Rent collection: There’s an app for that. Scheduling repairs: There’s an app for that, too. Apartment showings can now be handled by a suite of software programs that allow for virtual viewings, and background checks are now processed in nearly real time in the cloud.
It all begs the question: If individual landlords have access to all of this technology now, what’s the value of a professional property manager in 2019? We’ve already seen digital technology radically disrupt other service industries, from travel to transit. Now that many of the day-to-day tasks of property management can be automated, does that mean professional property managers may soon be out of a job?
The answer: Don’t believe the hype. I’ve heard industry insiders and outside observers alike speculate that property managers’ days are numbered. To me, this isn’t a standoff between tech and people, but at the same time, the status quo no longer works. The reality is that the technology can’t be put back in the box—residents and owners alike are demanding the convenience that property management tools afford. My take is: The very same platforms that might appear to threaten property managers actually reveal an opportunity for them to focus on providing value that technology can’t replicate.
In short, the differentiator for property managers in the digital age is actually the personal touch.
The old way: us versus them
With stacks of repairs to schedule, binders of receipts to file, rent checks to collect and showings to book, many property managers I know are constantly pressed for time. No doubt they’re doing their best to serve their residents, but there’s an unfortunate, and unintentional, side effect of constantly toggling between to-do lists: Relationships invariably suffer.
Once the lease is signed, residents mostly interact with their property managers in a negative context—when the rent is late or the radiator is broken. As a result, emotions run high, and tempers may flare, which can lead to an adversarial, us-versus-them environment. To be clear, this is far from deliberate. But swamped in a sea of admin and operations, some property managers just can’t find time to prioritize customer service.
For years, this dynamic has been the accepted status quo. Many renters and property managers didn’t expect to have positive relationships with each other, or really any relationships at all. But today that standard falls far short of expectations, and even more critically, it’s a real business liability.
According to our research, based on a survey of more than 1,200 renters across all demographics, 17 percent of those who decided to move from their current residence said they made that choice because they disliked their property manager or landlord. Another 17 percent cited poor or slow response to maintenance requests as a reason to move.
Meanwhile, the preference for digital communications is overwhelming: Residents prefer to manage communications with their property manager online and pay rent and fees electronically or through an app. This no doubt reflects the tech-forward times we live in, when most every interaction, from ordering food to finding a ride is streamlined digitally. But deeper still, expectations around service have shifted in the smartphone era. Customer experience is more important than ever, across industries. And property management isn’t exempt.
New model: property manager as ally
The good news is meeting these shifting expectations provides an opportunity for property managers to flip the script on interactions with residents. Yes, there’s a learning curve to implementing new tools and adopting digital systems. But the end result for property managers is a chance to remake their image from adversary to ally, helping their bottom line in the process.
The right technology can help shift their focus from ops—the transactional, rote parts of the job—to service—the high-value, human interactions that build relationships and actually expand business. Rather than spending hours reactively chasing payments or scheduling viewings and repairs, property managers can get in front of the needs of residents and owners by upgrading appliances before they break, hosting community events or reaching out to new owners for additional business.
This doesn’t mean making busy work or needlessly disrupting tenants. It’s about adopting a relationship-based, concierge-like mindset that anticipates needs and treats residents and owners alike as clients, not inconveniences. And it’s exactly these human elements that provide real differentiation in a crowded marketplace.
The parallel might not seem obvious at first, but increasingly, property managers are in the hospitality sector—a high-touch, high-contact, customer-focused industry where the value is in providing a superior, individualized experience. At the same time, their intimate knowledge of the residents, neighborhoods and communities they serve can make property managers more valuable than ever to owners, acting as advisors on opportunities to buy, sell, invest or upgrade properties, as well as ever-changing regulations and bylaws.
Embracing new apps and platforms (i.e., the brave new world of proptech) is a critical component of this. Upgrading to new tools and retraining staff isn’t easy. And existing processes may work just fine. But meeting rising expectations from residents and owners, building real relationships, standing out from the pack—all of this takes time, and technology is the fastest way to put time back in property managers’ days.
Property management—and the real estate industry in general—may not yet have experienced the full impact of digital disruption, but the wave of change has started. Conditioned by the digital economy and conveniences that go with it, user expectations have radically shifted. Across industries, consumers are so aware of their range of choices that the only way companies can stand out is by the experiences they create. Property management is no exception. Learning from, rather than dismissing, the lessons of other industries that have weathered digital transformation may well be the surest way to adapt and thrive.
Author Chris Litster is CEO of Buildium.