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Apartment Industry Embraces Automated Leasing

Virtual leasing assistants bring greater convenience and efficiency to today’s 24/7 prospective resident.

The era of automated leasing is upon us. And it may not be an exaggeration to say that the pandemic created 10 years’ worth of apartment industry technology in about 100 days.

Smart-home technology is alive and well. Move-in and move-out features are in place. Offerings similar to Amazon Go – a grocery store with no clerk – are making their way into communities to better serve residents on the go. Amenity reservations became necessary during lockdowns, but residents are still finding them useful and convenient on an app.

But the technology with perhaps the greatest penetration – and growing – are virtual leasing assistants. Typically, they are found in the form of bots that can deliver answers to key questions from resident prospects 24/7.

Just like Artificial Intelligence (AI), which “grows smarter” the more it’s used, these virtual leasing assistants are delivering time and cost savings for busy onsite teams, relieving them of mundane but necessary tasks such as providing rent rates and setting up touring appointments by phone, text and chat.

Technology is here to lead the new way of onsite leasing operations and more communities are buying in for all of the right reasons, which was the focus of the "Autonomous Leasing" panel at  the 2021 Apartment Innovation and Marketing Conference (AIM).  

“Today, the volume of incoming calls to apartment communities is significant,” LeaseHawk’s EVP and Chief Revenue Officer, Brock MacLean says. “More than 50 percent of prospect inquiries are happening over the phone. Apartment companies are spending so much time to produce leads, how can they not be exhausting their teams with things like chasing leads that aren’t likely to convert?”

“No longer are there so-called ‘office hours.’ Most missed calls happen during the day. You’re busy, you’re hiring challenged. Virtual experiences are today’s consumers’ expectations.

LeaseHawk data show that about 87% of callers won’t leave a voicemail; and most will never call back if their call goes unanswered.

Bots are capable of answering hundreds of questions, but really, at this point, they are being asked mostly the same ones by any prospect who engages with them.

The Top 5 Leasing Questions Asked by Prospects:

  • 44.5% Pricing and Availability
  • 14% Rental Qualifications
  • 9% Application
  • 5.9% Pet Policy
  • 4.2% Property Amenities
     

Meeting Residents Where They Want, How they Want

Kitty Callaghan, VP of Marketing at Wasatch Property Management, said virtual leasing assistants were practically a gift from the pandemic.

“We all use it now, we can thank the pandemic to bring it real-time into our industry,” she says. “We as an industry have proven to be really flexible. We can adopt quickly. We see now that with any problem, there’s always more than one right answer.”

She says that autonomous leasing is meeting prospective residents where they want, and how they want.

“For residents, this lets them say, ‘I’m doing it the way I want,’” she says.

The property doesn’t control all of the information anymore, Callaghan says, and that’s a good thing.

“It used to be that the resident had to come into the leasing office to get anything done: Ask a question, submit a work order, pay their rent,” she says. “That’s very inconvenient for residents. With automated leasing, we can provide the optimal experience to each resident, as they would want it.”

Callaghan says that on average, per community, per month, the bot creates 375 conversations with 220 unique prospects. She says that having bots there to answer the easy questions enables the onsite team to adjust its priorities and frees up leasing staff to handle things that can’t be done through automation.

“This has reduced our call volume by 20 percent,” she says. “We are now able to redirect an average of 56.3 hours per month to other duties. That’s a lot. Meanwhile, 90 percent of self-scheduled appointments result in the prospects coming to the property for the tours. Our aim is always to reduce the length of the leasing cycle, and we’re seeing that bots can save a day or two off the leasing cycle.”

Delivering Consistent, Accurate Information is Critical

Programmed bots provide consistent and accurate information about the community. Prospects use multiple platforms during their search, and this way, “we can make sure the information we are providing is consistent across all of those platforms,” Callaghan says. “Paid advertising is not enough anymore. We need to be creating conversations with our prospects and those can get started through the bot.”

Laurel Zacher, Vice President of Marketing & Talent Development at Security Properties Residential (SPR), said that pre-pandemic, her portfolio only offered in-person tours, with just a few exceptions.

“When the pandemic hit, we had to get moving; and give prospects the chance to see or tour our rent-ready units to give them the confidence in wanting to rent with us,” Zacher says. “We wanted a self-service model. We had to handle waivers for prospects to be able to see us. We had to use locks that could be moved around, because we didn’t want to go full IoT.”

SPR sought technology that could scan driver’s licenses and upload those files with the waiver.

“These important steps were a big burden on our onsite team,” she says. “I recommend finding a tech partner to help with this to make it easier. If you can be really clear about what the problem is that you need to solve, you can have much more beneficial conversations with the technology service providers you are meeting with.”

Shooting Live Tours is a Marketing Boon

SPR also issued phones to all of its staff members and trained them on how to produce live video tours. The company had started with none, but quickly began to develop them for floorplans at all of its communities. The result was a video library that had 148,000 “views” on expenses of just about $3,000 overall.

“Not bad,” Zacher says. “Before this, it was zero. We didn’t have any. Now our available homes are shown to a global audience. India is home to our second-highest viewership. We’ve got a 5.8 percent click-thru rate on them.”

SPR hosted the videos, with closed captioning, on YouTube so they could be presented in a better organized fashion within different folders. YouTube also helped SPR improve its search results.

“The key early on was to make sure the videos were shot in landscape (not vertical) to fit the display space. Videos were kept to 1 minute or less. The onsite team narrated the tours. The videos began from the middle of the apartment home (not the front door) because we found that reduced some of the clumsiness of the action by the camera holder.”

Zacher found it best to let the leasing agents inject their own personality to the videos. She was sure to bookend community branding at the start and end of the video by including a logo and a call to action.

Zacher also found that using a $40 Gimbal stabilizing device, purchased from Amazon, was critical to ensure a smoother video. The device helps to avoid any shaky movements as the tour was conducted.

She said SPR typically has a 9% lead-to-lease conversion rate but with these tours, and self-guided tours, the rate was about 12.4 percent.

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer.