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Why 2019 is the Year of Sales in Multifamily

Multifamily leasing

By Donald Davidoff, D2 Demand Solutions

Emphasizing sales training not only improves conversions, it can provide leasing agents with a career path.

In November 2018, we interviewed 20 COOs and CIOs to get a sense of the “state of the state” in rental housing operations and a glimpse into where it will go in the next couple of years. As we prepare to release a white paper, 20 for 20: Where multifamily housing operations is heading by 2020, I’d like to share our findings in one of the key areas we researched: People resources.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all 20 executives reported that recruiting and retaining quality talent was difficult in 2018—and unlikely to improve in 2019. Among the strategies executives reported employing to deal with this challenge, investing in the career path and development of their associates was one of the most popular; and when it came to staff development, by far the top priority is to improve sales (i.e. leasing) performance.

A 10-year bull run in rental housing performance doesn’t exactly leave metaphorical sales muscles at their peak level. As executives peer into a future rife with possible slowdowns, it seems wise to improve those capabilities in preparation for potential clouds ahead. But what does a good sales performance improvement program look like? Based on my experience through two full business cycles since 1998, here are best practices:

Sales Model Efficacy

First and foremost, any sales performance improvement program must be built on the foundation of a solid model. Prospects don’t buy today the way they did 20 years ago, so our sales models must reflect contemporary buying patterns.

  • Work from the prospective residents’ point of view rather than that of the salesperson. Rather than “selling” to prospects, help them make good decisions.
  • Emphasize authenticity. As Daniel Pink notes in his book To Sell is Human, the old notion “Always be Closing” is inauthentic and quickly turns off prospects. I advocate an “Always be Helping” approach.
  • Acknowledge prospect empowerment. As noted in Google’s groundbreaking “Zero Moment of Truth” research, prospects can (and do) research and learn a tremendous amount of information prior to ever talking to a salesperson. Models that don’t take into account how prospects can know as much (or more) about a product than the salesperson cannot be as successful as those that do.
  • Teach, tailor, take control. The seminal book, The Challenger Sale, best describes this concept. In short, contemporary top sellers teach their prospects something about their buying journey (there’s no better way to demonstrate helping them), tailor messaging to their buyers and take control when necessary (think assertive without being aggressive).

Applicability to Rental Housing

There are many high-quality, generic sales programs out there; however, we have found that apartment operators need to either engage partners who have specific industry experience or adapt generic models to fit our unique needs.

  • Consider prospect shopping styles. Not all prospects shop the same way, so it’s imperative to teach our leasing associates how to interact best with each of the archetypes of shopping styles.
  • Align with the prospects’ journey. Studies that I’ve been involved in showed that all prospects go through the same five stages in their journey. Leasing associates need to understand these stages and adjust accordingly.
  • Connect with the service paradigm. We’re a service-driven industry more than a sales-driven one. Fortunately, the “always be helping” mindset fits this approach… and so must the model we choose to use.
  • Understand leasing associates’ skillsets. Truly world-class salespeople can make multiples of what apartment sales pays. Our performance improvement models must be effective for the demographics and psychographics of our leasing associates.


No matter how good (and applicable) the model, results will only be as good as the execution. Effective execution involves:

  • A training methodology, whether online or in person, that delivers the message in ways associates can easily consume.
  • Understanding that adults learn by doing, reflecting and discussing, not merely listening to a lecture.
  • Empowering associates to find their own voice. Script-based selling simply won’t work with today’s informed, sophisticated prospect.
  • An intuitive corpus of knowledge, so associates learn quickly and easily​
  •  A focus on “stickiness,” not just a single event.

As our executive conversations also revealed, the way that our residents are buying has changed and will continue to do so. The smartest operators aren’t just re-emphasizing sales performance, they’re re-thinking it.