In a flash, everything changed.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shelter-in-place orders and social distancing became the new way of life, onsite touring and in-person leasing activities came to almost an immediate stop. Apartment communities had to quickly embrace technologies that help prospects communicate with leasing teams remotely and trust technology to carry a lot of the burden that in-person lead nurturing once accomplished. Video chats with prospective renters became the order of the day, and apartment shoppers had to grow comfortable with the possibility of leasing a home before being able to see it in person.
These abrupt changes have many in the industry wondering what the future role of the leasing associate looks like, especially if a significant percentage of prospects remain leery of in-person visits after stay-at-home orders are lifted. Even before the coronavirus upended on-site operations, many apartment communities were embracing tools like self-guided tours, high-powered customer relationship management systems (CRMs), and chatbots to handle tasks associates used to manage.
Industry experts agree that times are changing for leasing associates. But they note that the rapport they build with prospects—no matter the medium through which that relationship is established—will remain critical to signing new leases.
“While there is ample technology to facilitate contact-free leasing, we continue to close prospects when a relationship has been built,” says Lee Bradford, vice president of operations and training for LMC. “Our leasing teams are vital in closing the deal.”
Adapting to the Coronavirus Era
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, LMC was largely able to rely on systems and technologies it already had in place to create the necessary electronic leasing environment, Bradford says.
“However, we have added a few enhancements,” she says. “We activated two-way text messaging with our residents to allow them to maintain conversations with our teams [with leasing offices closed]. In addition, we were already in the process of implementing a self-touring solution prior to COVID-19, and we took this opportunity to accelerate the launch.”
LMC already provided multiple touring options through various technology capabilities including 3D tours and chats, and its community websites have high-powered interactive maps that provide comprehensive overviews of the properties, all of which, in Bradford’s words, “instill a sense of confidence in leasing sight unseen.”
Overall, the transition has been a relatively smooth one, according to Bradford. Leasing associates have adjusted to the lack of in-person visits from prospects, and prospective renters and current residents were already used to interacting with LMC communities online before the pandemic hit, she points out.
“Prior to COVID-19, 98% of our applications were fully executed online, including application, payment, and lease execution,” Bradford says. “Our residents have long embraced our resident portal. Before the pandemic, we averaged 92% online payments and 74% online lease renewal execution. With the advent of social distancing, all payments are now submitted online or through electronic money order. Our resident portal has been a hub for communication with the office and an opportunity for our residents to build their own virtual relationships. We’ve hosted virtual movie nights, trivia, scavenger hunts, and talent shows.”
Additionally, LMC has been able to use its existing technologies and infrastructure—such as its access-control systems—to enable contact-free move-ins during the pandemic.
While the coronavirus era and its aftermath may increase the frequency of video calls, self-guided tours, and the like, leasing associates themselves will remain critical to a community’s leasing efforts, Bradford notes. The relationships they build with prospective residents are a crucial component of the sales process.
“Throughout the pandemic, focus on virtual and self-touring has risen,” she says. “We expect this trend will continue. However, communication will be key. Each lease we’ve captured has required a personal touch through relationship-building using text, chat, email, or phone conversations.”
An Acceleration of Established Trends
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the role of the leasing associate was already changing as operators began to use solutions such as self-guided tours, chatbots, and call centers to supplement some of the traditional responsibilities of leasing associates. These solutions give prospects a range of options in how they interact with communities, and chatbots and call centers also make sure prospects can communicate with a property 24/7. In addition, many operators were turning to sophisticated CRMs that provide automated communications with prospects and give leasing agents instructions and reminders about next steps to take with individual prospects.
The use of these various technologies to streamline associates’ responsibilities and the structure created by a CRM will result in a leasing associate becoming “more of someone who uses a scalpel as opposed to a broad sword,” says Todd Katler, CEO of Anyone Home.
“Today, we tend to see a broad sword technique: slashing at large groups of prospects to try and fill the next seven to 14 days of exposure,” he says. “As technology supplements the role of leasing agents and handles many of the top-of-the-demand-funnel activities, the role of the leasing agent will be to cultivate the journey of the prospect in a more specific way. The focus will be on taking the right action with the right prospect at the right time, as opposed to being focused on ‘who do I get to lease to this week?’ This will keep exposure lower and pricing higher as economic occupancy becomes more predictable.”
Looking ahead, one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be how it served as a catalyst to implementing new leasing technologies that enable prospects to have exactly the kind of experience they want to have, Katler says.
“Many of us who are involved in the single-family rental sector already saw this adoption of self-guided tours and other solutions happen. It happened because single-family operators simply could not afford to operate any other way,” Katler says. “Multifamily tends to be very slow to adopt, but COVID reduced the typical inhibitions. Multifamily operators will begin to more widely enable the notion of allowing a prospect to interact how and when they want to. Many operators currently don’t have the ability to respond to their leads 24/7 and have limited escalation paths. The combination of outsourcing, centralization and automation work together to provide continuity any time and in any way the customer chooses.”
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