Hands shaking to show how apartment leasing has changed to something great

Apartment Virtual Leasing – Creating Something Great!

Episode 20 – JuvoHub Podcast

Apartment leasing has changed virtually overnight. Virtually is the keyword.  Samantha Hoard from First Communities takes us down the journey their organization embraced with the instantaneous culture that has taken place.  How did the “Apartment Leasing Concierge” program come into life?  Be sure to dive into the full episode.

Host(s): Jonathan Saar from Market Me Social and Mark Howell from Howl Creative Concepts

Our Special Guest: Samantha Hoard from First Communities Management

Samantha Hoard is a Senior Marketing Director with First Communities Management, based in Atlanta, GA. Since joining the Century team, Sam has overseen branding initiatives and technology rollouts; including a new reputation management dashboard rollout, resident engagement platform overhaul, lead management dashboard transition, branded storefront buildout, and integration of a self-guided tour platform.

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Show Highlights

Samantha Hoard joins us and talks about how thriving, not just surviving, was the name of the game as the pandemic took hold. 

She shares with us how the creation of a virtual concierge leasing assistant changed how they did business with outstanding results and discusses how this came to be via amazing leadership that fostered teamwork and commitment, along with a little help from Mark Howell and his time management classes.

There were many moving parts that were needed to make a success out of such a huge undertaking. So join us as she shares how her team took the conception of a virtual concierge leasing agent and made it a reality.

Key Topics Covered

Strong Leadership- What did leadership do to motivate you?

I think we are fortunate in the leadership that we have at FCM. We’ve got a group of executives that really support value and believe in us and provided a space where we could still thrive and create and grow despite some of the challenges we were all facing globally.

There’s a commitment to each other that is unparalleled. It’s really allowed for us all to flex the right muscles, to thrive, to showcase our talents, and we really have just been able to overcome a lot in the last year.

Leasing Concierge- New program to assist leasing

As things evolved, we all had to be nimble, had to think on our feet. And one of the things that we realized, probably in April, that we wanted to consider exploring was a virtual leasing position.

March 16th, the day the world stopped, there was a lot of quick, decision-making, quick, concise communication. We were able to get our policies and procedures buttoned up in place. So by April 1, we were really thinking, “What’s next?” And over the course of the summer, our team got to work.

We had a couple of focus groups. We spoke with clients and spoke with vendors to make sure we would set up the technical components. But by the fall, we were in a position to roll out a full-time virtual leasing concierge role.

KPI’s-  Tell me about the key performance indicators

Part of what we were doing during that April to October period is putting together the metrics by which we would determine if this was successful. Once we were actually live with our VLC, we put together our target performance goals for this position.

And it’s really exciting to see that several months in, we’ve been able to move the needle in almost every category. From a conversion perspective, across the pilot properties sample, we’ve seen a 2% increase in prospect to tour across all properties. We’ve also seen a 2% increase in the number of prospects that have actually applied, which is huge.

Today’s Consumer Needs – Gen Z’s and millennials  (compliments on-site experience)

The average consumer today are millennials and Gen Zs. They are not going to do what we used to do. Get in the car and spend hours driving up and down apartment row. And they’re so much smarter than we ever were.

They will call you; they’re going to expect that they’re going to have an intelligent conversation with the person that is answering that phone.

Having this hybrid approach of a virtual leasing concierge and on-site agents really appeals across the board.

What one actionable tip could you share that has served you well as an educator?

“Good things come to those that hustle.”

Samantha Hoard

If you enjoyed this episode be sure to check out :

Jonathan Saar: Hello everyone and welcome to episode 20 of the JuvoHub Podcast, your helping hand in property management. This is your education station for no matter where you are in your career. Whether you're a senior and been in the industry for years or just coming out of college, this is the podcast for you. We are so excited today to have another guest with us, but before we get into our guest and to our topic, just want to as always introduce my wonderful, fantastic, awesome co-host Mark Howell from HOWL Creative Concepts. Mark, how are you bud?

Mark Howell: I am great, man. Thanks for the introduction. I love it. They seem to get more elaborate every time. So keep it coming, man. That just makes me feel good.

Jonathan Saar: Yeah. My wife, Renee, she's going to get me at thesaurus just specifically so I can work on my adjectives about you so I have a new one for each episode. That's my goal. Expand the vocabulary.

Mark Howell: Well, I'll send you a list.

Jonathan Saar: Okay, yeah.

Mark Howell: I'll send you a list. Stunning, handsome, brooding. I mean, the list, I'll send you the words that you should use.

Jonathan Saar: Okay. Okay. You're the man, always there to help me. I appreciate it. That's awesome. And with us today is our special guest Samantha Hoard from First Community. She's a senior marketing director based here in Atlanta, Georgia. So Sam, welcome to the show. So nice to have you.

Samantha Hoard: Thank you guys so much for having me. I'm so looking forward to catching up with you both.

Jonathan Saar: Yeah. Appreciate you taking the opportunity to be on the show today, and interesting topic. A lot of property management companies that we've had in the show recently have made some great comments and express challenges that they've had to go through with this pandemic. And you're going to be talking specifically about leasing concierge. So we're looking forward to hear more about that and I know Mark's got a great panel of questions to kind of get the conversation going for us.

Mark Howell: Yeah. You know what, Sam? I'm fascinated to start this conversation with you. I know we've talked in the past about it and first of all, I just want to start by saying, so you guys over at FCM, you did some incredible things during this pandemic. The title of our topic with you is "Thriving during the pandemic creating something great." And then we're going to talk about your leasing concierge service. So what I really want to just have you tell me first is how were you able to thrive during the pandemic? Because I know you did. I watched some of the great things that you guys rolled out and it was really, really incredible. And so what I want you to tell me is what do you think helped or made that happen? So tell me.

Samantha Hoard: So I think there were two things that really made the difference for us. I can't speak on anyone else's behalf, but I think we are really lucky in the leadership that we have at FCM. We've got a group of executives that really support value and believe in us and provided a space where we were able to still thrive and create and grow despite some of the challenges that we were all facing globally. And I think one of the things that I value above all other things, and I love about working with First Communities since I've been here seven years, is there's just a commitment to each other that is unparalleled. There's just... we thrive together. If we fail, we fail together. There's just such a commitment to that team and to each other. It's really allowed for us all to flex the right muscles, to thrive, to showcase our talents, and we really have just been able to overcome a lot in the last year.

Mark Howell: I think that's great. What I love about what we're going to talk about next is that a lot of companies really struggled to just even survive. Kind of figure out how to keep things, moving, keep employees motivated, keep them from rocking themselves in the corner in their offices, and you guys created some pretty impactful things during the pandemic. And first I just have to say, I watched a lot of the rollout that your leadership team did as far as your phases. How to navigate through the pandemic with your residents, with prospects, all that. It seemed very... Let me say it like this, it seemed very smooth and seamless to me, but I'm sure there were a lot of hiccups along the way, but let me tell you from an outsider looking in, it looked pretty flawless.

Samantha Hoard: Thank you.

Mark Howell: But what I find fascinating about it too is that during all of this, you guys were still innovative. You wanted to create something that was needed and now. Now meaning like, "Okay, now what do we do?" Type thing. Like, "Where are we now?" We all struggled with the whole virtual touring, getting that kind of going, but tell me a little bit about what it is that you guys created during the pandemic that you are so in love with. And I'd love for you to share it with the viewers and me and Jonathan again.

Samantha Hoard: Absolutely. So like you said, to be able to continue to innovate during the last year, not something everybody had the luxury of doing. A lot of people were in straight survival mode, and I think everybody... that's exhausting. So to be able to just get still while filling a need was really exciting for us. As things evolved, we all had to be nimble, had to think on our feet. And one of the things that we realized, probably in April, that we wanted to consider exploring was a virtual leasing position. March 16th, the day the world stopped there was a lot of quick, decision-making, quick concise communication. We were able to get our policies and procedures buttoned up in place. So by April 1, we were really thinking, "What's next?" And over the course of the summer, worked with our team.

Samantha Hoard: We had a couple of focus groups. Spoke with clients, spoke with vendors to make sure we would be able to set up the technical components of it. But by the fall we were in a position to roll out a full-time virtual leasing concierge role. So we've got a leasing consultant who is supporting a portfolio of properties, sight unseen. She's in Austin and supporting properties on the East Coast that are in another time zone that she has never stepped foot on and doing it very well. So yeah, high level it's, that's kind of that in a nutshell.

Mark Howell: Jonathan, what you think about that? I see your head shaking. I know you're nerding out aren't you? You love this.

Jonathan Saar: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Because I mean, just even the date timeframe. So here we are, you said March of 2020, right? And then by April, that's within just a couple of weeks when everything was really... Because I remember how quickly everything just went to a screaming halt. The end of February of last year moving into March and to take the traditional model of the on-site leasing team and to move it to a virtual on that level, I had no clue. When I was looking at the notes before what we were going to talk about, that is just, yeah. To use your word Mark, I'm geeked out, I'm nerded out. That is fantastic, fantastic. Just to see that you guys were able [crosstalk 00:08:12].

Samantha Hoard: Thank you.

Jonathan Saar: That fast.

Samantha Hoard: Yeah. So one of the things and one of the things that I think is important to distinguish is this program is a compliment to your traditional staffing model. It's not necessarily a replacement. Obviously during the pandemic dependent upon which phase we've been in. In some situations it has been instead of, but more often than not and the long-term goal for this platform is it for it to be in conjunction with your traditional leasing model. Our virtual leasing concierge works hand in hand with the onsite teams. She feels pretty much like an extension of their team. She supports them, they support her. And I think by us really taking April to October to have the focus groups, the conversations vet out the policies, procedures, processes, the way we did, we were able to start with much smoother sailing. We're a couple months in now and looking to expand the program beyond the pilot phase, if that tells you anything about how it's gone.

Mark Howell: That's so incredible to me. I also, I have to stop and just say what a great thing to have for the future. Sam, you and I talked about this the other day that this isn't something that just... Yes it may have been given birth due to and during the pandemic, but it is something that will be very sustainable for the future because when you think about the average consumer today, they're just getting younger and younger, right? It's the normal progression here, but the younger generations are more savvy. They're going to shop in a very, very different way, and so the fact that... You said something very important here, it doesn't take away from that on-site leasing consultant, it just sort of adds. They work in tandem, but for a property or a property management company that did need to find a way to make the payroll budget stretch a little further, or if cuts needed to happen, this is a great way to have that little extra support.

Mark Howell: If and when you did need to bring in just solely maybe you have one leasing consultant out on site and this person gets to do a lot of that legwork. I did speak to one of the leasing concierge this week and she was telling me she helps book appointments for the people out on site. She definitely tries to still lease over the phone, but I was just talking to her about these same things. Is the average consumer, do they really love doing business this way? And they do, the average consumer is going to love this. So tell me more. Tell me some of your KPIs. What is it that you're looking for? Where do you see this going for your future?

Samantha Hoard: So part of what we were doing during that April to October period, is putting together the metrics by which we would determine if this was successful. And we were in a weird time last year so the way we kind of evaluated things, we looked at things pre-pandemic. We looked at things during pandemic and then starting in November, we started going month over month. Once we were actually live with our VLC, we put together our target performance goals for this position. What we felt like would make it successful in terms of conversion, engagement, responsiveness, and then the impact to our overall marketing spend.

Samantha Hoard: And it's really exciting to see that several months in we've been able to move the needle in almost every category. From a conversion perspective, across the sample of pilot properties, we've seen a 2% increase in prospect to tour across all properties and then we've seen a 2% increase in the number of prospects that have actually applied, which is huge. I mean, and a lot of that has to do with having someone who is solely focused on the prospect experience. She doesn't deal with resident phone calls, she doesn't deal with vendors. She's not walking, move in. She's not planning resident events. She's not doing all of the other really important vital things that are critical to our success, but she's focused solely on leasing and we're starting to see her impact across the board.

Mark Howell: How smart is that? I mean, so smart.

Jonathan Saar: Yeah, absolutely. I was kind of wondering about was, I remember I've never been a leasing professional, never been one. So back when I got into the industry, Sam, the only way I could understand what the various roles were, I sat on site on a few different properties that we worked with back at my former company. And like you said, this is happening, that's happening, the phone's ringing and this person's coming in and you got... wow. It just opened my eyes to how tough that role is as a leasing professional and-

Samantha Hoard: Yeah.

Jonathan Saar: So now that it's kind of out of the, sort of out of the pilot phase, do you have... What are your expectations? I guess my question's, you've already seen the benefits 2% here, this change here. What do you foresee as if that's an okay question to ask?

Samantha Hoard: So yeah, absolutely. So, I mean with any leasing position, we want to see the position drive leasing ultimately bringing in money to the property and by our VLCs increasing those conversion rates, increasing the engagement, being more responsive. We have already started to see an impact in our overall marketing spend. During the pandemic I think it's hard to look at things in just the pandemic period, because that is a little bit of a vacuum with skewed data. But to be able to say that in 2020, in this pilot environment, we reduced our cost per lease across five properties, that's huge. And that's something that your owners care about significantly. To be able to say that we were more responsive to prospect inquiries is huge. And I only expect that to be better as we have worked out the kinks and everyone's more comfortable with the overall workflow and process. To say that we answered 12% more phone calls in our pilot environment than we did in pre-pandemic or pandemic times, it's huge. And you're really starting to see the impact of this position in the overall property performance as it relates to occupancy across the board.

Mark Howell: I am fascinated about when you built this, what types of tools did you have to build for this person to... You said this person oversees several properties. I look at them as a little regional kind of leasing consultants. So if they have to be extremely prepared with knowledge about the website for each of those properties. If the price changed, what the special is, the floor plans and square footage is for all of those things like, "Oh my gosh," that's overwhelming. I remember being out on site and thinking I'd walk into a property and be like, "What? We have 20 floor plans here," and feeling overwhelmed. So imagine if this person has 20 floor plans on five different properties. But tell me, how do you, and you don't have to give me the secret sauce, but obviously you had to prepare this person for success. So what types of tools does it take to get somebody ready for that type of adventure?

Samantha Hoard: So I think that was one of the things that we took probably the most seriously before going into the pilot phase. I think it's really important for this kind of position to find the right person for the job and we were really lucky to be able to identify someone internally. Your onsite teams know each other and know their strengths and weaknesses better than anybody. So we actually asked our community directors to nominate candidates for this position. So we were looking internally at our top performers. The person that started in this role, she's fantastic. She's been with us for over two years and was a consistent top performer in a leasing position. She was actually being cross-trained for an assistant community director position when this came up and we had a conversation with her and just asked if she would be open to a new career path for her and herself.

Samantha Hoard: And I think this has given her a lot more flexibility as a leasing consultant to have your weekends off. What is that? She works from home. It's been really successful for her and opened some doors for her. But I think finding the right person was critical and we spent a lot of time with her ramping up before just setting her free, to make sure she had the tools to be successful. Time management was critical. She took a couple of time management classes that FCM offered through Mark, which were really helpful and she uses those tools today. One of the other things that was really important to us and that we've learned from over the last couple of years is it's a lot easier to get something right on the first pass if you have your technology set up correctly.

Samantha Hoard: So we were very intentional about the tools that we were giving her access to and the partnerships that we have. If we didn't have a lead management system in place that was going to sustain this sort of environment, it would have never been successful. Our portfolio across the board uses Knock and Knock is very in tune to their client's needs and grows in the direction that their clients are growing. So they've been really critical to the success of this. They're getting ready to roll out a couple of new things that we're betaing with them that are only going to make this easier. Our IT team was integral. So all of our property phones, our voiceover IP phones, which made it a little bit easier than if you were on a traditional dial-up phone.

Samantha Hoard: So we were able to alter the phone trees without physically stepping on the property or having to deal with the phone companies, which was really nice. Tom and our IT department shout out to you. So there were a lot of behind the scenes technical pieces that had to happen before we could even think about coaching her up and making sure she was in the position to know all of the things about all of the properties. From a coaching her up perspective, making sure she felt prepared. Do you remember the old school Community Product Knowledge Notebooks?

Mark Howell: Oh yeah.

Samantha Hoard: So that was my manifesto when I was on sight. I lived and breathed by that book and we thought about that long and hard and I'm sure you know Jen Brown, who's one of my counterparts. She comes from a training and talent development background. So working with her hand-in-hand to make sure that we took the components of that that were still relevant in 2020 and beyond, and really tailored that to a virtual environment. And that has been something that's been really successful and going forward, I think, you'll see a lot more teams using something that is an older school mentality, but making it fresh again. I feel like I'm rambling on what else do you guys want to?

Jonathan Saar: That was awesome.

Mark Howell: No, I love that, but I do have to stop you and say, "How dare you? How dare you say that the Product Knowledge Notebook is old school?" That was a punch to my heart. I still use one of those. I teach it all the time.

Samantha Hoard: It's a game changer. I mean, I remember my first day on site, I got my Community Product Knowledge Notebook in my little leather at zipper, trapper, keeper binder. I probably still have it somewhere.

Mark Howell: Yeah. Look, I think it's so important still today and what I think is interesting about this part of the conversation is we say it's old school, but the Product Knowledge Notebook, like you say, once tweaked, once kind of brought into the new year 2020 or 2021 let's say, it can be so much more beneficial. It should be filled with so much more information, so much more valuable knowledge about not just the square footage, but the community itself. And so I imagine building a program like this has to take a lot of that videos of all of the vacants, the models for different properties and products so she or he is very well prepared for any of those kinds of questions. Let's face it, the average consumer today is going to call your property first. I do, look that was old school too, that drive by. Was it a drive by signage?

Mark Howell: I mean, I know we still have this conversation lot with property management. People still want that as one of the marketing sources, but the average consumer today are millennials, are Gen Zs. They are not going to do what we used to do. Drive, get in the car and spend hours driving up and down apartment row. And they're so much smarter than we ever were. And so they are going to call you, they're going to expect that they're going to have an intelligent conversation with the person that is answering that phone. But what I find fascinating about these Gen Zs that are coming is that they do want and appreciate that type of environment. That working from home, the flexibility. It is not what I am accustomed to as far as my old school mentality with this business, but I've been in the business for 20 years, but I love that it has changed. I love that this is something that I find can be a step into the future that I truly believe will be very sustainable and I think people are going to absolutely love it, so...

Samantha Hoard: It's been really fun. It's been challenging in its own ways. Hey, but what about 2020 wasn't challenging? I think as we continue to grow this program, there will be additional components that we do put in place to make it more efficient. But I think we were kind of... we had already set ourselves up for success with this, with some of the things we had done prior to the pandemic. All of our properties before the pandemic started, had at least three Matterport tours of actual floor plans. But by the time summer hit, we had at least another three at each property.

Samantha Hoard: So you already had a good sampling and you were able to speak to the closets, the fixtures, the finishes, look up, look down and turn yourself around. All of the properties had done pre-recorded tours of all of their vacant floor plans. So whether it's you as the VLC using that, or you as the physical leasing agent using that, you've got that in your back pocket as well. Just really making sure from a leasing perspective, you had all the tools you needed to be able to close on someone's site unseen. And I don't think that's going away anytime soon.

Mark Howell: No, mm-mm (negative).

Jonathan Saar: That's awesome.

Mark Howell: Not a bit.

Jonathan Saar: And I like, as I've been listening to your different comments, Sam, it's when you first started saying that the virtual leasing concierge, here's the visual that came to my head. Now this will be really old school. I don't think I lived then, but you guys remember visuals of the old switchboard operator? So you were having multiple calls, it's like, "Click, click, click," and you're having to catch all these calls. That was the silly little visual that popped into my head thinking of what that must be like with all of those calls but you eloquently kind of gave us the outline from a tech perspective. All the checks that needed to take place to make sure that this position was going to be a success. Otherwise I can just only imagine with the amount of phone calls and emails and chats and other things that may be coming in.

Jonathan Saar: It'd be very difficult to manage all of that all at the same time but it sounds like you guys have really vetted that. And I think of it from our listener's perspective, who would just be like, "Okay. Yeah, it's more than just knowing the floor plan and knowing the property and knowing the amenities. There's the management of the position and making sure that that position is ready to be successful and not get burnt out from it too even if it is virtual and you're not having to deal with this other factors that happen onsite all the time, that still can be potentially a lot to juggle and manage all at one time." But from what you have outlined, it sounds like it's working quite well. So kudos to you guys in the First Communities for sure.

Samantha Hoard: Thank you so much. It's been a lot of fun. I'm really am looking forward to seeing the impacts. I'm looking to have our next two VLC roles go live in the next 45 days. So later in the year we'd love to give you guys some more information as things are impacting the portfolio in a broader scope.

Jonathan Saar: We need to get them on the show.

Mark Howell: We have to do that. "Where are they now?"

Samantha Hoard: Yeah.

Mark Howell: We could do a "Sam Hoard, where are they now?" kind of thing, and have her back on and tell and have one of them as a guest. Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you, Sam. This is fascinating to me. I will keep my eye on that and yes, Jonathan, let's put her down for a "Where are they now?" kind of thing.

Jonathan Saar: For sure, for sure.

Samantha Hoard: Absolutely.

Jonathan Saar: I just think what an excellent, excellent topic Sam and so grateful for you being here today because it's... Pandemic or not, the fact that you have already had some of these steps in mind, just because culture is changing. Technology drives people. Mark's point of how generations are changing and being able to adapt to these changes that are... and we're just scratching the surface on what probably is yet to come as we unfortunately are trying to disseminate well, what has COVID done to our industry and what are other changes can we foresee. So yeah, thank you so much for being on the show. And yeah, Mark put her down, man. Let's do this. A few months from now-

Mark Howell: I will.

Jonathan Saar: We'll see, we'd love to hear some feedback and have one of your...

Samantha Hoard: Absolutely. When we're able to all be in the same room, get me Jen, one of our VLCs. Pauline, the brain trust that created this baby.

Mark Howell: I would love that.

Jonathan Saar: Yeah.

Mark Howell: That sounds like a great show to tune in for.

Jonathan Saar: Yep. Make it so my man, make it so.

Mark Howell: All right. We'll put them down on the books.

Jonathan Saar: Very good. Well, thank you so much. Great commentary, great subject. So happy to have you with us Sam. So before we close out, we typically like to hear from our educators who are guests. What's your go-to quote or thought that kind of either you use with your team or you use for yourself. Any go-to quotes or expressions that have always resonated with you?

Samantha Hoard: I'm going to keep it real with you guys. I could go with something very formal, very buttoned up, but you can ask anybody on my team and there are two that are authentically used on a regular basis. One being, "Good things come to those who hustle." That was one of the first things I put on my desk when I moved to my desk at First Communities. Actually, Rob commented on that the first time he came by my desk, and I think it's important. It's valuable. People recognize people who hustle hard and who put the work in. And I think that those are the people that you want on your team. You want on your side, you want in the trenches with you and those are the people that are rewarded. So that's probably the most authentic one I could give you guys.

Mark Howell: I love it. And it's so true. Oh my gosh, it's so true.

Jonathan Saar: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for that. Good to live by. Yeah, we got to. There's always lots of work to do it takes a team and you've mentioned that so often throughout this whole conversation that it's your team. You work together, you fail together, you en encourage each other, you look at your accomplishments together. So it's a team effort, all that hustling. So yeah, thank you for that. Awesome. Awesome. So let's close it out. How can we connect with everyone? So Mark you go first. Tell us how our audience can keep in touch with you?

Mark Howell: Yeah, if anybody wants to reach out to me, Mark Howell, howlcreativeconcepts.com. My email address is mark@howlcreativeconcepts.com. The "Howl" is spelled H-O-W-L like, "Howl at the moon." Howl. But that's me. You can reach me there, and Sam, how about you?

Samantha Hoard: You can find me on Instagram at Samantha K Hoard, Twitter with the same handle. Obviously I'm at First Communities, you know where to find us.

Jonathan Saar: Awesome.

Mark Howell: Love it.

Jonathan Saar: Awesome. Awesome. Yeah, Mark, you and your fantastic set of trainings. I think Sam, you alluded to that too, that you've been using Mark. So for anybody who's out there looking for a trainer to come and instruct your team, keep Mark in mind. My name is Jonathan Saar from Market Me Social. It's been awesome to be here for episode number 20. We look forward to seeing you on our next show. Be sure to subscribe. Give us a review if you haven't done so already, we really appreciate your support. Take care, everyone. We'll see you next time.

Mark Howell: Bye guys.

Samantha Hoard: Bye.

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