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Ratings and reviews are becoming increasingly important to apartment communities, especially those with an online presence. But negative comments posted on Google, Yelp, and the like can derail marketing and management's efforts to appeal to prospective residents and cater to existing ones. Jennifer Staciokas, Vice President of Marketing and Training at Lincoln Property Company, will be taking part in a panel on this very subject at the upcoming 2014 NAA Education Conference. In the below chat, she previews that panel and gives her own thoughts on how to manage negative online reviews and effectively solicit positive feedback from current residents.
NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: How has the landscape changed with regards to customer/resident reviews over the past few years?
JENNIFER STACIOKAS: Reviews stayed out of the apartment business for quite some time. I think people in our industry sort of brushed them off and said, "They don't really hold that much weight." I would say in the last three years, though, people have started to take it much more seriously. These reviews are actually impacting search engine optimization rankings and where communities are actually placing on Google, Yahoo, and so forth. These Yelp reviews, Google reviews, or whatever might be some of the first things people are seeing when searching for apartments. I think it's changed the landscape to where people were so afraid of reviews in the past, and now people are starting to embrace them and realize they can make a change and a positive impact. The Internet can breed a lot of negativity because it is anonymous.
NAA: What are some best practices that marketing staffs can use when it comes to online reviews?
JS: Number one, when you are reading any review -- positive or negative -- you want to respond to all of them if resources allow. So many times we focus on the negative. We also have to focus on the positive, because those people are truly your brand advocates. If they're saying nice things about you, we want them to tell more people. That will just have a positive impact on the community overall. With negative reviews, I always tell people onsite, "Don't get defensive! Step back from the situation, read what that person is saying, and look at it as an opportunity to make the situation right." Your onsite people may not agree with what that person is saying, but there is a root to that problem. We need to figure out what is making that person so upset and figure out a way to respond to it. We train to acknowledge things publicly without getting into too much personal detail depending on what the situation is. You just don't want to have a cut-and-paste feel to a response where people say, "Oh, that's just the same response they send to everybody." We also tell our people, "You need to take the conversation offline, as well." So many times people want to do everything digitally. But there is value to picking up the phone, talking it through on the phone, or inviting that person into the office and trying to get to the root of the problem and maybe get them to change their mind on what they thought was happening.
NAA: Are there legal pitfalls in responding to negative reviews?
JS: Sure. But the key is keeping it on a professional level, acknowledging the resident's concerns, and then trying to find common ground. You don't want to get into something where a manager is replying back to a resident about how many rent payments they are late, or they are set for eviction, or something that is very sensitive or could be a legal concern. You definitely don't want to get into that type of back and forth.
NAA: Could you share an anecdote about an instance where a negative review has been used as a way to improve on the complainer's experience?
JS: Sure. You might have a review where the resident is particularly upset about garbage that piled up over the weekend. Instead of you saying, "Well, that's how it has always been," you may adjust hours and adjust the service team so that they just don't work Monday through Friday, but having somebody from the maintenance team maybe on Saturday and Sunday mornings to deal with trash and cleaning up from the weekend crowd.
NAA: Excellent. Can you provide another example?
JS: We see concerns sometimes about parking situations. You may have employees who normally only see the community during the day and are not sure what the landscape looks like at, say, midnight when someone is coming home and trying to find a parking space. So, we're really relying on feedback from residents either in person or via reviews and then take action on the feedback. If we're getting a lot of complaints about parking on a certain level or in a certain area, we've been able to make adjustments where we've required resident parking stickers and then also had visitors' tags that we were giving people as opposed to open parking where people just invite their friends to come in and park, taking away from our actual residents having close parking to their apartments.
NAA: Since many people's inclination is to go and complain on the Internet, do you think there should be more focus on identifying your star residents and encouraging them to go online and say good things?
JS: Absolutely. When I used to work onsite 15 years ago, we'd always have situations where people would be very happy with the services we provided them. They would say, "I'd like to call your manager" or "I'd like to write a letter to your manager. How could I do that?" Today, what we would like to tell them is: "If you really are pleased with the service that we gave you, why don't you go online to Google or to Yelp and write about your experience. Tell people about the level of service that you received from living here. That way my manager and my manager's manager is going to see that, as well as all of the potential residents who are thinking of moving in." We also use a relationship management tool that allows us to send e-mails to our residents, and we can check a box as to what review site we'd like them to leave their positive message on. You can check multiples or you can just check the one you're really trying to improve your scores on like Google or Yelp or Apartment Ratings.
NAA: How do you see this process evolving over the next couple or three years or so?
JS: I think it is just going to become part of the standard. So many people have made "reputation management" such a big buzzword. But really when you boil it down, it's no different than addressing a complaint that comes into the office via phone or e-mail. They're all just as important. With online reviews, it's just much more public. You have to be more transparent with your response.
NAA: What can people in attendance expect from the panel you'll be sitting on at the upcoming NAA Education Conference?
JS: We're going to come at reviews from at least a couple of different perspectives. I'm going to come at it from the practical, on-site experience of how we're handling ratings and reviews. We're also going to have a strategist who is going to talk about a lot of concepts and ideas. Finally, we're going to have an attorney, who will give some recommendations and advice on things to do and not to do to keep yourself out of trouble.
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