May 03 2024

The competition for resident loyalty has never been greater. Renter expectations are rapidly evolving, it’s a daunting task to keep up. 

This Forum panel featured executives championing an excellent customer experience through implementing elements of the new operating model. Noah Echols, VP of Customer Experience, The RMR Group; Susan Goff, VP of Property Marketing, Lantower Residential; Brandon Gaeta, Director of Operations, Morgan Properties; and Laurel Zacher, VP of Marketing + Customer Engagement, Security Properties discussed how given current multifamily headwinds competing for renters through providing an excellent customer experience is essential.

In a conversation moderated by Sara Graham, they shared that onsite teams often feel overwhelmed trying to meet the increasing demands of their residents using the same processes built for the pre-pandemic renter. And at the same time, many multifamily leaders are grappling with creating new, streamlined workflows, both to support their property teams and enhance the customer experience. 

Keep reading to learn from four industry leaders on how centralization, technology and AI influence the customer experience — for the better. 

Renter-centric CRM and a focus on saving renters time increased customer retention by 15%

In 2019, The RMR Group (formerly CARROLL) — a leading U.S. alternative asset management company, with 28,000 units across the sunbelt — recognized the need for centralized roles, Noah and his team set out to streamline operations and increase their lead-to-tour ratio. Their first step down this path was with a property-centric CRM. They quickly found that property-centric data architecture inhibited the centralized workflows they were hoping to achieve. They quickly switched to a renter-centric CRM in 2023 and set about optimizing every aspect of the customer journey. 

Their initial foray into centralization focused on a contact center at the top of the funnel, tasked with managing leads and inquiries. “A light bulb moment for me was this belief that we have in this industry that the relationship between the leasing consultant and the resident is vitally important — think it’s really wrong,” said Echols. What The RMR Group learned through their surveys is renters value their time more than anything else. “If we can build processes that give them their time back, remove friction, make it easy for them to help themselves in whatever way. We win,” says Echols. “…Understanding it and then convincing the rest of the company to believe that as well has been really eye-opening for us and is dictating how we prioritize customer experience projects going forward. It’s all about giving back time to the customer.”

As a result of changes like these, The RMR Group’s retention rates increased by 15% despite average retention rates remaining around 50% for the industry. They achieved their initial goal of increasing lead-to-visit ratios too. They pushed them from ~25% to upwards of 40%. 

As a part of their centralization journey, The RMR Group also shifted its incentive structure. “The downstream impact was surprising to me,” said Echols. “This stat around customer retention and renewals is that our visit to app increased pretty significantly.” Instead of incentivizing lagging metrics — like getting a new lease signed — they now incentivize the little steps along the renter journey that tend to influence the renewal stage. 

Centralization can be daunting to begin. However, the efficiencies and customer experience benefits are worth it. No two companies approach the new operating model the same way. “The single best thing you can do today or as soon as you get back to the office is if you don’t already have it, figure out how to collect data around your customer,” says Echols. “What do they care about? How can you continuously collect and analyze that data? Because that’s going to point you in the direction you need to go. It’s going to tell you when you fail, it’s going to tell you what tools you need to implement.”

Driving a proactive customer experience versus reactive customer service

Susan Goff, VP of Property Marketing, Lantower Residential — a 7,900 unit portfolio primarily focused in the Sunbelt region — shared her insights into their journey towards centralization. 

Goff underscored the distinction between customer service and customer experience. She advocated for a proactive, branded approach that anticipates and meets customer needs at every step of their journey: customer experience. Versus a reactive approach which she distinguished as customer service, not customer experience. “If we’re always looking at service or even using that word service, we get a little bit of apathy towards what that means to create an entire experience,” says Goff. 

Centralization emerged as a pivotal strategy for Lantower Residential, streamlining operations and enhancing responsiveness. By centralizing their operations (consolidating back-end functions) and layering on a renter-centric CRM and AI solution, Lantower saw a remarkable 20% increase in response speed to customers. 

However, Goff acknowledged the challenges inherent in such a transformative endeavor. To begin their centralization journey they started with back-end admin tasks, and then moved into the leasing side. At the end of 2023, Goff remembers stating “I think we’ve made it really easy for people to move out and very hard for them to rent with us, and we have to swap that. I want it easy to live here.”

Their goal: The least amount of touch points and, and follow up or, or actual user clicks to get to us. “We need to meet them where they are,” says Goff. She emphasized the importance of training, and the ripple effects that can impact your customer experience if one thing goes wrong like changing the naming convention on a floor plan. The spider web of impacts across different platforms is truly felt by the customer. “Communicating the expectations and the standards that we have, whether that’s for your, your brand approach, having that unified tone of voice, that partnership, those are key elements to providing that seamless customer experience,” says Goff. 

She also encourages companies to not just think of centralization as something to promote internally, but market the benefits to your renters as well, because they saw in their data how customer satisfaction increased after centralizing. “Promote centralization as a benefit of living in your community because it’s not just the people that are at Lantower Waverly that are taking care of you, it’s everyone,” says Goff. 

The results: 

  • Before centralizing in 2023, Lantower’s average customer satisfaction score was 3.93. 
  • In 2024, after centralizing, that number increased to 4.11. 
  • The volume of reviews increased by 25%, ratings increased by 5%. 

Security Properties increased lead to lease, with 6% fewer leads

Laurel Zachar, the Vice President of Marketing and Customer Engagement at Security Properties, a Seattle-based NMHC top 50 owner and operator, and one of The 2024 Best Places To Work In Multifamily® and The 2023 Best Places To Work In Multifamily® For Women. Security’s portfolio ranges from Class A luxury high-rises to more affordable garden-style communities.

In terms of their approach to customer experience, Security prides itself in meeting renters where they’re at. “When they’re ready to connect with us, no matter how they want to do it, no matter where they want to do it, no matter what time they want to do it, we also want to make it easy,” says Zacher.

Because of this approach to providing optionality for renters, Security added AI to their operating model to give their teams a hand and ensure that every lead was worked in an intentional, consistent manner. “They’re [teams] also not great at responding and they are not working 24 hours a day. Two things that the AI does and is happy to do.” says Zacher. “That’s what the AI does best and it’s going to do it 24 hours a day, regardless of holidays and somebody being sick at home and it’s just going to work all the time, but its role is making sure that it’s driving people to tour.”

To start this process, they did a seven-month pilot, and the results were outstanding: 

  • 54% percent lift in incoming leads to tours that were getting set up at the top of funnel with 6% fewer leads. 
  • 13% increase in lead to lease compared to communities that weren’t using Funnel’s AI. 

For some communities, Zacher and team found that the AI solution sent in fewer, but higher quality leads. For all of these sites, they saw greater conversions and higher volume year-over-year. “They were leasing more and spending less doing it year-over-year, both compared to the same store numbers and compared to the rest of the portfolio that’s on the Funnel and doesn’t have AI working for it,” said Zacher. “Those numbers blew us away.”

Outperforming cross-sell rates through centralization

Brandon Gaeta Director of Operations for Morgan Properties — a 93,000-unit owner-operator, that is ranked #3 on the NMHC top 50 list and based out of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania — shared about their three-year journey toward the new operating model and other operational changes they’ve made to meet customers needs with greater efficiency. 

Morgan has a group of communities leveraging Funnel that operate in a fully centralized capacity. “One of the benefits is that it’s given us years’ worth of information to look at and to really dissect and understand what the performance of a centralized sales team would look like in our very specific use case,” says Gaeta. 

Because of their focus on centralization for these communities, and cross-selling sister communities, they have a very high cross-selling rate. 36% of renters who inquired at one Morgan community using Funnel, signed a lease at another community within the portfolio. For reference, the Funnel average for this data point is 15%. Some operators, like Morgan, benefit from both the geography of their portfolio and operational changes to drive this metric higher. This enables Morgan to not spend marketing resources on the same leads twice, while hitting their occupancy goals and other important success metrics. 

Like many operators, they’re trying to meet renter needs while operating with utmost efficiency. In the past two years, they’ve seen 60% of their applications come from renters who have never seen the apartment. Because of this success, they’ve turned off self-scheduled tours with some of their sources, but left self-scheduling available for the most highly effective channels.

“I didn’t realize how little [as an industry] we know about our customer,” says Gaeta. “A huge focus for us going forward is trying to figure out how to learn about our customer, how to truly ensure that everybody across the organization has visibility to the customer and the employee journey and then optimize as best we can.” By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and innovation, Morgan Properties remains poised to thrive in an ever-evolving market landscape. 

Nothing is more important than the renter

The old myth that centralization efficiencies come at the expense of the customer experience has been put to rest. Each of these companies has data-backed evidence to prove the opposite: with the new operating model, you can have your cake and eat it too.