How to Increase Apartment Resident Engagement and Satisfaction: The Bridge

By: Kristy Esch

Known for her many years of writing long and short form articles for the multifamily industry. Her amazing writing continues to shine in other industries.

This week’s episode of The Bridge was recorded live from the National Apartment Association in Denver. Hosts Andy Medley and Fabian Rodriguez chat with Larry Bellack to discuss the development and success of Mobile Doorman, a mobile app that allows residents to communicate with their leasing company via smartphone. How can housing companies embrace the trends of their Millennial and Gen. Z residents? Learn the tricks and tools Mobile Doorman has adopted to increase apartment resident engagement and satisfaction.

 

 

 

Larry Bellack, President, Mobile Doorman: I think that our history and our industry is we have dictated to the resident what they’re supposed to do. And the resident has been loud and clear the last couple of years saying, listen, I hear ya, but that’s not how I communicate.

 

The Bridge is a podcast for all businesses where the consumer purchase takes place at a physical location, but those same consumers are shopping and narrowing their choices down online. That jump from online to in-store is where most businesses struggle. Each episode we will focus on real strategies and examples from industry experts on how to dominate this complex and competitive environment by sharing the latest trends in technology and process.

 

Andy Medley, PERQ co-founder and The Bridge Host: Hey listeners, you’re back here at The Bridge. We are actually coming to you live from Denver at the NAA Apartmentalize conference. As a reminder, The Bridge is a podcast for all businesses where the consumer purchases take place at a physical location, but those same consumers are shopping and narrowing their choices down online. We focus every episode on these real strategies and from industry experts and leaders, helping to understand how you’d dominate this complex and competitive environment. This episode, we’ve got Larry Bellack from Mobile Doorman, who has tons of experience. We’re going to learn a lot from him and what Mobile Doorman is doing, as well as kind of what their space is and while he also pontificates a little bit on the future and this whole, uh, digital to physical world. How’s it going, Larry?

 

Larry Bellack: It’s going wonderful. Wonderful.

 

Andy: Awesome. All right, so what’s the Mobile Doorman?

 

Larry: Mobile Doorman is a mobile app. And so when you think about Mobile Doorman, do you want to think about what do I need to do as a resident when I’m living in a rental community? And so much so that the entire industry has for many, many years has really told residents how they’ll communicate. And for the last couple of years, residents have finally said, whoa, big fella, time for us to tell you how will you want to communicate? So we talk about communicating in their currency, in their currency, as most of you know, if you have teenagers or children is this little weird device that just encapsulates every moment of their lives. And so we believe that the communication between the resident and the management company or owner should be done digitally through a mobile device. And that’s what Mobile Doorman is all about and all of that communication.

 

Andy: Awesome. Okay. So can you give me a use case? What am I using mobile? I’m living in apartment, A, B, C. And I opened my mobile doorman app. I’m using it for what?

 

Larry: Fantastic. So the very first thing you do when you move into an apartment is a move-in checklist. And so it’s interesting that our industry spends hundreds of thousands of dollars making this digital connection. They find the apartment online, they research it online, they do everything online. They walk in and the manager says, hey, thank you so much for living here. Here’s seven sheets of paper. We’d like you to go back and fill out and try not to spill too much pizza on it when you’re doing it. We take that move checklist and it’s now digitally enhanced in their app. So I now have it on my mobile app. I go back in the luxury of my new apartment. I fill out, make sure all my rooms are nice, the lights are working, the plumbing’s working. Hey, I noticed the baseboard is popped off. I take a photo of it, I add it right to my Mobile Doorman app, I send it in. It immediately creates a work order for the manager. So no phone calls to the office, no pizzas build, move-in checklist, everything is done. And on the operation side for the management company, I now have a digital record of everything that the residents said was great and maybe some areas of opportunity that weren’t so great.

 

Andy: Am I communicating with the leasing agent or whoever the property manager through the, after I send the information or what’s the, what’s the ongoing dialogue look like?

 

Larry: Correct. Right through the app so that I can send it along with a photo with comments. And then if the manager says, hey, do you mind if we come over? They can send it right through the app, which is just really cool because you and I both know that conversation’s not going to happen on the phone. And it very rarely happens in person. Now it’s done all digitally.

 

Andy: And you’re the CEO?

 

Larry: I am the president.

 

Andy: Okay. The president. Got It. And can you talk to me a little bit about… you guys are a couple of years in, right?

 

Larry: We’re about four years in. We like to say that Mobile Doorman was born again last January.

 

Andy: Okay, cool.

 

Larry: And we hit the market and hit it big.

 

Andy: Okay, awesome. And so as president, what’s that responsibility look like? What’s the day to day?

 

Larry: So that means I get to do all of the really not fun stuff. But the cool part is that I get to work with the sales team. I get to work with the operations team. I get to work with the tech team. As I like to say, and those who know me in the industry, now I get to work with a lot of people who are way smarter than me. We listened to customers and we put it together. And my job is to make sure that it all gets delivered.

 

Fabian Rodriguez: So Larry, four years ago when Mobile Doorman started, what was the need for that, right? Like you guys must have seen something or kept hearing these same things that this was a pain point in the market. What was that time like when you guys first started?

 

Larry: Absolutely correct. Like most great ideas that come out of great problems. And our CEO, Bob Madison is a big tech guy, comes from the consumer tech industry and like most apartment communities, he was living in San Francisco and hey, there’s something really important we need to talk to you about. So I’m going to take this, post-it note and put it on your mailbox. But hey, listen, if it’s really important, I’m going to slide something under the door. Oh, I forgot you travel all week. But I, but it’s really important to, I’m going to send you into the door. And Bob literally said, “This is crazy.” Why is my management company using this form of communication? So that’s how it started. And Bob said there’s gotta be an app for that. And so he built it.

 

Andy: Very cool. Very cool. Um, all right. So you said you guys are going like gangbusters. You had your rebirth in January. What are you learning from the consumer’s perspective as you start to see the engagement taking place on the app? What is expected? Because there’s always the, hey, I know exactly what this thing is intended for. Then there’s the stuff like, oh wow, they, they’re actually using it for that or they’re doing this or we’re learning this. What are some of those learnings?

 

Larry: Yeah, great, great question. When you come into a new product like this thinking well I have a pretty good idea, I think some of the solutions and problems that we’re going to address but it never works that way. So the very first learning that we had is we thought that, you know, the maintenance piece of it, which was really simple and really easy, has really helped streamline operationally. But from a resident perspective, there is a piece called the bulletin board, which is an opportunity where they can post things for sale.

 

Larry: They can say, I’m having a reading group. Every single property, without exception, that is the most used feature because it allows a one-on-one communication between the person that sets up the bulletin board and then with that other resident. So what it doesn’t become is a sounding board for political views and things like Facebook and Twitter that becomes this, you know, it just goes down a slippery slope. Our bulletin board doesn’t do that and it has just had unbelievable success. The other thing it has really created as an engagement between multiple residents on a property and as we know in the industry, the more engagement they have with fellow residents, the more apt they are to renew their lease on that particular property.

 

Andy: I got you. That makes a lot of sense. And so when you think about, um, the data that you’re capturing and you’re talking to your customers and you know, there’s the logical understanding of saying, hey, this totally makes sense. I totally understand why this would be a better experience for the consumer. Then there’s that, that chasm of like, but what’s the real value? How do I articulate that? And usually that’s through some sort of data, whether it’s time savings for the property manager or leasing agent or a hard savings, because you know, they got to replace it with something else. How do you guys think about that when you’re talking to your customers? Or what are the customers saying to you is the value by bringing this conversation for the consumer online?

 

Larry: So we’d love that question because as you know, everything nowadays is about data, and the question is, what do I do with the data? So one of the things that happens for us is that we have all of this history about an individual resident. What are they clicking on? What are they using, where are they spending their time? So all of that data we provide to the management company and the individual manager through a dashboard. So they can see when somebody opens an email, when they respond, they can send communication back and forth. But I’ll give you an example of one of the unintended consequences, which turned out to be really cool from a management company side. You’ve heard of Peloton bikes? Ridiculously expensive. Just totally cool bikes. So imagine there was a property that we had just signed for our app and they were in California. The rents start at about seven grand a month. So they put in 15 of these Peloton bikes. Day One. That night, their maintenance line blew up with phone calls. How do I use the bike? How do I use the bike? How do I use the bike? The manager called our account manager that set up our salesperson that sold to them. She literally took a YouTube video, added it onto a tile in our app, sent a push notification to every resident at that property with the video and how they could access it. The next day, they had no phone calls. They said they walked into the into the gym and everybody had their phone up on their app watching the Peloton bike video, how to use it, how to program it, unintended consequences, tracked down the phone calls, made it operationally, and they had an immediate way to communicate the problem and the solution overnight through the use of the mobile app.

 

Andy: Got It.

 

Fabian: That’s pretty amazing that they can get that turnaround like that quick.

 

Andy: Yeah. I’m with ya. And there’s a point to where even if they called and they picked up the phone and then the other person was like, well, no, listen, now you’re going to stand in front of it and there’s gonna be a button on the right and you’re going to hit that button. Yeah. That doesn’t work.

 

Larry: Yeah. It’s one of the issues that we deal with in our industry is if you have a 350 unit apartment community, you don’t have 350 residents, you have an average of two and a half people… we always joke about it. I don’t want to see the half a person, but two and a half people per unit. So you know, you’re talking about 700 to 1,000 people. So our app is intended to make sure that every resident that’s on the lease is using the app. And so the communication piece, when there’s push notifications sent out, it’s sent out to every resident on the property. And for us, it’s all about engagement.

 

Fabian: Have you found that that’s a struggle at all at these properties where not all the residents are using the app?

 

Larry: So when I first started, I thought that that was going to be the biggest challenge. But what’s interesting is not only has the world changed as we know it, but when it comes to access to information, everybody wants immediate gratification. Immediate. Which means if I want to know something that’s happening on my apartment community, I want to know now, not five minutes from now. So our engagement numbers have been off the charts. That’s the one thing that we have not had to address.

 

Andy: And you look at that engagement from a notification to the time that I’ve viewed that notification from a consumer perspective. Correct?

 

Larry: Yeah. We, we consider engagement as it, the resident actively had to do something, so they had to open it. They had to read it. Just downloading the app. Sorry. Sorry folks. For those of you listening who have apps, that’s not engagement that’s downloaded. We’re talking about engagement.

 

Larry: I opened it, I read it, I did something.

 

Andy: And what do you hear from the consumers?

 

Larry: So we hear from the consumers, I want more. One of our challenges is how do we continually add more information. They want to do more things. Lease renewal was something that, from an operational standpoint, we were hearing loud and clear. We just added a way for them to renew their lease in their app now without having to go to a portal or anything through it because it came from the management company. So now the residents are starting to ask for, I want to be able to do this. I want to reserve amenity space, I want to be able to pay my rent. I want to. So all of that stuff is now built into the app.

 

Andy: Very cool.

 

Fabian: So we talk a lot about the like digital to in-person, right face to face, uh, portion of transactions. Uh, have you found that because of the success of the engagement on the app that there’s just a lot less face to face communication at those communities?

 

Larry: Uh, unfortunately or fortunately the answer is yes. We know that… I think that our history in our industry is we have dictated to the resident what they’re supposed to do and the resident has been loud and clear the last couple of years saying, listen, I hear Ya, but that’s not how I communicate. Imagine if when I travel all the time and I’m going through the airport, the one thing I never do is take my computer, open it up to the Delta or United website and try to scan the laptop on my little check-in thing. I do it on my mobile phone. The unintended consequences. Yes, there’s a lot less face to face, but it’s like trying to have a conversation with your teenage son or daughter at the dinner table. They’re not looking at you. They’re looking at their phone. And my favorite thing to do is send a Text just says look up and I, and then I can find out whether I’m having engagement with my, you know, not teenagers anymore. But that’s fun. Um, so the answer is yes.

 

Andy: So let’s talk about what’s next for Mobile Doorman and how do you see the changing landscape for residents in this instance… in what you guys talked about the lease renewal. But when you think about, not just necessarily through the lens of Mobile Doorman, but the changing environment for that landscape in general. How do you or how are you seeing changes that are taking place cause you actually have access today to that, which some people don’t have.

 

Larry: Yeah. And I think the biggest takeaway for us over the last probably three to four months has been that there’s this app fatigue that people are going through. Now companies are, I have an app for this, I have an app for that. And so one of the things that we very early on, whether it was completely by accident or somebody who was really smart, I’d like to say Bob was really smart about this, is we’ve opened up our apps for these partnerships. So companies that for instance we do a couple of integrations with. Other companies that also serve the multifamily industry. They can actually rest right on our app so that a resident only needs to remember the name of their community. So that’s where they’re going to access our app. And then they’re able to access things like smart home technology. They’re able to access their Lyft app. They’re able to access tons of other things that all live in one place. Because what the resident has said from day one is if you want me to engage, it’s gotta be simple and understandable, but I want everything. And so now we’ve opened up the platform. So other companies, renters insurance companies, companies that provide other things to the industry can now sit on our app. So it’s all in one place.

 

Fabian: Very cool. Do you ever see where people are seeking out, like when they’re doing their research online, looking for a community to, you know, to live at, are people seeking out places that have your technology integrated with their system?

 

Larry: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we didn’t know whether that would be sort of a demand stream from the resident, but I will tell you one of our early on adopters, which is a very large management company nationally, there was a resident that lived at one property that had our app and they literally moved about two blocks away, relocated and walked in and the manager handed them a paper move-in checklist and the resident said, where’s my… no, you don’t you have it on the app? Um, the good part for us was the manager called that afternoon and signed up for property. But it became for that resident that it was all about convenience for them. They liked the management company. They needed to move to another unit that apparently had, I think another bedroom was their demand. And then very quickly she found out that they didn’t have the app and she demanded the app from the management company. And I don’t know if demand is the right word, but strongly suggested it would be a lot easier to do join

 

Andy: It’s like… this stupid, I don’t even have a pen.

 

Fabian: Yeah. It’s like anytime you go to the Apple store and everything is just done digitally, like there’s no receipt, you don’t go to a counter and then that experience is so much different than going anywhere else.

 

Andy: You got it. Yeah. I mean I just had the experience yesterday where we’re in Denver, I’m away from the business. Our CFO calls me and asks me to sign some loan docs. I said, no problem. I’ll look for the DocuSign that comes across. Um, we have a regional bank that has yet to adopt DocuSign. So I’m at the hotel, I had to go to the business center, had to print the loan docs, had to sign my name, had to have them scan it, they email it to me and then I emailed it back and I’m just laughing the whole time. Like, this is, this is crazy.

 

Larry: You know what’s interesting about that example is imagine that is now, um, replicated with somebody renting an apartment. Those renters won’t go through it. They’ll just say, you know what, I’ll go to the, I’ll go to the apartment community next door or I’m just not going to give it to you. Right?

 

Andy: There just not going to give it to you. So you’re asking me questions and I don’t know, and now I’m going to be pissed because the stuff’s broke. And what the way you want me to communicate that is by, uh, checking a box, uh, an x next to the, are the lights all working like, no, that’s, that’s just, it’s again about the expectations of the consumer once they see a better process or a more refined processes, the minute that I’m going backwards is super painful.

 

Larry: Yeah. And it’s great that you brought that up. I always think about as, as you can tell, I love to talk. My mother when I was very young, always gave me the, remember you have one mouth and two ears, you should listen twice as much as you talk. I still haven’t, I still haven’t mastered that. Um, however, I’m reminded of in our, in our industry that our residents, the residents in this industry, we’ll talk twice as much as they listen. And so what they want to hear the manager or the management company say is, I hear you and we’re going to make those changes for you.

 

Andy: Awesome. Awesome. All right, man. This is great. We really appreciate it. We’ll get you out with a couple of fun questions. So least favorite activity?

 

Larry: Anything accounting related. I hate paperwork. Uh, and I would say specifically the least favorite is a little program called Expensify.

 

Andy: Okay. I think we’re familiar with that, uh, with that product at a, at our company. And so, um, what are you currently obsessed with? Personal or professional related? Either way.

 

Larry: I would say probably the word try is become for me, both personally and professionally. I have a developmentally delayed sign who is just the epitome of optimism. And we had a long discussion about the word try and I said, you can either do it or you cannot do it, and so let’s just do it. And he really thought that that was quite an interesting take. And I think that that permeates both our personal life and our business life. And I just love people who just say, trying is not an option. I’m either going to do it or I’m going to fail fast and figure out a new way to do it.

 

Andy: That’s a great way to end. We really pursued the time there. Thank you so much.

 

Larry: Thanks for having me.

 

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