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THE GOOD NEWS: The apartment industry experienced a rebound, setting new revenue highs in 2013. The bad news: The apartment industry experienced a rebound, setting new revenue highs in 2013. Regardless of the favorable economic outlook for apartment leasing, you still have to sell prospective residents on the value of your property; otherwise they’ll wander over to your competitors’ and take up residence before you can even file their customer guest card.
What are the most effective selling tools to turn an empty unit into a ‘No Vacancy’? Property management experts sound off on the best strategies they use to find—and sign—tenants.
GENERATING AN ONLINE STOREFRONT
Technology has all but killed traditional print advertisements for housing rentals. To get maximum exposure for your rental units today, it’s imperative to have an Internet presence, whether advertising your listings on a company site or search service, or using social media to reinforce your brand and respond to queries and referrals. At the most basic level, you need to have a detailed company or apartment website, according to Lisa Trosien, a multifamily housing consultant, speaker and blogger known as the Apartment Expert.
Not only does Chris Mockel, broker/owner of Topher Realty in Helena, Montana have a website, he has his own search tool. To promote his property management division, which includes more than 300 rental units in Clark County, he relies on a vacancy search engine marketing tool called LeasePads.com to advertise listings and generate new leads. “I refer to it as home base for all our website advertising,” he says. In addition, Mockel uses free online communities with a big presence like Craigslist—the 7th highest traffic site in America—to cast a wide net to increase sales. “Craigslist is the largest feed we use to advertise properties,” he adds. “Print advertising for rentals is pretty much considered dead.”
Jason Thomas, a rental agent and residential and commercial property manager for Roohan Realty in Saratoga Springs, New York, also takes advantage of unpaid advertising channels like Craigslist to promote vacancies. In addition, he harnesses his marketing reach through SaratogaRenter.com, a local rental search website he cofounded, as well as leveraging social media communities such as Facebook to get referrals from satisfied customers. “In addition to others posting rentals on my website, I post my own apartment listings. It gets me in front of a lot of others who are looking for an apartment. It also means more listings for people to check out. If the website has 50 to 60 listings, it creates value for those searching for an apartment, which is especially important in a small city,” says Thomas of his online resource.
In addition to unpaid search methods, many property managers partner with an Internet listing service (ILS), a paid search engine vehicle to advertise their properties on a national level for local lead impact. ILS sites are a major resource for driving traffic to rental websites and generating apartment leads, according to Trosien. ILS sites are cost effective and provide a bundle of features including mobile apps and tracking services with subscription-only fees, or cost-per-lead or cost-per-lease payment structures. Trosien recommends property managers who are not using popular ILS sites such as ApartmentGuide.com and Rent.com, get on them immediately to capture a critical supply of renters. “Combined with searches leading to a property’s website, they bring a lot of prospect traffic,” she says.
ANSWERING THE MOBILE CALL
Though it’s important that your website is easy to navigate and provides essential details about your rental properties, it’s also critical that it integrates with mobile technology so you can turn clicks into leads when prospective renters are on the go. To underscore the value of turning visitors into customers, in a 2012 Google survey titled What Users Want Most from Mobile Sites Today, 67% of respondents said that a mobile-friendly site makes them more likely to buy a product or use a service.
“Your online presence has to be mobile-ready. If a prospect is using a mobile device and goes to your website, but the site isn’t responsive, you’ve lost them,” says Trosien. “Prospective tenants are not going to accommodate you, you have to accommodate them.”
Mobile technology is also becoming an important tool on the closing end, as property managers are using tablets and other portable devices in conjunction with property management software to fill out guest cards and application forms, sign leases, and even help tenants hook up utilities, tackle other move-in tasks, and pay rent. “The paper guest card is passé,” Trosien adds.
It might be tempting to rest your laurels on flashy Internet enhancements like 360˚ virtual tours and interactive floor plans, but the rental business is a people business. Effective interpersonal customer service is critical in developing a positive selling relationship with prospective tenants, whether they are visiting the leasing office, calling from a smartphone, or rearranging pretend furniture on a computer screen.
Yet, many in the leasing business lack sufficient communication skills that are critical in keeping a prospect interested in a property, much less willing to sign a lease, according to Trosien. “It’s important to educate your staff in fair housing practices as well as selling techniques that relate to apartment-industry leasing,” she says. “It’s a skill set that is not innate.”
She recommends leasing agents actively listen and engage in conversation with a prospective tenant. “If a prospect calls your office, ask the person if they are looking at your company website right now. If so, walk the caller through the site and point out the features of your property.”
READ—AND EMBRACE—YOUR PRESS
Similar to the restaurant online review culture, apartment communities are subject to a well-publicized customer feedback forum where tenants rate and review properties using popular sites such as Yelp.com, ApartmentRatings.com, and ApartmentReviews.net to express their concerns and viewpoints.
The impact of mass public scrutiny—the good and the bad—is not always easy to measure, but in J Turner Research’s What Do Residents Want? Trends in Resident Technology & Communication Preferences 2012 report, 74% of respondents said review sites influenced their decision to rent an apartment at a particular property.
Many apartment communities leverage the sites with tracking software that alerts staff when a review is posted, but others view the online platform as a dirty-laundry venue for disgruntled tenants. Yet, property managers need to respond and learn from what’s posted online, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, advises Trosien.
IT’S A SIGN: OLD SCHOOL WORKS
Though there’s a major push to have a comprehensive Web presence and use integrated technology to gain the attention of apartment customers, some of the most basic, old-school methods still work to sell rental units. The word-of-mouth referral is one traditional strategy that Mockel employs to fill vacancies, mostly through membership to professional associations including the National Association of REALTORS, Montana Association of REALTORS, and Helena Association of REALTORS.
“We have a friendly and high-referral business through our memberships and work hand in hand with other property managers to find properties that would be a great match for our clients.” He is also a fan of putting up a ‘For Rent’ sign. “It drives 15% of our call-volume business. You can’t ignore that. People still like to drive neighborhoods and base their rental decisions on a drive-by and curb appeal. If you don’t have a yard sign, you will miss a portion of the aftermarket.”
A simple, in-person property tour has tremendous benefit in filling a vacancy too. “We personally show properties and never hand a key to a prospect. We always have someone attending to a potential tenant,” Mockel says. “This is vital for an experienced rental customer who will ask about the neighborhood and schools, and ask personal questions that relate to living in a particular property.”
The physical property, however, often gets lost in the high-tech marketing shuffle, even though it’s the most critical piece of the property-sales equation, according to the Pros. “A key factor is that a property has to be spotless,” Mockel says.
It’s essential that apartments and common areas appear freshly painted. Don’t skimp when turning units, but rather look for quality paint that holds its color and fresh appearance. Using current color trends and schemes in common areas is another way to convey how contemporary your property is.
Thomas agrees that the best selling point is the property itself: “Everything from the overall condition of the property to how good the lighting is to security measures is part of an effective selling technique.”
And that includes everything from impressions about the unit appearance to the finer points of the lease terms. “If you build a vanilla box, you do a disservice to potential customers. If you offer six different paint colors that tenants can choose from, you create value.”
Trosien adds that a successful rental experience includes a tour of a model apartment as well as giving the front office a makeover to help prospects envision living at your property. “Leasing offices are being reconfigured and getting face-lifts to resemble interactive retail environments like AT&T® and the Apple Store,” she says, “Not every property can afford them but putting an interactive customized kiosk in the sales office is another great resource that gets prospects involved in wanting to live at your property.”
HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT US?
With the unlimited options to target and reach rental prospects today, it can be dizzying trying to figure out where to place your sales efforts and to spend your marketing budget. Thomas realizes he has to evolve into the mobile arena, and is hoping to grow in that direction to save his employees time, and create convenience for renters in terms of expediting work orders and providing the ability to pay their rent electronically.
Mockel is actively building his social media network, starting with Facebook and LinkedIn, as a way to encourage customers to report positive experiences. He’s also evaluating mobile bar code technology that prospects scan from different advertising sources to access his website. “We’re still in the infant stage in the social media world,” he says.
Jumping on fast-moving tech trends is one way to attract renters, but it is only part of a successful sales formula. It’s also essential to assess whether your current tactics are working, and to determine if you are assigning the right dollars to marketing initiatives that will boost your return on investment, especially in the rental housing industry, since it relies heavily on multiple ad channels for sources.
Property managers use a number of tools to measure these efforts, like lead-generation software and metrics to track how prospects found their listing—via the Internet, email, iChat or the phone—and if they were able to convert sources into leases. While Mockel does get reports from his webmaster to collect vital search prospect stats and behaviors, he’s not a fan of lead-generation software. “No matter what, the call is a surprise and you are viewed as a telemarketer,” he says.
Regardless of the number of clicks, hits, and other tracking methods to document your sales trail, it comes down to job performance, according to the Montana realtor. “Our success is related to the fact that we do our job right and we do it well,” he says. “If you are not doing a good job, it doesn’t matter how great of a marketing campaign you have.”