A Portal to Communication

Jeanine Gajewski
UNITS
November 1 2006


Web portals are helping communities obtain and retain residents by streamlining and enhancing management-resident communication.

Dan Haefner, Chief Information Offer and Senior Vice President, Lane Company, knows that in the apartment industry--where employees often are ending their work days just as their customers are coming in--ensuring that management can communicate with residents 24/7 is imperative.

"Apartments are a commodity," Haefner said, "so service and service features set you apart from your competitors. More services and added flexibility give you more to offer a resident."

About six months ago, Lane signed on for a service that streamlined and enhanced its communication with residents through a specialized Web site just for them--an online community portal.

Archstone-Smith unveiled a similar site for its residents in early 2004.

"We knew we wanted to create a site that allowed residents to do business with us in an easy and hassle-free manner," said Julie Reed, Vice President of National Training and Development, Archstone-Smith. "So it was a logical move for us to add a resident Web portal."

Lane and Archstone are among the growing number of apartment management companies that are making portals their property management offices on the Web, allowing residents to make maintenance requests, pay rent, download community information and contact management electronically and conveniently. These consolidated Web sites are helping communities obtain and retain residents while freeing leasing staff from time-consuming administrative duties.

"We see portals as another service that we can market to our potential residents," Haefner said. "And existing residents realize that we are offering an additional service that they perhaps could not get from a competitor. With the portal, residents can talk to staff any time of day. We can now communicate with residents in ways we weren't able to before."

Service Centers

Web-based community portals are online sites tailored exclusively for a specific community's residents. Portals can either be integrated into a community's public Web site or set up as a separate site that residents access using an ID and password that they choose themselves or that management sets up for them.

Once they log on, residents can access a variety of information and services. While different Web development companies offer unique portal services, one of the most common portal features is the ability to make online maintenance requests. Residents can enter the type of service request, a description of the problem, their contact information and permission to enter the apartment, then check the status of their request, all from their home or office computer, 24 hours a day.

The ability to pay rent online, either one time or on a recurring basis, is another in-demand option that residents can enjoy on their communities' portals. According to Reed, residents at Archstone communities are taking advantage of the benefits. "Paying rent online and making service requests are by far the most popular offerings on the portal," she said.

Archstone knew these features would be a hit with residents far in advance of the site's launch. The company spent years researching residents" attitude and desires concerning a Web portal before its in-house information technology department designed the site, according to Reed. "We surveyed residents about what they would like and beta-tested the site with groups of residents, tweaking the offerings and navigation to suit residents' needs," Reed said.

In addition to rent payment and service requests, another time-saving function of portals lets new residents set up utilities and services online. At Lane communities, residents can establish cable, phone and Internet accounts and sign up to receive the local newspaper, Haefner said. Some portals also allow residents to download coupons from local merchants.

Information Hubs

Besides providing an added venue to access services, portals are also a way for management to get information about policies and events to residents in a convenient and timely matter. Onsite staff can post news, announcements, events, community photos, newsletters, maps and floor plans, resident surveys, lease renewal forms or policy changes for residents to view or download.

"The portal is a good tool to get information out to residents," said Frank Brevort, Property Manager with Platinum Properties in Claymont, Del. (who uses Property Solutions` ResidentPay). "Residents are more likely to look at e-mail and an online portal than any information we send them in the mail or flyers we tape on their doors."

As well as allowing management to distribute information, portals give residents an outlet for feedback. Residents can e-mail management with ideas or concerns, update their contact or vehicle information, or respond to polls set up to elicit their responses on community-related topics.

While many portals open the lines of communication between management and residents, some facilitate exchanges between residents, as well. The portal provides a place for residents to post announcements, place classified ads and find roommates, and some portals even help participating residents find neighbors with similar interests to start clubs or friendships.

According to Reed, establishing positive relationships with management and other residents entices residents to renew their leases and recommend their community to others. "The portal helps build a sense of community," Reed said.

Benefits to Staff

A portal is an added service amenity that helps leasing staff obtain and retain residents, but it also reduces onsite staff's administrative duties, freeing up time to follow up on leads. Because residents can enter service requests, pay rent and accomplish other tasks electronically, portals reduce the need for leasing staff to field maintenance calls or fill out paperwork, decreasing the number of workday interruptions.

"Not having to post rent or go to the bank with all those checks is really a time-saver for onsite staff," Reed said. "At one Archstone community, 76 rent payments were submitted online one month, and the onsite manager really noticed the time-savings. Posting rent and taking maintenance calls are important, but the portal allows leasing staff to do things that are of better value to the residents and the community."

Most portal software integrates into existing property management software, so there is no need for staff to re-enter data. Archstone took advantage of its portal software feature by timing the rollout of the resident portal with its switch to Web-based property management software from a DOS-based property management system.

"The portal navigation is very easy for staff and residents to pick up," Reed said. "Once you are on the site, it's just point and click."

Brevort agreed. "The portal software is Web-based, and most people already know how to navigate a Web site, so adoption has been very easy and user-friendly for us," said Brevort, who anticipates fully rolling out portal software at his community in December. "I don't think it will take our onsite staff very long to learn how it works."

Education Efforts

Even so, Haefner stresses the importance of educating both staff and residents about the portal.

"One of the things we probably did not do well enough was to train our staff on a solid marketing campaign to residents," said Haefner, who added that Lane had to re-introduce the portal after its initial inception to make sure residents were aware of its presence and benefits.

Reed said that supplying onsite staff with hands-on initial training, coupled with extensive follow-up training is the best way to ensure employees are comfortable using all the portals features and benefits.

Haefner said, "In the case of a portal, it takes more efficient marketing to residents and staff because neither is required to use it right now. For example, it is like when apartment communities started offering high-speed Internet instead of dial-up. It took a while for it to catch on."

Archstone employs a variety of tactics to coax residents to sign up for the new portal service including conducting promotional sign-up drawings. But the simplest and most efficient way to get the word out, according to Reed, is through word of mouth.

"When onsite staff has contact with residents, they make sure to mention the portal," Reed said. "When a resident comes in to the leasing office to pay rent, staff will say, "Do you know that you can pay rent online?" or when they call to submit a service request, staff will mention that they can do that through the portal."

Haefner estimated that as of October, only 5 percent of residents used the portal regularly, but he anticipated that with more time and education, that number will steadily grow. "As they see how easy a portal is to use, they will become more educated about the benefits," he said.

The Future of Communication

While portals are a convenient way for many residents to communicate with management and sign up for services, communities still must ensure that all residents have access to the online information.

"Our biggest challenge with the portal is that not every resident owns a computer, especially residents at lower-end properties," Haefner said. To overcome that challenge, Lane has considered installing computer kiosks in common areas or giving away computers as a concession.

While some hope to eliminate flyers and printed newsletters by switching over to an online portal, that day has not yet arrived. "Because not all residents have access to a computer, we know that the portal will enhance, but not replace, print communication," Haefner said.

Reed echoed the need for communications redundancy. "Even with the best sign-up rate, there will be those people who don't have computers and aren't able to get information online," she said.

However, apartment communities are recognizing the growing number of residents who are using Internet technology for information and service, and taking steps to keep them satisfied.

"One of the consistent themes we got out of the NAA education sessions at the conference in Las Vegas this year was to get online and get interactive," Brevort said. "That's the way things are going."

Reed said, "You have to weigh the costs of a portal, but as more and more residents look to pay bills and conduct business online, they are going to start asking of their apartment company, "How easy is it to do business with them?" and at Archstone, the portal makes it very easy."

What Do Portals Offer?

While different Web development companies offer unique portal services, the following are some common features:

Sent e-mail to management Opt to receive broadcast e-mails from management Submit maintenance and service requests Pay rent one time or on a recurring basis Set up utilities Get information and announcements Update contact and vehicle information Fill out comment cards and provide feedback View a calendar of events Download merchant coupons Communicate with other residents Respond to polls Post classified ads or information

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