Master Class in Service: 10 Ways to Spur Renewals

By Barbara Ballinger |

9 minute read

In today’s apartment marketplace, where rents and occupancy are at historically high levels, quality customer service is proving to be the differentiator.

Of the many consequences of contending with the pandemic, one of the most visible has been a groundswell in expressions of frustration. From air travel to dining to work and school, the list of grievances runs long, and rental housing residents are no different, from the perception that maintenance takes too long to coffee machines running dry.

One of the biggest complaints has been the difficulty of working from a small apartment, according to buzz at the National Multifamily Housing Council’s (NMHC) 2022 annual meeting, says attendee Mary Cook, founder of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates (MCA), a commercial interior design firm. “Two years ago, 20 percent might have worked from home and now 45 percent do a few days each week,” Cook says. “They get upset if staff is making noise blowing leaves or cutting a lawn.”

Property managers have complaints and frustrations, too, facing a shrunken labor pool and disrupted supply chains. Despite the apartment industry experiencing historically strong occupancy levels, managers are not taking the high numbers for granted. If COVID-19 has brought home any message, it’s that situations change—fast.

Many are listening closely to residents, taking notes about leading causes of dismay and sources of joy, developing creative solutions to increase net referrals. The strategies that seem to make the biggest difference are good customer service and value. Some companies, like Chicago-based Optima Inc., a developer and property manager that created 2,135 units in Illinois and Arizona, has trademarked its Optimized Service, the equivalent of an in-home concierge, to make clear it prioritizes service.

As rent prices climb, quality service becomes more critical. The following are 10 ways to achieve it.

1. Hire right.

Atlanta-based Wood Partners, a merchant builder with 25,000 apartments in 18 states, considers hiring the most important way to provide top service, says Steve Hallsey, Managing Director. The company uses the Caliper Assessment for new hires, which tests personality and cognitive skills in a written, timed exam.

“The assessment gives us a strong indication on how well an employee will do in our work environment regarding abstract thinking, empathy, collaboration, urgency, attention to detail,” Hallsey says. “We also spend a lot of time on references and reference checks.”

2. Communicate honestly.

The last thing residents want are unwelcome surprises, says Jay Minchilli, Senior Vice President of Jersey City, N.J.-based Veris Residential, owner-operator of 6,591 units. Minchilli says his firm keeps residents in the loop about what it’s doing and what they need to do—wear masks in common areas or follow other mandates, depending on where a community is located.

Bloomfield, N.J.-based Sparrow Asset Management, which manages multifamily buildings in New Jersey and consults with developers, meets with renewing residents in person or by phone to explain market conditions for a personal touch, says President Brian Gretkowski.

David Lynd, CEO of Austin, Texas-based The Lynd Group, which manages 20,000 units in seven states, takes a similar approach by over-communicating to residents to ease concerns. “People default to the worst possible thoughts in their brain, so we take a low-tech approach and regularly email and text them that we’re here to help,” he says.

Where it concerns student housing, managers face a dual challenge: Making themselves available for conversations with student residents and parents, says Katy Smerko, Senior Vice President of Operations at Austin-based Campus Advantage, which has 25,000 beds in 19 states. 

3. Train staff to meet demands and diffuse frustrations.

Training staff has long been a priority, but it has become more important to help retain residents and teach staff to be more patient and empathetic in coping with complaints.

Campus Advantage has expanded its training department during the past year and a half, working with smaller groups in boot camps about leasing and retention and having staff hold focus groups to learn resident concerns, Smerko says. Of late, it’s heard more from parents regarding safety and roommate disputes, she says. Other conversations revolve around filling maintenance orders quicker. “We try to make it clear we handle requests in the order of importance—fires or floods, but everyone’s feeling crunches due to staffing,” she says.

Optima has spent more time training staff to handle situations when they arise by watching and hearing how a supervisor handles a problem, says Barbie Clemons, General Manager of Optima Kierland Apartments in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Then, when they handle the issue next time, I’ll review and comment, providing positive reinforcement,” she says.

Blue Onyx Companies, a Clifton, N.J., full-service real estate, development and property management company, has instructed staff to follow a course of action similar to how parents protect children on an airplane by first putting on their oxygen masks. “Staff has to protect itself first to care for residents,” says CEO Levi Kelman.

Among many managers’ biggest challenges have been helping those who aren’t able to pay rent if they lose their jobs. Melanie Gersper’s company, Atlanta-based ACRE, a private equity firm that raises funds for multifamily, value-add and new developments, trains staff to research options to help these residents.

4. Improve existing units.

Apartments have become the center of most residents’ lives as they spend more time at home and less at work, says architect Victor Body-Lawson of New York-based Body Lawson Associates, Architects and Planners. A lack of a comfortable workspace is a frequent complaint, particularly when more than one resident lives in the same apartment. Many developers like Veris are increasing square footage to accommodate a desk or two. ACRE is planning to offer larger one- and two-bedroom units after experiencing greater demand for them, says Gersper, Chief Operating Officer.

In smaller units, design professionals show creativity. New York-based CetraRuddy extends kitchen counters to function as desks, says Ximena Rodriguez, Partner and Director of Interior Design. San Francisco-based Page and Turnbull incorporates more big windows to bring in natural light, which make units seem larger, says architect Steven Lee, Senior Associate. His firm did that in renovating the historic Tioga, a 1928 hotel converted to apartments in the 1980s. St. Louis-based CRG, a national real estate development and investment firm, might make one accent wall through color or add shelving, says Louie Colella, Vice President of Leasing and Operations.

Charlotte, N.C.-based RKW Residential, which manages
30,000 units in approximately 76 communities, gives residents ideas to spark creativity with its furnished model apartments, says Teresa DeVos, Executive Vice President.  

5. Offer enough communal workspaces.

In recent years, more developers have heeded residents’ interest in smaller common-area workstations, termed “breakaway spaces,” to give residents an alternative to working from home, Minchilli says.

Some are located in underutilized square footage such as hallways and corridors. Even a bench in front of a window can offer appealing seating, Lee says. CRG has also converted little-used storage closets into “Zoom rooms,” says Colella. To enhance these kinds of workstations, ACRE has added coffee bars and water stations and sometimes computers and printers. 

6. Continue to offer novel programming and more nonwork spaces.

Throughout the country, isolation has become endemic, especially during the pandemic. Zoom classes and talks helped, and many residents came to expect fresher, more innovative options as time marched on.

Veris began organizing virtual pet gatherings and tours of novel travel destinations such as the Australia Zoo. CRG started a book swap with a mini library for residents to drop off books. The company also hosted a plant shop in its lobby as plant adoptions began to rival those of pets.

Chicago-based RMK Management Corp., which manages more than 6,300 apartments in four states, brought in not just food trucks for residents but treat trucks for dogs, and hosted a virtual Roaring 20s Valentine’s Day party, says Diana Pittro, Executive Vice President. The company also helped residents anxious about staff entering their units to become DIYers with home-care packages complete with HVAC and water filters, touch-up paint, carpet shampoo, lightbulbs and instructions.

To orchestrate activities, BNE Real Estate Group, a Livingston, N.J.-based developer and manager of over 10,000 apartments, hired an activity director. “We’re trying to make our buildings more of a community,” says Jonathan Schwartz, Partner and Principal. 

Even functional common areas have been redesigned for more social interaction. Body Lawson Associates installed windows in the lobby and laundry room at its new Peninsula building in the Bronx, N.Y., even though interactions in such spaces tend to be brief. 

Outdoor areas are also repurposed for more popular uses, according to demographics and climate. ACRE has transformed tennis courts into family centers with arbors, picnic tables, soccer fields, bicycle and walking paths and dog runs, says Gersper. 

Choosing the right locations can also help residents avoid isolation by connecting them with their neighborhood. BNE took this route with its new Station Bay building in South Amboy, N.J., which offers a high walkable score into town and to a train station, waterfront and future ferry. “The location is suburban but has an urban vibe,” Schwartz says.

7. Share knowledge about getting healthy and saving the environment.

With greater interest in wellness, more managers are delivering information and activities centered on the subject. Veris, which rebranded to focus on wellness and sustainability, offers classes on such topics as tending gardens and raising hydroponic plants.

Keeping buildings clean offers visible proof that management gets the message. “We keep our buildings immaculate, take out the trash, have personnel check hallways regularly and make sure fitness machines work,” says Hallsey.

Many managers are also sharing what their company does to be more carbon neutral, a growing concern of residents. Whenever possible, Veris staff avoids flying, management switches to renewable electricity, monitors energy consumption and installs HVAC systems in apartments so residents control their systems, Minchilli says.

Rodriquez says CetraRuddy has specified updated ventilation systems and ways to alter circadian rhythm in designs. Body-Lawson says such strategies are particularly important to clients who build affordable housing to help buildings and residents pare costs.

8. Deliver to residents’ doors.

While package rooms got bigger to accommodate more deliveries, many residents feared going into them as the coronavirus spread. Delivering to individuals’ doors lessened anxiety and many came to expect such service. “We try to get packages to them as soon as they arrive,” Minchilli says. Many managers did this as well for virtual events, often supplying food to make a pasta dinner or wine to pair with it. 

9. Increase technology options.

Many buildings offer apps for staff and residents, so life is more convenient and work to stay abreast of which offer the most options, says Gretkowski. Services range from package deliveries, visitor management and integrated payments to repair requests, marketplace postings and front desk instructions. One even offers a “get me home” button if residents get lost. Still others offer avenues for social exchanges for residents to chat or organize gatherings, DeVos says.

10. Do good.

Many residents want to live in buildings that provide services to help those beyond their doors. ACRE participates in programs with schools through classroom activities and after-school programs in spaces outfitted with computers. “The company hires teachers and works with nonprofit agencies to help kids,” Gersper says. Blue Onyx has shown concern for local workers by buying lunch for first responders and ICU nurses, says Kelman.

The bottom line why service may be the determining factor is summed up well by Colella: “We always have to earn our business and that’s truer now, so we make sure our residents know we’re here for them,” he says.


Barbara Ballinger is a freelance contributor.