While the pandemic certainly threw property management teams a major curveball back in March, successful teams were able to quickly find and leverage different strategies to adapt to remote realities and to continue to operate effectively. However, strategy aside, modern technology also played, and continues to play, a major role in helping property management teams to navigate the disruption brought on by the pandemic. The pandemic arguably accelerated technology adoption in the property management segment. It highlighted the inherent value and significance of online and mobile capabilities when it came to aspects of property management like the leasing process, which is not always possible to do in-person because of social distancing mandates or guidance.
As the future could hold a second COVID-19 viral surge (experts in the US suggest we are not even out of the first surge as a country), social distancing measures will likely continue to cycle between expansion and retraction depending on case numbers, and property management teams will continue to rely on some of the technologies that have made remote realities and remote work possible for them. Additionally, with economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, two of the most important focus areas for property management teams at present are to fill vacancies and to retain current residents. In a remote world, two of the key technologies that will help teams achieve those goals are virtual showing capabilities and bulk messaging tools. One enables leasing activity to continue no matter the strength of the pandemic, and the other provides more avenues to build stronger connections with residents, ultimately increasing resident loyalty and engagement.
However, the value of both technologies does not stop with the pandemic. One day, at some point in the future, the threat of COVID-19 will diminish or end. The modern tools that aided property management teams during it will continue to be relied upon, but for news reasons. According to a survey we conducted of 1,000 property management professionals a few months ago—we found that many of the technologies leveraged to navigate the pandemic are here to stay. Property managers see the clear value-add of technology beyond the immediate threat of the pandemic situation.
Once the threat of COVID-19 softens, virtual showings may not go with it. Sixty-four percent of our survey respondents think virtual showings will continue to be leveraged by leasing teams, long-term. Interestingly, it seems consumers were already increasingly receptive to the idea of virtual showings—25 percent of recent homebuyers prefer 3D housing tours instead of in-person tours, according to Zillow’s 2019 Consumer Housing Trends Report.
The two findings are indicative of the technology gap that already existed between the modern experience today’s consumers expect, especially with leasing, and what the industry was delivering. COVID-19 has caused a rapid acceleration to close that gap, but property management teams are pivoting to think beyond COVID-19 needs. Virtual tours are not just a band-aid for leasing teams to continue to conduct work remotely during the pandemic—they signal the start of the evolution of the leasing process, offering a new level of convenience to prospective renters.
The resident experience starts with the very first interaction a prospect has with a property management or leasing company, which is typically at the beginning of the leasing process. Like with their residents, it’s equally important for property management teams to meet the needs and expectations of their prospects. Property managers should think about how they currently improve the living experience for residents and should translate some of those overarching concepts to the leasing experience, to ensure prospects are satisfied and have their expectations met.
Convenience is by far one of the most important elements to improving experiences. Property management teams should pinpoint areas in their leasing process that might be a barrier or a challenge for certain prospects. To do this, they need to determine who their typical prospect base is and where they are moving from. For example, is the managed building in a major metro hub? Big cities tend to see renter migration from other parts of the country, so that might be a good tip-off that your property management company needs to incorporate virtual showings, if there are prospects doing their apartment search in cities they do not currently reside.
Another factor is time. There may be plenty of people, especially in a post COVID-19 world, who feel torn between work and childcare and don’t have the ability or time to meet for in-person showings. There may be others who simply don’t want to make time for showings. They are your prospects, regardless of the time they can give to you, so it is invaluable if you can find a way to make the leasing process easier for them.
However, transforming the leasing process doesn’t need to revolve solely around virtual capabilities—it could be other digital advancements that could help your team navigate ways to improve prospect convenience. Ask yourself: Do prospects need to hand-deliver their signed leases to you? If they do, you may want to consider digitizing that process, so it can be done electronically. Another roadblock in the leasing process is frustrated prospects not getting their apartment queries responded to in a timely manner. Especially for leaner leasing teams, it might be difficult to answer all incoming prospect queries as they happen. That is why it is important to find ways to automate tasks that the team does not have time for—a virtual leasing assistant that is powered by AI can handle the very first stage of the leasing process, answering prospects queries in real-time and having the ability to book showings.
Finding ways to make the leasing more convenient will help strengthen the leasing process and ultimately will reduce risk of vacancies staying on the market too long, both amid a pandemic and then well into the future.
Re-thinking resident engagement
Being able to send bulk emails and text messages to residents is a key technology capability to leverage for driving up resident engagement. An incredible 87 percent of our survey respondents believe this innovation is here to stay.
With bulk messaging, property managers can easily stay in touch with residents or even customize specific messages to individuals. Through renter portals, property management teams can post urgent notifications or instructions to keep residents up-to-date on things like building policies and measures the team is taking to keep everyone safe as the country slowly reopens.
Resident engagement is key to retention. Online communication tools like bulk messaging and online resident portals give property management teams more touchpoint opportunities with their residents, which is particularly important when social distancing guidelines make face-to-face communication a less comfortable option. Additionally, tools that enable “push notifications” to resident portals allow property managers the flexibility to communicate in more than one method (in mass) to better serve their residents. Even in a post COVID-19 era, residents still value frequent communication—it improves overall visibility for them and makes for a more satisfying living experience.
Especially in the current pandemic situation, residents will appreciate getting consistent updates from the property management team. Bulk messaging gives time back to property managers to get more creative with how they communicate with residents. Instead of just sharing urgent notifications, property managers should try to find ways to engage better with residents. A few examples of what that might look like: taking polls on what amenities residents would like to see in future amenities, creating a forum for people to connect during COVID-19 to help each other out (volunteers to deliver groceries to vulnerable residents), or sharing fun updates about certain residents within the building community. All of those more creative ideas will spark more resident engagement and make their sense of community stronger. With the time saved, it’s important for property management teams to repurpose that time to develop and share more interesting communications with residents.
It’s a good idea to also assess where your current communication plan is lacking. Do residents forget to sign their lease renewals? Do maintenance requests take too long to answer? Do certain people need more frequent reminders of rent due date than others? Are there some residents who constantly file maintenance request orders and you want to address it with them directly? These are all good questions to ask as you implement bulk messaging, which can help store pre-approved messaging as well as give property managers the ability to customize messaging for individual residents or specific managed buildings.
Retaining residents is critical right now, but retention has always been important to property management teams. More frequent touchpoints with residents ultimately improve their overall renting experience—it shows them that their property management team has them top of mind. It also occasionally sparks more opportunities for residents to connect with their property management team on issues they may have otherwise not reached out on proactively. It is hard to undermine the significance of good, solid communication in the world of property management, which is a “people” business at core.
There are many ways technology will continue to evolve in the future, augmenting different aspects of property management. But it is important to consider that the technologies that added significant business value during the pandemic by reducing some of the biggest pain points and friction are a significant part of the future and support teams to be increasingly successful. Getting on board with them now is more than a safeguard against the pandemic—it’s a commitment to being agile in a rapidly changing world and future.