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How The Franklin Johnston Group adapted their multifamily operations during the pandemic

How to adapt your multifamily operations through the use of technology to improve the resident experience during the pandemic. A fireside chat with The Franklin Johnston Group.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on resident communication and engagement for multifamily operators like never before. We wanted to understand how multifamily operations during the pandemic have been affected and how operators are coping. We sat down (virtually) with Angie Lombardi, VP of Marketing for The Franklin Johnston Group, to talk about how they’ve pivoted to address the new challenges that come with stay-at-home orders caused by the pandemic.

The conversation centers around building a resident engagement strategy that leverages technology, a necessity during social distancing. In the interview transcript below, you’ll learn how the Franklin Johnston Group is using PropTech to adapt their multifamily operations during the pandemic, and build genuine, sustained connections with their residents.

From Zego, our interviewer was Danny Soule, Director of Sales, who has a wealth of industry knowledge from 15 years in the multifamily space. Our interviewee, Angie Lombardi, has been involved in the multifamily industry for 12 years, and with the Franklin Johnston Group for 2 years. What made her the perfect panelist for this session is her wealth of marketing, leasing, and resident engagement knowledge. She also has a background working for the CoStar Group in the Apartments.com division, giving her a unique perspective from both the vendor and technology side as well as the owner/operator side.

How to keep multifamily operations running smoothly during the COVID-19 pandemic

Danny: Let’s dive right in, Angie. With the topic being technology and engagement, it would behoove us to go ahead and call out the obvious. And that is – that everything changed about 90 days ago in our world. So to look at this, and not view it under the COVID-19 lens would be a disservice. Everything we’re talking about is going to be around how operators and marketers are reacting to the COVID environment, applying technology, and utilizing that to continue to operate in this “new normal” that we now find ourselves in.

To sort of set the stage for that, Angie, what I’m very interested in is, from a facilities standpoint and a staffing standpoint – what was Franklin Johnston’s approach to the pandemic (as far as keeping your office open, staffing, maintenance requests, and things of that nature)? Can you give us a high-level overview of [how your multifamily operations have been affected during the pandemic] and how your organization reacted to that?

Angie: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a great question. I think you certainly can’t talk about leasing and marketing in the multifamily world without, like you said, addressing COVID. Because it did change on a dime, overnight. Pretty much for us, you know, being on-site is very important. Having someone on our team in the communities was very important to us. While also recognizing that with schools closed, people’s worlds changed with that as well. Having to find either daycare or do homeschooling. So there were a lot of challenges.

Not just of trying to lease an apartment community, but how do we run our multifamily operations during the pandemic when we have people that have families, that have to take care of them and worry about their safety as well. So we did pretty much close our offices, and when I say “pretty much,” I mean we closed to the public (to residents and prospective residents) – doors locked.

However, we did try to have at least one site team staff member indoors, and a site team member outside. [We had] a maintenance team [member] at the community at least Monday through Friday, nine to five or six PM, in case something did arise. Or in case a resident really had to talk to somebody in person, or a prospect was not comfortable with a virtual tour and really insisted on visiting the property in person.

And of course, we put protocols in place. We had three face masks (with our logos on it) shipped to every single employee in our company. Face shields went along with those for the maintenance teams. So we really tried to make sure that there were protocols in place, and that they kept a social distance if somebody had to do a tour in-person.

We would walk with them, open the door, let them go in, kind of self-tour, and then come back out and walk back to the leasing office. And with maintenance, it was all pretty much by request [for an] emergency (not if they had a lightbulb out or something like that). It had to be pretty significant. But we did have, again, protocols in place, safety gear, and the resident and staff sign-off that they were not sick and that they didn’t have any symptoms – that sort of thing.

Danny: That’s fantastic.

Angie: We did stop package receivables, too. So that was another challenge. We had to make sure our residents knew – if you have a package on the way, let us know and we’ll get it to you. But once we really shut off deliveries, we had to make sure that they knew from that point forward they had to make other arrangements.

Going all-in on virtual tours – what works the results

Danny: Got it, and I’d love to unpack that part of it shortly here in the conversation. But let’s actually take a step back, and let’s look closer at your multifamily operations during the pandemic. Specifically, the way you operated and utilized technology in a systematic way. Going through the leasing and resident lifecycles. So let’s double click on the leasing side of things.

You said that there were some people that still showed up that wanted to do in-person tours. I also imagine there were people who wanted to view a property without having to physically step foot on it. Can you walk us through some of the tools and the procedures you put in place to maintain some semblance of leasing momentum these past few months?

Angie: Sure and, of course, COVID hit when you expect your leasing velocity (your traffic) to increase. We don’t have complete seasonality here, because we do have [residents in the] military. So we still have some people moving in and out at times where you wouldn’t expect it. However, this was the time, right? This is the time where you expect to be, you know, running around with your hair on fire.

So we really did have to (on the dime, overnight) figure out how we could train our site teams to do virtual tours. [With] some site teams, luckily, we were a few steps ahead. And some of our communities already had some virtual touring software that they were using and were comfortable with. So that really gave me a little sense of confidence to say, “Hey, I know they can do it.” Our other teams are already doing it. I knew the platform, so it really was not as hard to roll out as I thought.

Danny: So did you just scale that solution across [all your multifamily operations during the pandemic], or did you have to evaluate additional technology on the fly?

Angie: We had to evaluate additional technology on the fly. Because as you can imagine, well I’ll just tell you, 60% of our portfolio (of almost 19,000 units) is affordable communities. So they don’t always have the budget to add a couple of hundred dollars worth of virtual touring software to their budget each month. And again, not knowing how long this is going to last, and how long they’re going to need it.

So I had to do some research and send out multiple emails with different platforms from Google hangouts, Zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, things of that nature to allow them to do these tours in a way that they were comfortable with. In a way that the prospect was comfortable with.

I even had one of our site team members use Marco Polo (the Marco Polo app) which I thought was really interesting. She said it actually worked, so kudos to her. I thought that was really cool. So we had to evaluate what each community can afford, and we have a little over 100. And then for the ones that didn’t have it in the budget to add a paid type of service, what could we do to facilitate.

And we luckily had marketing partners reaching out to us all the time saying, “Hey, you do a virtual tour with your phone and upload it to YouTube and we’ll add it to your listing.” So we had almost all of our marketing partners reach out with some sort of solution that wasn’t necessarily a paid solution.

We realized our world has just changed, and our [multifamily operations during the pandemic] have to change too. And so we’re adding this feature to our ad, or to our portal, or to our fill-in-the-blank, to help you manage your communities and continue to lease, while not being in-person. And most people did virtually tour. We had very, very few people actually show up at the properties.

Danny: With the virtual tours, were the majority of them conducted from a-to-z virtually, or was there ever a time where they needed to call and discuss anything with the staff? Or were they able to find the apartment, view it digitally, apply and lease, and there was no need for staff or leasing agent interaction?

Angie: That’s a really good question, so we had a couple of ways that we could do it. Some did a virtual one-on-one like we’re doing right now, where they could see the resident or prospective resident. They could take them around the inside of the apartment home, and show them the amenities.

But a lot of our communities don’t have full online leasing capabilities. So they would have to communicate via email to email them the application and the lease. [They would] get on the phone to take their credit card number for the app fee, or the hold fee, or different fees associated. So there was still some communication.

But the one takeaway that I really got from this situation (there’s a couple actually), but one that I loved – and it came from one of our site teams – she said, I really kind of like that our doors are closed because we’re able to have way more interaction and a meaningful, deeper conversation with our prospective residents than normal. Because we don’t have the door opening and closing, and people coming in and interrupting, and the pressure of the phone ringing and other people sitting waiting for us.

She said, in a couple of days of going virtual, they received four leases. And that’s just one community. So it was really impactful to hear that maybe not having the doors open all the time might be a good thing. So we can really have that meaningful and engaging conversation to learn exactly what our prospective renters need.

Danny: In other words, a takeaway is that the distractions that a leasing agent is exposed to are real. And that eliminating that can lead to maybe a better conversion and improved multifamily operations, even during a pandemic.

Angie: Yeah, I’ve even dangled the carrot of – why don’t we just have some closed office hours? Where our consultants can spend their time focusing on those hot prospective leads/prospective residents, without having the worry of the distractions.

Danny: Were your leasing consultants working from home when they were not in the office? Would they take calls from residents at home, or did they have to be physically in the office when interacting with a prospective resident?

Angie: We like them to be there. I’m not going to say they didn’t email and such, but really only our community managers have access to everything when they are not at the office. They have laptops. Most of our leasing consultants and assistant managers have desktop computers, so I would say most of the time they were not communicating. But our managers certainly are always on social media, and always on a journey to make sure that people are taken care of. So I think the leasing staff not so much, but the managers for sure were monitoring from everywhere.

Multifamily Resident Engagement amidst stay-at-home orders

Danny: That makes sense. Let’s kind of move forward, away from multifamily operations during the pandemic, and look at things through a resident lens here. What were some of the challenges and some of the solutions you were able to come up with as far as being able to engage with residents during this time? You know, as far as online rent collection, work orders, you mentioned packages… What was that like, to be able to maintain some semblance of a positive resident experience the past 90 days?

Angie: So one thing was definitely an app that we have, that our properties were able to use to communicate through texting out to the residents. And there was also a bulletin board-type situation where they could just post updates on what was going on at the property. Certainly, we had to close all the amenities and things of that nature, so that really was important to get the word out.

Also, our CRM tool that we use, we can mass email to all of our residents, as well as some texting features depending on the property. But every community was given access to the app. Even if they didn’t have the full app, they could at least have an abridged version to be able to communicate those things. Also, we certainly used social media, and things of that nature, to communicate with not just residents, but prospects. So the mass emails could go to residents or prospects, the texting could go to prospects or residents.

And then social media – we had some really fun, inventive things that people did, from online pet parades that were really cool because you could see the engagement go up. You could see the likes to the social media pages go up because, being a proud dog owner that I am, you want everyone to be able to see your puppy or your kitten or whatever your pet may be. It may be a bunny or a hamster, and you’re proud of them. So you ask your friends, go like my community’s Facebook page, and go vote for my animal. And that really helped to increase engagement and likes on our social media platforms. And it was fun for everybody to see. And then they won a gift card to PetSmart, and I think a little doggie goodie bag, or cat goodie bag or whatever the case might be.

Danny: That makes sense because they can’t congregate in common areas. You can’t throw a BBQ or a pool party, so you’ve got to come up with these alternative ideas to bring people together, even if it’s digitally.

Angie: But you can have a parking lot dance party, which is what one of our senior communities did. Our 55 and up community in North Carolina, they were amazing. The maintenance supervisor decorated his golf cart. He had fake records coming down. The manager and assistant manager, they would do what they called “walk with me Wednesday,” so people would come out and just walk around in front of their buildings, keeping social distance and all that if it was nice out. It’s a one-story community, and so they decided for one of [the events], they were going to do a “Quarantune” dance party, and they were blasting music and dancing.

All the residents were coming out and standing on their little front porches and dancing along with them. So that was really fun. And they did a really, really funny video in regards to their beauty salon being closed for a while. So they pretended that they went in there and did their own hair, and it did not turn out well.

Danny: That’s hilarious!

Angie: Luckily it was a joke, but yeah, very, very creative things came out of what is not an ideal situation.

Danny: That’s fantastic, and I think to your point earlier, you’re there to leverage the technology aspect of it to make these moments potentially go viral to some degree.

Angie: That one, the hair salon one, I looked at the analytics the other day, and for a community that doesn’t have a lot of likes, I think almost 6,000 people saw that. So I mean that was pretty impressive to me. I actually sent it out and made them kind of an example in our quarterly newsletter.

Package Management during the Pandemic – how to adjust multifamily operations to limit contact

Danny: Excellent. Tell us a little bit again about the package management side of things. Because I just think that would be a big issue, in that (at least for my family), we ordered a lot of things. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic because you didn’t want to go out to stores and obviously we couldn’t get the toilet paper we needed. But other than that, you know, a lot of stuff was shipped to us.

So you basically informed the residents that you have to get [packages] dropped off at your door or sent to a FedEx location? Walk me through the logistics there and how you altered the package management aspect of your multifamily operations during the pandemic.

Angie: Yeah, so we informed them that as of a certain date, you know, we certainly allowed for some of the things that would be coming in. But we basically said that as of a certain date, the delivery people are going to have to bring [packages] to your front door.

But I know for me, I have FedEx and I get shipment updates that you can sign up for for free. So I can call them and say, “Hey, I want it delivered to the FedEx up the street instead,” and they would hold it for you as long as you need. Or you can adjust the shipping address if you have a friend or family member that might live somewhere else if you didn’t want it on your doorstep.

Luckily, I guess, most people were home because we did have a stay-at-home order, so it being on their front doorstep or in front of their apartment home door wouldn’t have been as much of an issue as if they were working all day and coming home late at night – with the potential for theft and things like that.

So I’m really glad that some of our communities are ordering package lockers if they have space. I just talked to our SVP of Development & Construction earlier this morning. We are building a new property, and we’re making sure that we have room for package lockers there. Because of the convenience as well, you know? Not everybody gets home at 6 o’clock at night or before 6 o’clock at night. Or you might work on the weekends when the office is open, so for convenience sake as well as safety of the packages in general.

Danny: So you’re advocating for the locker system when viable, when feasible at a property? Which an older property might not have space, might not have the budget…

Angie: Right.

Danny: And it sounds like what you’re saying is that the packages being delivered to doors is OK in the environment when it’s work-from-home. But let’s say things are back to normal in 2021, do you envision the properties that do not have package locker systems, again accepting packages on-site?

Angie: Yeah we went back to it actually when we hit phase 2, I believe, which we are in. We’re hoping to go into phase 3 here soon, and yes, we’re already back to accepting packages.

Danny: Yeah, OK, excellent.

Angie: And I did want to note too that when we reopened, we made sure we had sanitizer everywhere, masks, the dots on the floor for the social distancing, all of that stuff.

Finding the silver lining: Key multifamily operation takeaways from the pandemic

Danny: What’s the silver lining of COVID? Because I think that’s the common theme that everyone talks about in regards to multifamily operations during the pandemic. Yeah, this is a really tough time in everyone’s life, but it’s also time for innovation. It’s also time for new ideas.

When we emerge from this, what are some areas or some things that you’re going to say – I don’t know if that would have happened without COVID?

Angie: Yeah, I think one is the adoption of technology. Not all owners are ready to take that leap…

Danny: I love to hear that!

Angie: I know you do! People are willing to do virtual tours, but again, even when it’s not COVID, people have different schedules, people work nights, people work weekends, people work all kinds of hours now depending on what industry you’re in. So I think giving someone a way to either watch a pre-recorded virtual tour, or do a one-on-one like we’re doing now, or to be able to do a virtual open house for 25 people can join is really impactful.

And it’s helpful not only to our multifamily operations during the pandemic, but it’s helpful to our prospective residents. Especially in our market (we have colleges, we have a lot of military), some people might have been on an aircraft carrier last week and they just got home on Tuesday, and they have 10 days or 14 days to find a place to live. So being able to do it on the fly, and again, not every owner or even property manager or regional manager was comfortable with people wanting to do that virtual experience.

And I think now that they’ve seen it and seen how successful it can be, and how people are wanting to do this, regardless if they can come to the property or not, they might say, hey well if you have virtual tours, why don’t we just do it now? Or send it to me and I’ll watch it later. And then they can share it with their significant other, their roommates, whomever. Instead of having to have four people come to do a tour.

So there’s a lot of different ways and reasons why technology has really shown itself. Unfortunately, our industry is sometimes slow to adopt, as we all know. It takes just a little bit longer to adopt, but I’m very thankful that our company has allowed us to, at least, pilot new initiatives at different properties to see if it’s viable and see if it’ll work. This is one, the virtual tours were definitely one that proved itself when [COVID] hit.

Danny: That sounds like the highlight for sure. And to your point too, it’s like the chicken or the egg scenario. If the owners like the tech and they give it to the properties, do the residents adopt it? Or do the residents demand it, and that forces the owners to adopt it?

And I think, I would say even as far as online rent payments go, you probably had more sign-ups for things like that. Just a higher level of adoption of digital technology the past few months I imagine was seen.

Angie: 100 percent. And on our market-rate properties, we had already implemented online payments. It was pretty much mandatory, and so that is our goal for the remainder of the year – to roll it out to the rest of our portfolio.

Our president is very set on trying to make things as paperless as possible. That is another thing that we do so much of in this industry is print, print, print paper. So the cost savings on just supplies, the better for the environment, not as much paper, not as much ink, not as many emissions from the machines that do this stuff, and just the ease.

Again, it’s all about the customer experience. That other stuff is great, but that’s what we’re about is the customer experience. We look at other industries and say – well they make it so easy, why can’t we do that? Why are we making it so hard, you know?

Danny: Yeah, I think you’re right. And to your point earlier, also now when you approach an owner and say – listen, this is the technology stack I believe we need to adopt at the property, I’m sure the owners are much more likely now to say – yes, I agree with that. Versus six months ago when they might have said – it’s a tax credit property, I don’t know if they need to do a virtual tour. I don’t know if they need to pay online. I imagine the needle has really moved when it comes to that ownership buy-in.

Angie: And even with the app, you know, a lot of the communities said we don’t need that. Regional said we don’t need that. Now they have it, they say, “oh my gosh, this is so easy! Why didn’t we have this before?”

You don’t realize how valuable it’s going to be until you use it.

Danny: That’s great! I’ve got one more question. Let’s say we get in a time machine and we go back to the fall of 2019, and you know that COVID is coming. You now have six months to prepare for it. What would be the most important thing you would do for your multifamily operations during the pandemic? The most important thing you would do for the Franklin Johnston Group to get ready for the world we’re living in right now?

Angie: 100 percent making sure we were ready to launch virtual tours on day one. Having the verbiage on our websites, and across all our ad platforms. That our teams knew what software to use, how to use it, and how to conduct a virtual tour. Because even though it sounds the same, conducting a virtual tour is different than conducting an in-person tour. Doing a pre-recorded video tour is different than a one-on-one video tour. So there are lots of different things, and tips and tricks that you need to know in order to successfully execute those things. So that would be my number one.

The other things we were able to implement pretty quickly and pretty easily with the help of our marketing partners. But that virtual touring part, them knowing what platform they’re using, and how to use it effectively, and get it out to the masses, would be top of my list for sure.

Danny: I can imagine. Just having to do web meetings, the past 60 days has exposed the need for training for that. Because I mean, obviously there are people that can’t figure out how to mute their phone or their computer

Angie: Yeah, you get the “womp womp womp,” hah!

Danny: Hah, yes! So I think that’s a great answer. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today. Thank you, Angie.

Angie: Thanks, I appreciate it.

Want to continue the conversation and learn more about how to keep multifamily operations running smoothly during the pandemic? Reach out to us for more tech tips on how to build a resident engagement strategy to attract, engage, and retain renters during COVID-19. Let’s Digitally Connect!

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