We've all been there, typing an email or working in your property management software only to find your computer lagging or throwing error codes. This is where I found myself the last few months. My laptop started double typing letters and spaces (pretty embarrassing when you type the word as) and sometimes even shutting itself down mid zoom call. Not great for business. So I did what any business owner would do, I invested in a new laptop.
As I was leaving the Apple store with my new baby, I started to think about the "tools of the trade" we each have. The term comes from Geocaching, which is a fun activity my guy introduced me to a few years ago.
Geocaching is an opportunity for you to explore new places, see the world from a different angle, and literally leave your mark. You start by searching the app to find the general location of a cache. Once you arrive at the spot, you have to search and locate the cache hidden out of sight. Cache creators have found dozens of creative ways to hide these caches from tucking them under bushes and benches to creating elaborate pipes and objects to disguise them in urban areas. Inside each cache is a log where you can sign your name and mark the date the cache was found. Tools of the trade include your phone, an app, a writing utensil, extendable mirrors, long hooks or magnets, and more. These items are used to retrieve the geocache from its hiding spot when you find it.
As a property manager, you also have many tools of the trade available to you, even more so with all the PropTech that has evolved over the last few years. Below is a list of the common "tools of the trade" in our industry and how they can help create efficiencies, checks and balances, and visibility into your operation.
Computer: This is an obvious tool. While some of us started in this industry when it was a paper and carbon copy process, most of us aren't still operating that way. A computer is the hub for our operation that allows the use of the many software tools available.
Property Management Software: While some small businesses operate without a property management software (PMS), once you get to around 15 doors it becomes cumbersome to operate without one. These tools allow you to keep contact information and details for each property, but more than that they are the accounting software for your business trust accounting. Some of these software solutions also include maintenance components and other helpful tools, but at their core they are your accounting hub and information storage. Your PMS replaces the need for paper files.
CRM (Customer Relationship Management) Tools: Focusing on sales? A CRM will allow you to track your sales leads, schedule follow ups, and customize drip campaigns to keep your leads warm until they are ready to sign up for your services.
Shared Inbox/Ticket System: Shared Inbox or Ticket systems allow your team to have full transparency in customer service. Instead of communication being siloed in individual email inboxes, your team can collaborate to better serve your clients. When a team member is on vacation, no problem! Another team member can be assigned their tickets so your clients and customers continue to receive stellar support. You can also create template responses and link to help articles to streamline support. Many of the ticketing system tools also come with access to create a Knowledge Base where you can create your interactive FAQs. This allows your clients and customers to research the answers to their questions 24/7.
Rental Rate Software: In the old days we used to call around and shop for market comps. Now we can utilize industry tools that will provide us with estimated rates based on local data. Some of these tools are even allowing you to analyze the profitability of a future investment for your owner clients.
Self Showing Solutions: Even if you are weary about self showing, these solutions can help create an upgraded experience for incoming applicants. You can prequalify prospective renters and choose the hours you'd like to be available to show specific properties. Rather have people view the properties on their own? You can set the hours a lockbox is open for business and create an interactive experience for customers to receive keys. There is even a chat feature where you can follow up with prospects for that personal touch.
Process or Task Management System: This industry is fast paced and multifaceted, which makes it a great candidate for digitized process solutions. Having a templated process will create a consistent experience for your clients and customers and help your team make sure they don't miss any of the important pieces for each experience. You can also add automation to repetitive tasks, saving time and money for your organization. The capabilities are vast! I've found with my process clients that their processes transform with the capabilities of a digital process. You can do more, provide a better experience, and protect your liability. Furthermore, many of these systems provide management with a snapshot into the day to day operations of the business. You can see where things are getting held up in your process, how your team is performing, and where you have the greatest need for an additional hire.
Phone Systems: Whether you choose a phone tree, a reception service, or a remote team member - having a solid phone system is vital to the success of your business. One of the top complaints of customers is "no one answered the phone", don't be part of the problem! There are great VOIP systems which will record your calls, track the number of calls, even your answer rate. These can be helpful tools to allow you to catch issues and find solutions quickly. You can also hire an answering service or a dedicated team member to make sure you always have someone available to answer.
Email: We talked about Shared Inbox systems, but they don't replace traditional email services. You will still want each team member to have their own inbox for employee related communication and log ins for other software tools. Smaller operations that don't have the need for shared inbox yet will use their email frequently with clients and customers. Make sure you are fully utilizing the features within your inbox! Set up rules, create folders, or set auto responses to enrich your customer and client experiences.
Scheduling/Calendar Tools: Field employees will spend a considerable amount of time scheduling appointments. The back and forth via email trying to align calendars can be time consuming or create a backlog. Scheduling tools allow you to send your link to the customer or client and they can easily pick a time on your calendar that works for them. This is also helpful for your internal staff as they can add appointments to your field employees schedules without disrupting their work day.
Digital Signature Platforms: Digital signing creates an easy way to send contracts out for signature. These can even been automatically sent if they are part of a digital process. This is a platform you will want to make sure works well with your other technology partners. Most of them have similar feature sets, but some have a much easier send and receive ability through zapier and power automate.
Key Systems: Your property management office should have a copy of keys for each property you manage. Your key system may be as simple as a key box where each key is labeled with a code that corresponds with a number in your PMS. Some property managers have adopted keyboards like you see in auto dealerships where the employee who takes the key has to leave their peg in the board so there is a physical record of who has the key. Whatever system you adopt, its important to keep track of all keys in your care. I am also a huge proponent for making key copies in house. Key cutters are low cost and can save your team time and money when its time for a new key copy to be made. This can also be a profit center!
BI/Data Analysis Tools: Ready to really level up your sophistication? Data analysis tool or business intelligence will help you monitor KPIs in a whole new way. You can take the data from your property management software, phone system, ticketing system, process solution, and more and make strategic business decisions based on your real live data. The possibilities are endless when you get to this point. These systems can be extremely costly, so this is not a tool for beginners.
The property management industry is always changing, which means property managers have to be able to evolve and pivot into new tools and technologies to remain competitive. The tools we invest in may be high cost or high time investments, but in the long run they pay off. So how do you know which tools you need in your tool kit? How do you compare different options in each category to ensure you have the right solution for your office? How do you make sure the return outweighs the cost? Property management is not a one size fits all business and different tools will make sense at different times in the progression of your organization.
Make decisions based on your current issues: Evaluating which tools you need depends on where you are finding bottlenecks and lost time or revenue in your organization. Do you find your staff taking an hour or more to sign a contract with a new client or customer? It may be time to add digital signing technology. Perhaps you are finding emails falling through the cracks and silos within the organization. The solution may be a shared inbox or ticketing solution. Does your team regularly forget tasks when onboarding new clients and customers or are they spending a lot of time chasing down documents? A task management or process solution may be in order. A new tool should be a direct solution to your present issues. You should be creating efficiency, automation, increasing revenue, or freeing up staff members time. Don't chase shiny objects. A lot of times I will meet with clients and find they onboarded new tools because it was highly recommended from someone they trust in the industry or they met someone really nice at a conference. If there isn't a direct need - you wont see direct benefits and you may overlook other tools that may have been a better option for you at this time. You will also increase burn out if team members feel pulled into new software or solutions they don't see a need for.
Evaluate Multiple Solution Options: Once you have discovered a need in your organization, its important to evaluate multiple solutions in the category of tool you need. Don't pick everyone else favorite or the tool with the most buzz right now. The favorite is always changing and not always going to be a fit for your needs. Ask for references, but also ask to speak to clients that were dissatisfied with the product. If you only speak to the sales representative, you will only see a rose colored classes view of the product. Ask for access to a free trial account or a sandbox to try out the software. Think outside the box and look for the limitations, not the functionality. A well rounded software will be an expert in its class. Every tool has its limitations, we aren't eliminating options if they don't do everything perfectly. However, it's important to enter into an agreement with your eyes open. You want full understanding of what the limits are so there aren't surprises later.
Don't be fooled by bells and whistles. Think through real scenarios you have had in your office and how the software would perform to solve your direct issues. It's also important to partner with companies with growth and development in mind. Remember how I said the industry is always changing? You always want to partner with companies that will keep up with the changes and available technology, not go stagnant - forcing you to switch to another partner in the future.
Does it play well with others: Think through your current tech stack and make sure any new technology will integrate well with your existing systems and tools. Creating more work is counterproductive to your goals! Look at the API documentation, read reviews, or talk to an expert about your current line up to ensure a good fit. For example, if you are a Microsoft office - Power Automate is a better solution for you for automations, whereas google office's will prefer Zapier.
Will I make more money than I'm spending: This one can be tricky to measure. Sometimes the money you make isn't an increase in revenue, its a decrease in cost. You've heard the old adage that time is money; adding new tools to your business could save your team time or allow you to operate with less staff as you scale. For example, if my team is taking an hour to sign a lease agreement or property management agreement and we have 10 new contracts per month, I could be spending $200 or more per month on their time. If I added a contract signing tool for $25-50 per month, I could immediately realize a decrease in my cost of $150 per month for that activity. However, if we are only signing one contract per month, it may not make sense yet for that tool.