Getting Emotional About Appealing to Residents
Keeping apartment communities as close to full occupancy as possible entails determining people's needs and desires. But today's apartment owners and managers can become so focused on what lures prospective residents to their communities, they can lose sight of the relationships they should be building with current residents. Discovering what motivates people emotionally can result in substantial increases in both new leasing and resident retention. One expert in this regard is Eric Clark, Director of Marketing at Altman Companies. What follows is our chat:
NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Mr. Clark, Altman prides itself on creating what it has dubbed as an "Exceptional Living Experience." Could you expand on that? What exactly does that mean?
ERIC CLARK: It means making sure we have gone above and beyond providing four walls. We want to create a phenomenal apartment community, and that means architecturally with superior features and services. But we really try and design all of that, the functionality and the great features, to be very resident-focused. A lot of the little things that we'll do is because we don't ever want it to feel like it's a transaction. For example, we don't have traditional leasing desks or leasing offices. Everything is virtual and technology driven. It's an interactive experience. When a prospect comes into the community, if they want to apply for an apartment while touring the fitness centers, we make that possible. We have resident representatives as opposed to leasing consultants. What we've found in the typical apartment living experience, leasing consultants are focused on just that: getting the person in the door, leasing them an apartment, then washing their hands and moving on to the next lease. For us, the reason we renamed them "resident representatives" and provide training tailored to that is we want there to be a hospitality focus. We care just as much and possibly more once they have moved in than just getting them to sign their name on a piece of paper.
NAA: How do you show that you care?
EC: There are a lot of resident events. There is a program that we've created for the residents that includes community discounts, special offers, preferred partnerships. There are the dry-cleaning services, the door-to-door trash, pet walking and other community services that we have created partnerships with. So once someone moves in, they are able to go and create relationships. Our resident representatives are there the whole time to consistently check in on existing residents and be of service whenever possible.
NAA: You spoke at the 2014 NAA Education Conference & Exposition in Denver, headlining a session titled "Emotional Intelligence: Connecting With People to Get Results." For those were unable to attend, what was covered during that specific event? It centered on the emotional motivating of residents, yes?
EC: We broke down all of the different elements that happen in a prospective resident's life cycle, starting with generating the right culture and word of mouth before someone even steps foot on the property. What is that brand awareness? What does that look like? We talked about how to hire, train, and motivate the right associates at every level, whether it's on the development side or the onsite front line team members. How do you find those people? How do you train them to deliver on the expectations? And what does that cycle look like through the eyes of the customer? We discussed how you take a national footprint and really make it hyper-local to each individual market. I mentioned the Starbucks approach. You're getting the same latte everywhere. But if you're in Starbucks in Denver in one of their stores made out of recycled, reclaimed material or your at the Starbucks in Taiwan and there are chopsticks sculptures on the wall, it's a very different look and feel. But it's the same great product. We've adopted a lot of that methodology in how we develop our communities, and what services we offer, what amenity packages we'll put into place.
NAA: Can you be more specific?
EC: We have a very unique floor plan that we typically go to market with that is designed to create Altman's Exceptional Living Experience. It's a private-entry floor plan model, so it's not a breezeway product. We also talked about the behavioral psychology that we used to train our associates so they are able to read their prospects and their residents to better respond and better address their needs and wants, neutralize situations as they occur, and deliver a lot more of an emotional sales process that we have found to be more effective than the traditional sales process of: "OK, here is the apartment, here's what it costs, and here's where you sign."
NAA: How do you gauge what residents' emotional needs are? Do you do a lot of surveying? Are there focus groups?
EC: We do a couple of different things. We do a lot of market research before we go into any submarket. We develop unique customer personas or audience profiles for every community that we develop. We'll do that based on existing data. Sometimes, we'll also go in and create focus groups to really understand what that market looks like. We'll talk to the local businesses. Sometimes we'll work with local PR firms, and we create these "personalities" of who we believe the ideal audience members are going to be.
NAA: Do you think our industry is getting away from apartment communities forming emotional bonds with their residents, especially in today's high-tech world? Are we losing a bit of the personal touch?
EC: Absolutely. It can all become very formulaic. As much as we focus on understanding the mentality, we also are moving away from a lot of the traditional marketing that takes place in the industry. We rely less and less on the ILSs. We rely very little, if at all, on anything print. We're going digital, but we're also going high touch. And we are using that emotional understanding to translate that into a digital environment.
NAA: For example?
EC: One of the things that we understand is that people want to be in the driver's seat. They want to feel like they are making the decisions and that they have choices. So, we've done something a little different in how we provide apartment searches on some of our property websites. Instead of "Are you looking for a one-bedroom apartment? Here are the 10 one-bedrooms we offer," there is more of a choice selection that starts that off. There is more of: "What size apartment do you want? What time frame are you looking for? What's your price range? Do you want a garage? Do you have pets? Tell us about what you want, and we're going to show you the best matches for your wants and needs. Maybe you didn't select a bedroom count and you left that blank, but you did select an apartment with a garage that you want to move into in two weeks. We're going to serve up the best apartments that match that, and they might be one-, or two-, or three-bedroom mixes. Whatever the case might be, you can continue to refine what you want and we will show you what we have based on what you selected. We're trying to give people what they want. It's re-phrasing what they are used to seeing, but it's done in a way that makes them feel like they are in a much more powerful position. It puts the prospect in the position where they feel like they're driving the conversation. But we're really doing the whole time is guiding them to the end result that we want.
By Teddy Durgin