Knock Talk: Ep. 17 – Lessons from the Field: How to Meet Customer Needs & Optimize Leasing During a Crisis

Regardless of an economic or environmental crisis, housing will always remain essential. Now more than ever, onsite leasing teams and multifamily operators are responsible for offering housing that is safe, while also feeling pressure to run a business and deliver results. But how, during chaos or crisis – pandemic, weather, fire or something else entirely — can you stay effective and keep your communities and teams safe?


In this session, you’ll learn how Lauren Neal, veteran training and support specialist for multifamily properties, has helped her teams persevere through hurricanes and economic shut downs. You’ll learn from Jordan Greek, VP of Sales at Knock, about the data behind evolving customer behavior and expectations to help you make value-driven decisions around technology and in turn, maintain and even accelerate lease performance that can drive NOI.

Episode Highlights

4 steps to take NOW to prepare for a crisis

Step 1 for onsite crisis management: Prepare

How to optimize proptech resources for a crisis NOW

How can technology help onsite teams during a crisis?

What is the key to resident communication during a crisis?

Where does a crisis impact the multifamily revenue lifecycle?

How have apartment tours been impacted by the pandemic?

How has technology made an impact on NOI?

How to prepare your onsite crisis arsenal

Full Transcript

Lauren Neal: Awesome. All right. Hi, all. Welcome to Knock Talk, where we’re shedding light on all things multifamily front office tech. I’m Lauren. I work with the Knock training and support team. I’ve been with Knock for a little bit over a year-and-a-half but before this, I was on your side of the video, working in multifamily for the last five years. I’m here with Jordan Greek to talk about lessons we’ve learned from the field during a crisis, and how to ensure your frontlines are meeting customer needs while still delivering value to the bottom line. Jordan, why don’t you say hi?

Jordan Greek: Hey, Lauren. Hey, everybody. Really pumped to do this today and get to chat with you guys about some stuff that’s really important to our industry right now. Quick background, I’ve been in and around multifamily for the past eight-plus years, was on the marketing side with Zillow. Now on the tech side over here with Knock. One thing, Lauren, you and I talk about this all the time, that’s really important to us is making sure that we’re able to hear and understand, and really get what our partners are going through, especially onsite.

Pretty recently, I put this question out to Multifamily Insiders Facebook group, and I just got this sense that emotions are high. There’s a lot of reasons for emotions to be high right now. If it’s cool with you, Lauren, I just want to read a couple of those comments that we saw in that Facebook group. I think some people that are listening to this, it might resonate with them. Here’s what we put out there. The question was basically, “Hey guys, my goal is to understand and empathize. What challenge are you and your teams facing right now?” Here are a couple, Lauren.

One was, “There’s a general burnout across our portfolio. We’re sick of sadness and being scared.” Others are saying, “Our occupancy has dropped. It’s been hard to stay motivated, and vacancies like I have never had before. I’ve tried every promotion.” I’m just going to end with one more here, Lauren, I think this is the one that you and I really saw and we’re like, “Oh man, that just breaks our heart.” It’s, “There’s just no words. I go home every day, worn out and beaten down, without feeling like I have accomplished anything.” That’s some pretty heavy stuff, right?

Lauren: Yes. It breaks my heart. Everybody out there, a lot of what you’re feeling and what our customers are feeling, and what we’re hearing and what our listeners are feeling, we’ve been through it too. We’ve felt this before, and it may not have been a pandemic, but we’ve all gone through crisises and challenging situations that really beat us down and make us feel like we’re not producing or performing the way that we need to. We just want you guys to know out there that we’re here for you, and we’re here to help you and to support you in these times of crisis.

Jordan: Well-said, Lauren, and I’m so glad we’ve got you today because, my goodness, you’ve got, A, an incredible amount of experience, but B, some incredible experience with crisis management. You’ve been through so much, and whether it was a hurricane or a fire or an economic downturn, and of course, now the pandemic that we’re dealing with, but the power of stories, it’s so compelling because it resonates with people. Can you just tell us a little bit about what you’ve been through being on the front lines, Lauren, with some of those experiences that I mentioned earlier?

Lauren: Totally. A little background, I started as a leasing agent. I was a part-time leasing agent and worked my way up to sales and marketing. I’ve gone through a lot of these crisises, and from different perspectives. From being in the front line and then being at the home office, so I’ve dealt with things like that, of resonance, and fires. Obviously, we’re all working through COVID-19 together, but the one real wallop of a crisis that I’ve gone through before COVID hit was Hurricane Harvey. In my last position, when I worked onsite, my company was severely impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

We had properties that suffered a lot of damage and one was a total loss. Going through situations like that really forces you to take a step back and figure out what can be done, what can we control in the uncontrollable? What can we learn for the next situation? The lessons that we learned in Harvey, which hopefully we’re going to circle back on, but lessons that we’ve learned in the past have really helped us prepare our customers and our family, our multifamily family, to tackle COVID as best as we can.

Jordan: Yes, taking it back, Hurricane Harvey, such a challenging event. The reality is, Lauren, like we’re feeling this right now, is that a crisis can strike at any time. While sometimes you may have a weather forecast warning, you’re still never quite ready. Or you’ve got something like we’re dealing with right now with COVID-19, where it almost felt like overnight we’re like, “Oh my goodness, we’re in this mess, what are we going to do?” That’s what I feel many operators right now are faced with, where they won’t know that they’re in it until they are.

Then there’s some steps that you can take to work your way out of that. With your experience, I imagine you’ve probably got enough for 10 Knock Talks, but do you have any advice for operators just on how can they be better prepared?

Lauren: Yes. Thank you. Guys, when we talk about crisis management, it’s not just major pandemics. Things that we learned from these major crises can be tailored to small hurdles and bumps in the road. I think that the four big call-outs that I’ve learned through crisis management is prepare, rally, practice, and communicate. Now’s the time to prepare. Like you said, we don’t know when the next big crisis is going to be, or what shape that’s going to take. Now’s the time to step back and prepare. Look at your day-to-day job, what things are going to throw a wrench in your gears?

Nobody would have ever thought that we would have to stop leasing and touring face-to-face. Think about your day-to-day and say, “Okay, if I couldn’t tour face-to-face anymore, what could I do? If I couldn’t call people anymore, what could I do?” Try to identify some things that would really throw a wrench in the major functions that you’re trying to do in your day-to-day to get ahead of what these crisises could impact. We need to still do our job every day, what’s going to throw us a hard left? Rally your resources. Once you identify the roadblocks or the things that could really stop you or hinder you from doing your day-to-day core roles, now it’s time to build your arsenal.

During Hurricane Harvey, we couldn’t tour face-to-face similar to COVID, because we didn’t have anything to tour, it wasn’t safe. We took that time to build out our collateral. Do you have the best pictures of your community? Do you have video tours of your model or even some of your vacants that you could use? Now’s the time to type out templates for your emails. We need to find time to save. We need to cut time off of our day-to-day so we can deal with the situation that’s in front of us. Building out templates so that you can get through your day-to-day tasks and your follow-ups faster.

These are things that you can do now, so when things go crazy or we’re having to be impromptu, running day-to-day, we don’t have to think about that type of stuff. Do you know what I mean? Think about this from a resident’s point of view, we’re going through crisises as team members and as humans, and we’re also expected to still deliver to our business owners and produce leases and occupancy, but all these situations also really impact our residents. This is a great opportunity for us to be empathetic and show our residents that they’re not just a rent check, but that they’re part of our community. Rallying around your resources, building up that arsenal.

One thing we did with Hurricane Harvey was we built out a resident resource guide, with places where they could go for housing. Sister properties that could help them, and Red Cross affiliations and stuff, where while we were literally dealing with flooding, we were able to save residents. “We know that you’re going through this, here are resources.” We built out templates so we could keep them updated in a timely manner to try to soothe their fears, because they’re going through this just as much as we are. If we can help them and be a great neighbor to them, that’s just the right thing to do.

Jordan : Yes, couldn’t agree with you more.

Lauren: Yes, and practicing flexibility. Guys, I keep referencing Harvey and COVID, but who would have ever thought we couldn’t tour, that we wouldn’t be able to tour face-to-face. This is a column, a pillar of the multifamily industry, and we have to practice flexibility. Now that that’s out on the table, now’s the time to get used to your new tech platforms. Practice Zoom, practice Skype or FaceTime. Assess your technology. What do you have available for you right now that you could leverage in the case of an emergency? With Knock, we utilize the mass text option a lot with residents.

That’s how we kept our residents up-to-date with Harvey, to let them know if their homes were flooded or not, so now’s the time. Practice your flexibility. Role play with your team members, how to do a tour on Zoom. It’s a little different. My last thing I really just want to shout out is communicating. By building these roadblocks or by building these step zones, by preparing and building your arsenal of resources, we’re allowed to take a breath. To be able to really communicate appropriately, with empathy, and effectively to our prospects and to our residents.

It just allows us to be more effective and more human, and be able to take that stress off of us. I just really stress, take a moment, assess your day-to-day job roles, beef up your arsenal of resources, and then practice with it so you’re comfortable, so when something does happen, you can jump in and immediately handle it for you, for your prospects, and for your community.

Jordan: Awesome, Lauren. Thank you so much. A couple of things stood out to me. You’re talking about practicing. Practicing this flexibility. I feel like sometimes when we are in these crisis moments, there are just moments where we feel like, “Oh man, a ton of residents are calling me right now and they’re all angry.” That just doesn’t feel very good. Oftentimes, those are the areas that we should actually focus our attention and be like, why are they frustrated? We get that. Maybe they can’t use all the amenities or whatever it is, but what can we do then with our current tools to ease that communication?

To your point, what a great opportunity to leverage some templates, so when emotions are high and they do reach out, that quick, succinct response and that consistent communication, that can lower the emotion and it allows me to then communicate with you like a human. Really get behind the ask to understand what you’re going through. Residents love that, they need that. That’s one area and one point you mentioned that stood out to me. The other thing too was, a crisis doesn’t have to be some major event either. It could just be that one broken link in your process that your team hasn’t fixed yet, or you haven’t identified yet.

I love that you just gave us that perspective. This isn’t, “Let things go to hell in a handbasket.” It doesn’t always have to be that moment for us to be able to prepare, rally, practice and communicate. Appreciate you sharing all that. I would love to dive just a little bit more into the resources piece, because that sounds like that is a huge component of this preparation. Talk to us a little bit more about the role that technology plays in crisis preparedness.

Lauren: When used effectively, technology takes off such a burden. Like you mentioned and we’ve talked about this, going through crisises, it’s really all about that human approach. We have to realize that when we’re going through crisises, we are too. Whether it’s a fire or a global pandemic, leveraging technology makes crisises so much more manageable for us as leasing agents and property managers, because it’s just one less thing that we don’t have to deal with. Really assessing your technology and finding out the grand scope of what it can offer. Quickly, we’re communicating.

Like you had mentioned, the key to crisis management with residents is being proactive with your communication, and consistent. Finding a technology, like how we use Knock, where being able to send the same message to all of our residents, ensure that everybody is getting the right information at the right time. Then also to have that documentation, once it’s all said and done. Once Harvey finished, we went through our Knock thread of emails and saved all of those emails we sent, and used it as a crisis preparedness package, so that if something were to happen again, we knew exactly what we said last time so we could quickly start communicating to our residents.

It’s such an easy way to not have resident situations escalate by communicating quickly. Automating tasks, we recommended to our users, during COVID, to send and set their automated responses to what their community was doing with COVID. Whether they were doing tours, whether they had set requirements, or if there was a different kind of day-to-day. Sending that automated message so that you don’t have to explain to every prospect that reaches out to you, “Hey, I’m open but I’m open on these days, but you have to call and make an appointment.”

Just saving that 30-second conversation adds so much time for you to deal with what’s in front of you. Really, with technology, I think that it’s really opened not even just multifamily but industry in general, is that technology can really be leveraged for team productivity, and not just in the office. Now there are a ton of people that are working from home, and technology is so needed now to make sure that our teams are meeting their expectations. That they have the time and the tools to do their job effectively, maybe from home. So that your leadership can also keep a pulse of what’s going on and get you the resources or the help that you need.

Leveraging technology for data points and productivity like that is crucial. Really just leveraging your technology to find out if it’s working, if it’s helping your bottom line, if it’s still getting you across the finish line. You could have all the platforms in the programs in the world, but if it’s not helping your team accomplish our goal, getting heads in beds as we like to call it in training, then maybe we need to course-correct. Maybe we need to evaluate what our technology is and if it’s helping us get our bottom line, get our occupancy numbers up.

Jordan: I love the comment too about just tweaking the automated response. There are a lot of things you could do to overhaul, but there are also several different small things that you just mentioned, where as a prospect, if I get that automated message back and it says, “Hey, we’re not doing in-person tours anymore,” your property just did a good job setting expectations for me. There’s really no reason for me to then pass any frustration on to you as an onsite team member when you do make those small adjustments.

Now without that, if I’m like, “Wow, people aren’t calling me back. I just want to come in and tour.” Then it takes two, three, four days to get back to me and then they say, “Yes, we’re not doing in-person tours anymore,” I’m going somewhere else. I’m frustrated. That’s not the experience I expected, that I wanted. Again, small things too, can make really big impacts.

Lauren: Yes, and those little tweaks like that where we don’t ruin that first impression and we don’t set our prospects up for disappointment, that helps our occupancy and that interaction, but also it helps our leasing agents. They’re filtering through a lot. Everybody’s keyed up to a 10 as it is. If we as leaders can leverage our technology to automate and to give our prospects the right first impression and information before they even talk to the leasing agent, then I can avoid that one prospect from getting grumpy and maybe a little snippy with that leasing agent.
Like how you had mentioned with the Facebook comments, if I can protect one leasing agent from having a bad interaction with a prospect because they didn’t know that we weren’t open on Wednesdays, I’m going to take care of that.

Jordan: Yes, I have to imagine that many of us, we have that mirror moment in the morning where it’s like, I’m either taking a breath or a deep breath thinking, “Oh man, I got to go in again.” I know people are frustrated. I don’t feel equipped to handle these emotions or I don’t have the support I need. There’s that, or it could be, I’m taking a deep breath knowing that I am going to go into a tough situation, but I’ve got tools and resources and we’ve prepared for this. It’s almost like, again, let’s stare that challenge in the face and go after and tackle it.

Lauren: That’s why we call it the arsenal, the arsenal of resources. You feel a lot more confident going into strange and scary situations when you know you’ve got your arsenal behind your back.

Jordan: Yes, absolutely.

Lauren: Definitely. Well, Jordan, I want to turn the conversation a little bit over to you. We’ve talked a lot about onsite preparedness, and through the leasing agent and the property manager’s eyes, resident communication, but we both know that crisis management and preparedness go way beyond that. What do you think about how a crisis impacts the entire revenue cycle of a community? Where’s the ripple effects here?

Jordan: Yes, so I think it starts, Lauren, with just understanding the customer journey, and that’s an industry buzz word. I think it’s really important right now, and there are so many different touchpoints, all the way from the point of trying to attract the right prospects. Those are people conducting their search. They’re the first to know about the new lease-up or they’re looking at signage or they’re doing their research on ILSs, but then throughout that journey, they’re going to get into this conversion phase where they’re communicating, they’re calling, they’re emailing.

They’re looking for options like video tours, self-guided tours to actually convert. Like, am I engaging a property, a community, a business that is making themselves available and easier to do business with? At all those different points, even up to the point where we’re retaining residents, there are several points to either make or lose money. That’s really what it comes down to. I think this absolutely impacts the revenue cycle from start to finish. There’s an opportunity for us to, A, be aware of it, B, take action on how we’re going to improve it.

One of the other major themes that we kept hearing about is we need to maintain business continuity, especially when things are changing so rapidly, and it feels like it continues to change. We prepare for one thing, something else gets bumped. Now we got to re-prepare, so the idea of understanding that customer journey just allows our partners to maintain business continuity much more successfully.

Lauren: Definitely, and talking about the life cycle and all these touchpoints that the customers have, I think a lot of the leveraging technology can, again, build up the right first impression, so that by the time they reach out to our agents, they’ve got the information they need. They’ve got a lot of their questions answered and that they’ve got the right expectations going into that. I definitely agree with that. I’d love to hear some information, when we talk about those tours, we’ve mentioned it a couple of times now, the conversion points for tours have changed but the need to convert hasn’t. We still have the same expectations, but it looks completely different now. Do you have any insight on that?

Jordan: Yes, it’s definitely something we’re hearing from our partners. There are goals that have been budgeted, and so that expectation, that bar still remains really high, but my goodness, in your case of Hurricane Harvey, you couldn’t conduct in-person tours anymore. Like, “Holy smokes, how are we going to get there?” That bar doesn’t get lowered. It’s more like we have to find ways to close that gap and rise up to meet those same expectations that still exist. Yes, expectations to convert have not changed. What has changed, Lauren, is the way that prospects can convert.

We’ve been running into, there’s a lot of questions and pain. If we just think back to the Multifamily Insider question and discussion, people are asking and they’re worried about how are we going to convert? Doors are closed. Prospects are frustrated, emotions are high. What do you do? Certainly, effective tools from what we’re seeing here at Knock are helping. I’d love to just give you a couple of stats to unfold this conversation a little bit. Very early data showed us a couple of things. For anyone listening, you guys aren’t alone, I want to make that abundantly clear.

If you feel like, “Oh my gosh, what happened to all of our tours and we’re struggling,” many, many people are. Just to put some data behind it, onsite tours, Lauren, they decreased by 55%. That’s massive. We’re not talking about a little change. That is a massive change, onsite tours decreasing by 55%, and because of that, you’re seeing this rise in technology because it is essential. You and I, our ability to communicate, it’s a lot easier doing these Zoom calls. Being able to see you and get to know you a little bit better, and see our facial expressions, all things that really matter, but let’s talk virtual tours, for example.

We did see a bump in virtual tours. Those increased by 7X. We did see that self-guided tours, that increased by 32X, so a little bit bigger of a spike there. It just shows us that you still need leasing agents. What that tells me that consumers are looking for is, “Okay, a video tour is great, but I’m still opting for this option to go see the unit, conduct this self-guided tour.” Making sure that those options are available is super, super important. Then, of course, live video touring. Before COVID, we heard a little bit about FaceTime, but we really saw this ramp-up post-COVID. Also with the introduction of Google Hangouts, Zoom of course.
Really the kicker, Lauren, is having the ability to integrate live video tours into your current tools. Understanding when you’re managing a team from afar, how many live video tours are actually being conducted. It’s really hard to tell if you’re just doing FaceTime tours, because that doesn’t really integrate in unless you’re doing some manual work. That’s one thing that we focused on heavily over here is making sure that Google Hangout, Zoom, those live video tours are integrated into our platform. Then finally, residents and prospects, they still crave a human connection.

I do know that we live in a very technology-forward world, but it’s inherent as humans that we crave connection. If someone’s going to try to ignore that, can’t go against it. It’s in our biology. We crave human connection, so making sure that you’re still equipping your leasing teams with those options to communicate like humans is super important.

Lauren: It really has shifted our entire world when we talk about leasing. Not even just the norm but that was the option, we toured face-to-face. It’s been an entire culture shift now with that. I love what you said about, we still need leasing agents. Certainly, just back to onsite team member preparedness, the data shows this. If we as leaders decide to invest in this additional technology and offer self-guided tours and things like that, again, we need to be innovative on the front lines.

Yes, they’re touring by themselves, but that’s an entirely different follow-up cadence and pieces that our leasing agents would need to do. I love that you called that out, because yes, we could have self-guided tours all day, but ultimately, that decision is going to be made by that connection with the prospect and the leasing agent. We got to get innovative to figure out what that’s going to look like.

Jordan: Yes, totally. Integration, innovation, these are words that are scary to a lot of people. I think another added component to this is that leasing teams, they want simple, they want easy, they want awesome. Making sure that your leasing teams are equipped with a suite of products that make their workstreams flexible and in sync, that it works. Without that, or if it’s really clunky, adoption goes down, conversions go down. Actually, in that case, you’ve almost introduced a new problem instead of a solution, and no one wants that.

One other piece to this too, Lauren, we focused a lot today about onsite teams, but there’s this whole element of leadership and management teams that maybe are not answering the calls and the emails. They also need that insight to support their onsite teams. Ensuring that they have clear visibility into where their teams are struggling. Sometimes there are coaching opportunities of course, we can always get better, but other times, some of those struggles are due to breaks in the technology.

Or they don’t have something that we’ve talked about on this call today, to help them close that gap and to really meet that expectation. Really, I would say technology, visibility, super important onsite, but all the way up to senior leadership as well, especially in the time of crisis.

Lauren: Definitely. Now’s the time to evaluate. I love this. These are all great points. You’ve mentioned NOI a few times, and I know that it’s something that obviously our audience is always interested in. Are we getting the bang? Is it working? Would you talk a little bit about how tech has made an impact on NOI in a crisis or even in the happier times?

Jordan: Yes, definitely. We think a lot about NOI over here as you know, Lauren. I think our approach is a little bit different than some of the other technology partners that are out there. Our belief firmly, this is at the core of what we do over here, is that technology should create value for your organization. Period. I know we’re talking about pandemics and crisis moments, but pandemic or not, we are consistently thinking about growing NOI for our partners. The first and foremost is replacement cost. Looking for opportunities to consolidate some of these ancillary technologies that a lot of our partners, prior to working with us, were paying for these one-off services.

There’s massive opportunities to really consolidate that down into one platform. The other area is reducing marketing spend. Ensuring that you’ve got the data on hand to know is marketing source one really serving us? Is marketing source two providing the cost per lease that we need to hit our budget goals? It’s being able to not only access that data, but to access it quickly and easily, and then have the confidence to make a decision to add or remove a particular marketing source. Team productivity, we’ve talked a ton about that.

If a solution is not making your onsite teams’ lives easier, if they don’t rave about it, if they don’t want to recommend it to their peers, then chances are they’re not going to adopt it, Lauren. If there is no adoption, it doesn’t matter how awesome a product sounds, looks, or feels, you’re not going to meet those results that you need. Then, of course, improved economic occupancy. If solutions are not helping our partners reach those goals, that’s one way that they evaluate whether or not economic occupancy is increasing, then it’s time to at least have your eyes and ears open.

It’s time to benchmark against what you currently have in place, or if you don’t have anything, it’s time to start a conversation, you guys. There’s nothing scary about a conversation. It’s really about education and understanding and putting you in a position to make a decision, if that’s where current partners are at.

Lauren: I love that. It really struck me around the marketing spends. That’s something that a lot of our customers are really evaluating and trying to really hone in. It’s so much easier, especially in challenging times, to make those decisions and to change up your strategy when you’ve got the data behind you, to really give you that oomph. If you’re making data-driven decisions and you’ve got it right in front of you, it makes those decisions infinitely easier.

Jordan: Yes, and this idea of confidence, Lauren, I think is something that we’re always trying to instill, especially on the training side with our onsite staff. When teams feel confident, they feel empowered. When you feel confident and empowered, then you can stand behind some of those tough decisions, like adding and removing certain pieces of technology. That’s one point I would just love to leave the audience with is let’s get you guys confidence. Let’s help you feel good about the decisions that you’re making, and certainly having data that you can trust is a great place to start.

Lauren: Love that. Let’s get our teams set up for success and the confidence to tackle the next hurdle.

Jordan: That’s right.

Lauren: Jordan, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I love talking about ways that we can help our users and our multifamily community tackle the day-to-day, and help them handle crummy situations like this a little bit better, crisises, so I love that. Thank you so much for joining today, and everybody, thank you so much for listening and watching. Please feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions. Thank you for sticking around to the end, and have a great day.

Jordan: Yes. See you guys.

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