New York–Apartment communities across the country are buzzing with activity. Not onsite, but online. Residents are paying bills, logging in complaints and maintenance requests, selling old possessions and acquiring new ones and in some cases, making new friends too. While the concept of completing everyday tasks online is now fairly old, it is only recently that apartment managers/owners started providing their residents with services that have long been taken for granted in most other aspects of our lives—for example shopping and banking.
“Residents are accustomed to using online self-service tools in most areas of their lives, from purchasing goods to booking travel and carrying out banking,” says John Pendergast, senior vice president of client services, Yardi Systems, Inc. “Portals let them leverage the Internet for their apartment-related activities as well.”
People are used to going to a grocery store and doing an automatic checkout, or getting their boarding passes through a machine. Having a resident portal is very consistent with all those consumer behaviors.
There is no doubt that a growing number of renters are seeking the efficiency and ease of the Internet. Kerry W. Kirby, president and CEO of 365 Connect Multifamily Technologies, a New Orleans-based property management software company, says, “Resident portals are not a gimmick. They are essential. There must be a firm connection with residents not only to rent to them, but also to retain them. Residents cannot simply be shoved into a unit and ignored, as this will be a formula for high turnover. Instead, management must continuously make them feel like they are part of a community.”
A resident portal performs several functions such as this, but the most crucial ones are those that help in retaining residents and protecting the owner and manager in cases where renters are fickle. One is communication: Keeping in touch with residents after signing the lease is one of the most valuable retention tools employed. The other is documentation: Having a conversation on an issue can turn into “he said, she said,” which is why documentation is important. The written communication systems in resident portals create a documented chain of a conversation should an unfortunate legal issue arise. Kirby says, “We had one incident where a resident had threatened a client with litigation for unauthorized entry. A quick check revealed that the resident made a service request through the portal and the resident gave permission to enter…case closed.”
Ben Zimmer, president of Property Solutions, a company that makes property management software including resident portals, says that one of the best features of a resident portal is its ability to have real time updates and automatic alerts. “Residents can get updates on when their maintenance request is completed: either online or they can opt into a text message alert. The portal also consolidates means of communicating between any group within the portal in three different ways: through a mass email blast, mass text message blast or via phone-text or pre-recorded speech file. There is a great deal of efficiency in communicating with residents, especially in emergency situations. It is also a great way to send birthday messages to residents or notices when it’s time for lease renewal.”
Easing Burden on Management Office
In a difficult economy, the multifamily industry is increasingly embracing portal technology, and more and more property managers recognize its value today. “In the current economic climate, with property managers needing new tools to remain competitive and prepare for the market upturn, resident portals are quite important,” says Pendergast of Yardi Systems, Inc.
At a time when owners and managers have had to cut costs, resident portals have allowed them to continue providing some personalized services at no additional cost. For example, using a portal, residents can go online and renew leases, reserve community amenities at any hour, without a staff member having to be present. “Furthermore by enabling online convergent rent and bill payments, such as utility bills, portals can cut the number of transactions that are keyed in, reducing labor and freeing up staff resources for higher-value tasks,” says Pendergast.
Well-designed resident portals can also relieve management of a lot of paper work and what the industry calls confrontation time. Kirby explains, “It is far more desirable to have an email or digital service request that can be handled in two minutes than a resident standing in a manager’s office bending her ear for 20 minutes. Similarly, getting written correspondence rather than a call saves the time of taking notes and preserves the documentation. The old adage ‘time is money’ is the golden rule of effective property management. Coincidentally, the residents are better served by making management staff available 24/7.”
At the Cutting Edge
Property Solutions is the first one to introduce integration of the resident portal with Facebook through a connect platform. Facebook Connect enables a resident to not only share with friends information about the property but also to view other residents who have opted to share their Facebook profile information. “It offers a social tour of the community so you can see the guy or girl up the hall and continue to build those types of relationships,” says Zimmer. “Also at the cutting edge are community boards much like Craigslist which allow residents to buy and sell from their neighbors, or organize groups based on interest, or refer friends to the community and get incentives for doing so. With help from White Fence, resident portals are also able to provide an apples to apples comparison between various utility providers,” explains Zimmer. This way, residents can choose the best option, without going through the hassle of doing the analysis themselves.
365 Connect Multifamily Technology convened a focus group of managers as part of their last upgrade to address the issue of what managers and owners want next. “We learned that property managers wanted to be able to alert residents ‘in bulk’ for community events or issues on the property, such as when the water will be off for repairs. They also wanted more automation to occur, such as the portal always looking updated, even if they could not get to it. They also wanted to integrate more local resources into the portal, especially when it comes to the location of their favorite coffee shop. Basically, the more resources they can deliver to their residents, the more they can extend the apartment community beyond its own gates,” says Kirby.
Pendergast believes portals could also enable vendors to apply online to become approved or preferred, after which time they can enter online electronic invoices, saving a ton of paper used in the invoice process. “Property managers are increasingly expecting portals to support sustainability efforts by allowing leases and other documents to be uploaded electronically and securely. Third-party property managers could submit electronic monthly management reports to the owner, eliminating the paper-intensive aspects of preparing and shipping hard copies. Portals present all sorts of possibilities for eliminating much of the paper that is currently consumed in the multifamily industry,” says Pendergast.