters who use them, Bonardi says, noting as consumer behavior evolves, so will portals. “In light of today’s consumer trends, it is expected that future portals will include greater access to reviews and will open up opportunities for increased social engagement,” she adds.
“However, there is a fine balance to incorporating broad consumer trends into the community portal. A resident may use his or her social media accounts every day, yet have little desire for social engagement within the apartment community. It is important to consider all aspects of online behavior before adding features simply to check them off a trend list.”
As it looks to give residents an enhanced portal experience, Property Solutions also envisions greater focus on social engagement. To date, portals have focused on resident-property interactions. But there may be substantial value in enabling the portals to facilitate resident-to-resident interaction.
“That’s how we feel the portals will evolve,” Eldredge says. “There are industry studies that indicate when residents build relationships with each other within an apartment community they have a higher likelihood of renewing.”
The small screen
A scant number of years ago, it would have been enough for communities to offer residents fully featured resident portals. Today, that’s not enough.
With a fast-growing portion of renters now dependent on a highly optimized smartphone, it’s increasingly essential that resident portals be optimized for mobile devices.
“Smartphones provide anytime, anywhere access to your site. Yet, if your site is not optimized for a mobile device, it will simply be too difficult to use on the small screen,” Bonardi says. “And you lose the benefit of that accessibility. Bottom line: all community portal sites—whether used for marketing only or for complete leasing and resident services—should be optimized for these devices.”
One Yardi client offering portals optimized for mobile devices is Concord, Calif.-based Sierra Pacific Properties. Residents of the company’s five large apartment communities have been able to use a resident portal for some time to pay rent, submit work orders and access the community calendar to learn about such things as barbecues and schedules of parking lot resurfacing projects.
“The portal has one other option as well,” says company controller Carol Ball. “Our residents can submit photos of an item they would like to sell, add a price and description, and once that’s approved by the community manager, it’s displayed to any resident with portal access as a yard sale item,” she says.
The optimized site is a pared-down version that allows residents to pay rent, submit work orders or view the status of their work orders while on the run, Ball says. “When they found that was available through their Smart phones, they were absolutely ecstatic,” she reports.
“You go from having to walk into a leasing office to pay rent to being anywhere, realizing you haven’t paid rent and being able to pay from the phone. We’ve been receiving lots of emails from residents saying, ‘Love the new portal.’”
How optimization is handled is a key question for property management companies and technology solution providers. Eldredge says it’s essential to determine the key aspects of the portal and optimize those by “making them very easy to use with fingers rather than a mouse.”
The keyboard is another concern. It’s essential to reduce the amount of typing needed to submit a payment or make a maintenance request.
The number of features available on the optimized site should be reduced to only those providing most value to residents on-the-go, Eldredge reports.
“The first screen should be dedicated to getting into the features available,” he says. “You want to reduce the amount of information that‘s being displayed and make it as concise as possible. Scrolling, for instance, is exaggerated on a mobile device. It feels like it takes more time to undertake scrolling, like you’re only scrolling through small chunks at a time.”
Bonardi says mobile sites should not have as much design as standard sites. “They are built so that all navigation is clearly displayed on the screen and can be accessed without having to zoom in to read fonts,” she says.
“All information is formatted with a clean layout and font size that can be easily read on the small screen,” adds Bonardi. “The site has all of your information and access to service but in a different ‘box’ that’s been developed exclusively for the smartphone screen.”