When was the last time you purchased a product or used a service provider without checking online reviews? It should come as no surprise that most consumers—74 percent, according to a Consumer Reports survey released in March 2020—rely on online reviews before making any kind of purchasing decision. And the same goes for those seeking an apartment.
According to data from the 2022 NMHC/Grace Hill Renter Preferences Survey Report, which includes the responses of 221,000 renters living in 4,564 communities nationwide, 69 percent of respondents said they referenced property ratings and reviews in their most recent rental-home search. And 84 percent said that the content of the ratings and reviews influenced their leasing decisions, while 79 percent said that the content of the ratings and reviews stopped them from visiting specific properties.
That data underscores the importance of reputation management at an apartment community.
“Even if they come in for a personal on-site tour, their initial search is online, and the internet is full of reviews prospects are looking at prior to making a decision as to whether or not they want to go further,” said Michael Zaransky, managing principal of MZ Capital Partners in Northbrook, Ill. “Reputation management is fundamental to getting them in the door and showing them the benefits of the community.”
An Important Tool in the Toolbox
Online reviews are an important part of a prospective renter’s search process, but they are also an essential tool for apartment owners, managers and marketers. Through competitive and sentiment analysis, apartment operators can learn about issues of concern to residents or about competitive advantages held by other communities in the local market.
“It’s about being able to know what are the specific positives and negatives about the property or how the renters are feeling about those specific areas,” said Gretchen Walker, agency manager west for REACH by RentCafe. “There are a lot of different experiences renters have when living in an apartment community, and there are a lot of different factors that go into the overall star rating. We want to know which of those factors are moving the needle positive or negative.”
An apartment manager who notices, for example, that residents of a nearby community are complaining about the condition of the pool in online reviews, can respond by posting photos of their own pool to order to attract new prospects.
Negative Reviews and How to Deal with Them
Online reviews play an important part in a property’s Online Reputation Assessment score, an industry standard created by J Turner Research to measure a property’s online reputation. But they also are key to the decision-making process of apartment hunters. And the more reviews the better.
RentCafe found that the number of reviews a property has is directly correlated to the property’s lead-to-lease conversion rate. The higher the number of reviews, the higher the lead-to-lease conversion rate.
It’s important to note that apartment reviews aren’t just posted on sites such as Google and Facebook. There are reviews on Yelp, Apartments.com, ApartmentRatings and many others. For companies operating multiple communities, that could present a logistical challenge to monitor reviews in a timely manner.
Some companies opt to use outside vendors to automate the reputation-management process. For example, Bozzuto uses a third-party company to monitor reviews, but it goes a step further, using frequent resident surveys to get immediate feedback directly from residents to address concerns before they turn into negative reviews.
“That’s the leading indicator of what will ultimately end up in public review sites,” said Kelley Shannon, Bozzuto’s senior vice president of marketing and customer engagement. “If you’re being proactive and looking at those leading indicators, by the time your reviews come up, they should all be positive. But if you miss that first step, you’ll be on the defense on the back end.”
Most apartment operators expect managers to monitor reviews daily, respond within 24 to 48 hours and provide customized, individual responses. Zaransky said that if someone posts a legitimate issue, the manager should post an apology and ask the individual to contact the company so it can be addressed and corrected. However, if the review is “way off base, we point out that we have many happy residents who haven’t encountered this problem and that we want to get to the bottom of it and ask that they contact us right away,” he added.
It’s important not to post canned or automated responses. According to Roman Stephens, senior vice president of multifamily at Northland in Newton, Mass., several boilerplate messages could lead to a decrease in credibility.
Northland recently faced an issue with negative reviews when it purchased Inspire, a 369-unit apartment community in Charlotte, N.C., from the original developer. The residents weren’t notified of the change in ownership and were taken by surprise when the manager and maintenance staff they knew suddenly disappeared.
“Before it gets to the review stage, engage and advertise who you are, why you are and where you are,” Stephens said. When the company later purchased a property in Waco, Texas, it prevented similar reviews by having the on-site team and senior leadership meet with residents to introduce themselves upfront.
And what happens if you fail to respond to negative reviews? You risk losing traffic, losing prospects and, ultimately, losing money.
“It shows people who are looking that you don’t care what people say,” said Kristen Fuechslin, executive vice president of marketing for The Richman Group, which, through its management division, manages over 19,000 units in more than 120 properties. “We make it a very large part of our training program how important it is to respond to all of our reviews.”
Last year, due to the pandemic and amid increased concerns of residents, Richman launched an initiative called We Care that allows residents in the firm’s Signature portfolio to email their concerns directly to the company. The emails go to the property manager, community management team and executive team. “We wanted our tenants to know that we do care and we do hear them,” Fuechslin said. “And we let them know we would respond within two business days.”
By increasing the level of customer service and letting residents know their concerns are important to management, the company heads off negative reviews.
“Property management and online reputation is all about relationships,” said Walker. “Make sure you provide top-notch customer service the entire time—from scheduling a tour to signing a lease, moving in, submitting maintenance requests and, especially, the moveout process. That’s really the key to your successful reputation.”