Welcome to another Innovation Spotlight! Throughout this series, we hope to connect you to the latest trends, innovations, and some of the biggest thought-leaders in our industry.
This week, we feature Jennifer Stoops, senior vice president of Park Avenue Properties. Three years ago, our Senior Consultant Blais Case began talking with Jennifer about automation. Since then, she has implemented automation into Park Avenue's daily routine with great success.
Today we pick Jennifer's brain about how to plug different automations into your property management process to make it mainstream, faster, and automated. Jennifer shares how automation has improved her office's efficiency, and how this helps them serve their customers better.
Rent Bridge: What brought you to the property management industry?
Jennifer: I have always had a passion for Real Estate. I have always loved touring homes of any age, new and old, modern or historic, updated homes or homes in need of some love. Growing up in Buffalo, NY where the taxes are so high, a career in Real Estate didn't seem like the best option when I got out of college. So, I put that passion for real estate on the back burner.
I ended up in the dental field after college and eventually moved from Buffalo. In February 2007, I landed in Charlotte, NC. I decided when I moved to Charlotte that I was no longer going to put my love of Real Estate on hold and immediately enrolled in Real Estate School. As I was finishing my real estate class, I started looking for firms that were hiring. I saw a tiny little "1x1" classified ad in the free local newspaper that said, "looking for new and motivated agents for a new real estate firm." I was a new agent, and I was motivated, so I called the number in the ad, and a few days later met with John Bradford for an interview.
John was just getting ready to open the new Park Avenue Properties office, and I was brought on board to be a Real Estate Agent for the firm at the beginning of June 2007. The day before I was to start at Park Avenue full time, I got a phone call from John. In my head, I thought he had changed his mind before I even got started. Instead, John asked if I would have any interest in handling property management. I agreed to "try it for six months," and that was it. The property management and investment property bug bit me, and I haven't looked back.
Rent Bridge: How is automation is helping your business? What are your high points about it? Did you experience any struggles while implementing it? And, what has it really done for Park Avenue Properties?
Jennifer: First of all, I cannot believe it's been three years! I am floored by that. It seems like a very long time ago. We talked a lot about maintenance automation at the time, and that's just one of the areas I can tell you that's have been one of the biggest automation changes we have done. It has been a huge success and advantage for us.
The challenges we had don't just relate to automation. Getting team buy-in--in advance-- was a challenge. I mean buy-in to where they are not just nodding their heads, but they actually are buying in. The folks that work internally in your office on some of these things might not be as inclined to change as some of the rest of us are. I recognized this very quickly, even if it's something simple like changing the ink in the printer (we don't do a lot of printing, but you get my point). You've got to have buy-in. So, that was a little bit of a challenge.
Honestly, though, the biggest challenge was that it is technology. Our vendors are not always as inclined to be as technology forward-thinking as maybe the rest of us are. Getting vendors on board and getting them trained was a challenge. Helping them understand that it's not going to be as difficult as they think it is was probably the hardest part.
Those two things--when you look at the grand scheme of the positive that it has done for the organization--were minimal. There was very little pain to go and create a process and a way of doing things that made so many other things so much better. Maintenance issues are the number one reason why tenants move. It's probably the number one headache if I polled everyone on our team and probably everyone in property management. When we got to the point where we could utilize a tool for automation of maintenance, that was a game changer for us.
Rent Bridge: Where else do you apply automation to help free up your staff?
Jennifer: Well, some of it is not necessarily freeing people up. Property Meld obviously did for our maintenance automation. Now, our vendors love it and the ability to do the texting features and the scheduling through that platform. We actually are excited now, too.
I know you guys in your former career used Propertyware. I also love that Propertyware and Property Meld are now starting to talk to each other--that's been huge. My team has loved that part of it. They love having all of the melds that are created, and all of the conversations that happen in the text chat and the billing all in one place. Think about that. That’s your accounting team, your vendors, your property maintenance coordinators - three different divisions in your organization - are now positively affected by that in itself. That's on top of the fact that Meld is already a great asset to us.
Another technology tool we are using with respect to our screenings is Pet Screening. It's part of our rental application. That was a game changer in the sense that it redefined our pet process. It gave us a clearly defined way to handle pets. But, it also was a game changer in how many homeowners would accept pets.
There was a period of time where I would say that 50% of our owners were no pets. With this tool that is now part of our rental application, it's not necessarily something that has created an efficiency. But it has created an asset or another level of service or a process that is defined very clearly for our homeowners.
I would be surprised if most property managers are not using some electronic documents at this point. That's another one that we do.
We are usually forward-thinking when it comes to technology, but we were a little slower in the area of self-showings. That was one that made me a little nervous. I was waiting to see how it went with other folks. We don't use Rently, but we do utilize Tenant Turner. I like what they do. I like how their service works. That was another game changer for us from an efficiency standpoint.
I think everyone falls into this category, in the summer months and the busiest time of the year for us. Probably 70% of your team's phone calls--whether you’re using a VA or have folks in the office answering the phones--are people calling to either schedule a showing or ask about the rental property itself. So, you take a service like Tenant Turner and self-showings that are amazing because the call volume has decreased tremendously, and properties are getting rented quicker. People are able to schedule showings easier and see a home within an hour versus when I have an available agent that might cause you to wait until the next day to see the property.
Those are big ones for us that have been game-changers.
Rent Bridge: Is it safe to say that implementing technology (especially on the automation side) has changed the way your business runs and has made your business more efficient? Are you starting to see that you are no longer playing the “we need to hire more people” game and that you can get done more with less?
Jennifer: Yes! Actually, when we implemented Property Meld, we use to have a team dedicated in our office specifically to maintenance. They did the work orders and followed up on everything. Balls were still getting dropped because the volume was so tremendous. A work order would go out, and there was no follow up with the vendor to make sure they called the tenants. You didn't know anything was wrong until the tenant called you upset because no one had called to schedule the appointment yet.
We didn't necessarily have to let people go. We repurposed them into other areas where we were lacking, like customer service and our touch points with our tenant and owners. Now, instead of only reaching out to an owner when there is a problem, we have touch points throughout the year so that they feel like a valued customer. Some people don't care, but a lot of owners--especially owners of just one property--like to hear from us once and a while, even if it's a little newsletter that goes out from the property manager.
We have been able to put some other things into place that had fallen by the wayside. We had great intention to do things we weren't doing, and now we can.
Rent Bridge: There are a lot of property managers that are still not even on the fence. They are on the other side of the fence and afraid to go into the automation world. What would be your one tidbit of advice to get them over the fence?
Jennifer: I think the biggest concern is that people are afraid of change. I think the line I hear the most at our office is, "that's a NO-NO." It's like the swear jar that people have at home. The line the people use “it's the way we’ve always done it.” That is suicide. It is just the death of your company right there.
It doesn't matter how you have always done it. You at least have to explore. It may still be the best way to do it, but at least open yourself up to other possibilities. When you say it in that manner, it's like, “well that's the way we've always done it,” it's kind of like that's the final answer. I am not even going to open up that box to go and see if there is a better way to do something.
It's that fear of one more thing to do, one more thing to implement. You know, trying to get their teams engaged. You have to try to lead from the top down. If someone at the top is excited and sees a way to create innovation, you have to go do that and create buy-in working down to your team. If you don't have that, then forget about it. You can't say, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” That is the kiss of death.
Jennifer Stoops, thank you so much for sharing your insights into automation for property management companies!