Perception is Reality: What Your Apartment Community Says About You

What Your Apartment Community Says About You


The impression your apartment community gives a potential renter isn’t limited to the physical environment inside or outside of your leasing office. The appearance of your company logo, website, Facebook page, and even the attire your on-site staff, down to the color of their shoes and nail polish, will send signals to every customer about what you and your company value.

All things speak to the potential renter’s perception of the customer experience. Whether or not that perception is reality is irrelevant to their impression of you and your apartment community.

Keep the Community Message Consistent and Fresh

In the book Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service, John Hench, one of the original Disney Imagineers, reflects on his experience watching Walt Disney at work: “Walt would insist on changing the texture of the pavement when entering into a new area of Disneyland© because he said, ‘You can get information about a changing environment through the soles of your feet.’”

At Disney theme parks, they know all things speak—from the doorknobs to the dining rooms—and that the message must be consistent with their main purpose.

Before you have the opportunity to exchange words with your potential residents, your apartment community is speaking to them. Is it speaking unpleasant things about you? Or is it communicating what you want to convey?

In 1968, when the first Red Lobster opened in Lakeland, FL, it was a big deal for a restaurant to offer so much fresh seafood. The interior was a bit on the dark side and the wait for a table sometimes long. Still, guests lined up for a unique addition to the casual dining world.

But after 46 years, very little has changed at Red Lobster except the lines are a lot shorter. Lack of evolution in business speaks even louder than change at times. Some of Red Lobster’s economic problems could be attributed to a general lack of innovation and perceived customer value – specifically in the eyes Generation Y. Red Lobster, along with many other casual dining chains are just “uncool” to this generation.

According to Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant industry research firm, “Most Millennials (Gen Y) would rather starve than be caught in any of those places.” They don’t want to be seen in family restaurants that haven’t changed their look in 25 years, because the “coolness factor” speaks to Gen Y.

Take a Physical Environment Audit of the Property

Everything a potential resident sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches before they even meet you speaks to them and leaves a lasting impression. When was the last time you completed a physical environment audit at your community to check exactly what your apartment property is saying?

The devil is often in the details. Here are three areas you should “listen closely” to and ensure that what they’re saying matches your priorities and values:

Audit #1: The Leasing Office

Imagine a potential resident entering your leasing office. She notices trash in the parking lot. When she enters the lobby area, she sees employees standing around eating and engaged in personal conversations. She proceeds to the restroom and finds that the toilet roll dispensers are empty and the trash container is overflowing.

She re-enters the leasing area only to see paperwork piled on leasing desks, overflowing trashcans, sticky note reminders painted on employee desks, and burned out light bulbs in the lounge area. The music is too loud, and the cookie tray is empty.

Anything the customer observes at your apartment community that contradicts the marketing message they have already been exposed to online or from a referral becomes an intrusion on their customer experience. Even minor intrusions add up and result in concern.

On the other hand, when customers sense an atmosphere of professionalism, care, and order, they feel a sense of confidence. And confidence speaks to everyone.

From the office entry, flowerbeds, table magazines, refreshments, music, bathroom, employee attire, wall decorations, and leasing desks to brochures, printed materials, table signage, business cards, television channel, lighting and colors, all things speak.

What is your leasing office saying to your customer?

Audit #2: Community Signage

Most companies pay attention to the big things but forget about the little details that help shape the customer perception. Small details, such as signage, can negatively impact the customer experience. Believe it or not, your signage has by far the highest occurrence of negative cues to your potential residents.

Here are a few examples:

  • Future Resident Parking ONLY: Does this mean when I become a resident I must park in the rear?
  • Out of Order:  What else doesn’t work?
  • No Parking: Why? Where should I park?
  • Closed for Lunch: Really? I am visiting you on my lunch break.
  • We will return at _____ (clock sign): No one ever returns when they say they will. This speaks very loudly to your customer; you have broken a promise before you’ve even met.

It is important to engage your on-site leasing professionals in becoming aware of any signage that might detract from the customer experience. If they are creative, it’s possible to turn a negative sign into a positive and humorous one. Here are a few signs that not only will elicit a chuckle from customers (or inspire them to Instagram or Pin you!) but also will encourage them to follow the rules:

  • Unattended Children Under the Age of 12 Will be Given an Espresso and a Free Puppy
  • Santa is short of presents for the Towing Company. Your car will make a PERFECT Gift.
  • Please do not enter. Your GPS is wrong this time.
  • I wouldn’t park here. The last car that parked here is still missing.
  • RESERVED: Labradoodle Owner Parking ONLY
  • Happy people park here; grumpy people please park in rear.

It is not always the words themselves that send a negative message to customers. Faded signage, unattractive colors, chipped paint, tattered flags, rotted wood, outdated graphics and fonts, and even the size of the sign can speak an unpleasant message to customers.

All things speak. What is your property signage saying to your customer?

Audit #3: The Apartment Units

Imagine this: The leasing professional at an apartment community shows you the model home. The sidewalk is freshly painted; not a piece of trash can be seen along the way. As they open the door, the smell of fresh roses consumes your senses. The apartment is spotless, and the furniture fits perfectly. The sun is setting as you stand on the back patio and watch the baby ducks swim by. The view is AMAZING! It is like a setting drawn right from a Harlequin Romance novel.

Then they take you to “your” apartment home.

As you follow the trail of dripped ice cream on the sidewalk, the smell of fresh dog urine fills the air. Inside the apartment, it is difficult to overlook the 5X5 stain in the middle of the dining room. You turn your attention to the beautifully appointed kitchen, but the stench coming out of the refrigerator almost knocks you to your knees. After trying several times to open the back patio door, it finally releases. The mold and mud from the previous rain covers the patio, and insects quickly scamper out of the storage closet when you look inside. “Free pets!” the leasing consultant shouts out with a balance of humor and seriousness in her tone.

When it comes to your product—the apartment—make certain that the transition from the clubhouse, to the model, to the available unit doesn’t spring any surprises on the customer.

All things speak. What are your apartment units saying to your customer?

Small Details Send Big Messages

It’s the little things, the small details, which communicate strong messages to customers and potential residents. Sometimes these messages seem trivial to us, but to the customer they are significant. Every detail says something about your company’s commitment to the resident experience.

All things speak. What is your apartment community saying about you?



President and Owner, Ellis Partners in Mystery Shopping

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Joanna Ellis is CEO and Owner of Ellis Partners in Management Solutions (EPMS) and Co-owner of Renter’s Voice. Under her direction, Ellis has established itself as the premier apartment mystery shopping company in the nation, as well as a respected provider of multi-touch point resident surveys, as part of their retention-focused customer experience program. Current clients include most major apartment developers, management companies, and REITs. Through Renter’s Voice, Ellis helps clients promote and respond to authentic and objective apartment reviews. Having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business from Texas A&M, Ms. Ellis has spent more than 25 years in the multifamily industry, and she now holds both the Certified Apartment Manager (CAM) and Certified Apartment Property Supervisor (CAPS). She is also a licensed Texas Real Estate Agent. In honor of EPMS’ reputation for integrity, the Dallas Chapter of the Society of Financial Service Professionals awarded Joanna, on behalf of the company, the 2008 Greater Dallas Business Ethics Award for mid-size companies.

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