Leveraging your greatest asset

While it's been said the financial strength of any company is its people, some would add that a company's greatest opportunity lies in developing the potential of that human capital. And nowhere in the apartment industry sector is there more untapped potential than on the front lines populated by the onsite teams.

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Kimberly Andreadis, an industry veteran with more than two decades of experience in the multifamily industry and strategist, trainer and founder of Marketing Path LLC, sees a direct correlation between sales success and employees’ skill sets.

“Our onsite customer service representatives and leasing consultants must excel as marketing managers in a variety of disciplines. They have to be market savvy, have extraordinary lead generation and selling skill and, most importantly, they must create brilliant customer experiences. Fortunately, the technology exists with which to link together these diverse activities, giving them greater impact on revenue growth and retention,” she said.

Amy Earp, director of marketing and creativity at Sawyer Realty Holdings LLC, puts it another way. “The power of your people is your only competitive advantage. But mass solutions don’t work for individual properties or individual people. We must get to know each person and their individual needs to develop individualized training programs that will make a difference. We don’t want to pull people off our sites and make them sit through a training they don’t need.”

Your future residents are listening
The telephone arguably is the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the apartment sales and marketing team, even in today’s Internet age.

Through this venerable instrument, the leasing staff generally makes its first one-on-one contact with the customer. According to research from Apartment Finder, the average apartment shopper uses both print and Internet equally in their initial search for a new home and visits an average of four communities before signing on the dotted line. However, they will pick up the phone and call up to ten communities before actually visiting one.

“There just is no way to replace people. We still need the kind of assurances about future services that we can only get from real people. We need to talk to people and read their level of professionalism and enthusiasm from their tone of voice. These things make a difference in whether we decide to buy,” said Andreadis, who has overseen marketing and training management for the National Housing Partnership, AIMCO, Trammell Crow Residential and Fore Property Company. “Unfortunately, many a sale continues to be lost because of poor phone skills on the part of the sales person.”

Telephone skills–the weakest link
The leasing consultant’s initial telephone conversation with a prospective renter creates a lasting impression that is critical in the effort to drive traffic to a community. The first 30 seconds of a call sets the tone for the entire leasing presentation. A poor first impression can send a busy signal to potential renters or end in an unproductive hang-up. Yet, apartment leasing trainers agree that telephone technique continues to be the weakest link in the lease generation chain. And, industry statistics confirm that 80-plus percent of calls are mishandled.

At the 2008 Apartment Internet Marketing (AIM) conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., the focus was on generating leads, creating better Web sites, search engines and optimization–all Internet-related.

Andreadis wasn’t surprised to discover that in almost every session, the professionals agreed they are getting lots of leads. “The problem is the follow-up at the community level. Leads are being lost and not responded to promptly or professionally enough. The onsite property managers today often are too busy to micro-manage the sales and customer service team or fail to realize that a system needs to be in place to ensure professional handling of these potential new customers.”

“A good salesperson should be able to answer the questions, ‘What is your conversion ratio?’ and ‘Of all the Internet leads you receive, how many can you convert to real visits to the site?’ If they don’t know, they aren’t managing their sales efforts. To train, empower and coach a leasing consultant to manage his or her own selling activity is crucial. Good salespeople become great salespeople when management makes training easily accessible,” she said.

Prepared for success
Studies have shown that the fastest way for any company to increase profitability is to provide its people with the proper tools, training, motivation and feedback to enhance their performance. “Our customers believe it is essential to invest in the growth of the people on the front lines,” said Elliot Leiboff, CallSource chief strategy officer.

CallSource introduced call-tracking and call-recording solutions to the multifamily industry nearly 15 years ago. After evaluating literally millions of its clients’ leasing calls and call-tracking reports, CallSource CEO Jerry Feldman and President Mark Powers traveled the country to determine what CallSource clients actually needed. “Responding to customer feedback asking for continuous and highly individualized training, CallSource developed the industry’s first and only integrated and fully hosted marketing analysis and sales training system, called Results,” said Leiboff.

The company plans to release version 1.0 of the Results system on June 26 at the National Apartment Association’s Education Conference & Exposition in Orlando, Fla. But apartment professionals, many of them long-time CallSource clients, were privy to a peek preview of the program during the recent AIM conference.

The history
CallSource grew out of RentLine, a company that was formed in 1991 and utilized computer and telephone technology to electronically advertise apartments in Southern California. Callers dialed 789-RENT from anywhere in the region and accessed the database of available apartments by entering the first three letters of the city, the number of bedrooms and the maximum amount of rent they were willing to pay. The RentLine system searched a database for appropriate listings, then played a series of audio commercials that invited the caller to phone the community for an appointment. Property managers and owners paid for the listings and access was free to potential renters.

RentLine execs could determine how many callers had listened to their ads–sometimes more than 1,000 in a month–but needed a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of their advertising and marketing to the few clients who complained they hadn’t received any calls from RentLine ads. That opportunity came with deregulation of the telecom industry in 1994. The company began to operate its own telephone switches, publish its own phone numbers in RentLine ads and route the calls to the appropriate communities from a look-up table, thereby identifying every call and getting in on the ground floor.

“Tracking was seamless and did not interfere with the call in any way. But, best of all, we realized if we could track RentLine calls, we could track any form of marketing or advertising that generated a call,” said Leiboff.

CallSource was incorporated as a separate entity in 1995. RentLine had an expensive B-to-C component (nearly $1 million a year in advertising to persuade prospective renters to call 789-RENT) and required equipment in nearly every area code to be serviced.

Moreover, there was a plethora of competing methods for advertising apartment vacancies. CallSource, on the other hand, was entirely B-to- B. Using toll free numbers, a single platform could support all of North America.

CallSource execs quickly discovered that being in the middle of a leasing call gave them the ability to provide additional value.

Having determined that multifamily companies miss up to 20 percent of all calls, CallSource first provided a voicemail system, then, at the request of trainers, began recording conversations between leasing consultants and prospective residents. The company added daily lead reports, instant email notification of missed calls, alternative routing for overflow and after-hour calls, and classes that train multifamily professionals to utilize CallSource, improve their call- handling skills and address compliance issues. The company has trained more than 20,000 multifamily professionals since its founding.

“I’ve been impressed over the years to see how CallSource continues to listen to what we need on the operations and sales sides and grow their company to match where we are trying to go,” said Susan Sirota, owner and president of Market-Think, a Newport Beach-based management, marketing and public relations consulting firm for the multihousing industry.

Getting results
With the addition of Results, CallSource has integrated the industry’s best practices into one hosted, modular system. The marketing-related function, CallTrack, provides clients with unlimited tracking numbers and minutes that enable them to see the cost and effectiveness of all their marketing efforts in a single report.

“Our analysis shows clients an accurate, objective, cost-per-lead for each marketing source and the true conversion percentage of each leasing consultant. We achieve this accuracy by having our analysts review and classify recorded calls to determine how many are responded to by the sales team, how many are reaching voicemail and how many are actual leads,” said Leiboff.

“It was important for us to have a lead-tracking program that would help us identify sales calls versus non-sales calls,” explains Dawn Miller, director of sales and marketing at The Donaldson Group, which manages more than 20 multifamily communities in the Northeast. “With (Results) we now have that. While there are many lead management programs on the market, none include the education platform that Results provides,” she said.

Once the client’s marketing program is evaluated, the system reviews the effectiveness of the client’s sales staff. A Telephone Performance Analysis (TPA) then reviews the call handling performance of the individual leasing consultants. “Using the industry’s most accurate scorecard, TPA rates and ranks their ability to establish an effective rapport with the customer, ask qualified questions, describe amenities and benefits and set the appointment,” said Leiboff.

TPA then identifies each leasing consultant’s specific skill deficiencies and recommends corresponding training modules to remedy them. “This is where Results really shines and is head and shoulders above any solution currently available in the industry. One of the greatest challenges companies face is easily tracking the training and performance of every employee. By placing control in the hands of every learner and tracking their activities, this outcome-oriented system enables them to realize their potential,” said Leiboff.

The Results program provides a learning and content management system

(LCMS) called Our University. All training, whether provided by CallSource, the client or a third party is tracked. Each employee has his or her own Web page indicating what courses must be taken, whether those courses have been completed and what scores have been received on the tests and TPA report cards. Our University also features a document vault where clients can build a customized knowledge base by storing company policy, documents , templates and other tools, making them readily available throughout the organization.

“It really is a data base for us to identify the learning achievements of our team members. The program automatically integrates with our payroll system, identifying what training is required and how they scored on testing or performance,” said Miller, after viewing Results at AIM. “As soon as I identify an issue, a problem or a need my company has, CallSource immediately begins work on how to solve that problem for me. I just see CallSource as more of a partner than a vendor,” she said. The Donaldson Group plans to test drive the Results system at one of its communities in June.

“In my career, trying to track employees’ development and knowing whether they are ready for promotion is really difficult without a centralized data base,” said Sirota, who prior to forming her own consulting firm worked for 18 years in the apartment division of the Irvine Company, the largest owner of apartments in Orange County, Calif., and an early adopter of CallSource.

John Cohan, director of marketing for Vienna, Va.-based Southern Management, which owns and manages a portfolio of more than 23,000 apartment units in the Mid-Atlantic, also had an opportunity to view Results. “What they showed us in Scottsdale was a comprehensive way to use the data they currently provide us. I am interested in seeing how each member of our team members ranks at their communities and perform against the portfolio and the industry. What they are offering us is an interface, a portal page branded Southern Management that would have a page for each of our team members, what training is required per position title and what they have completed.

It tracks and manages the whole training process in a much more technologically advanced way than how we currently are doing it.

(Results) is a powerful tool for management to see how their teams are performing, to recommend training and for team members to see their own performance,” he said.

Results training courses are designed by Dr. Ann Kwinn, CallSource’s vice president of interactive learning and the co-author of The New Virtual Classroom, a textbook on eLearning.

Our University also has multiple levels of permissions that allow employees to see just their own pages, while managers, depending on their level, can view roll-up reports of all employees at a site, in a region or across a company. Exception reports notify managers when employees fail to complete training on schedule, a problem that currently is widespread across the industry.

“Based on completed courses and other milestones, an internal resume is created for each learner, facilitating HR’s performance evaluations in identifying those who are ready for promotion. The inherent flexibility of the system is in its scalability and affordability, making it ideal for any size company. If a company already has another tracking and training system in place, it can easily be integrated into the Results program training and tracking module,” said Feldman.

Forward with results
To remain successful in a highly competitive market, the challenge for business is to be responsive, have superior communication skills and possess the ability to make the most of their advertising dollars. With the new and innovative technologies dedicated pioneers bring to the multifamily industry, CallSource believes it’s a sure bet that companies will meet those challenges by leveraging the skills of their greatest asset, their people.

“I don’t think there is a software program that will do this as efficiently as Results and, at the same time, allow the sales person to be self managing. The new product that CallSource is putting out is the missing link,” said Andreadis.

Israel Carunungan, director of property management for The Bozzuto Group, thinks that the numbers for accountability back that assessment. “By bringing marketing, sales, training and management together, you are guaranteed results,” he said.

According to Feldman, “Virtually every company, large and small, that has seen this system demonstrated has said, ‘Finally someone has provided the connection to link marketing, sales, training and management.’ Companies say they are achieving greater results, and that’s music to our ears.”