Know Your Clients!

Our business has changed! One significant part of that change is the aging of the one largest age group of Americans. Within the last few years, nearly three million of us turned forty. Those who were born in 1946 began the biggest baby boom in history, and represent a tremendous number of apartment dwellers today. In the year 2000, 76 million Americans will be over 45!

Back in the 1960's "swinging single" apartment communities were designed to house young adults as they moved away from home for the first time. As this baby boom population continues to grow older, we see the advent of new, mature prospective residents who require a different image and sales technique in order to and hold their attention.

Our sales approach must reflect the values and personalities of our prospective residents. Know their needs, and you will get a head start on marketing your community.

A look at the profile of this group of aging clientele lends insight into how we can better market our property and fill their needs. Their requirements in finding a home in an apartment community are not a lot different than their criteria as consumers in general.

Generally, the person in this group has experienced life. Certainly, this person has learned to drive, taken driving classes, perhaps wrecked Dad's car, bought a car and had to pay for car insurance. This person has eaten Mom's cooking, dined out, cooked for themselves, shopped for groceries, and burned their fingers on the stove.

And, this person may have lived in a horrible apartment before--perhaps one with grouchy management, leaky roofs, rowdy neighbors, and perhaps even roaches or ants that devoured the food in the cupboards. They may have lived in wonderful apartments as well, with proper repairs and pleasant, competent management. And what counts most from their experience is their realization of choice. They don't have to buy the same model car, eat in the same restaurant or live in an undesirable apartment community. If they don't like what they are getting at one community, they can take their business somewhere else.

All of us, as managers, have competitors. We must realize that our customer is not stuck with us! Thus, we have to try harder to retain our buyers -- those who choose to spend their hard-earned money in our community, not the one down the road.

American Telephone, & Telegraph is a great example. When they had no competition, they seemed to be rude and disinterested. Today, with all the competing long-distance telephone companies on the market, AT&T is one of the most polite service oriented companies around. Their people say "thank you for using AT&T". It almost makes you want to shout at them, and say, "why weren't you nice to me before?" In fact, they didn't have to be nice until the customer had other choices.

Today, buyers have so many places to shop for similar products that they often can't readily make a decision. They have freedom of choice, but they also have confusion!

The challenge we face today is that too many choices create confusion. The apartment seeker may base their choice on some special promotion available at the time, rather than making well-informed, intelligent choices.

We must eliminate this confusion by educating the customer to choose their apartment home based on more important information: the special location of the apartment, the quality of the apartment itself, including all the features inside the apartment as well as the shared facilities on the grounds, the experience and skill of the management team, the assurance that maintenance service will be prompt, and finally on the knowledge that all their neighbors have met the same criteria. All of these factors are of a more permanent nature than any promotional special of the day. When they are confident that their new community will provide them with the best in professional service, they will feel an overall sense of satisfaction with the community.

On a national average, a tremendous number of apartment dwellers are single. Young adults are staying single longer. We have a 50% divorce rate and many widowed "empty nesters". And these people are not swinging singles, but more mature people seeking comfort and service. Thus it is our job as apartment professionals to show that we offer convenience at our community, in terms of amenities and service. Also, many single people feel a certain amount of aloneness. Our friendliness, social events and interest in them makes a major impact.

Later, they expect to get what they pay for. Promises need to be fulfilled after they move in; otherwise, you'll certainly lose them.

We have lived through the sexual revolution, the increased openness regarding sexual preference, and living together without marriage. We've seen the political and civil rights movement of the late sixties come to their fruition in the early seventies. We became "Yuppies" of all ages. As such, we spoiled ourselves more; we still are generally interested in the latest in styles and fashions; we expect nice clothes, nice cars, and of course, a nice home. Yet in the 90's we've become a little more conservative in our spending and a little more demanding of "more for our money".

Today's apartment consumer is generally one of these people. While enjoying a fashionable, comfortable lifestyle, our residents expect a kind of language which reflects their status. They truly feel insulted to be called a tenant or to have their home labeled a complex, because these have become outdated, unsophisticated words. Likewise, they don't live in a unit, a term which might connote a lack of personal identity or a cramped, dehumanized existence. This is their home. We must learn to use the words resident, apartment community, and apartment home. It is terminology which more closely parallels the sophistication of our residents lifestyles. After begging this industry for 15 years to make this change, I thought I'd try one more time!

These people are sophisticated, even spoiled, and they want to be treated that way!

Apartment residents in this age group often seem spoiled, and as historians have documented, the cause is rooted to our past. We were raised by parents and grandparents who had lived through the depression and had suffered. When we were born, our parents wanted us to have everything, and never to be in need of anything. So a society of people motivated by want, not need, has been created. We grew up with electric blankets, microwave, fast cars, and every convenience for an easy life. And as a nation in general we expect it to continue.

You and I were hired to spoil our customers, the apartment resident. And if that doesn't feel good to you, then perhaps you should consider some other line of work. But when you embrace the right attitude, then your job will be very rewarding. We are the facilitators, the means to an important end, assistants to those looking to satisfy specific lifestyle needs. To be successful, we must be able to pair the apartment home in our community with the qualified resident, the one who will gain long term satisfaction from their apartment home.

Challenges in leasing
This newly emerging group of renters has created special challenges for customer service and sales personnel. Today's consumer lives under stress, is more mature, sophisticated, self-interested, and expect a lot for their money, especially when financial times are challenging. Our customers should be marked "handle with care," and should be treated in a special, valued way.

In our industry, as in most today, marketing is the lifeline of the business. Consumer interest has to be created. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. Obviously, we create interest through advertising, using print and broadcast media. On the other hand, nationally, 60% of the traffic coming through our leasing offices is attributed to "drive bys". Yet when we stop advertising, the traffic drops off. We can also increase traffic by romancing local personnel directors, brokers and locator services. Assuming that the property is attractive and well groomed, flags and banners can be added to gain the attention of drive-by traffic.

Obviously creating traffic is critical. Thus, each and every effort counts, if not immediately, certainly in the long run. Too many of us sit around hoping for customers to miraculously "parachute" into the office.

Yet simultaneously, all the advertising and curb appeal in the world will not make a difference, indeed will not lease your property, unless you have an upbeat, professional sales attitude. Today's consumer makes it clear that the office staff is a significant part of their decision.

When customers arrive at your community, they must be met with enthusiasm, interest, and empathy. So many community managers and rental consultants get caught up in the daily grind of property management and forget that our most critical task is filling those vacancies. The astute team realizes that by helping the prospective renter find a good home, they are also filling their available apartments, increasing their occupancy rate, and generating more revenue for the property, in fact, doing a better job overall.

It is genuine interest that seems to be missing in the people who staff so many rental offices. We must remember that there are plenty of apartments out there, plenty of competition. So in the end, what the customer must buy is us! And since we get paid from the rent money, we have double the motivation to close the sale.

Sales skills can be learned. Too often we worry ourselves to despair because we weren't "born a salesman". But in truth, salespeople are made, not born! We can read books on sales in general and apply the skills. Classes are offered by property management companies and multi-family housing associations. We can improve our sales and people-handling skills.

Another alternative is the marketing consultant, people with years of experience, available throughout the nation. You can choose firms offering simply advice, or those which actually implement the ideas for you. Many work on an hourly fee basis, others on daily or monthly retainers. Some actually trouble shoot by working on the property from the leasing desk and offer their services on a short term, straight commission basis. If you were ill, you would choose a professional qualified physician to help. The same applies when you have too many vacancies. An outside leasing team is often a great remedy.

Too often while looking for fancy new tricks to use, we neglect the basics. Renting apartments is a common sense, highly people -oriented task. Keeping this basic truth in mind helps us to be successful in our ever-changing industry.

by Anne Sadovsky
one of Multi-housing's foremost marketing and motivational speakers.

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