The leasing process has changed considerably since the outset of the pandemic. Marketing, online engagement, touring and follow-up have taken up new tact.
It’s time for the mystery shopping scoring process to be given a fresh look.
That was the message from leading apartment trainers during “Take a Journey Through the Eyes of Renter,” a webinar produced as part of the AIM Conference webinar series discussed strategy with Jessica Fern, Director of Training and Development, FPI Management; Joy Zalaznick, Director of Training and Development, Kettler Enterprises; and moderator Darcey Forbes, Senior Director of Field Sales, Grace Hill.
“The shop score should be more about looking at the prospective residents’ experience when shopping for apartments,” Fern says. “How was the human interaction? That’s critical, because in today’s leasing environment, our teams are wearing masks, they are using videos, the way they communicate to prospects is different. You don’t capture all of that in just one score. With traditional apartment shops, you are not able to see any of this action going on behind the scenes.”
Fern says it’s time to move on from operating in a score culture. “Too many of us have grown up, and gone through all our lives and careers being evaluated. One number should not determine an associate’s fate, and it shouldn’t reflect whether that leasing professional is capable of doing their job. There’s too much weight is put on that one number. The person is not the score.”
Fern spoke of a time when she and others received perfect shopping scores. “You see them being recognized at company meetings, they walk on stage, they are presented a certificate … ‘Hey, I passed a test! But, do I get a raise?’” Not usually.
The Comfort of Technology
Forbes spoke strategies for delivering the tours.
“We need to meet our customers on their terms; connecting in a way that makes them comfortable. People are more comfortable with technology today, anyway, and that comfort is only increasing.”
One tech-based, growing, effective approach to setting tours are website chat bots. The bot is a recognized online conversation window made available to website visitors, and are programmed to provide answers to basic questions prospects ask. Best of all, these bots are available and operational 24/7.
Fern says they are a valuable form of technology, but that “technology should not be implemented as a substitute for a human. Instead, it should be used to enhance human interaction.”
Zalaznick says recent results from research firm Betterbot show that during a three-month period, 60 percent of prospects who engage in online interactions set appointments. At one community, chat-bot engagement was directly credited for getting five signed leases.
“We like to think of bots as automatic door openers,” Fern says.
Zalaznick says bots have led to a culture change for her employees.
“The leasing staff has to become more aware of our community and its features, looking up the right information to program the bots,” she says.
Fern agrees. “You need to hold your team accountable for not just what they know, but what they understand.”
Zalaznick says Kettler recognizes that the number of guided tours being conducted is falling. Kingsley resident surveys show that 80 percent of prospective residents prefer self-guided tours and that they can be 86 percent more effective. Entrata just posted that 27,000 self-guided tours have taken place since the pandemic.
Kettler is offering alternatives to staff-guided tours meet residents’ preferences.
- Self-guided digital tours: Prospects take them on their own using a digital platform with very little interaction with the staff.
- Self-guided non-digital tours: Prospects take them on their own with very little interaction with the staff.
- Virtual online tours: Prospects tour with the leasing professional as both share a platform and engage during the tour.
- Virtual in-store tours: Prospects are provided virtual reality (VR) devices such as headsets that simulate the community during lease-ups through renderings. This approach also can be used in cases of high occupancy when there are very limited empty units to show and during housing fairs.
Keeping It Clean
These COVID-19 circumstances have made communities’ onsite staffs work harder when it comes to preparing their apartment homes for touring, Fern says.
“We have to be continually touching up the place,” she says. “We want those perfect vacuum lines, make sure that no closets are left open. It can’t look like anyone has been in there.”
Forbes says apartment communities should sanitize the spaces toured after each prospect to give prospects that comfort of knowing the space has been sanitized and cleaned.
Says Zalaznick, “When residents are going on self-guided tours, the leasing professional is not there to correct or distract them from anything that looks off in the apartment. These prospective renters have so much more autonomy when doing their tours. You can’t simply put your foot over a stain in the rug: It’s going to be seen and it’s going to stand out.”
Fern says insist on regular, routine cleaning, “You never want it to look like someone had been living there, because people are more aware of hygiene these days.”
“Remember, this is probably the first time the prospect has set foot on your community – you don’t want it to be the last time because they felt frustrated,” Fern says.
And, after reviewing customer research, leasing teams can adjust their tour process. For example, if they find some of their prospects are getting lost on the tour, they can adjust their directions or even the tour path itself. Prospects should be given maps of the property, but they must be marked clearly and have easy and recognizable guideposts.
“Being lost is so uncomfortable and it definitely will make it harder for them to say ‘Yes’ to living at your community,” Fern says. “Remember, this is probably the first time the prospect has set foot on your community. They don’t know where anything is. Being lost is so uncomfortable and it definitely will make it harder for them to say ‘Yes’ to living at your community. You don’t want it to be the last time they visit you because they felt frustrated.”
Training, Practice, Improve
Customer research from video recordings of mystery shops using a platform such as Grace Hill's product Validate provides opportunities for staff members to grow and develop their skills. Managers can use them as a teaching tool, pointing out speaking tone, attitude and if they were conducted without hiccups. These are important characteristics that won’t transfer onto a traditional score.
Zalaznick says she trains her staff by holding one-on-one, face-to-face shop reviews between the manager and leasing agent.
“You never want the shops to be perceived as punitive,” Forbes adds.
Zalaznick doesn’t reveal the score with the associate until the end of the meeting.
“I celebrate the things they’ve done well, and don’t just dwell on things that need to be corrected,” she says. “One important aspect is whether the leasing agent was able to build rapport with the prospect? If they are capable of that, the rest can be practiced, worked on and adjusted.”
Fern says the entire onsite team can learn from the shops. Then, like in athletic competition, show up for practice the next day “and remember it’s never one person who wins the game or one person who loses the game. It’s a team effort all around,” she says.
Finally, deliver effective follow-up.
“Leasing teams hear so often that they don’t do enough follow-ups,” Fern says. And Zalaznick insists that the follow-up include something “unforgettable” about the tour.
“Never do them just to check the box,” she says. “Before following up, ask yourself what the purpose of the follow-up is.”
Here is the replay: