WEB FEATURE: Is a Call Center Right for Your Management Team?

Call centers--both built around automated systems and live staff--are designed to deliver sales leads, improved marketing and operational efficiency. But they may not be for everyone.

As much as a good property management team wants to personally field every inquiry from their residents and prospects, no staff can cover its desk 24 hours a day, manning every phone call. That’s where call centers come into play. The idea is that, whether you’re out at a property, on the other line or dreaming away in the middle of the night, that call can still get answered, and those inquiries can still be addressed.

As to the benefits of a call center, Joe Hendrix, vice president of Yardi Systems, tells MHN, “The call center is able to capture additional leads, resulting in increased leasing and occupancy percentages, and provide residents with live-person interaction yielding greater resident satisfaction.” In short, a call center can put callers through to a person instead of leaving them with a ringing line or an answering machine.

Hendrix adds, “Additional efficiencies are realized if the call center is able to enter traffic and maintenance requests directly into the property-management-software system. In these cases, there is no data integration or need for the call center to email or fax leasing traffic and maintenance records to the onsite staff.” Additionally, “call centers are now able to receive and respond to prospects and residents through chat and email functionality.”

From a marketing standpoint, a call center staff can begin qualifying leasing prospects while on-site staff focuses on closing those potential leases and engaging current residents. And by collecting phone numbers and keeping a record of the demographics of the calls that come in, “this information can then be entered into the property management systems, and reporting will reveal which sources are generating the most traffic and which are resulting in the most leases,” Hendrix says.

Automated versus human

Proponents of automated call centers argue that these ends can be accomplished without anyone being on the clock. With an automated system, the argument goes, human error is eliminated. David Clarke, president of CallMaX, is one of these proponents. CallMaX specializes in automated systems, which eliminate hold time and dropped calls. “Every call is answered on the first ring with a system that is ready to give them immediate service,” Clarke says. “No one is put on hold—ever.”

Clarke warns that live call centers will sometimes rely on poorly trained agents, resulting in inconsistent or incorrect information being given out. On the other hand, if you go the automated route, “every property can have its own customized script to greet the caller and process their call,” and you know it will be delivered in a professional manner, he says.

CallMaX prides itself on being the only company to offer speech-recognition technology for the multifamily industry. It uses an “open-ended prompt,” Clarke says, “where we literally ask the caller, ‘How can I help you?’ The result is that the caller can ask anything they want about an apartment and get a targeted, accurate and professional answer to their question.” And if you want a system in Spanish, the company offers that, too. These systems are designed to deliver the same kinds of sales leads, improved marketing and operational efficiency that you would get from agents with pulses.

On the flip side of this argument, “industry studies have shown an extremely low percentage of messages actually receive return phone calls” when dealing with automated systems, Hendrix says. “The agent with the pulse is able to lead the prospect through the consultative leasing process in order to fully qualify and sell them on the appropriate apartment homes matching their needs. This results in an improved customer service experience, higher leasing conversion ratios and increased occupancies.”

Not for everyone

Some property management teams, however, would rather keep customer service in their own hands. Lewis Apartment Communities—which just won a National Multifamily Customer Service Award for Excellence from CEL & Associates, Inc. for the fourth year in a row—prefers to train its own staff over trusting an outside party.

“We are leery of using a call center,” says Sheila Panter, vice president of California residential property management at Lewis Apartment Communities. “We’ve talked about it. We’ve investigated it. I’m not convinced it’s the way to go.”

Lewis Apartment Communities ran a test at a property in Rancho Cucamonga where its staff was experiencing a high amount of traffic. So they tried Level One, a respected name in multifamily call centers that allowed them to have their calls answered 24 hours a day. Panter says the service converted some calls into visits, but not as many as expected. The strategy translated to few net leases.

Lewis Apartment Communities uses LTS (lead-tracking solutions), which tracks phone calls received, and Level One offered LTS and a call center for the same cost. “But with the training we do,” Panter says, “we get a better result with the people we train in house.”

Panter says they haven’t ruled out using a call center in the future, but because of their focus on in-house customer-service training, they would prefer to develop a system of their own. The company is just not big enough yet, and so for now they are staying the course.

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