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Virtual advantage

Getting the most out of virtual leasing technology

By <i>Journal of Property Management</i>

Over the last two years, virtual leasing platforms have proven their worth to both property managers and prospective residents. While some property managers were already automating the rental process, many others had to rapidly adopt virtual options for tours, submitting and approving applications, and executing leases.

Lindsay Bonilla, CPM

“We’ve learned a lot during COVID about the experience people want,” says Lindsay Bonilla, CPM, a regional property manager with Greystar Management Services, AMO, in Austin, Texas. “People became much more comfortable with individual, self-guided tours.” Along with other virtual options like 3D or video tours, self-guided tours allow prospective residents to come on site and tour the property on their own using an app.

Tom Smith, chief revenue officer for leasing platform REZI, says 3D touring increased greatly during COVID, and REZI customer feedback shows virtual is the preferred engagement method for prospective residents. Launched in 2017, REZI started with a significant presence in New York City and has moved into eight other markets. The platform plans to add 10 more markets by the end of 2022.

“Customers are essentially driving the demand,” Smith says. “One of the biggest pieces of feedback we get is that they like the ability to have a completely digital experience from search to signing, and mobile-friendly capabilities have been a huge benefit.”

Now, more than ever, the possibility of a completely digital experience is becoming a reality. When prospective residents find a unit online, a virtual tour is typically their first look at one of the properties that Bonilla manages.

“When they like an apartment, they submit a contact form, which now usually goes to one of the third-party services we work with that use AI or, in some cases, a real person,” Bonilla says, adding that her teams have had great success with AI.

Tom Smith

While consumers are driving the demand, real estate managers are seeing the benefits, such as streamlining the application process. “Due diligence, application approval, lease-signing, and lease payments all typically required other systems and had an inherent lag,” Smith says. Leasing platforms have automated those steps. “We can take a prospect from search to signed lease in four minutes, 36 seconds. Leasing should be just as easy as all other e-commerce transactions.”

Also, having a third-party partner handle the leasing process offers the opportunity to sell across communities. A remote call center or AI can alert prospects to other communities that fit their preferences. “That’s much harder to do when you’re an on-site leasing agent, because you can’t possibly be aware of all the thousands of other communities,” Bonilla says.

Ideal partnership

An effective use of virtual leasing starts with finding the ideal vendor. Below are some tips for the search process.

  • Streamline. Smith urges property managers to use as few platforms as possible because trying to integrate multiple solutions can create friction. “Consolidate as many points as possible in the customer journey, and find providers that have bundled them together,” he says.
  • Ask for proof. When evaluating a potential technology partner, Bonilla says she always asks for case studies and talks to current clients. “To understand the nuances, I want to talk to people using it today—especially with the self-guided tours—because tech teams may not even be on site, or the offices might be closed,” Bonilla says.
  • Explore analytics. What types of data will the software generate? It’s helpful to find out what analytic tools are available and how property managers can evaluate the application’s success, Bonilla says.
  • Consider project scalability. Make sure the tech partner will be able to meet your growing needs in the coming years, Smith says.

Test drive

Once a property manager or owner has decided on a new leasing platform, Smith suggests trying out the technology in a slow, controlled way in a couple of buildings before rolling it out at all properties.

“Get as much feedback from those initial users as possible, and get it right, even if it takes a little longer before expanding,” Smith says. “The only thing worse than a suboptimal traditional experience is a broken digital one.”

During one rollout, Bonilla’s team chose the largest of four properties to test a virtual touring program.

“I think it’s smart to pilot the program at a property where you’ll see all of the nuances of the technology,” she says. “If you start at the smallest property and see that it works, that’s great. But what happens if you roll it out at 10 other properties that all have challenges that the first property didn’t? You may face a lot of issues at once.”

When it comes to launching self-touring platforms, have someone unfamiliar with the property, like a manager from another community, try the tour and see if the technology worked and was easy to navigate, Bonilla suggests.

Once the new technology platforms are up and running, regularly observe the data generated.

“How is it giving prospects the opportunity to take tours outside of conventional business hours, and how is that impacting our conversion?” Bonilla suggests asking. “I think one mistake people can make with technology is just plugging it in and not regularly asking, ‘Is this working?’”

Handling the hiccups

While handing aspects of operations over to a robot can be disconcerting, well-planned rollouts can prepare teams to deal with unavoidable future challenges.

“There’s no perfect technology, but it’s all about how to respond to the hiccups that will inevitably happen,” Bonilla says, pointing to proactivity as the key to preventing problems.

For self-guided tours that use a call center, convey important information, like anticipated construction or a resident event at a property. “Having that proactive communication is helpful,” Bonilla says.

Smith and Bonilla agree that while more residents want a digital process than a traditional one, they emphasize to prospective residents that a human interaction is always available if needed.

“Let them know that they aren’t on an island and that we can still help them or answer their questions,” Bonilla says. “Our communities will often send a note that tells prospective residents what to expect during the process and that the office is available if they need anything or if any questions come up.”

Overall, virtual leasing is helping the prospective residents of today become the satisfied residents of tomorrow. The streamlined timeline frees up property management teams to concentrate more on the current resident experience. “Often, addressing a resident concern or planning a resident event was No. 30 on the list of things to do that day,” Bonilla says. “Now, we’ve gained back valuable time to really dedicate ourselves to the resident experience, and I think that’s the biggest benefit we feel on site.”

A DEI boost
Along with freeing up teams to focus on other priorities, virtual leasing can also further diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in residential communities. “By leveraging technology and automation across the entire leasing experience, we’re removing the impact of any human biases that may exist,” says Tom Smith, chief revenue officer at REZI. “In the past, some property managers and leasing teams may have subjectively prioritized certain applications over others for various conscious or subconscious reasons, but now we’re able to completely eliminate that. It’s more fair, it’s faster, and people are happier.”

Journal of Property Management

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