The Technology Balancing Act

Ah, technology. Every new piece of hardware or software promises to improve our lives or our business, to make things easier or more efficient, to change our world for the better. Yet, many times, those promises are never realized and our lives get more complicated, more hectic and stressful, and our business more complex. That’s why it would be worth your time to read Units Magazine’s article on the technology balancing act. Here are a few excerpts to give you a taste:

Juggling demands generated by technology with longstanding responsibilities is only part of the issue. Technology feeds real-time occupancy, pricing and online review information to third-party clients, joint venture partners, residents and potential residents.

Start with reputational management — a thorn in the side of many community managers. While residents might not be coming through the door with complaints as much as they once did, they now take their issues to review sites for the world to see. Responding to those reviews is a responsibility most management firms think should be handled at the community level…

Beyond the data that many systems produce and the influences of that data, learning new software can be a challenge. French says, that at any given time, there are between 10 and 13 types of software or systems with which her community teams must interact.

“You have to know how to use Microsoft products, different surveys and different online tools,” French says. “You receive more email today and more attention to detail is required. You have to up your game or you won’t be able to compete…

With the plethora of new demands technology has created for community managers, many are finding it difficult to prioritize their day.

Choosing what to focus on during complex onsite management situations, senior executives tend to want their managers to focus on one thing—the customer. Assuaging the concerns of residents who have questions about their rent increases or responding to customer service requests takes priority.

Gables’ site-level employee compensation, for example, is based on their leasing and resident satisfaction scores…

While technology potentially can create a frazzled onsite team, at the same time, it has greatly reduced the time necessary to complete common tasks.

“We can do in minutes many of the things that onsite staff used to take hours to do, such as approving invoices,” says Cooley. “Today, I can pay 40 invoices through our software in four minutes (not four hours).”…

Despite those advances, Sullivan cautions that companies should do their due diligence before implementing new technology.

“It sounds easy to utilize technology to be more efficient, but in some cases, it adds more work,” Sullivan says. “I think that is where we need to be thoughtful and understand the overall impact and not assume every new technological idea will be valuable in our day-to-day business practices.”

You can read the entire article here.

Snapchat for Marketing Student Housing

For those of us of a certain age the whole Snapchat thing is a bit confusing. We try it and…we don’t get it. On the other hand there are lots of people, usually younger than yours truly, who DO get Snapchat and property managers, especially in the student housing space, are taking notice.

The most recent issue of Units Magazine has an article about marketers using Snapchat. Here’s an excerpt:

Rob Dinwiddie, Landmark Properties, and Barrie Nichols, University Student Living are effectively driving their brands and select community messages through timely images on Snapchat based on paid geo-targeting filters being deployed during key campus dates such as move-ins and social events.

“We created Snapchat filters with custom graphics for each of our communities,” Nichols says. “Coupled with geo-targeting that is based on popular events such as housing fairs, orientations and libraries during exam finals weeks, the results were phenomenal. Popular among students and cost effective, this form of digital marketing proved to be extremely successful. We will continue to build brand awareness and provide interaction opportunities with our target market during key times and events.”

Nichols says these also were used to launch new developments through table tents on campus, local businesses and at events.

“The evolution of this platform has been incredible,” she says. “When we started using Snapchat to communicate with students three years ago, companies were hesitant to see this as an engagement source. Now, there are more people who added us to their Snapchat accounts during targeted events than any other form of social media.”

You really should read the full article as it’s full of great info about the use of Snapchat and other evolving technologies in the student housing sector.

When the “Internet of Things” Impacts the Apartment Industry

An interesting article on Wired.com looks at how the ‘internet of things” could impact landlords in New York City in the immediate future:

To guard the safety and health of tenants, New York and many other cities require landlords to keep inside temperatures above a certain level from October until May. But not all building owners and managers follow the rules. Each year, heating complaints are either the number one or number two most frequent complaint to New York’s government services and information line, 3-1-1, says Tom Hunter, the spokesperson for a volunteer effort called Heat Seek NYC, citing data from the siteNYC OpenData

Tenants can sue landlords over this, but historically, they’ve had to rely on their own hand written records of how cold their apartments get. And these records haven’t always held up in court. Heat Seek NYC hopes solve that problem by building internet-connected heat sensors to monitor the conditions of apartment buildings in order to provide a reliable, objective record that tenants and advocacy groups can use in court…

Heat Seek NYC founders William Jeffries and Tristan Siegel met earlier this year atThe Flatiron School , one of many “code bootcamps” popping up around the country to teach students the basics of programming in a matter of months. As he said in a recent interview, Jeffries thought a web app for recording and reporting apartment temperatures using a programmable sensor device called Twine would make a good class project, and Siegel jumped at the idea…

One of the obvious limitations to such a scheme is the need for internet access. The team overcame this limitation by creating a system that depends on two different devices: cells and hubs. Cells are distributed throughout the building, and report their data back to the hub, which then transmits all of the data to the web. The cells can all connect locally with each other and to the hub, so only one tenant needs to have access to the internet to provide connectivity to the hub. In cases where there’s no one in the building that can provide internet access for the hub, Heat Seek NYC will provide a free WiFi hotspot.

While this story doesn’t have direct relevance to the apartment industry here in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina, the technological concepts will very likely become applicable soon. We’ve been hearing about the “internet of things” for several years now, but it’s mostly been theoretical. Stories like this highlight how quickly that can change and it doesn’t have to be radically expensive.

Think about the practical applications that the technology in this story could have if you simply thought of it as a management tool versus an enforcement tool. A property manager could use something like this to monitor temperature swings in their communities, and if they noticed exceptionally high or low temps they could have maintenance check to make sure the thermostat in a unit is working correctly. If it is then they can make a necessary repair and if it isn’t they can work with the occupant to make sure they understand how the thermostat works and how they can save money if they use it differently.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think of other applications that could benefit manager and resident alike, and it’s probably a matter of when, not if, we’ll see these new technologies coming on line.

How is Tech Changing Your Customer Interaction Experience?

There’s an interesting piece making the social media rounds right now. It’s about a Craigslist post by the management of a New York City restaurant who were trying to determine why their service was so much slower in 2014 than it was in 2004 despite a simplified menu and increased staff. They were able to find security tapes from 2004 and compare them to their current security recordings and here’s part of what they found:

26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food.

14 out of 45 customers take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food. This takes on average another 4 minutes as they must review and sometimes retake the photo.

9 out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat. Obviously if they didn’t pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn’t have gotten cold.

27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another 5 minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving.

Given in most cases the customers are constantly busy on their phones it took an average of 20 minutes more from when they were done eating until they requested a check. Furthermore once the check was delivered it took 15 minutes longer than 10 years ago for them to pay and leave.

8 out of 45 customers bumped into other customers or in one case a waiter (texting while walking) as they were either walking in or out of the Restaurant. 

In the end the restaurant’s management found that in 2004 the average customer was with them for 1 hour and 5 minutes. In 2014 that time had increased to 1 hour and 55 minutes, an increase of about 77%. No wonder they were seeing slower service times and an increase in complaints about slow service.

In the apartment industry we spend a lot of time talking about how technology has changed many aspects of the business – the impact of mobile on the leasing process, how to respond to online reviews, etc. – but we haven’t talked a lot about how these new technologies are changing how we interact with customers on a daily basis. I’d love to hear from you about changes you’ve noticed in your daily interaction with your customers and prospects, and how that’s impacted how you do business. Feel free to email me with any stories or observations you have about the changes you’ve seen as a result of the boom in mobile tech.

Is a Text Legally Binding?

AOL Real Estate has an interesting piece on the use of text messaging in landlord-tenant communications. Here’s an interesting tidbit:

Q: What if tenants notify a landlord via text that they plan to move out. Is that considered “written notice?”

A: Yes, Saint Louis attorney Leonard Komen wrote on Avvo.com in response to the question. “Electronic communications in most commercial situations are now considered the equivalent of written communications. You will be hard-pressed to argue you did not get written notice.”

Read the full post for questions related to benefits offered by text, notifying tenants via text of lease changes, etc.

Google+ Local

Over at the NAA blog there’s an informative piece on the new Google+ Local service that has replaced Google Places:

The most game-changing feature is the new Google ratings and reviews feature. For several months, users have been able to leave reviews of companies that would show up on the business’ Google Places page. After the revamp, these reviews are front-and-center. As soon as a potential customer puts your name into the search engine, they will be able to see what others have been saying. Google’s star ratings have also been replaced with a Zagat style scoring system. When a user writes a review, they are asked to rate the business on a scale of 0-30. Once enough reviews are compiled Google assigns a score from 0-30, 0 being very poor and 30 is approaching perfection. This number is in a prime location directly under your company name. Because of this, it is VITAL to keep track of your online reputation.  Several bad reviews will mar your image, and will influence prospects to take their business elsewhere. 

Thankfully, Google has also implemented a feature we have often requested, the ability to apply to reviews. Once a review is posted, the owner’s of your page can respond to the post. This gives management the opportunity to shine by offering to right any wrongs that may have been committed in the past.  The more reviews your receive, the easier it is for your page to appear higher on Google.

If your team hasn’t already looked into Google+ Local it should definitely do so quickly as it is likely to become an important part of your company’s/communities’ online reputation management.

Fast Company Interview with RentHop Founder

Fast Company interviewed one of the founders of RentHop that contained an interesting take on understanding your market:

I just got a New York apartment with a broker and had to fork over an infuriating 15% of the annual rent.
In 2009 we thought maybe brokers are commodities–that they’re not adding value, and maybe the site could help replace them. One of the bigger pieces of advice Paul Graham gave us at Y Combinator was this. He said, “If you really think that’s the case, if you really think you can go automate these guys away, you need to go and be brokers for a while. Simulate the life of a broker, and if you think you can automate that away, great.” He told us to fly back to New York and be brokers for a couple of weeks. So that’s what I did. I flew back and took a bunch of tenants around, and that’s when I realized, “Wow, this is tough work.” It’s a lot harder than people think…But I realized the most important part of brokering is that there’s a huge human trust component in the whole thing. A really good broker makes the whole process a whole lot less painful for the renter. The big takeaway was that brokers are not commodities at all. I didn’t think they were adding value, but now I’m convinced that a great broker does add value.

Then there’s this nugget:

It took us a while to discover the current business model we have now–that this is really a big data problem. We have four years of data and profile building with landlords and brokers. Now we know which ones are the good ones, and which are the bad ones. That became our eventual pivot. A good broker is valuable, and a good landlord is also valuable. Anyone responsive and good we want the site’s visitors interacting with, and anyone nonresponsive and bad we don’t want the site’s visitors interacting with.

Being responsive and good sounds like pretty solid advice.

Apartment Managers Increasingly Embrace Review Sites

“If you can’t beat them, join them.”

“Keep your friends close, keep your critics closer.”

Both quotes might accurately describe how many apartment managers are viewing the once almost universally reviled apartment rating sites. Multifamily Executive has the story:

Once reviled as industry pariahs where haters could unfairly bash a community with negative rants – true or not – online review sites have quickly become the go-to source for prospects looking for the right place to live. That’s why apartment operators, some willingly and some less so, have started to embrace them…

Holland’s got good reason for keeping an eye on those review sites. Prospects now overwhelmingly turn to online review sites such as Move.com, ApartmentReviews.net, ApartmentRatings.com and Yelp when making a decision about where to rent, according to Houston-based J Turner Research’s Trends in Resident Technology and Communications Preferences 2012 report. More than 74 percent of respondents said they used review sites, and that those review sites had a significant impact on their decision to rent an apartment at a particular community…

Each company contacted for this article said it designates a senior employee to monitor what’s being said on review sites, and most take advantage of automated notification apps, such as Google Alerts. 

Others are considering customized reputation management software. Many leverage ApartmentRatings.com Manager Center, which sends an alert when a review comes in, and allows operators to reply as the property’s bona fide manager. It all comes down to making sure you’ve got your ears–and eyes–glued to the digital sounding board that is your computer’s screen.