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Technology: A Balancing Act

July 2017

Real-time data is dominating everyday onsite operations. Is this technological capability helping property managers or making them crazy?

When Joell Bunge, Business Manager at The Preserve at Forest Creek, began her career in the apartment industry more than two decades ago, managers documented rent in ledgers. Customers signed leases on paper and paid via check (or even cash) in person at the leasing office. Offices tracked visitors with paper guest cards.

For Bunge, who works for Memphis-based Fogelman Management Group, community level operations have generally become more efficient. She’s thankful that technology eliminated paper-based reports that she once completed, and loves the Internet because it has made communication a lot easier.

Not every facet of her job has improved, though. While some operational processes have been automated, the efficiencies gained have created additional demands, such as reporting requirements for traffic, leads, work orders and more customer care. “Today, residents are needier than they used to be,” she says. “They want more attention. You better check your emails and respond right away.”

The Internet drives queries and provides transparency that enables price comparisons. “When we send out renewals, they look online to see what our pricing is today and compare it to what they’re paying,” Bunge says. “Then they shop around.”

And residents email the office with questions about why their rent is higher than someone coming in off the street. But consider Bunge to be lucky in one respect: Her questions come from residents. Other managers are confronted with an influx of queries from joint ventures partners and owners. Add in the constant drumbeat of responding to online reviews and it is easy to see how community managers at times feel overwhelmed.

“You have online leasing, online renewals, package deliveries —everything is tied to technology,” says Melanie French, Executive Vice President of Operations at Cortland Partners. “People can get lost in that.”

Melissa Smith, Chief Administrative Officer at Fogelman Management Group, says succinctly, “I wonder if technology and the amount of data we have access to is making us crazy or helping us.”

Fortunately, some management companies are trying to carve out a path to sanity. By properly utilizing technology, effectively navigating immense amounts of data and strategically providing data in manageable portions to onsite teams, community managers can begin to take a proactive approach with client and joint venture partners.

Responsibilities Pile Up

Bunge isn’t the only Fogelman manager who measures her time in the industry in decades instead of years. Fogelman’s community managers have been, on average, with the company for seven years. That is most often an asset, but can be a liability.

“They have had to adjust for the times,” Smith says. “Part of the struggle is knowing when to let go of something old and embrace the new. A lot of people are very entrenched in old habits.”

Juggling demands generated by technology with longstanding responsibilities is only part of the issue. Technology feeds real-time occupancy, pricing and online review information to third-party clients, joint venture partners, residents and potential residents.

Start with reputational management — a thorn in the side of many community managers. While residents might not be coming through the door with complaints as much as they once did, they now take their issues to review sites for the world to see. Responding to those reviews is a responsibility most management firms think should be handled at the community level.

Vanessa Siebern, a Vice President at FPI Management, wants residents to see that the community manager is “fully invested” at the management firm’s properties. Managers will invite residents to the office to discuss any issues and thank those that leave positive reviews.

“We still want the manager leading the charge at their property,” Siebern says. “We don’t want a corporate-branded respondent to give a standard response.”

Residents and potential residents aren’t the only ones reading those reviews. Owners and joint venture partners may be monitoring review sites, in addition to scouring the Internet and revenue management systems for pricing information. If they see something they question, they’ll contact the community directly.

“There is a lot more engagement between client and property,” Smith says. “They don’t hesitate to reach out because the information is right there in front of them before it was validated by the management team.”

Real-Time Responses

Real-time data now requires real-time responses, which is challenging for community managers who aren’t adept at “being able to think on their feet,” Smith says. Previously, it was commonplace that apartment management staff could study data, consider corrections or solutions and then formulate a response.

New ways to slice and dice data put extra pressure on community managers in other ways. When he was at another firm, TJ Mudd, a District Manager for the Mid-Atlantic at Camden, took over a community in Alexandria, Va., in 2010. During his time as a community manager, he achieved 8.9 percent rent growth and thought he did “an amazing job.”

Rents in the D.C. metro area began to take off after the recession in 2010. A wider view of the entire market at the time, which today’s analytics provide, might have given Mudd a different perspective.

“With performance analytics, because of how you benchmark yourself versus competition, 8 percent may have not been as good as I thought it was,” Mudd says. “It was not good if the market did 10 percent and it was good if the market did 6 percent. Because of all of the information out there, there are different ways of looking at things.”

Beyond the data that many systems produce and the influences of that data, learning new software can be a challenge. French says, that at any given time, there are between 10 and 13 types of software or systems with which her community teams must interact.

“You have to know how to use Microsoft products, different surveys and different online tools,” French says. “You receive more email today and more attention to detail is required. You have to up your game or you won’t be able to compete.”

Customer Centric

With the plethora of new demands technology has created for community managers, many are finding it difficult to prioritize their day.

Choosing what to focus on during complex onsite management situations, senior executives tend to want their managers to focus on one thing—the customer. Assuaging the concerns of residents who have questions about their rent increases or responding to customer service requests takes priority.

Gables’ site-level employee compensation, for example, is based on their leasing and resident satisfaction scores.

“Our onsite teams are highly focused on providing a quality leasing experience for our residents,” says Cristina Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer at Gables Residential. “Although the process has highly evolved due to technological advances, the core of what they do onsite remains constant. They need to maximize the opportunity of using technology to our advantage, whereby eliminating or reducing the amount of manpower needed to accomplish what they do every day.”

At Western National, Regional Vice President, Scott Wickman, says support from its departments, such as the marketing team, helps its community managers perform in real-time more easily.

“Marketing can pull traffic trends— such as where people are coming from and what type of advertising is working—to help make decisions onsite. This takes some of the pressure off the manager and puts it on the support department.”

Chad Cooley, Managing Director of Strategic Support Services at Bozzuto Management Company, says his company relies on dashboards to provide a full spectrum of information.

“Ours looks at occupancies and rent levels and future vacancy trends and pricing, not just within our building but within a competitive marketplace,” Cooley says.

Gables and Fogelman use dashboards built by supplier partners that cull the Internet for reviews and consolidate and organize them to help with reputation management.

“It is a one-stop shop; we don’t have to go to every site every day and see what has been posted about us,” Smith says. “Seeing it in a snapshot helps us to respond to everything in a timely and appropriate way.

While reputation management responses are usually crafted at the community level, many bigger management firms offer support at the corporate office. For instance, Western National dedicates one corporate-level employee to reputation management. This staffer monitors the scores, provides feedback and tips to help improve review ratings.

“The corporate support helps alleviate the pressure that comes with having to manage your own reputation online every day,” Wickman says.

It can be trickier for property man-agers when they are contacted directly by investors and owners who require a response to a question or problem, Wickman says.

“The investors own the building, so they have the right to call the site, but we try to filter any responses as much as we can through our regional managers,” he says.

Pensam Capital’s goal is that investor questions be directed through headquarters.

Eddie Reiner, Pensam’s Director of Asset Management, says, “We do our best to insulate onsite staff from probing questions by our many investors. This way we don't overwhelm them with too many voices or outside feedback that may or may not be productive for their day-to-day responsibilities. Our aim is to ensure that our investor relations team, coupled with in-house asset management, handle any and all investor requests or questions.”

Instead of preventing investor calls from being made onsite, Bozzuto encourages its regional managers to monitor day-to-day operational information and reach out to investors or venture capital partners with those data.

“When you are armed with information to answer [owners’] questions and you can proactively discuss recommendations without having someone else raise the flag, that is critical,” Cooley says. “We try to anticipate situations where an owner might pick up the phone to call us.”

The Way Forward

While technology potentially can create a frazzled onsite team, at the same time, it has greatly reduced the time necessary to complete common tasks.

“We can do in minutes many of the things that onsite staff used to take hours to do, such as approving invoices,” says Cooley. “Today, I can pay 40 invoices through our software in four minutes (not four hours).”

While Sullivan admits some processes, such as onsite reviews, can’t totally be shifted up the chain, she says Gables Residential is aiming to assign site-level processes to its corporate office whenever possible. For instance, online leasing allowed the company to digitize resident files and shift them from individual properties to the corporate office.

Despite those advances, Sullivan cautions that companies should do their due diligence before implementing new technology.

“It sounds easy to utilize technology to be more efficient, but in some cases, it adds more work,” Sullivan says. “I think that is where we need to be thoughtful and understand the overall impact and not assume every new technological idea will be valuable in our day-to-day business practices.”