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Is your resident onboarding the start of a splendid relationship?

Melinda Howard from PLK Communities talks about how they're creating excellence in the multifamily resident onboarding process that creates happy new residents and a positive resident experience.

Listen to the episode below and subscribe to The Resident Experience Podcast for more episodes.

Streamlining resident onboarding for your communities

Why is resident onboarding so important? How can you create a world-class experience? And what about on-demand videos? Nick talks with Melinda Howard, Director of Training and Development at PLK Communities, and digs into how a smooth onboarding sets a good resident relationship with a high level of trust.

Why is resident onboarding important? [2:20]

  • Moving is one of the biggest stressors in life.
  • It sets the tone for the resident - you never have a second chance to make a first impression.

Transition from applicant to the resident is crucial [3:23]

  • It dictates where the level of trust begins.
  • If you fall down, the level of trust will be low and you have to fight the lease term to gain back that trust.

Overview of a best-in-class move-in experience [5:27]

  1. Welcome home letter at applicant approval that includes key information like due dates, utility account number, renter's insurance declaration page, etc.
  2. Online lease signing via DocuSign.
  3. Online payment link for the deposit and monthly rent.
  4. Move-in day walk-through - notate items in the lease that people may overlook, show key building areas, and the moving condition form.
  5. Post-move-in automated emails that review key information.
    • This is spread out over 2 weeks to keep the information specific.
    • Everybody always retains information if it comes to them in pieces!

Providing residents information when they need it is key. [14:36]

  • Create 1-2 min video “how-tos” on key topics residents can self-service.

Video production doesn’t have to be hard. [16:20]

  • Employees can use their phones to record and main office edits with Camtasia.
  • Don’t wait! As videos are finished, release them.
  • Get feedback from residents and can modify videos easily as needed.

How do you measure success? [21:07]

  • Increase in resident satisfaction survey score
  • Decrease in resident calls
  • Decrease in volume of emails and portal communication
  • The ultimate measure is renewal ratios - decrease turnover of the period over the prior year and decrease turnover from year to year.


Melinda Howard

Melinda Howard is the Director of Training and Development for PLK Communities based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Melinda has over 10 years of multifamily property management experience. She started her career as a Leasing Consultant and quickly rose through the ranks finding herself in multiple markets including Houston - TX, Columbus - OH, Dayton - OH, and Cincinnati - OH.

Melinda provides support to the entire PLK portfolio which includes 26 properties totaling over 5,100 units. Melinda's team oversees sales and systems training, operations and platform management, and learning initiatives for all onsite team members.

Resource links:


Nick Latz (00:39): Welcome home multi-family operators to The Resident Experience Podcast, episode two, where we're talking to Melinda Howard from PLK Communities on the do's and don'ts for resident onboarding that starts you out on the right foot for an excellent resident experience. Why is resident onboarding so important? How can you create a world-class onboarding experience, how to roll out on-demand training videos? Well, today we answer these questions and more. I'm Nick Latz, your host, and I'm talking with Melinda Howard, director of training and development for PLK Communities. PLK manages over 5,000 apartment homes across Ohio and Kentucky and is the largest owner of multifamily units in the Cincinnati MSA. Belinda is responsible for training and systems across PLK's full portfolio. And today we're talking about their resident onboarding program, what they're doing now and plans for the future for a resident focused experience. Melinda, welcome to the show.

Melinda Howard (01:43): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Nick Latz (01:44): Melinda, one of the things we like to do on this podcast is talk to multifamily operators like yourself that have put in place processes and best practices that help to drive resident engagement, satisfaction and success. So when we heard about the resident onboarding approach and process that you're building at PLK, we knew that we really wanted to have you on the show as a guest. And so I'd like to dig into that process with you here today and understand how you guys are approaching it. But before we dig into the details, let's take a step back, understand why is resident onboarding so important at PLK? Why is it something that you're focused on?

Melinda Howard (02:20): Sure. So for resident onboarding, to start off being kind of transparent, we have great strides to make. I'd say in the four years that I've been with PLK, we've seen so much improvement. I'm so very proud. I'm really confident that we're going to get to where we want to be, but it's really important to me and others at PLK that we focus on the leasing experience and making sure that that doesn't end. So moving is one of the biggest stressors in life and we are at the root of making sure moving day goes so smooth. So therefore it's essential. It's necessary. We have to make sure that we are doing all the things to make sure our residents moving day, go smoothly. It really sets the tone for the resident. And it's the first impression for the rest of the time that they're with us. And you never have a second time or chance to make a first impression.

So how that moving day goes dictates where the level of trust begins. If we fall down, the level of trust will be low, then we're fighting the rest of the lease term, trying to gain that trust. So if it all goes smooth, then the resident is coming in with a ton of trust, knows that we're going to be there and knows that we're going to be taking care of them.

Nick Latz (03:45): That makes sense to me. One of the things we talk about a lot at Zego is the overall resident life cycle. And how that transition that you mentioned from applicant to resident is really crucial because like you said, you only get one chance to make those first impressions. And we hear that time and time again, that the residents initial experience within their apartment community plays a disproportionate role really in the overall satisfaction and happiness.

Melinda Howard (04:10): Exactly.

Nick Latz (04:11): So let's dig into that initial experience. Can you walk us through a moving day and your onboarding process?

Melinda Howard (04:17): Sure. So after the application approval, our perspective resident is going to receive a welcome home letter. That welcome home letter outlines what's due on or before moving. So it's their utility account number. It could be their renter's insurance declaration page, any remaining deposits, fees, paraded fees or rent that's due on moving of course, but on or before moving day, we're going to go ahead and electronically generate the lease. We send that via email with a DocuSign link and it's creating a paperless method. So hopefully it's very convenient for all involved. We also have the credit card or payment links that we send via online. So everything can be electronic payments as well. And in the climate that we're in, with COVID, having everything be contactless or paperless is always great. And yeah, that's my shameless plug for you, Zego, that we have your payment links that we use. So you're welcome.

But yeah, furthermore, we hit on the highlights of the lease and when the rent's due, certain things that you want to notate, that's in the lease that people may look over when they're just signing something electronically and then we'll take them on into their home. We'll highlight some of the amenities on the way there. Maybe show them where their mailbox is located. So it's all the things that you would want to show somebody, especially because they probably forgot when leasing or touring your community. And we then go through a moving condition form. We also have some other things that we have set in place like automated emails and triggers that will go out based on them moving into our system. And I really love this because having the automation, it's not relying on someone to send it.

And I don't care who you are, we have found that doing an information dump on someone's moving day, doesn't serve anyone. So how good you are, you're never going to remember everything that's told to you. You're just so much more worried about the stuff in the moving truck, your weather, is it snowing, is it raining, am I moving stuff and it's 96 degrees out. So hopefully any which way we can be helpful, sending reminders. There's a reminder to turn in the condition form in a certain amount of time. There's also a link that we include the options for the resident portal and a reminder of our direct office line.

So they're not having to always Google the community and calling on a recorded line and then a reminder of the options of the payments and anything regarding the resident portal. So we have all of those automated emails going out to the resident within a two week period of them moving in. And I think it's always better to have information spread out a little bit. I think everybody always retains information if it comes to them in pieces. So we're not doing that whole big info dump right on their moving day. And hopefully that's more convenient for them to go back and reference an email that they got a couple of days after moving when things settle.

Nick Latz (07:50): Got it. That was really a great overview. And our listeners love those detailed process descriptions because that's what they want to know. And compare notes on, is how different management companies are approaching these touchpoints. So one of the concepts that I noted down there that I really liked, Melinda, was your point around nobody's going to remember all this information that's piled on to them at moving, it's too much. And so that's where automated communications that are dripped out over a period of time can be helpful for residents because it gives them a better chance to digest and process all this information. So for the approach that you just outlined, is this something that is consistent across all of your properties?

Melinda Howard (08:33): Yeah. Great question. It should be. Every property should have some sort of experience like this. We have a diverse portfolio of products, but I would hope that it doesn't matter what product you're choosing to rent, that you would have the same experience across our communities and our portfolio. So yeah, each property is a little bit different in what they offer or what onboarding they look like. But from the moving ladder that I talked about, what's due and the expectation of taking a resident into their home and being with them as they cross the threshold and in trying to be there through that journey and kind of link arms with them, yes, that would be the expectation of that across our portfolio.

Nick Latz (09:25): Got it. And so how do you guys make that process consistent? How do you train and enable your teams to deliver that consistent experience to your residents across properties?

Melinda Howard (09:37): So, well, COVID really threw us a curve ball. And so all of our plans for training and all those training approaches, had to really take a back seat. I came into my role around September 2019, and a lot of our training initiatives were slated for 2020. And so again, having to pivot for COVID and then we had to figure out how to virtually train on virtual leasing. A lot of those initiatives just got pushed back or got pushed back to this year, I should say. So we're all hands-on. We are going to bring those initiatives to realization this year. I'm super passionate about training. I just love training and I believe it matters. I believe training matters. So I want our teams to feel trained. It builds confidence, it approves productivity.

Personally, I know when I'm confident, I feel happy. Our employees are happy, then hopefully that's producing a great environment and culture for our teams. And I would think that's going to then trickle down into the resident experience. As for our internal training approaches or whatnot, I do a lot of research on how people learn, whether that's physical, visual, verbal, and we do offer different magnitudes of learning or training. We offer instructor led training, virtual online training. And of course in the field, you're hands-on learning.

Nick Latz (11:13): Okay, great. So you mentioned three different types of training there, instructor led, virtual and in the field. And I was wondering about that second category, the virtual training, because I know you were talking about staff training there, but I'm also wondering about virtual training for residents and virtual onboarding for residents. And I know, Melinda, you've been working on a series of on-demand onboarding videos for your residents. Can you tell us how that's going?

Melinda Howard (11:38): Yeah, sure. So as I stated earlier, we have great strides that we are making and we have a lot of strides to cover, but we're in the early stages of creating these on-demand videos. It all started when we received a candid resident moving survey. So just to give you some insight, we use a third party surveying provider and we send out satisfaction surveys based on moving, completing work orders and around lease renewal. So in this candid survey, I read how the resident felt that they were told certain things while moving, but really couldn't remember. And maybe it just wasn't important to them at that moment, and I think that's totally understandable. Like I said, moving is one of the most biggest stressors in life, so I get that you're not going to retain everything that we're telling you on your moving day.

So knowing that and reading on in the survey, the resident was saying, "Now I have to connect with the office and try to get my answers." And you could just feel the frustration within that survey. So I got to thinking, doing an info dump on moving day is just not serving anybody. It's not serving ourselves. It's not serving our residents. So knowing that the resident just kind of feels left in the dark and then from there they're having to contact the office. Now the office is receiving more emails and additional phone calls and repeating info that they already addressed. And I think about how frustrating that would be for me. I work during office hours and having to wait for an answer from an email or make a phone call when the office is open or waiting for that time, I want my information when I want it and I wanted immediately, right?

We live in an on-demand world of Googling everything and anything. So we are so used to getting answers instantly, and I think about any website platform application you use, there's going to be some kind of help link, frequently asked questions that you can go and reference. And I just thought, why couldn't our residents have something like this? Or why wouldn't they have access to something like this? So that's kind of where it all sparked. I think it would be just so much more convenient if they knew that they could go find the information somewhere or have that ability to have it on demand. Now I'm not saying, don't call our office, don't email us. I'm just saying, if you want that certain information and you want it right away and you know that you have the ability to go find it for yourself, I mean, that screams convenience.

And of course we already send out the emails and the automated trigger. So instead of having just another lengthy instructional email, I just thought, why not a video? And if we break those videos down into specific topics, then people are going to be able to find what they're looking for as quickly as possible. People want the info when they want it, like I said, and they want the info to come at them direct and simple. When you're Googling, you never go to page two, you go to the very first link or now Google just spits out an answer to you at the top. So you want things very quickly. And that's the world we live in now. So our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and it just seemed like a video, a one to two minute video was just the way to go.

Nick Latz (15:32): Okay. So this is one of those things that I'm hearing a lot across the industry, which is the old traditional model of dropping by the leasing office from nine to five, doesn't always work for today's residents. And you touched on this concept of self service. And I couldn't agree more because I think that residents and really consumers in general crave self-service, it's so much more convenient. And I recently saw a large consumer survey by Nielsen or one of those large market research companies that said that 75% of consumers say that self service options for obtaining information are more convenient than having to talk to someone live. 75% prefer the self-service route. So for these self-service training videos, Melinda, how do you go about producing them and how do you roll them out?

Melinda Howard (16:20): Yeah, so honestly, I think the videos could be what you make them. You could probably hire a company or someone to shoot and produce them. But I started thinking, what happens if something changes? Maybe we replace an amenity with another one that we felt was more valuable. So you did have a company doing this for you. Now you're scheduling that company to come back out to the community. You're coordinating all the things. And so I guess I would say that we're going with more of a raw approach. I purchased a ring light tripod from Amazon and we're just using an iPhone to record.

I just feel like this allows us to be real with the video. We can get to the point without the fluff. Again, I go back to what I would want and what I think others would want. And that's information just fast and efficiently. I know when I want to know how something works and possibly frustrated, then I'm not going to give gratitude to the production of a video. I'm not going to say, "Oh goodness, those transitions of the scenes are just so wonderful and that elevator music in the background." So again, I just think that getting to the point is what people want. Now, again, I'm not saying, go with a completely unproduced video, but people love for things to be authentic. So I'm just saying, be authentic with it, give the information that you want to give without all the fluff.

And I think that's just a lot more valuable. We do have Camtasia, where that's our editing software for our videos that we utilize for our learning content. So we are utilizing that for the resident videos and that leaves us to be able to change them up at any time or adjust for any kind of future changes. We do have some content waiting to be polished, I guess you could say. And because each property is different and in the models of the videos and whatnot, we're just going to, as we create them, roll them out. I don't think there's a certain plan to it. And knowing each property is different and how the permit may be set up differently, all the videos are going to be different. And as soon as we start making the videos, we're going to roll them out. I think if you can make an impact to the resident experience sooner rather than later, why would you hold back?

So we will not be holding back on that info. We're not going to be like piloting or testing at one site, just as we start to build on this initiative, we'll just start chunking it out and putting it to fruition. And then we'll be able to change just as the feedback comes in. If there's more videos that we need to create for a community where we see that there's some value, then we'll do that. And I just feel like there's so much more good than harm and just going ahead and rolling them out. So I just don't feel like there's a whole lot of harm and providing more resources.

Nick Latz (19:45): I like that. It sounds like an Agile approach. Create, rollout, get feedback and then go from there. And so tying back to the beginning of the conversation on the moving process and how important it is, how do you guys measure or think about the success of your onboarding and resident training approach?

Melinda Howard (20:05): Yeah, I think the ultimate end goal is to make our residents happier and educate them on their options, how things work, just as I mentioned in discussing training. I think training leads to more confidence. It leads to happiness and that whole thought process can definitely be applied to residents. So I think if residents feel in the know, then they're going to be confident. They're going to feel like they can trust us. They're going to know what is in their community, what's in their home and they're just going to feel overall happier. So again, I think that's the ultimate end goal and their onboarding to the community, just as I said, like their moving date needs to be smooth. The whole onboarding needs to be smooth and that's where their trust level comes in. If it's high from the very beginning, then they know we're going to take care of them.

And just as if we would train employees, you kind of got to train your residents. It's like the same thought process and it's a better relationship for everyone involved. Now, I also think that there's many ways we can measure the success of the videos or the onboarding experience. So earlier I mentioned that the resident satisfaction surveys. So I think that is one of the key components that we can look at and see if our scores improve there. We could also look at our platform that we utilize for recording our telephone calls. So there's some metrics there that we can look at and see if there's been a decrease in resident calls. I think that if we can see the decrease in resident calls, because they know where to go find information, or they just know information from the beginning, I think that's really helpful. And then we could also measure the magnitude of emails and the portal communication that's coming in.

If we're seeing a decrease in the volume, then hopefully residents are finding their answers and more efficiently and not waiting on us to get back to them. But I also think lastly, and most importantly, it's what do your renewal ratios look like? Did we decrease turnover for the period over prior year? Do we decrease turnover from year to year, I'm sure there's a lot more additional ways to measure it, but I think first and foremost is are you retaining the residents that you already have onboarded? So that will be the biggest key component that we will be measuring and looking at and seeing who and how many residents that we are retaining.

Nick Latz (23:05): I love hearing that. I love it because at the end of the day, that's what investing in a great resident experience is all about. It's about building happier residents, more engaged communities and ultimately higher renewal rates because that's what drives the financial impact. Well, Melinda, we're excited to hear about the results from your approach and we'll make sure to check in and give our audience an update on the results and the rollout experience in the near future. Thank you Melinda, for joining us today. That was a great conversation.

Melinda Howard (23:34): All right. Thank you so much for having me, really appreciate it to be on here.