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Brent Williams' Apartment Blog

Thoughts, comments, and ideas about the overall multifamily industry, as well as a property-specific focus on resident retention and apartment marketing.

Are Residents' Expectations of Their Apartments Really That Low?

Imagine for a moment a reviews site for trains, where people can rate their experience.  If this review site was in a third world country, "good" reviews might share how the train didn't break down on the trip, that it departed and arrived on time, and other elements that related to the very basic elements of riding on a train.  In an area where breakdowns are common, having a train that didn't break down was a source of satisfaction! 

But now imagine reviews for trains in a developed country.  You would no longer see positive reviews about the train not breaking down, because that would be a basic expectation.  You would definitely see negative reviews if one did break down, but the reverse wouldn't be true.  Instead, positive reviews would focus on the cleanliness, comfort of the chairs, and higher end amenities.

The point of this comparison is to show that the level of satisfaction is relative to the expectations that customer has with the product or service.  This also means that you can see what a person truly believes about a company based upon what would make that person satisfied.  For the first example above, if a person is satisfied simply because the train didn't break down, that implies that they don't see the train in a very positive light in the first place.  It's as if they are saying, "We understand the train is absolutely horrible, but if it can at least get me to my destination, I'll be ok."  Those aren't exactly words of someone who is in love with that service, is it? 

Now let's switch to the apartment industry.   If you go to enough education events, webinars, etc, you notice one important theme - that good maintenance is the key to having a satisfied resident, or at least one that isn't unsatisfied.  But that isn't a very high bar, is it?  I am NOT saying that maintenance isn't challenging or critical - what I AM saying is that it is a basic expectation of the resident.  If they rent an apartment, it is reasonable to assume that their fridge is going to work.  It is reasonable to assume that a leak will be fixed.  In fact, providing maintenance is one of the fundamental tenets of property management.  So it is very similar to the idea of a train not breaking down - you rent an apartment, and you expect that apartment to fundamentally "work". 

So, if we consider that residents might be "satisfied" just by having maintenance actually taken care of on time, what does that tell us about their impressions of our overall service?  It means that they think so little of us, that as long as "our train doesn't break down", they will be ok.  That is so wholly uninspiring that it is hard for me to even write. 

Unfortunately, I believe some in our industry lower themselves down to our residents low expectations of us.  We start to believe that providing maintenance is some sort of magical spell that will make them love us.  That if we can conquer that demon, we will have things figured out somehow.  But it is a mirage - they only appear satisfied because they expected so little of us to begin with.  Which means that if another train were to appear, like home ownership, that supposedly satisfied resident would quickly abandon us. 

If we end up providing good maintenance, we haven't done something miraculous - we have just done the thing we promised all along.  That doesn't mean it isn't critical - it just means that it isn't the element that will ultimately make our residents fall in love with us.  If we want our industry to be a life choice for people, then we must reach higher and farther, we must become something that is special and matches the emotional level that a "home" should be.  And I think we can do that - we can be more, and we can inspire our residents to think higher of us.

What do you think?


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This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Ok, I'll be the first to chime in. I think you are completely correct. I think some people might misinterpret your blog as saying maintenance is not important, which I realize is not your point. But the fact that our industry still has so many problems with maintenance is somewhat ridiculous. Providing a working apartment is the fundamental basis of what we are supposed to be doing, so we shouldn't pretend that by doing so, we are somehow going above and beyond.

  Jim Sanders
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Thanks, Jim - completely agree!

  Brent Williams
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Except that when someone moves in and encounters a problem with the apartment, like no hot water (because during the turn, the water heater was reset to vacation mode), the new Resident loses confidence in the whole team, even if the problem is resolved with a simple phone call.

Then there are those who have great move in experiences and generally have no real maintenance issues, how do we assure they stay in our communities? This is where I agree that we can do better, and MUST do better. How do we make apartment living THE attractive option to buying a house? This is where we have to be more than the nuts and bolts and start looking at the overall experience for the resident.

  Mindy Sharp
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I think we agree, Mindy, although I don't think my blog conveyed it very well. I think that maintenance is critical - probably the most critical element to the entire process. But in your example of having no hot water upon move-in, if the reverse was true, and they DID have water, they wouldn't have suddenly fallen in love with the community. In that sense, maintenance was absolutely critical, but it wasn't the magic pill to having the resident love us. So the point I was trying to make, but made really poorly (!), was that I don't believe we can hang our hat on the idea that maintenance alone is going to make our residents love us.

  Brent Williams
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"Surprise and delight" is a saying we have here at Modern Message that is instilled in our culture and our products. It's based on a belief that the ROI on happy customers and employees is infinite, even if it costs us a little more.

Translation for apartments: customer service!

Things like responding in a timely manner to resident requests (including maintenance), treating residents with respect in the leasing office, onsite events, smiling!, keeping a good wifi connection in student housing, offering a resident advocacy program, and/or clear communication of any issues onsite are all ways to infuse some form of "surprise and delight" into the resident experience. And we are already seeing that this does impact the bottom line!

  Michael Ivey
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Great comment, Mike.

  Brent Williams
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Brent, I often read your blog and think you are right on. However, I disagree with your assessment that "It means that they think so little of us, that as long as "our train doesn't break down", they will be ok". For those of us who provide responsive and effective maintenance we gain the loyalty of our residents and their referrals. I agree that owning a home is the shiny goal for many renters, however, many renters understand that with homeownership also comes the personal and financial responsibility for all the little drips, creaks and cracks that happen. When you rent someone else takes care of those things and THAT makes people happy. It is the basic premise that we provide a place that you can call home and we will handle life's annoyances - like a clogged sink, for you so that when you come home at the end of the day, you can relax and enjoy your home because we already handled the "dirty work" for you.
Providing a working apartment on the day you move-in is expected; however, keeping it working is equally as reasonable. Not all property owners keep up the ordinary maintenance requirements. Therefore, assuming you provide a community where people generally like living, by keeping up their living environment you ARE meeting their expectations and that makes them happy because if they owned it, they would have to do it themselves & they inherently know that.
Out of curiosity, what more do you think the average renter wants? I think most of them just want stuff to work and for the manager and their neighbors to not nag at them. Do you think they want concierge type services?

  Christine La Marca
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Thanks for the comment, Christine! I completely agree with you that many of our renters like apartment living because of the no hassle element to living there. But that the same time, that is exactly what they are paying for. So it's kind of like if we were the car industry, and preaching that if we also included working engines, our customers would love us. In other words, living up to a fundamental promise of the product or service, in my opinion, doesn't make a customer love that company - it just means that the company lived up to it's side of the agreement. There is a well documented concept called Hygiene Theory that has roots in job satisfaction, but can easily be applied to resident satisfaction, and it covers why providing the expectations of the consumer only reduces dissatisfaction, instead of providing a reason to love the company.

As for what will make residents fall in love? Well first, I think that they want their basic expectations met, such as maintenance. That stops them from being unsatisfied. But after that, the question is really tricky, in that there might be a big difference between what they actively want and what will fundamentally make them happy. I don't think many residents expect to find friends at their community, so I doubt they actively "want" that. But if they had it, I think that would be a difference maker. This is just my speculation, but I think people would enjoy feeling like they are living around people who are similar to them in similar stages of life. I have two small kids, and I think it would be a blast to live in a community where there were many others who also had small kids and also were going through the same challenges I was going through. Fair Housing made that more difficult, of course, but I do think we have overreacted and made it so that communities no longer have an identity. I could be wrong on that though...

  Brent Williams

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