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Focusing on residents.

Focusing on Residents

Good initial lease-up response is vital to the financial success of most new residential communities. The more interim rents that are collected, the better the opportunity to meet the original pro-forma and financing obligations. A good lease-up also adds to the enthusiasm of development and management staffs.

In the community, the new residents will also be enthused about their brand new home and hopefully will tell family, friends, and fellow workers all about their new apartment. Everything is brand new, the clubhouse, the pool, the appliances. The staff is still enthusiastic. What could be finer?

Unfortunately, all is not usually perfect and flawless. There are mistakes made by all of the different groups that put the project together. What the architect envisioned may not be the reality. The kitchen has only one small drawer; where will the silverware go? What the developer thought was a great roommate floor plan is not renting. The glowing comments from new residents may have an added, "but." "I like my apartment, but the TV jack is on the wrong wall in the living room." Or "The clubhouse is great overall, but the exercise room is too small."

It would be wise to take time to talk to the community's new residents and to pose specific questions about their likes and dislikes of their own apartment or the community in general. The earlier feedback is gathered, the better for all. Changes may still be made in the remaining buildings. A good way to accomplish this is by scheduling an informal focus session dinner at the on-site clubhouse or office, hosted by a representative of the management company.

The resident selection process

Who should be invited? It is not very complex. Residents can be selected after reviewing the resident files and resident profile, which all managers should continually strive to maintain. The profile can be pulled from guest cards and rental applications. Invite those who have had time to get settled for at least a month or so. Invite a resident from every floor plan available, if practical. Six to eight residents should be the maximum. Any more than this, and all will not be able to participate.

Other factors are also part of the selection criteria. Make sure you have a sampling from those suites which have the maximum amenities and features, and some from those in the most basic of apartments. If one particular suite style is not leasing well, invite a resident from this type of apartment and search out the good features of the suite during the interview. Your resident profile will tell you that 50 percent of your community is single, 30 percent are married couples without children, and so forth. Have your sample group reflect those same percentages.

Finally, as best you can, select residents from different buildings or floors for broader viewpoints. Do not eliminate those who your staff has labeled as "complainers." Those people may have the best ideas and comments. Their constructive criticism may be just what you are looking for.

Those selected should be given seven to ten days notice, first by phone followed by a written reminder using a greeting card of some type. A notice given too far in advance runs the risk of the resident forgetting or scheduling something more important. A weekday evening, around 7:00 p.m., works best unless the community is primarily made up of senior citizens. It is important to allow your participants time to arrive home from work and change clothes without being pressured or rushed.

By the way, we have rarely been turned down. We find an almost complete willingness of residents to participate.

The focus session

The total length of the session should run no longer than one and a half hours, plus dinner. It is also good to let everyone know the length of the discussion period in advance and that there is a great deal to cover. We do find when the session is formally over residents will stay and chat with each other after management has said its goodbyes. We have also had at least two occasions which resulted in single residents beginning relationships due to meeting informally at these sessions.

What should you serve for the meal? Keep it simple. We usually have a couple of pizzas and salad delivered, plus soft drinks, coffee, or perhaps wine. Hot dogs or hamburgers are always good, especially in good weather. The meal should not be the most important feature. It is usually best if the person conducting the session does not eat when the residents do.

Be sure to have a staff person taking down notes or minutes of the meeting to allow the session leader to concentrate on resident questions. It is also good to make a point of learning everyone's name early so that during the session you can address each resident by name. Use first names if possible.

The questions

Begin the session by introducing everyone or having them give their name and tell where they are from. That is probably enough background. It is good not to talk about occupations as a group.

Have all the questions you want to ask well prepared before the evening begins, and have a typed list in front of you. It is best to vary the questions and call on different participants to keep the session from becoming boring. You can be flexible if an important question occurs to you, but try to avoid asking several people the same question. Prepared questions will also keep the session positive and prevent the evening from turning into a complaint session. We have never had one of these turn out to be an embarrassing evening.

Do not pose questions about owner or management policies. Our original goal is to learn about our product and community to improve on both. We are not there to discuss our policies related to pricing, lease forms, or rules and regulations. Sticking to the categories in Figure 1 also prevents the session from becoming a landlord versus tenant encounter.

The results

Who benefits from these evenings? Management should be able to better ascertain the need for changes to future social or activity events. Perhaps staffing needs to be adjusted in certain areas. Maybe the on-site office hours need to be adjusted to better serve the residents. Volunteers may come forward for certain projects to assist the on-site staff. Major dollars can be saved if you learn that your advertising is misdirected or your signage is weak.

You will also learn about the competition from the eyes of the customer. Learn from competitors' strengths, and avoid their weaknesses.

The owner or developer learns a great deal about the product. The amenities previously thought to be important may not really lease apartments. Conversely, very important features may have been left out. Budgets for future construction can be rearranged. There may even be time to correct the most glaring of problems at this community before it is completed or to go back and make the corrections while the general contractor and the subcontractors are still available.

The residents benefit, too. They realize that someone cares about their lifestyle and surroundings. They learn management is sensitive to their needs and is willing to make adjustments where possible. They learn that we are interested in their future residency. They are also able to make new friends that evening and to feel a part of a community with neighbors they know.

These focus sessions are so easy to do. They cost so very little in time and in dollars, and the information when compiled and used can and will save many thousands of dollars immediately and in the future. Entire marketing campaigns can be redirected. Future product or renovations can be fine tuned. Moreover, focus sessions may be equally valuable for older properties. Enjoy learning about many things, you may never have thought or knew of. Your residents will think you are insightful, caring, and eager to please.

James A. Barnett, CPM [R] is vice president of the residential divisiqon at Zaremba Management Services in Lakewood, Ohio. He is also 1989 chapter president of IREM's Northern Ohio Chapter No. 41.

PHOTO : The property's clubhouse provides an inexpensive, informal setting in which the manager can conduct a resident focus session.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:property management
Author:Barnett, James A.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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