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Shellie Albosta is the Vice President of Marketing for CWS Apartment Homes, an Austin-based company that currently manages 78 apartment communities nationwide from California to the Carolinas. We caught up with Albosta on Jan. 2, the 13th anniversary of her first day with the company. She shared with us her thoughts and insights on how best to turn "satisfied residents" into "loyal" ones and building loyalty programs that will ensure occupancy for years to come.
Below is our chat:
NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Do you think the apartment industry is focused enough on marketing to current residents as opposed to prospective ones? Or do you think there should be more being done in this regard?
SHELLIE ALBSOTA: I definitely think that we have not reached the plateau for the advantages that we could reach from marketing to our current residents. When social media and the whole engagement platforms started, the focus was on prospective residents. Now there is the ability to survey people from the beginning of their experience from the time they first toured a community to halfway through their lease term and then at move out. You really have a broad spectrum of opportunities to affect change and obtain loyalty from your existing customers at a much lower cost than standard advertising.
NAA: What is the difference between a "satisfied resident" and a "loyal resident?"
SA: Satisfied residents are ones who are happy with the status quo. They're not looking for anything over and above a place to call home. They basically want their heating and air conditioning to work. A loyal resident, on the other hand, is one who is constantly talking about your product, your community, your company, your brand and referring it to others. These residents are typically engaged in social media and are willing to spread the word about their experience.
NAA: How can managers and their staffs identify "loyal residents" in their communities?
SA: If they are surveying their residents, it's really simple. You just have to pay attention to the feedback that is given by them at different touch points in their residency. If they are not surveying their customers, then they have to take the opportunity to meet with their residents on more than just move-in and move-out day. Use the approach of renewal time to go and meet the residents in their homes. Spend 20 or 30 minutes talking to them about how things have been, what they have liked, what they haven't liked, and what you and your staff can do to improve their living.
NAA: Is there anything apartment management can do to turn a "satisfied resident" into a "loyal" one?
SA: I think it involves really taking a genuine interest in them individually, which can be hard to do in larger communities. Take every opportunity to talk to a resident. Say "Hello" when you see them in the parking lot. You can turn a satisfied resident into a loyal resident just by showing them that you are truly appreciative of their residency.
NAA: What can the apartment industry learn from some of the more successful loyalty programs being used in other industries?
SA: We can definitely come up with great ideas for what a loyalty program should encompass for our residents by looking at other industries, especially those that have really invested big in their programs. For example, if you are an A+ member with Southwest Airlines, you get expedited service. You get your phone call answered faster. American Express is another example, allowing loyal card members to use your point build-up to take charges off their monthly statements. So, yes, there are definitely things in other industries that we could utilize to grow customer loyalty in our industry. With regards to our renewal program, we have a menu list for our residents that gives them five or six options when they renew that they can choose from. Everything from free maid service during the course of a 12-month lease to their carpets cleaned or their apartment re-painted. These are options that actually put value back into the apartments.
NAA: Do you have an opinion as to what percentage of time and dollars should be devoted to building resident loyalty?
SA: I really think that the amount of time spent on this should be a lot more than it currently is. In our company, we survey all of our residents at five different touch points. We also require our community directors to respond to any survey that falls in a "recommended" or a "required" action. They have to respond to it in 24 hours. What we really want for them to do is not to respond in a long, drawn-out e-mail. Instead, e-mail them back and let them know we'd like to talk to them face to face. I think that going forward in this industry, it's going to require a lot of companies to look at hiring someone who spends 75 percent of their time if not more completely focused on resident retention and customer loyalty.
NAA: We're in the first month of the new year. So, is there anything coming up for you personally or for the company that has you particularly excited?
SA: CWS had a great year last year. We acquired 18 new assets, and we're looking to acquire about the same number in 2014. For me and the marketing department, we're just looking forward to improving our customer engagement and customer loyalty and to start seeing the benefits of all the time and focus we're putting into it.
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