6 tech-based “shelter-in-place” resident engagement strategies
As stressful and chaotic as these past few weeks have been, imagine them without technology. Yikes. Technology (especially communication-based) has become the crutch, the lifeline for almost every human interaction during this crisis. Newscasters are able to report from their home offices, co-workers can conduct virtual meetings, friends can stay social with video calls, the list goes on. Thankfully, the way we experience technology has evolved 1000+ fold since the last pandemic. We rely on intuitive, quick, and personalized platforms to sustain a sense of normalcy and productivity. And the companies that are prioritizing virtual customer communications are thriving, leaving those who fail to keep up in their dust.
As a property management company, you’ve got to keep your tech in check. Your residents (especially Millennials and Gen Z who now make up over 50% of renters nationwide), have been conditioned to lose patience for clunky, slow, or outdated software. Social distancing isn’t coming to an end any time soon. Fine-tune your tech stack with the best resident engagement tools, and then put them to work!
1. Optimize your mobile app
You don’t have to be on TikTok, but you have to meet your residents where they are. With our world rapidly changing from day-to-day, property managers are feeling the pressure to constantly communicate with their residents. Whether you’re relaying important property health and safety updates, or announcing a new package management system to reduce physical contact, or notifying the community of temporarily reduced leasing office hours to keep on-site managers safe, a mobile-first, user-friendly app has become a crucial communication tool.
According to a survey by comScore Media, adults in almost every age bracket spend more time using mobile apps over mobile-optimized websites or desktop computers. In fact, “mobile apps account for 57% of all digital media usage, and smartphone apps alone capture more than half of digital media time spent.” And undoubtedly, communities with a mobile app tend to see higher digital payment adoption than those without.
Research conducted for Zego by Martec, a third-party firm, found that 46% of residents said they would use a mobile app to make their rent payment if they had the option available to them. According to a survey by Deloitte, the average American checks their smartphone approximately 52 times per day. The point is, let them pay rent while their thumbs are already working overtime.
Real estate investment firm, S2 Capital, saw a 27% increase in digital rent payments after implementing a community app. Lincoln Properties, one of the top 50 multifamily companies in the US, has a 72% adoption rate of digital payments largely because of their mobile app.
To achieve max-efficiency, your mobile app should check off each of these boxes:
- Searchable: It should be easy for your residents to find and download in the Apple App Store, Google Play, the Galaxy Store, etc.
- Synchronized: The look and feel of your app should be cohesive with your community’s brand identity.
- Secure: Provide residents with a simple, one-click mobile payment option for their rent and utilities that meets PCI data security standards and is protected by SSL encryption.
- Seamless: Communicate with residents on their terms via in-app messaging and SMS capabilities for one-on-one conversations, and a community feed for broadcast announcements.
One app to rule it all
If you have multiple apps to manage different functions, critical messages could get lost or overlooked. Residents will tune you out if they have too many push notifications coming at them from all directions. Consolidating all of your community functions into one app allows them to manage all aspects of their living experience easily and effectively from one place. While mobile payments should be a staple component of your app, it shouldn’t be the only feature. For residents, it’s about consolidation. For property managers, it’s about automation. Having a single, and robust community app will help you manage various manual tasks much more efficiently.
To create the best experience for your residents, provide them with the tools that connect them to each other, your community, and you:
- Package Management: Quickly check a new package into the mobile app to automatically notify the resident.
- Amenity Reservations: Allow residents to easily reserve on-site amenities, like party rooms, the clubhouse, barbecues, and more.
- Digital Marketplace Services: Grow revenue through customizable local and national partnership deals, with convenient access to services like carpet cleaning, dog walkers, and more.
- Integrated Work Orders: Access and update maintenance requests via the app.
- Pet, Vehicle & Visitor Registration: Let residents request approval in-app for visitors, pets, or vehicles.
- Smart Tech: Give your residents the power to control all of their smart home devices from a single app.
2. Optimize your website
A fast, user-friendly website has never been more important. For prospective tenants, visiting a property to tour a unit and submit their application payment is probably not an option right now. If you have vacant units, will potential renters be able to easily navigate your website and make a deposit digitally? Your website is likely the first place they will look for information. And as they say, you only get one chance to make a great first impression. In addition to being mobile-responsive, quick-to-load and easy-to-navigate, your homepage should include a link to your payment portal above the fold (the portion of your website that is visible without having to scroll).
“I remember years ago when people would tell me – nobody will ever rent an apartment without looking at it – but now people do that all the time. They’re on our website in the middle of the night. They’re looking at pictures or virtual floor plans… they’ve paid the application fee, they’ve picked out their apartment and that’s again just sort of expediting the process and driving efficiency in the office.”
“Collecting the application payments online 24/7, whether our office is open or not, really was a differentiator for us in the marketplace, and really was a way to make the application process even easier for residents. And that went hand in hand with [the] advent of total online leasing.” – Diane Caton, Executive Vice President MSC
Digital payment utilization doubles when residents submit their application payment digitally. It is vital that your application portal and payment portal are easy to locate and integrate seamlessly with your website.
There are two ways to visibly promote your payment portal on your website.
- Add it to your toolbar at the top of the page. Your link copy should be an obvious phrase like; “Make a Payment” or “Resident Portal.”
- To increase awareness, have your web designer place a “Pay Now” button somewhere above the fold on your homepage and hyperlink it to your payment portal.
3. Send consolidated e-statements with dynamic messaging
Increasing rent might not be an option in the coming months, so managing expenses is going to be the key to maintaining and improving NOI. Utility prices are bound to fluctuate with everyone stuck inside their homes for months. Charging a flat fee for utilities could erode your bottom line. Use your best judgement during this sensitive time, but if you can recoup utility costs from residents, the best way to do that is with a comprehensive statement. When you combine rent, utility charges, and ancillary fees onto one statement, you not only benefit from recouped expenses, but also a more streamlined collection process.
“We’ve had different partners in the past… who mailed out paper bills to residents and then they initiated payments to us, which really was a setback in terms of automation, because that just means you have double the number of payments to process, because essentially every resident has to pay their rent and then they also have to pay their utilities.”
“One of the great benefits of having Zego as a partner on the payments side and also the utility side, has been the ability to make sure that the charges are posted to the resident ledgers. By the time we’re running rent up and the rent charges are posted, the utility charges are already there for the prior month, and then the variable AutoPay captures all of that, and then the payment comes to us before the late fee date.” – Diane Caton, Executive Vice President of MSC
As a long-time Zego client, Wehner Multifamily had gained tremendous operational efficiencies by automating rent payments. So in order to motivate more residents to pay digitally, they implemented Resident Billing to combine rent and utilities onto one statement, allowing residents the ability to pay for both charges in one effortless digital transaction.
Wehner now recoups the maximum allowable amount of utility costs from their residents, and digital payment utilization has increased 94% as a result . Acquisition Specialist, Juan Leyva, commented “residents now have all of their property and utility charges in one statement, they pay them all at once and it’s made online payment adoption increase”
Boutique Apartments used Zego Utility Resident Billing to help streamline their payment process. Their prior vendor could only send their residents separate bills, one for their rent and one for utilities. But by implementing a billing solution, Boutique Apartments’ residents now receive one invoice with all of their applicable charges – rent, utilities, and any ancillary fees – that can be paid in one digital transaction. Because of this tactic, their utilization rate is currently over 200%.
“Recovering those costs from residents is more streamlined and has even led to more on-time payments because residents pay rent and utilities at the same time.” – Jennifer Howard, CFO Boutique Apartments
Take advantage of the many benefits of convergent billing:
- Boost collections and simplify billing when residents pay their entire monthly balance in one digital transaction.
- Conservation efforts are an expected pillar of the modern business model. Consumption-based utility billing is a great way to promote your community’s “Green” initiatives. Residents are incentivized to conserve when they are held financially accountable for their individual usage. Along the same green lines, you can encourage residents to turn off paper billing and switch to e-statements only.
- Use dynamic messaging to customize your resident statements based on where they are in their lease lifecycle. This allows you to promote your initiatives (ie: welcome to the community, download our mobile app, refer friends and get rewarded, pay rent & utilities digitally, renew your lease, etc).
Here are a few examples of the dynamic messages our customers use on their statements:
4. Communicate on their terms
Resident satisfaction is imperative during this time of turbulence, and will continue to be a top priority for multifamily owners and operators in the coming months. Effective communication is a key factor in resident engagement and retention. Exceptional service during the initial leasing process isn’t enough anymore. Residents often suffer a general lack of communication from the moment they are handed the keys until move-out day. In fact, 17% of turnover is due to residents being unhappy with their community manager. Don’t let poor resident communication efforts hinder your bottom line. Have open lines of communication via the following 5 channels, and interact with residents through whichever method they most prefer:
- SMS/text messaging
- In-app messaging
- Phone call
- In person
If your office doesn’t have 24/7 coverage, find a payment provider who does. Just in case your residents want to set up an account, reset their password, or need help making a payment – pick a provider with a resident support team reachable via phone or email, day or night 24/7/365.
5. Schedule automatic rent reminders
Is it just us, or are the days starting to blend together because we barely leave our houses anymore? Our normal schedules have been thrown out the window. Days feel like weeks, weeks feel like months, and March felt like an entire year. Set up automatic rent reminders so your residents don’t forget the 1st of the month is approaching. Or if your management company has been gracious enough to set up unique payment plans for residents who need a little extra time, customized rent reminders could help keep them on track.
Best-in-class payment providers will link your accounting software to their rent reminder program. This integration allows the system to automatically send an email, text, or push notification (depending on preference) to residents whose ledgers show a balance due. The integration will block reminders from being sent to those who have already paid. After turning on automatic rent reminders for their residents, our clients saw average utilization jump to over 60% portfolio-wide.
These digital rent reminder emails and texts should include a tokenized link to your payment portal. Here are a few rent reminder samples we provide for our customers:
6. Run resident contests
Contests are an effective way to stay connected to your residents while boosting digital payment adoption. Top management companies host annual or bi-annual AutoPay contests (depending on their rate of resident turnover). But now might be the time to expedite this initiative. Set it up so that any resident who initiates an AutoPay during the timeframe of the contest is entered to win a $250 Visa gift card, or a percentage off of their next month’s rent, etc. Not only does this show off your generosity, and help residents who may be struggling during this time, but this type of contest also typically delivers a 10-30% uptick in digital payment adoption. Even if they’re not payment-based, you can utilize resident contests to maintain a sense of connection and community.
Here a few alternative ideas if contests aren’t in your wheelhouse:
Resident rewards program
NAA interviewed Stephanie Puryear Helling of Greystar about their resident incentive program, “if a resident completes certain activities, such as renewing their lease or paying rent online, they can obtain point values toward various incentives. The program engages our residents and incentivizes them to participate in online, paperless activities.”
One-time payment contests
Gina Carter of Blue Ridge said “we’re going to offer incentives, such as if you pay your rent online during the month of May, you’ll be entered in a drawing where you can win $500 or free rent for one month, depending on the community.”
Tokens of appreciation
Reward those who always pay on time, never have an issue, and are respectful of your property with a small token of your appreciation such as a Starbucks gift card or a bottle of wine. They won’t expect it, but will love you for it. As they say, excellence is in the details.
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