Pivoting Internal Communications During a Pandemic

Dustin Lacey is one of three executives at Mark-Taylor, a 35-year-old company headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona and the largest commercial developer in the state’s history. He oversees a fairly broad umbrella of functions within the Marketing division of Mark-Taylor. The company deals exclusively with Class-A assets, of which it has 67 in Phoenix alone.

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80% of the company’s portfolio is fee-based. It manages for big-name companies like Gold- man-Sachs and Premier Group.

Lacey leads a team of five, focused on delivering the best possible value proposition for the product, which is tailored to the Class-A market.

Lacey says dealing with the pandemic has been a journey. Arizona wasn’t among the first states to go into lockdown; Lacey was fortunate in that he happened to visit a brother in Seattle in March and saw what that city was doing with its shelter-in-place plans. That gave him a heads-up, so he started preparing early for the same thing to happen in Phoenix.

“We identified our key stakeholders – we have our residents, we have our prospects, we have our clients, we have our internal team. What are their needs going to be?

What does this look like elsewhere? So we started to lean on the Arizona Multi-Hous- ing Association,” said Lacey. They leaned on a few other organizations, too.

Lacey tried to prepare for large-scale closures and changes in behavior. He wasn’t sure whether that would change patterns with prospects, but he wanted to make sure they were braced for it.

“The key for us was two things: We wanted to make sure we were first to our resi- dents and our employees with what’s going on, so they felt like they weren’t discov- ering stuff outside of our purview. Then the second piece, we wanted to make sure we were right when we came forward with it. We were very judicious with our deci- sion-making.”

That meant making sure that if they did close down, it wouldn’t just be for a week or two. Property managers were considered essential workers in both Arizona and Las Vegas, where the other branch of the company is centered. As more businesses started to close, Mark-Taylor had to form a plan to keep residents and staff safe from each other.

“By arming both our employees and our residents with answers as best as we could and we always framed any in-bound inquiry from a resident or an external vendor with this prefix statement: We’d say, ‘We are not a news source, we are not an information clearing-house, but here’s what we know – we know this doesn’t look like a brief interlude.”

Mark-Taylor partnered with another company to create an app that helped residents to pay on time, helped them to schedule meetings with property managers, and more.

“The challenge is, when you lock your offices, that [time to build relationships] no longer exists, and there’s a sense of loss for your residents. And that sense of loss can manifest into a sense of, ‘Hey, I’m not actually getting what I’m paying for here.’”

The scheduler was meant to avoid that feeling. That technology also gave people a new channel to communicate with the property teams, which had the unanticipated affect of giving those teams’ days more structure.

“There’s a lot that we ask them to do. We run large teams, so by saying, ‘This specific time period, this is going to be your resident period, they’re going to be scheduling you to do this. They’re going to get your undivided attention, which is actually kind of unusual in previous forms. There aren’t going to be any interruptions. Our property teams can prepare for your meeting.’ It’s very different from just dropping by and saying hi to the teams. So it felt more tangible, it felt more substantive. There was value there that was discovered by us at the time that we weren’t anticipating. We think we’re going to carry that through, candidly.”

The other surprising element that was by introducing a more structured day, they were able to be more productive.

“By addressing our residents, we indirectly addressed our employees. Then we had the last piece, which was our prospects.”

About 8% of the total prospects in Arizona qualify as a Class A capable prospect. That’s a small pond.

“So we wanted to ensure that the white glove experience people had come to know with Mark Taylor persisted.”

The company also added a Ring doorbell to its front door to incorporate a familiar ele- ment. It also allowed property teams to stay focused on what they were doing. If someone is at the door, the property teams will get a notification on their phone.

Another piece was to make sure people could see themselves living in your community. To do that, Mark Taylor worked on incorporating self-guided tours.

“This created more optionality for them. And in fact, when you talk about your target demo, who for us is what we termed ‘The Modern Millennial’ – Millennials like a softer sell anyway. They’re not interested in a hard sell. So this kind of met a need they didn’t even know they wanted.”

Finally, Mark Taylore created its own AI chat capability that works on both of its website platforms.

“When we push them to our site, how do they engage us? They can still pick up a phone, and they oftentimes do. During COVID, we recognized also that answering the phone became evermore important as people realized there’s probably less move- ment in this space. So while the phones still rang and the emails were still received from the form-fills on the website, the addition of the AI chat channel has been very helpful for us, because it’s allowed a low-touch experience.”

Now, upwards of 40% of all Mark-Taylor’s tours are scheduled with the chat tool.

Lacey says it’s had very engaged ownership groups that wanted to know exactly how everything the marketing team did was going to work. If something failed, they would notice it quickly and change gears.

From a client perspective, that meant making sure they were managing the perception of what they were doing well.

“Part of it was communication; the second piece was activity. We had very obvious cleaning schedules. We had cleaning sheets that were placed in very obvious positions, where anyone entering the fitness center could tell this was being addressed,” Lacey gave as an example.

Mark-Taylor also worked closely with the Governor to get updates. Communal areas like clubhouses, fitness centers, pools, and more are all extremely important amenities for apartments.

Keeping the culture alive with the company and the employees has been another chal- lenge in the pandemic.

“This is a lead-out-front moment. If you’re a leader at these companies, you should look for these opportunities.” said Lacey.

The pandemic has been an opportunity to truly listen, and to ask questions. Every aspect, from the number of calls to the volume of in-bounds on the resident portal, to the overall tone people are experiencing all matters.

“Are we doing too much? Are we doing too little? Cadence in communication was important, how affirmative we were in our disposition. We don’t want to take a position, absent perfect knowledge, so we wanted to take more of an ambiguous approach, while saying explicitly, ‘Here’s what we know: Governor Ducey did this, which means we have to do this, you will start to do these things happen in this time frame, should you have any questions, here’s how you approach that.”

Lacey developed an FAQ-approach that he learned from his 15 years of experience in man- ufacturing. They might not have all the answers, but they can expedite the way to get to information out. Using the FAQs without deviating also means everyone is getting the same information, so things aren’t inconsistent in a way that might cause worry.

Not all things were bumpy.

“We thought we were going to see a broad impact to prospect, i.e. lead generation. We thought that with the dampening of the economy, you would see result and im- pact to movement. We also knew that folks who are typically transient – Multifamily is interesting, right? 50-60% of your resident population turns over every year. It’s different by property, but that’s an interesting reality, which means folks are constantly bouncing. Fortunately, we have a footprint here where they’re often bouncing from one of our properties to the next, but we knew that would be suppressed a bit. So we had to figure out ways to continue our lease appetite.”

Mark-Taylor was concerned with the ability to keep bringing in high-quality leads. Technology helped with that. It also helped so that the company was able to maintain its entire staff throughout.

“We are very proud of the fact that we didn’t have any sort of furlough. We are in fact hiring! We hired throughout the entire period. We maintained full staff. Our commitment to our residents is that we maintain a white glove experience. We are not perfect, we fall down often. But we endeavor to be the best version of ourselves. Delivering on that promise is a contract we signed with our residents. We feel very proud to be one of the premier, boutique brands in Arizona. We wear that.”

No one in Multifamily had a model for how to deal with a pandemic. Being clear and fair and communicating that, asking for input and accepting it consistently has been crucial.

“I think as leaders, we want to always look for the opportunity in an unseen circumstance,” said Lacey. “Like anybody else in this state, we suffered from a modest amount of COVID exposure. And when that hits a property, it can take an entire property offline. So we’ve learned some things. Technology as a surrogate or a proxy can be utilized in a way that facilitates. We’re always looking for conduits that can expedite the experience, improve the experience from both sides. So the schedulers is a piece that’s going to stay. The AI chat piece is going to stay.”

Mark-Taylor also built its own CRM. It happened to go live March 1st of 2020, a coincidence that happened to be extremely fortunate.

“When you ask us where the impetus and the fortitude came from to approach it this way, we looked around at other industries and I can say this candidly, not meaning to offend anyone, but it’s more anecdotal, I’ve been in this industry more than four years now: we are a bit antiquated with some of our best practices. So there’s a lot of opportunity externally,” said Lacey

Controlling the brand experience has had to change, since people weren’t out driving as much.

The CRM focuses on call-answer rate, which Lacey says is anemic in Multifamily. Even Mark-Taylor was struggling, answering only about 6 in 10 calls, even though 93% were happening during operating hours. Lacey says that’s unacceptable. Now, with the CRM, they can get to leads first, fast, and professionally, to make sure to convert that prospect into a lease. That saves money in terms of ads.

“We’re not different for difference’s sake. We are focused on one thing: We either save our clients money, or we make them money. To do that well, you have to do the other pieces that fall from that well.”

By managing leads in deliberate fashion, Mark-Taylor was able to have 71% of its properties see record growth in 2020, despite the pandemic. Lacey believes that’s because the company became fixated on lead management.

Lacey also says Mark-Taylor wants to get a bit better at crowdsourcing.

“Before we push anything out that’s final and say, ‘This is an activity we’re undertaking’ or ‘our new approach’ we survey the team. We administer two surveys a year that are broad surveys. We survey key stakeholders, key decision-makers, thought leaders, those that can manufacture consent when we in fact do deliver a change to something new. You have to have ambassadors for change within a distributed workforce. You have to know who your people are who move the needle from an influence standpoint, because they’re the ones that will be able to influence outcomes. If you don’t include them in the conversation, their investment isn’t there. If they’re not in- vested, the emotional piece that is really what induces change – especially for those that are change-averse – isn’t there.”

Mark-Taylor goes over its ideas with members of every team and every aspect of the com- pany before moving forward with it.

If they make mistakes or try something that doesn’t work, they apologize and move on. Another piece the company wants to improve on is its roll-out of software.

“As hard as we’ve tried to preview, understand, surface bugs, squash them, do all the things, things sometimes happen.”

New programs require trial and error. For instance, Lacey says, there are 17 different ways to say “yes” in the English language. Your software needs to be prepared for that.

Mark-Taylor’s approach is to pay attention to the entire Multifamily universe, and even outside the industry and see if the company can draw inspiration. There’s a ton of opportunity and no one has reached perfection. Lacey says to identify thought leaders and lean on them.

“Expand, ask questions, don’t be afraid to fail in full view. Nobody is expecting you to understand every aspect of building an AI chat bot, for example. But start somewhere, start asking questions,” said Lacey.

It’s also a good idea to lean on your IT team and anyone else who seems tech-savvy. You can even lean on your residents in some cases! Gain knowledge anywhere you can. Lacey says he’s been learning a lot from the furniture industry’s chat bots, which are done quite well.

“Fortunately, there’s ample data around the value of CRMs. How it improves engagement rates, how it improves conversion rates, how it improves these touch points that are measurable… You want to know what those metrics are that indicate performance. That’s your vantage point from which to manage.”

By watching those data points, you can figure out where you need to improve and how to do it.

Hiring is also important. Attrition rate can make or break a company, and Lacey says Mark-Taylor truly endeavors to find the right people.

Lacey also had some final thoughts:

“I’ve been so heartened and impressed by our industry and how we’ve strived to do the right thing by our employees and by our residents. I sit on the board for the AMA. I’ve seen all our competitors – we are honored by their effort to compete with us, and they bring their best everyday here in this marketplace… And we’ve paid attention and we’ve watched how they’ve been judicious and deliberate, and I think that is, broadly, what our industry has done.”

Lacey says Multifamily is surely facing some challenges right now, from legislation and what he feels is unwarranted bad press.

“I have been so impressed by the thoughtfulness with which we’ve approached our residents, specifically, in evictions and all of that. It’s been really awesome. I think we all should take great pride in the fact that during a peak moment, where all others may have been losing their heads, we were a point of strength for our employees and our residents.”

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