How and when to update your technology stack
To LuAnne Acton Ross, the answer to the question of how often apartment operators should assess - and, if need be, adjust – the collection of technologies they use is simple.
They will always be doing it.
“We are constantly reviewing our technology stack and looking for best-in-class products to improve the overall resident and prospect experience,” says Acton Ross, a Partner and Executive Vice President for JMG Realty, who oversees property management services for the company’s Northeast and Southeast regions.
With the industry’s technology evolving so rapidly, that kind of ongoing assessment can make for a sometimes head-spinning experience, she admits.
“When I started in the business, there was very limited technology. In my very first job in college, we posted rent manually on ledger cards,” Acton Ross says. “Now, it’s almost as soon as we implement one application, a similar one comes out that can replace three other things too.”
Building the Stack
Acton Ross is mindful of not overburdening her onsite staffs with technologies to manage. She wants to make their workflows as efficient as possible, but her No. 1 priority is employing technologies that provide an outstanding experience for residents.
Striving to create the highest level of operations and service, Acton Ross is hesitant to go with a single technology stack solution typically provided by a property management software supplier for the sake of integration. Instead, she turns to a variety of vendors to ensure her communities are using the industry’s best-in-breed technology.
“For me, it’s more about utilizing the best product, not about which product integrates best,” she says. “If we are looking to truly enhance the user experience, it can’t be just about integration. I’d like to have both best-in-breed and integration, but that’s not always the case.
“I have such incredible onsite teams, and they understand my philosophy,” Acton Ross adds. “It’s all about giving the user the best experience so if they have to duplicate data entries, they understand the reason for that.”
At the same time, Acton Ross is quick to point out the headaches caused by trying to incorporate solutions that are best-in-breed while also maintaining efficiencies. When possible, she is trying to reduce the vendors and solutions she uses within her portfolio at JMG Realty.
“There is a lot of frustration in trying to make it all fit together and determining where maybe there’s overlap and eliminating some of the overlap,” she says. “For example, Product A may do two different things, and then you’ve got Product B that does one of those things but adds another piece to it. So, you are having to go to two different vendors to get the complete package of what you want to deliver to your residents. I want one product that does it all.”
According to Acton Ross, JMG Realty was able to implement a best-in-class technology that also integrates with the company’s other solutions when her portfolio started offering white-labeled, customized mobile apartment apps from Mobile Doorman to residents.
The apps allow residents to pay their rent, make a service request, reserve a common area for personal use and communicate with onsite associates. The apps also integrate seamlessly between the communities’ property management systems, meaning associates don’t have to endlessly toggle between the two interfaces.
JMG Realty also began using ValenceDocs to streamline its document management and reduce onsite paper storage. The cloud-based solution offers document storage and integrates with Blue Moon Software, which provides industry-standard leasing forms Click & Lease.
“This lease is recognized by eviction judges in every state and is the go-to form they are most familiar with; it takes care of all of our needs,” Acton Ross says. “It’s what most of the large management companies use—everyone used to have their own lease, and now there’s the statewide Click & Lease through NAA that is widely utilized.”
Acton Ross says offering technologies demanded by today’s residents should be of the highest priority for operators. To stay in the know about these trends, she recommends attending industry conferences and tradeshows, maintaining strong working relationships with vendors readily absorbing data and insights from resident surveys.
JMG Realty implemented its white-labeled mobile apps because of its ongoing assessment of what residents want in terms of technology.
“We’re seeing a real trend: People don’t use laptops anymore,” Acton Ross says. “They use their mobile devices to search the web and to complete tasks. So, to have a customized mobile app that gives residents access to their entire apartment community is incredible.”
JMG Realty's communities offer resident portals, but the apps create “a user experience that is much more personable, and they create a better connection between properties and residents,” according to Acton Ross.
The company also is venturing into the world of smart-home solutions to meet resident needs. But, Acton Ross says, it is proceeding cautiously.
“We are using smart locks on our new construction,” she says. “But we’re not signing off on the entire premise of a smart home. We’ve concluded at this point that residents aren’t willing to pay for things like being able to clap and turn the lights on or off or have Siri or Alexa do it. And residents also have privacy concerns. We just don’t believe the payback is there yet.”
Making It Work
In addition to looking for efficiencies when possible, apartment companies undertaking digital renovations should pilot technologies before implementing them across entire portfolios, according to Acton Ross.
“We vet our technologies and vendors very, very carefully,” she says.
“We’re challenged by the fact that the marketplace is always changing. There’s always something newer and greater out there,” adds Matt Moncrief, Manager of Systems Training and Support at JMG Realty who works closely with Acton Ross on the implementation of technologies. “But I think if we do enough due diligence about the product and the product roadmap, we can get a sense for where we may be going with the product and what the longevity might be like on our properties. We’re taking a more methodological approach to vetting out our applications than we probably have before.”
In the end, operators looking to optimize their technology offerings should commit themselves to a never-ending process.
“Some people want to put something in place and then forget about it and assume it’s going to be the end-all, be-all forever, but it’s not,” Acton Ross says. “As technology continues to grow, you need to evaluate and re-evaluate and re-evaluate and see if there is a better way of doing it. The answer may be no, and the answer may be yes.”