The evolving role of the leasing consultant.
The role of the leasing consultant had long remained “old school,” with a focus on single properties at a time, onsite human interaction and paper processes. However, the pandemic changed everything. Leasing consultants now often work in a virtual, digital space across a portfolio of properties with self-guided tours, automated communications, social-media interactions and various online processes. How are leasing consultants and their companies managing in this “Brave New World?”
Centralized Leasing Operations
Centralized leasing involves moving away from individual, property-specific leasing consultants and toward centralizing teams in regional locations to improve operational and financial efficiencies. Its online platforms integrate a breadth of property portfolios, self-guided tours, automated lead communications and even mobile maintenance for maintenance teams. At their heart are sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Centralized leasing evolved from the emergence of single-family rentals, whereindividual, property-specific leasing consultants were not viable due to geo-graphic constraints.
Lindsay Kabler Pease, CAPS, is Regional Vice President of Multifamily Housing at S.L. Nusbaum Realty Co., a Virginia-based property developer and manager. With centralized leasing, she has witnessed professional roles becoming more specialized. “Breaking away the leasing process from resident services allows agents to hone in on specific areas of service and provide the best possible experience to all,” she says. “This means that a leasing consultant no longer needs to be a ‘jack of all trades,’ as they have more specialized duties. It allows for a variety of pathways of growth for those who prefer particular parts of the job over others.”
Leasing consultants at Pease’s company have responded well to centralized leasing, given their greater income potential from having more inventory to lease. Pease has observed that they tend to learn and grow at a faster pace, thanks to their exposure to a higher volume of work. Her centralized leasing consultants can focus their energy solely on prospective residents, allowing them to better tailor each experience to the person they are working with. “The downside for some is the lack of ability to build ongoing relationships with their residents,” Pease says. “The centralized leasing process leaves the resident completely in the hands of the resident services team after move-in.”
Centralized leasing consultants need to become experts on multiple communities. They must quickly dissect the needs of each prospect and ensure that they match them with the homes that best meet those needs. This is no easy task when their communities offer different floorplans, amenities and finishes.
Leasing consultants at Pease’s organization must carefully manage their time in this more complex sales process while remaining sensitive to the needs of their customers. “Each prospect requires a different level of interaction and balancing that against the clock can be tricky,” Pease says. “The centralized leas-ing office is an energetic, fast-paced and, at times, chaotic environment. This calls for an individual who is willing to break away from the traditional mold of a leasing consultant and move into a more sales-oriented mindset.”
Social Media Management
Social media presents another change in the role of leasing consultants. Past interactions with prospective residents typically took place in-person or within company-controlled media, such as phone, email, chatbots and web-based forms. But social media is open to the public, often outside of company control.
According to ApartmentData.com, an estimated 80% of apartment seekers look at social media before choosing their next rental. Younger renters often research apartments and communities exclusively through these channels, view posted reviews and conversations online and then expect rapid responses to their queries. If leasing consultants are not actively engaged with social media, they could find themselves quickly missing out.
Stephen Colvin is Director of Digital Marketing and Communications at The Caton Companies, a Virginia-based property-management company. The leasing consultants at Colvin’s company have reservations about using their personal social media accounts to engage, so his company has been performing those duties for them.
Colvin’s top recommendation for leasing consultants remains the same: “Create authentically memorable experiences for current and prospective residents, and they’ll be your best social ambassadors. Allocate some marketing budget to making someone’s day special or to ‘wow’ them with an extra-mile resolution to their problem.”
New Technologies and Change Management
New technologies that swept into the rental housing industry during the pandemic also manifested changes in roles for all parties, not just leasing consultants. These PropTech systems offered opportunities for one-stop communicating with prospects and residents, to serve them how they wanted to be served. But companies were challenged by the complexity of the business stacks and services through integrations and connectivity. Leasing consultants also were challenged to learn all these new technologies and adapt their ways of communicating.
Marcie Williams is CEO at RKW Residential, a regional property management company based in Charlotte, N.C. Her company incorporated a new “high-tech, high-touch platform” that has given prospective renters and residents options for virtual or human interaction across a spectrum of requests. Prospective renters are afforded means for self-guided tours, video tours and AI chatbots, along with in-
“The role of onsite leasing consultants has been impacted in the sense that they now must work in lockstep with the technology at their disposal,” Williams says. “Our team members are utilizing this technology in their daily lives, so it’s a matter of applying habits they already have.”
Yet, Williams sees the ultimate effect as beneficial for all parties. “The leasing consultants are appreciative because technology is freeing up their time to serve the residents,” Williams says. “We are making their work life more efficient so they can have more quality interactions with their residents and develop true connections. It is truly reciprocal—both sides can use the technology to communicate with each other.”
Nancy J. Goldsmith is Managing Director of Property Operations at Bozzuto Management Company, a national property management company based in Greenbelt, Md. She observed that the rental housing industry historically had been behind-the-curve in adopting new technologies. “However, in the last five to 10 years, PropTech has been evolving at an ever-increasing rate, with COVID accelerating several virtual customer trends,” Goldsmith says. “With these new technologies, we can provide a seamless leasing experience to potential residents both near and far. These technologies give our leasing team additional tools to make it easier to connect with prospects and residents.”
Goldsmith’s company is mindful with new technologies to focus on customers and leasing consultants alike, to make sure that both parties are benefitting and following all applicable laws and regulations. “The leasing agents had a tremendous amount to learn about these new technologies during the early and stressful days of the COVID pandemic,” Goldsmith says. “We are very cautious about selecting new technologies to ensure that they will enhance and not diminish our customer and employee experiences. It is important to take time to thoroughly test the technology and train our associates before fully deploying.”
A key purpose of these new technologies is to help eliminate friction points for leasing consultants, providing them with time-saving solutions to better serve their customers. Goldsmith acknowledges there was a learning curve to overcome, with some leasing consultants initially seeing these new technologies as potential detractors from building relationships. Sharing best practices from their peer set helped in the learning process. “It is very important that we share the reason why we are introducing a new process or system,” Goldsmith says. “Leasing teams are taking to them, by and large, and enjoy the ways that these new tools give them time back in their days.”
The evolving role for leasing consultants doesn’t end with centralized leasing, social media management and new technology and platforms. Leasing consultants have also had to deal with the effects of the pandemic, upon residents and themselves, along with pressures from the industry’s already high staffing shortage and turnover rates.
Kara Rice is Chief Communications Officer for Swift Bunny, LLC, a research and consulting firm for the rental housing industry, focused on employee metrics and performance solutions. “The feedback we are hearing in the employee engagement surveys we conduct with multifamily associates indicates that onboarding is bumpy. I fear this is impacting leasing team members’ willingness to stick around,” Rice says, citing a 14% decrease in employee tenure since Q1 of 2021 and a 33% decrease for onsite leasing positions.
Rice advocates the need for effective onboarding processes. “Telling your new-hire to shadow another leasing team member for a few days is insufficient,” Rice says. “What’s needed is a thoughtful, structured onboarding program that delivers in three areas: Competence, confidence and camaraderie. Focusing on a leasing professional’s first 90 days in their role can be a difference-maker for their performance, job satisfaction and tenure.”
In addition to training on the basics of their role, there is new knowledge for leasing consultants to absorb: Awareness of mental health issues, de-escalation and resolution of conflicts, managing personal safety, working remotely and more. Diversity, equity and inclusion also remains a consideration. However, staff training for these topics could be outsourced to third parties to be performed in-person or virtually.
Goldsmith offers an optimistic viewpoint for staff training and new technologies. “Our founder Tom Bozzuto has always said that we hire nice people and provide them with great training and tools, and the rest will come easily,” Goldsmith says. “When we evaluate new technologies, we must enhance the customer experience and not create additional burdens in the role of the leasing team. If anything, new tools should make life easier for all.”
James Campbell is Senior Manager, Industry Relations with NAA.