Personal connections and service have always been important in real estate. But when the onset of COVID-19 rapidly changed property managers’ ability to provide in-person service, many found ways to adapt by bringing that service into a virtual environment.
Companies like Cambridge Management Group, who were early adopters of innovative leasing technology, already had the tools and processes in place to adapt to this fully digital world — but now, they were challenged to find ways to keep that digital experience a personal one.
In this week’s episode of the COVID-19 Expert Interview series, AppFolio’s CMO Aimee Miller had the chance to discuss all this and more with Cambridge’s Chief Operating Officer, Kayla Röeder.
Listen to their conversation to find out how they dove head first into the virtual world, just in time to respond to COVID-19.
- “I think we understand the value of technology. But when you’re in the middle of a crisis, I think that’s when you really appreciate the efficiencies that are created by all of the different pieces that a system has.”
Cambridge Management Group had just completed the upgrade to AppFolio Property Manager PLUS shortly before their team began to work from home. As they began using even more features within the system than they had before, they saw a major benefit in having all of their paperwork and processes together in one place, online.”
- “It’s going to be an interesting next couple of years to see what we make of it as an industry and if we can figure out a way to bridge that gap and move more to a virtual world.”
As an early adopter of virtual leasing technology, such as AppFolio’s AI Leasing Assistant, Lisa, Cambridge was prepared to move to a fully virtual leasing process. They have remained able to lease units and have not seen a major impact on leasing performance during this time. The property management industry as a whole will continue to grapple with these challenges, especially when it comes to establishing trust and a personal relationship with customers, but there is an immense opportunity for companies who can use technology to provide a human touch.
- “I’m hoping that we can create a hybrid solution for our team. We have a great team and they’ve done an amazing job working from home. I think that there could be a benefit to it for both sides.”
The team at Cambridge was able to remain highly productive throughout the transition to working from home, and actually discovered that this arrangement offered greater convenience and flexibility. Kayla hopes to continue allowing team members to work from home more regularly even after the need for social distancing is reduced.
- “There’s no way we can do what we do without you guys and the team that runs behind AppFolio. It’s definitely made life a lot easier and set aside a whole set of challenges that we haven’t had to deal with through this whole thing so that we can focus on the people aspect at the heart.”
One factor that has contributed to the success of Cambridge Management Group is their constant focus on the people at the heart of their business, including their staff, their residents, and their owners. Although technology provides greater efficiency, they have never sacrificed the human element — instead, they have made the most of those efficiency gains and seen it as an opportunity to build stronger relationships.
This interview has been edited for length & clarity.
Aimee: Good morning, Kayla. Thanks so much for joining us today. I thought we would just start by you sharing a little bit about yourself, and your company, and tell us a little bit about your background.
Kayla: My name is Kayla Röeder. I’m in the San Diego market. We have a business in San Diego County where we manage and operate all residential properties. 50 units or less is really what our sweet spot is. Our company is called Cambridge Management Group and we mostly manage for individual owners, tiny conglomerates. And most of them are all retirement investments for our owners for the future.
Aimee: All right, great. And you’ve been in the property management industry for how many years now?
Kayla: Too many. I’ve been in the industry since 1999. So 20 or 21 years… Wow — 21 years.
Aimee: You’re a member of lots of different industry associations as well. Tell us just a little bit about your industry involvement.
Kayla: So we’re members of the local organization San Diego County Apartment Association, which is also now SDRHA, the National Apartment Association, the Southern California Rental Housing Association, which is the state organization. I serve on the board for IREM to do real estate management here in San Diego. And we do have our AMO, credit and management organization through IREM. So really, we are super involved, locally all the way up to the state level. So I think it’s very important in order to understand what laws are coming down, and keep educated on what’s new in the industry, and make sure that we’re staying on the forefront.
Aimee: Tell us about your portfolio. You guys have been an AppFolio customer for a long time.
Kayla: We’ve been using AppFolio since 2011, I believe. Quite a while. We just started using AppFolio Property Manager PLUS, which was very exciting for us as we went into the quarantine. So we were able to utilize a lot of those features. And we had just signed up and essentially ripped the bandaid off and dove head first, utilizing all those features as everybody went home and were working from home.
Aimee: Tell us a little bit about that transition, going from an in-office team to working from home. How did that work? And what were some of the lessons that you learned during that process?
Kayla: Well, I can tell you that I think probably overall we were already prepared to work from home. We have a lot of site staff, and everything is run through our corporate office anyways. So we’re connected from that standpoint. And we already had the systems in place. I think the one benefit that we had quickly transitioning to [AppFolio Property Manager PLUS] was getting all the paper checklists memorialized into the system.
So it was easier for us not having people in the office. We were able to track work as people were moving through the checklists now in AppFolio. That was really beneficial for us. So I think overall our systems lended themselves to the work from home environment. But taking it one step further and being able to transition a lot of the paper that we push around the office into more of an electronic format was probably one of the biggest benefits that I saw.
Aimee: Yeah, that’s interesting. And how has it been? Property management professionals are really on the front lines of navigating this, both from managing it with your residents and, of course, all your other vendors and other customers. Have you had to change any of the ways that you’ve been conducting business with the residents? And, if so, what are some examples of that?
Kayla: We closed all of our offices probably about three or four days before the government mandated shutdown. So I would say probably 14 days before the shutdown, the owners of the company were meeting every single day at 2:00. We had a standing 2:00 meeting trying to figure out and navigate. So, “Okay, we have this emergency plan that’s already in place. We’ve got systems. Nobody knows what a pandemic actually is going to look like. What are going to be the hurdles?”
So we came up with a phase one, phase two, phase three. And keeping the company viable and the doors open, I think, was a big concern for everybody. So what does it look like if your management company doesn’t have management fees coming in because residents can’t pay rent and we can’t generate income from the maintenance because you can’t get into people’s homes?
So [we walked] through all those different scenarios, 14 days leading up to an actual shutdown, trying to figure out what our worst case scenarios looked like, and then backing it back from that. “Okay. So that’s our worst case. That’s phase three. How do we back it back a little bit?” Phase two. Then the phase one shut down. Thank goodness we haven’t had to get to phase three.
My two business partners were in D.C. just as everything was starting to break out, because everything hit on the East coast first. So they were there at the NAA Capitol fly-in. And just at the tail end of that is when they started shutting down D.C. So I was here in San Diego, they were there… It was one of the craziest times I think we’ve ever had to experience. A challenge, for sure.
But there’s definitely been a lot of lessons learned. You have that emergency plan that’s in place for a reason. So thank goodness we had that in place because it gives you a framework to build off of. So we had the framework. And then from that framework we then were able to create the contingency plans to maneuver through the time… thankfully, everybody was sharing ideas and were an open book because everybody needs to be able to get through it.
Everybody was having conversations through that time. But I can’t imagine literally creating a plan from scratch during utter chaos. Because it was utter chaos for probably about 14 days until the first shut down happened. And then, I think, about eight days after that, is when things just finally hit a little bit of a plateau. It was organized chaos at that point. But I think the big unknown for everybody was how are people going to pay rent? You know?
Once they started getting the money into people’s hands, and the unemployment checks, and things like that, okay. [Now] we’re starting to see how it’s going to shake out. Again, it’s not just your residents, but it’s your owners. And we’re dealing with a lot of small ownership.
So we’ve got either husband and wife, or you’ve got a single person that owns these buildings as an investment for a retirement in the future. But they also were working and have their own expenses. And it’s getting as much information into their hands [as possible] so that they can then maneuver on their end. Because there’s so many moving parts with a property. You don’t know what their financial situation is like. Are they going to lose their jobs through this whole crisis? And what’s the ramification flowing outward?
Again, there’s a lot of emails going to them. It was creating contingency plans with them saying, “Hey, there’s five options that we can do. Let us know if you want to take advantage of any these. None of them, if you’re fine.” We had some owners that chose to take advantage of delaying payments on some bills in order to make sure that they’re floating their cash accordingly.
There were a ton of moving parts during those first probably 20 days, 14 days, leading up to it and then eight days afterwards. Once we got all the information in, contingency plans and phases lined up as to what you need to do and when and what the trigger point is to execute that phase, that’s really where I feel like we all took a deep breath, and said “Okay. Let’s all have a drink.”
Aimee: Yeah, seriously. It sounds like you did a lot of planning in advance. You obviously prioritized technology investments in advance and created good communication vehicles, both internally and externally. Which I think is really, really important — that consistency. And we do that a lot here with just these daily communication check-in points and with smaller groups. Keeping that consistency really helps everyone stay connected throughout a lot of change.
Kayla: Yeah. Well, I can tell you… you’re talking about investing in technology. It’s not just the equipment, but it’s the technology itself. We don’t always utilize bulk email features, or bulk texting features, and things like that. We do for water shut offs and things like that. But we don’t always email blast residents. We’ll do it one on one.
But man, does it come in handy… For owners, again, we usually do one-on-one emails to them for obvious reasons, because you’re trying to create those connections. But man, when you need to push information out, how great is it to be able to log into the backside of a system, set up a framework for email, push it out to either specific groups that you’ve created or all ownerships as a whole to just, again, get as much information out as quickly as possible.
Then they can, again, respond back if we were asking a lot of questions and trying to get feedback from them. And then being able to track it through the system, it’s those kinds of things you don’t realize. I think we understand the value of technology. But when you’re in the middle of a crisis, I think that’s when you really appreciate the efficiencies that are created by all of the different pieces that a system has.
There are probably some companies who utilize a third of the beefiness of the technology. There’s some that dive in head first and use everything. And then you have other people that are everywhere in between. But once you understand it and you have the ability to take advantage of it, and then, again, you’re in the middle of a crisis and you have it there at your fingertips, man, is it beneficial. For sure.
Aimee: That’s one of the things I know we always compliment you on, the way your company runs, is just this depth of using all the technology, not just doing bits and pieces of it; and really having the courage to change business processes that don’t work and revamp and make sure that you’re maximizing the investment that you’ve made. It sounds like that’s been good here. And along those same lines, tell me a little bit about leasing — what are your thoughts on that?
Kayla: Not every company does, but we take advantage of the 30 day notice and do a lot of marketing. We do pre-show and pre-market units that are still occupied. So there was a huge shift for us from that standpoint. We can’t go into units when they’re occupied right now. We do for maintenance related issues, but we don’t typically go into the occupied units unless we have to… So we just do things that are an emergency.
Probably four days before we could see that the shutdown was coming, we knew that it was looming. So we quickly went and videoed as many tours as we could so we could see them together and at least get some virtual something going until the unit was vacant. Once it became vacant, we have the ability to do a virtual tour anyways… [with] those virtual tours, it’s so seamless now.
So we do some pre-marketing still on our end with video tours to get people excited. And we’ve honestly been able to get units pre-rented. We just do that one final virtual tour as soon as the unit’s vacant so they can see, yes, this is an actual unit that’s available. But it has been incredibly beneficial to have that software available to us. Because again, I think people do different portions of it. So whether you use a FaceTime solution or use Skype solution, everybody’s had that virtual ability.
But to have it built into that system, it just creates that seamless experience all the way through. And then, they can already apply virtually… It’s super seamless. So we’ve been, thankfully, really, really busy during this time and still getting units rented. The vacancy is a little bit up, obviously, because now we can’t get that pre-vacancy tour time. But still lucky to be able to get stuff rented, and having all those options available are super key.
Aimee: That’s interesting. One of the things that we talk a lot about in the property management and real estate industry is just how important human connections are for leasing or renting the property, and then ongoing.
So you talked a lot about the engagements you have and that personalization with owners. What do you think about how we move to this entirely virtual life right now that we’re all living? Is there anything that’s manifested in terms of best practices, or ways that you’re operating, that allow your teams to keep that human connection in a completely virtual environment? Anything creative that surprised you, or things that have come up to maintain that personal touch during this time?
Kayla: That’s an interesting question. So I think we’ve always had the ability. Technology has been there for quite a while. It’s whether or not you take advantage of it. And I think we’ve always taken advantage of bits and pieces of it. But obviously, through this crisis we’ve had to dive head first into it. And I think the only issue that I see that crops up from time to time is that level of trust from a prospective resident because there are a lot of scams out there.
And from that perspective, it’s trying to overcome their skepticism and making them feel confident that we are a management company, we are here, we’re not a scam. And probably 20% of the time do we have people that want to come to our office and actually hand a money order to somebody. Even though we’ve got all the virtual payment options available, they just want to see an office and they want to hand a check to somebody and know that, “Okay, this is a legitimate scenario. The name outside of the office matches the name of the company that I’m renting from.” So I think that’s probably our only obstacle.
We’ve had a lot of conversations, the three of us, the three owners, about what it will look like in the future. And, is there something that we can make of this whole scenario? Productivity has not gone down for our employees. We have a lot of faith and trust in them and they do an amazing job for us every day. I think the only issue that I can see is from a customer standpoint. How do you bridge the gap [and provide] that sense of security that they are dealing with a legitimate company that’s here?
You’ve got the Amazons of the world… That’s the big orb that’s out there. It’s a workable solution, and companies can develop trust in a virtual environment. But I think for property management, it’s a complete unknown. And I think across the board, I don’t care what area of the country you’re in, we haven’t fully moved [to that] environment. And it’s going to be interesting to see … over the course of the next couple of years, as we still have these modified shutdowns, some states are going to be more strict than others. How do we all act and react?
And is there something, a business model, that we can make out of it that creates a less stressful environment for the employees? Because again, traditionally property management’s a very high stress environment just because you’re dealing with the public. And is this a less stressful way to manage properties without having to go into an office every single day and deal with the stress?
So it’s going to be interesting to see how it shakes out. I’m excitedly optimistic. I personally like working from home. I think it’s been a cool opportunity for our employees to be able to stay at home and not have to get up and drive to work. We’ve got some of that commute 30 to 40 minutes a day. And to have them save on gas money and their resources … and obviously it’s been a benefit to the environment, we’ve all seen those reports. So I don’t know. I think it’s going to be an interesting next couple of years to see what we make of it as an industry and if we can figure out a way to bridge that gap and move more to a virtual world.
Aimee: Yeah. It is interesting. And so as you look ahead into this next phase of recovery and this next phase of work, really a new normal everyone keeps calling it, are there any key lessons that you learned that you’re applying now? And what are the key goals for your business in this next phase?
Kayla: That’s a good question. I think ultimately the goal is continuity. Continuity and consistency of your company and keeping the wheels turning. Again, I think it goes back to that comment that you made. You have companies that dive head first that take advantage of software and technology. I think that the companies that have embraced it are going to have an easier time maneuvering through whatever choppy waters are coming over the next probably 9 to 12 months.
I don’t foresee things getting any better until we get a vaccine. And it begs the question, what’s the future like for the next pandemic? Because, again, as we’ve all learned throughout history, there will be something else that comes of it. We are going to keep our cleaning protocols in place. I think one of the best takeaways from us was keys — They’re like little breeding grounds for germs. So we have a new policy now before keys are hung back up, washing hands before you touch the keys. Take the keys out, wash your hands again. And then we spray and disinfect keys before they get hung back up in the key box.
So we have those new protocols and I don’t foresee those things going away. And it’s going to be interesting to see if a lot of these sanitization standards that we have now actually help with our cold and flu season going into next winter. There are definitely some things that we’re going to do internally to make sure that we’re being proactive.
But from a technology standpoint, I think because we’ve already integrated, I don’t really know that there’s too much that we’re going to do differently.
I think for us, as a business, we are going to look at potentially offering a day, a week at home on a rotating schedule to give people a little bit of a break. Whether it’s from a resources and a driving standpoint, or whether it’s just being able to work from home, we can put a load of laundry in and then work and then take a break… it creates a little bit slower pace. And I have a good appreciation for what that does on the soul, I think, across the board. So I’m hoping that we can create a hybrid solution for our team. And again, like I said, we have a great, great team that works very, very hard for us and they’ve done an amazing job working from home. And I think that there could be a benefit to it for both sides could be a win-win.
Aimee: I think it’s a great point to end on, which is just the way that we all work and operate will be forever transformed and there’ll be many things that stick with us over the course of time. But continuing to focus on your employees and your team, and making sure that what we learned here that works, we can carry into whatever that next wave is and find that right balance is so important. So thank you so much for taking the time, Kayla. We always love hearing from you. And it sounds like you guys are well poised to take these challenging times and just make the best of them. So it’s great.
Kayla: We’re excited to have you guys as a partner. I think there’s no way we can do what we do without you guys and the team that runs behind AppFolio. It’s definitely made life a lot easier and set aside a whole set of challenges that we haven’t had to deal with through this whole thing so that we can focus on the people aspect at the heart. So we move forward from there.
Aimee: All right, perfect. Well, thank you.
Kayla: You’re welcome.
To see how Cambridge Management Group implemented innovative, AI-powered leasing technology even before COVID-19, check out this video (filmed in the Fall of 2019):
Other content mentioned in this episode: