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There's a lot of interest in the single-family build-to-rent (BTR) sector these days. Zonda's senior managing principal Tim Sullivan recently talked with Bob Mirman, CEO of Eliant, a full-service experience management partner to the home building industry, about why operators in the BTR world need to focus on resident experience to be successful in the long term.

Q: It took a while for many builders to grasp the potential impact of the customer experience on their profitability and longevity. Why do you expect BTR operators to immediately embrace the importance of delivering a five-star resident experience?

Mirman: It’s clear that customer satisfaction and sales from customer referrals is now top-of-mind for all growth-minded business owners. Most BTR executives have come up through the building industry and appreciate that their best sales force is an army of delighted residents. BTR amenities will eventually reach parity across competitive communities. Even more than with home builders, the resident experience will be the differentiator and brand builder. And since the relatively high turnover rate of BTR residents requires a constant pipeline of prospective residents, word-of-mouth and resident reviews in social media will play a critical role in keeping this pipeline filled.

Q: BTR residents’ profile more closely resembles new-home buyers than apartment renters. How would you take what you've learned with home buyers and adapt it to the BTR segment?

Mirman: Yes, BTR residents “lease like they own their home,” making them more like homeowners. Eliant’s five-step program for successfully managing the new-home ownership experience has been time-tested and is directly applicable to BTR:

  1. Our role is to help operators define what an extraordinary resident experience looks like and what behaviors are required.
  2. Just like with homeowners, residents’ perceptions of the community can change at any time, so Eliant will monitor residents’ perceptions at critical points during their journey. Interactive dashboards summarizing residents’ ratings, willingness to recommend, and verbatim comments are emailed (daily, weekly, monthly) to authorized team members.
  3. Eliant’s reports are designed to allow managers to hold leasing agents, community managers, and customer service staff accountable for delivering memorable resident experiences.
  4. In this high-turnover environment, Eliant University courses are directly applicable to ‘Extraordinary Resident Experience’ training for leasing agents and customer service associates.
  5. With multiple BTR operators using Eliant’s ‘Resident Experience Evaluation,’ benchmarking comparisons will be available to all operators.

Q: Some BTR operators currently benchmark versus apartment tenants’ satisfaction ratings. Is this a valid comparison?

Mirman: No. Since BTR/SFR residents’ needs and expectations are vastly different than traditional apartment tenants, benchmark comparisons versus other BTR firms are especially needed for this new segment. Otherwise, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and the segment loses its uniqueness.

Q: OK, I can see that your process can be transferred easily to BTR, but what about applying your years of research to BTR?

Mirman: Since the profile of BTR residents is so closely aligned to new-home buyers, we can easily transfer much of our research to the BTR segment. From our joint research with the USC, Marshall School of Business, we have identified seven key staff behaviors which directly impact customers’ willingness to recommend their builder to a friend. These measurable ‘referral driver’ behaviors form the content of our Eliant University curriculum and can be directly adapted to the BTR resident experience.

Q: On the subject of customer reviews, can we separate BTR resident reviews from those of apartment renters?

Mirman: Prospective BTR residents are currently having to look for reviews on apartment rating websites. Eliant is creating a dedicated reviews platform for our BTR clients, making it much easier for prospective residents to locate these reviews.

Q: There is a lot of talk these days about the high cost of maintenance and customer service in the BTR world. What can BTR operators learn from your research on customer service?

Mirman: Most of the negative online reviews on SFR/BTR articulate poor customer service. Recent research: 68% of lease-renewal failures are based on inadequate customer service. Eliant measures three priority service elements in our evaluations: Response time to the service request; repairs completed right the first time; and clean up after the repair. As BTR properties age and service calls increase in frequency, customer service training and accountability will ensure a consistent, memorable service experience for residents. And since lease renewals (i.e., future revenues) are so strongly impacted by the service experience, we strongly believe that customer service is not an expense, it’s a profit center and brand builder. The bottom line is that no one knows more about the leasing and service experience than the residents living in the homes. Operators must continuously listen to what their residents are saying and hold team members accountable for using this information to deliver an experience that will create brand ambassadors and higher retention.