Mastering Reputation Management
Mastering reputation management requires multiple strategies. Find out how some the of the industry’s biggest firms respond to and even stimulate reviews.
Getting curb right appeal used to be simple. Make sure the grass was cut, the walking paths were free of clutter and scuff marks were scrubbed off doors and you were set.
But things are not so simple in the consumer-driven digital age.
Benjamin Burns, The Bozzuto Group’s Director of Digital Strategy & Technology, says “reviews have become even more important than the shining imagery we have on our website.”
Industry veteran Christy Ebert, a Manager at Wood Partners, says “Your online reputation is the new curb appeal. Prospects won’t even visit your property if they see bad reviews online. Reputation management has become a game-changer.”
Substantiating that is the proliferation of review sites, making the strategy behind monitoring residents’ feedback even more critical and time-consuming.
“When I began working in the industry, there was ApartmentRatings.com and that was about it,” says TJ Mudd, a District Manager for the Mid-Atlantic at Camden. “Now, you have Google ratings, Yelp, Facebook and Instagram, and a million different places [consumers] can share feedback.”
Apartment companies are using mixed strategies when tackling the chore. For larger companies, third-party supplier play a pivotal role with collecting and distributing responses. Some apartment firms rely on onsite staff to respond to reviews and others work with the corporate office to determine the appropriate response.
Regardless of strategy, having a plan for apartment reviews is critical. And the industry believes the duty will grow in importance.
A Way of Life
Like it or not, reviews are here to stay.
“Reviews are becoming more important,” Mudd says. “I cannot think of a time where I would go to a restaurant and not look it up on Yelp beforehand.”
If people routinely consult reviews for relatively minor purchases, it makes sense that they would rely on them for bigger-ticket items, such as apartments.
“If you’re in the market to make a purchase, you look at reviews. It has become part of our consumer journey,” Burns says. “If you are looking to spend thousands of dollars on something such as rent, reviews become that much more important.”
At Camden, reviews provide a welcomed opportunity for the community to engage with its residents, according to Mudd.
Google’s new algorithms only heighten the importance of reviews. “When you have reviews appended to your organic listings, especially within the local pack, transitioning from a three-star to a five-star rating nearly increase clicks to your property by 25 percent,” Burns says.
Ebert says that if companies are not responding to feedback, customers will draw their own conclusions, and that oftentimes is not a positive. Wood requires responses within 24 hours.
“People want to see that management has responded,” Ebert says. “If they see that we haven’t responded, people will wonder why they should even live in our communities.”
Burns does not consider reviews to be a necessary evil. He views them as a legitimate way to entice customers into Bozzuto’s communities. From both a resources and allocation-of-time perspective, reviews were one of Bozzuto’s biggest concertation in 2017.
“For us, reviews are a means of long-term acquisition and retention,” Burns says. “We believe that the more reviews positive or negative, the better. If they are negative, we internalize, operationalize and course correct the known issue.”
Once reviews are posted, whether organically or prompted through surveys, apartment companies say that they need to be collected and given a response. For many, the process does not start onsite. Yes, managers and leasing agents may peek at Yelp or Google if they are curious what residents think of them, but scanning and culling reviews typically begins with a third-party provider, such as Binary Fountain, Chatmeter and ReviewTrackers.
Hiring a vendor to handle reviews costs a nominal fee. The time savings alone can make the expense worthwhile.
“They sort the responses and measure our response times,” says Steve F. Hallsey, Executive Vice President of Operations for Wood Residential Services. “If there is something trending that you need to be aware of, they let you know.”
Bozzuto, Gables Residential and Fogelman also outsource review monitoring. Results are then shared with their corporate office.
Fogelman constructs a reputation management dashboard that is provided by a third-party partner.
“[The firm] lets us know if anything is off key,” Fogelman’s Chief Administrative Officer Melissa Smith says. “It is a one-stop shop so we don’t have to go to every site every day and see what is posted about us. We can look at these comments in a snap shot and be able to respond to everything. We are able to both monitor from a centralized location and have our onsite teams engage in a quick and efficient way.”
Fogelman then shares the reviews with its onsite teams.
Cortland Partners, too, gathers the reviews and then distributes them to the onsite teams, says its Executive Vice President, Operations, Melanie French.
Needless to say, onsite teams are not always pleased with the commentary its corporate office has shared.
Psychotherapist Toni Coleman says “the likely reason for why folks don’t like responding to reviews is that many are negative—some obnoxiously so. People know they will be bombarded with many comments that need to be addressed effectively in order to help offset the bad impression felt by the poster.”
To properly respond, Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa, a behavioral and marketing psychologist, says onsite staff must not consider negative comments to be a personal attack.
“You have to take a deep breath,” Jaffa says. “The person posting the review is mad and you just have to be the punching bag in that way. It is not personal. You cannot take it as attack on you. Avoid feeling defensive during the process.”
Many firms have systems in place that depersonalize the process for onsite staff. FPI Management employs a marketing person who is dedicated to help onsite teams respond to every review--good or bad. Known as a reputation management coach, that person also monitors the scores and provides feedback, support and the tools to improve those scores, according to Vanessa Siebern Vice President, FPI Management.
“Nowadays, online reviews are absolutely one of the top things that we focus on,” says Scott Wickman, Regional Vice President at Western National. “In our marketing department, we have one per person who handles reputation every day. They manage the online reputation for us. If it was just put on the community manager, it could become overwhelming just focusing on that. Our support helps alleviate that pressure.”
But make no mistake. Wickman says the community manager needs to be part of the response, even if some of the work is one at corporate. In fact, Western National’s onsite teams are required to participate in responding to reviews as part of their job responsibilities. And these responses must be authentic.
“They cannot send out canned answers such as, ‘Thank you for your feedback. Please call us to discuss,’” Wickman says. “That is not authentic. To give an authentic answer, you have to dial in the onsite teams.”
FPI’s goal is to have in-person interaction with the resident posting the review.
“We want our residents at our communities to see that the manager is fully invested.” Siebern says. “It is all about personal touch. They invite residents to the office and discuss issues. They thank those who post positive reviews.”
Ebert says often she does not know about onsite operational problems until she reads a bad review.
“I call [the reviewer] right away,” she says. “My goal is to get them to sit down with me and really talk through it. At the end of the meeting, if I have answered their questions and solved their issues, I ask them if they wouldn’t mind removing the review.”
During the past quarter, this strategy has resulted in five negative reviews being removed, proving that the best way to achieve greater curb appeal is to remove the eyesore altogether.