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Let's go shopping.

"Wake me up when it's Friday!"

The poster slogan on the wall behind the leasing consultant's desk all but shouted its message. And the leasing effort which followed parodied the sleeping bear depicted on the poster. No qualifying of the prospect or identifying rental needs was done; no attempt at benefit selling was made; and worst of all, no effort to close with an application to complete or commitment to a tentative move-in date was presented. This was a complete leasing flop, especially as the prospect was a professional shopper.

Treat every rental prospect like a professional shopper! Such simple advice, yet it is a mindset, a motivator that continues to elude the best of property managers. Why? Because it is hard to be up on one's toes every time someone walks through the information center door. There is also the continual turnover of employees, the misleading comfort of an occasional tight market, and the changing priorities of property managers.

All these circumstances give rise to a need to regularly have one's properties shopped, either by in-house staff members or by outside professionals.

In his book Tenant's Revenge (Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press, 1983), Andy Kane describes how to effectively shop a property.

"If you inspect an apartment with the leasing agent and are considering renting it, you should leave, drive around the block, and return. The manager will think you have gone. Go to an adjoining unit, and knock on the door. Ask the tenant what he or she thinks of the building. Are there roaches and crime? Is there heat in winter? Does the owner fix things? Ask anything else that may interest you."

How would your property or properties fare under such scrutiny?

Who should shop?

Here are at least four ways to find out: Shop it yourself. The obvious drawback is that you will be recognized, and you are really too close to the forest to see the trees.

Have a friend or peer do the shopping. But do they know what to look for and will they compromise the whole evaluation program?

Use in-house personnel. (Remember, your secretary can do anything.) But they may have a similar problem of being recognized.

Finally, retain a qualified, experienced shopping service from outside the firm. Some private companies perform shopping services, as do state apartment associations. The only problem here is that a property management firm often winds up financing someone else's education at doing this sort of assignment, and one's competitors benefit from such largesse six months down the road.

In addition, these amateur shoppers are usually easily spotted as they ask too many of the right questions, tend to lead the leasing conversation something authentic rental prospects rarely do), and linger too long as they stretch for details to include in their report.

The two most reliable sources for professional shopper service continue to be property management firms and real estate management consultants who specialize in this type of assignment. Both are usually well experienced and capable. such firms can provide references and sample past reports to verify the quality of their performance. The drawback with the property management firm, however, is the potential conflict of interest when a property's management contract is up for renewal.

Supporting documentation

Norvik Management Services of Elm Grove, Wisconsin, is a property management firm that offers professional shopping services. In Norvik's case, the client receives a detailed shopper's report of the rental property as compiled by one of the company's 1,000 qualified shoppers. The report contains objective and subjective information relative to a telephone inquiry of the property, a trip to the property (off-site factors and curb appeal), and an on-site tour of the property.

During the three information gathering phases of the company's report preparation, attention is paid to leasing technique; signage; condition of models, grounds, and leasing office; and follow-up effort by staff . By developing a standardized shopping report, participants help ensure that the most common problems among leasing agents are addressed.

Professional shoppers will generally wrap up their visit with two additional steps. After the personal on-site interview, they tour the property once again (assuming they drove through it), this time photographing instances of deferred maintenance (potholes in the street), marginal curb appeal (uncut grass), and possible rules violations (bedsheet curtains). These photos become an addendum to the report sent to the property owner or property management firm who hired the shopper.

A shopper will also attempt to casually interview at least two residents of the property during the final drive-through. The shopper simply asks, "What do you like about living here? Are there problems I should know about before I move in?" Some of the most salient insights and otherwise hidden defects are uncovered during these impromptu conversations.

Potential problem areas

Melinda Brody of Melinda Brody and Associates, Orlando, Florida, specializes in sales training and has shopped leasing and sales consultants for several years. In the September/October 1989 issue of Units, she summarized the problem areas she encounters most while "mystery shopping;' as she calls it, income property leasing staffs:

* Poor phone skills. The phone conversation is not exciting! Leasing consultants respond mostly to questions asked and do not paint enough word pictures to whet the caller's appetite to visit. Rarely is an appointment set.

* Lack of qualifying and rapport building prior to demonstration. Leasing consultants are still too quick to grab the keys and run out to show the model. They should learn to use the guest card to build rapport and discover the prospect's hot buttons.

* Difficulty in handling objections and assertively asking for the order. Generally, leasing consultants are not prepared with answers to typical objections. The most common objections seem to be size and price. They need to relate more benefits and explain what the price includes. Closing always seems to be difficult. Not enough closing questions are asked during the presentation.

As these three basic problems seem to reappear often in shopping efforts, the shopping report should be structured to emphasize these concerns. Shopping reports may also be customized to address particular problems at a specific property.

Telephone sales technique evaluation

Once the rental prospect who is telephoning has been properly greeted, his or her specific needs ascertained, background qualified, and interest stimulated, the bottom line goal is to get an appointment! For without an appointment, the phone interview with an otherwise qualified prospect has been valueless. If they commit to an appointment to visit the property and talk further about a lease, the consultant has a second opportunity to close the sale.

Additional considerations during the telephone interview are to get the prospect's name, address, and phone number for follow-up purposes. Also, the consultant needs to give clear travel directions to the prospect, and ask how he or she heard of the rental community. The last question is very important as it is management's best opportunity to gauge the advertising effectiveness of whatever media is being used to further the marketing plan at the time.

Interviewing the prospect

How the leasing consultant conducts him- or herself from the moment the prospect walks in the door is another vital area a shopper should scrutinize. What could be more important?

Hopefully the consultant greets the prospect confidently and spends time asking about living needs and putting the prospect at ease. When properly used, the guest card can be a helpful aid to this end.

Finally, did the consultant make one or more attempts to close the lease transaction? Books are written on this aspect of selling and leasing-such as Zig Ziglar's Secrets of Closing the Sale (Revell, 1982). It's that important.

A final note

If a supervising manager gets every leasing consultant to believe and perform job responsibilities as if everyone who walks through the office door were a shopper, conversion percentages would improve, vacancy rates would decline, and advertising dollars would be well spent. Employing a professional shopping service is one way to ensure these goals are met.

And remember, what a property manager doesn't know is happening to rental prospects can and will hurt in occupancy, turnover, resident relations, and ultimately, return on investment. George F. Allen, CPM[R] is president and founder of GFA Management, Inc. of Indianapolis, which specializes in residential and commercial property management throughout Indiana. He is also president of Master Communities, providing management and consulting services to mobile home communities. Mr Allen writes a monthly column for the Mobile/Manufactured Home Merchandiser and is a member of the IREM Academy of Authors, a regular contributor to JPM, and past president of the Indianapolis Chapter of IREM.
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Title Annotation:property management
Author:Allen, George F.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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