Like other commercial real estate verticals, multifamily is quickly adopting technology and moving toward managing properties analytically. Real time data-driven decision making has become more important than ever as cap rates compress and sourcing deals becomes more difficult. In addition to modernizing back office processes, landlords are increasingly installing smart apartment technologies such as smart thermostats and access controls which are now expected amenities in Class A buildings.
One of the largest multifamily developers and managers is Cleveland-based The NRP Group. Since its founding in 1995, the company has developed and constructed well over 33,000 units in 13 states and currently manages more than 17,000 luxury, family and senior rental units. The NRP Group’s in-house capabilities include construction, property management, and investment services. Erick Waller, a Principal of the multifamily giant and president of its management division, agreed to pull back the curtain and help Propmodo’s readers understand how the company is integrating technology in its properties and business.
Propmodo: Automation can be great for operational efficiency, but the market is demanding more personalized services and authentic experiences. How do you balance the computer and human interfaces to your properties?
Waller: That’s always tricky. At The NRP Group, our belief is that technology exists to enhance communication, not replace it. Yes, millennials may prefer tech-assisted interaction, especially at the initial, information-gathering stage, but we also always give people, millennials and everyone else, the ability to have an interaction with a human if they want to.
On the property management and leasing side, those interactions are usually with prospective tenants, who are finding us through our property websites. Once they get there, a chat function pops up, enabling them to chat with a live person, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The interactions are simple. They are looking for a two-bedroom apartment and the chat function points them in the direction of availabilities and pricing. We also provide a phone number. For that we use a call center service called LevelOne, run by RealPage. At LevelOne, the skilled sales agents are instructed to pick up after two rings at most. No prospect ever has to leave a voicemail or message. LevelOne agents will engage the prospect to book an appointment to view the apartment.
That said, perhaps you live abroad and want to lease an apartment sight unseen. That’s also possible. In that case, you would browse the property website, virtually “walk through” apartments and common areas using 3D “dollhouse” renderings created by Matterport, then fill out an online application. Eighty-five percent of our apartment applications are filled out online. Prospects prefer it because it is so much more convenient. Once you pay the holding deposit by credit card, you can fill it out at your leisure sitting in bed at night. You can stop part way, then come back to it. You can also make modifications to the lease, for example, you can alter the holding deposit.
Then the ball is in our sales team’s court, to follow up on half-way filled out applications and with prospects who expressed interest. We use Yardi’s CRM (customer relations management) tool to track those follow-ups. The sales team gets automatically generated prompts to follow up by phone after a certain amount of time, and then prompts to follow up by email after more time has elapsed. It’s a tool that helps our associates maintain that personal touch and follow-through.
Propmodo: How many employees do you have around the country?
Waller: NRP Management, which is one of The NRP Group’s three business lines, employs 472 employees.
Propmodo: How do you try and maintain a culture with a workforce as large and spread out as NRP’s?
Waller: Part of it is definitely hiring the right people, who easily embrace the values of our high-performing culture because they are ambitious, high-performing people. That said, we also work hard, using a variety of tools to maintain our culture, and training is a big part of it.
The first line of defense are our amazing Associate Ambassadors, employees who have been with us a long time who assist with onboarding new associates. An Ambassador will systematically check in with a new hire during their first few months on the job, answering their questions about NRP best practices and assisting with any potential issues.
We also organize a lot of events and opportunities for employees from various parts of the country to get together. It’s always part training, part fun. For example, for our maintenance staff and groundskeepers, we’ll have a scheduled training, then surprise everyone with a truck giving away Red Wing shoes for the group. We do both smaller, regional events for employees and also a once-a-year national two-day summit meeting for our property managers, focusing on continued education and leadership training with guest keynote speakers too.
Propmodo: The teams that you put together around properties seem to be a big factor in your success. What are some of the ways that you find great employees and what do you offer to keep the good ones on?
Waller: We have a branded program called the Associate Enrichment program. We chart each employee’s career growth path and prepare employees for promotion by outlining what skills they still need to add to their repertoire to achieve the next level.
We also run an employee recognition platform, on a mobile app called Achievers, that lets associates recognize each other for stellar performance by granting both points, that translate to shopping dollars in an online store, and/or social recognition. This has been a real boost to NRP’s ability to reach associates in the field and promote their excellent performance. For instance, recently we had an employee who was celebrating his 10th anniversary with NRP, so he was awarded 50,000 points, but then many senior managers logged in and “boosted” him, the equivalent of Facebook “likes,” and his points went from 50,000 to 100,000.
Managers get a certain allotment and then redistribute them in recognition of all kinds of property management-related occurrences: a sales team that has a great leasing week, a property faced with a tough situation whose team dealt with it well, any evidence of going that extra mile for residents and coworkers.
Propmodo: How has technology helped in managing a large workforce?
Waller: We have a training program called NRP Learn which utilizes online training courseware designed for the property management industry as its backbone, and then we customize it. The program teaches you for whatever you need in your role, compliance, leasing or Yardi.
Based on employee feedback, we’ve created something called the Next Day Program, a training outline for the first 90 days on the job. The minute someone is hired, we have a pre-set learning curriculum for them. A groundskeeper will have a 3-hour curriculum, while a property manager might have a 27-hour one, depending on their seniority level.
Property management is a series of checks and balances. We have logs for everything, tool logs, snow logs, preventative maintenance logs. These used to all be stored in either Excel or on paper, in binders. Our goal by 2019 is to have every piece of information uploaded and mobile, rather than in those binders. We’ve already developed our own in-house software solution that integrates the various off-the-shelf software we use, and we’re constantly adding functionality to it.
Propmodo: What cultural characteristics have you noticed in your younger employees and what have you done to address them?
Waller: I wouldn’t dwell on differences between younger employees or older ones. Regardless of whether you are a millennial or three decades into your career, you want to know if you are moving in the right direction in your career, whether you are making progress and understanding your career growth. As a responsible employer, it’s important to communicate, to show the path forward in an employee’s career, and to keep them engaged every step of the way.
Propmodo: What are some of the trends we will see going forward in multifamily?
The multifamily property management start-up space is crowded, with lots of entrepreneurs jostling to figure out how to make life easier for apartment owners and managers like us, and for residents. We love that but it keeps us busy. My colleagues at The NRP Group are constantly evaluating dozens of tech tools and apps, trying to figure out which will integrate well with our in-house systems, which will be most helpful and pleasing to residents, and which have the most staying power for them.
One of the tech tools our residents are currently is Package Concierge. This package room system allows a resident to have 24-hour access to larger parcel packages, the ones they would miss out on by not being home. The resident receives an email or text message that they received a package and can retrieve it at their convenience. No more wondering if the package containing sensitive and valuable items arrived on time.
We also are accommodating residents in everyday travel needs, including by offering community transit screens. This television monitor is designed to give residents the ability to have real time information on when the next bus, train or even Uber is expected to be at its designated drop-off spot.
At our Pittsburgh property, Edge 1909, we are testing are custom tech packages including Nest Thermostats, Google Home, Phillips Hue Lights, and Sonos audio, inside apartment homes, in order to give residents more and more control at their fingertips. The smart home integration movement is here and NRP is well in front of that demand to provide the experience our residents crave. Nest in particular not only gives residents the ability to control temperature settings from anywhere but is proven to reduce average energy usage on a yearly basis.
Finally, we are beta-testing Yardi Concierge in one of our Cleveland properties, The Edison at Gordon Square, which residents can use for things like reserving the club room and paying for the rental fee. Other apps we’ve been looking at are dog-sitter apps and roommate matching apps, knowing these are of high importance to our residents.