Last modified on August 22nd, 2022
By Megan Eales Monroe
Maintenance can be one of the most difficult to control and costly parts of property management. But it’s also directly correlated to resident satisfaction and retention.
Residents have high expectations these days, and cumbersome maintenance processes and delays in repairs can make or break that all-important resident experience.
In this episode of The Top Floor podcast, we’re joined by Ray Hespen, CEO and Co-Founder of Property Meld, and Cat Allday, VP of AI Initiative at AppFolio, to talk more about designing a great maintenance experience. They explore how new tech utilizing automation and AI can help smoothen the process, as well as different challenges and solutions of property maintenance.
Meet Our Guests:
Ray Hespen is an entrepreneur and engineer, with a deep passion rooted in problem-solving. The concept of Property Meld was born after Ray and Co-founder David both shared similar negative maintenance experiences as renters. Ray took this as an opportunity to create a solution to this problem that would change the game for coordinating maintenance for every party involved. Ray still never stops solving problems. He loves digging for innovative data to improve the maintenance process, and is always learning how to improve operational efficiency, and sharing how companies can leverage maintenance to be their greatest financial growth opportunity.
Cat Allday is the Vice President of the Artificial Intelligence Initiative at AppFolio, and is responsible for setting the strategy for how artificial intelligence can best be applied to solving the complex challenges faced by property managers daily.
In this role, Cat gets most excited when seeing the impact AI has in helping AppFolio customers transform their businesses, from improving lead-to-lease conversion to spending time on more meaningful work and making better decisions.
Before joining AppFolio in 2014, Cat held multiple leadership roles at Citrix, where she managed the product development of their collaboration solutions: GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, GoToTraining, and ShareFile. When she’s not in the office, Cat enjoys live music, travel, cooking exotic dishes, and enjoying the beautiful Santa Barbara community.
Megan: Even with meticulous planning and preparation, maintenance can be one of the hardest-to-control and most unpredictable aspects of your day-to-day operations. It can also be one of the biggest property management headaches to deal with — especially for residents.
Taking too long to respond to maintenance requests or having a complicated and cumbersome request and repair processes can erode resident satisfaction and do irreparable damage to the entire resident experience.
But by streamlining operations, improving workflows, creating clearer processes, and using the right tools, maintenance can actually improve the resident experience and become your key competitive differentiator.
With such a huge effect on renewals and referrals, maintenance is not something that should be overlooked. We invited two experts to talk in detail about what you and your team can do now and in the future to improve maintenance for residents.
Joining us today are Ray Hespen, CEO and co-founder of Property Meld, an AppFolio Stack™ integration partner, and Cat Allday, Vice President of the AI Initiative at AppFolio.
Before we dive into today’s discussion, let’s get to know a little bit about Ray and Cat.
Ray Hespen: I always joke that I’m the CEO that hangs TVs. I’ll do anything here at Property Meld. But technically what’s on my business card is I am the CEO of Property Meld. We’re a maintenance automation platform for the property management space.
One of the things that I’m very passionate about is actually trying to figure out, all right, what are those things that actually drive a bad maintenance experience? And just leading up to that, to know that, hey, if you solve for that, you’re going to solve one of the biggest reasons a resident at least explains why they ended up leaving a property.
Megan: And now, Cat.
Cat Allday: So I’m Cat Allday and I lead the AI initiative here at AppFolio with our product and engineering team specifically. And what we are focused on is building AI powered solutions, features, services that solve real customer problems or that will provide meaningful insights to customers so they can make faster and better decisions. And so I work with our product teams across a bunch of different areas, including maintenance, which we’re going to be talking about today.
Maintenance and the resident experience
Megan: Even though Ray and Cat work for different companies, their mission is the same: They both work tirelessly to help property management companies improve the resident experience through solutions that streamline maintenance operations, workflows, and processes.
Over the last few years, industry reports and studies, including AppFolio’s own 2022 Resident Motivations report, show that resident experience doesn’t just give you a competitive edge. It’s now a specific driver for whether or not someone chooses to sign or renew a lease with you at all. And the biggest make-or-break factor of your entire resident experience is maintenance.
In fact, Ray and his business partner were so frustrated with maintenance during their time as renters that it inspired them to start Property Meld as a solution.
Ray Hespen: we started our company in 2015, and we started out actually because of the resident experience. So we have a giant email hanging on our wall here at headquarters in Rapid City, South Dakota. It actually started from my co-founder, who’s David Kingman, our CTO. He called me one day, I was living in Baltimore at the time and he was in Albuquerque, and he said, “Man, you’ve moved around a lot,” which I had. He’s like, “Have you ever dealt with maintenance? Having maintenance done on your rentals?” I’ve of course moved around a lot for the company I worked for. I was like I said, “Yeah.” I said, “But it was bad enough that I was handy enough that I was like I’m just not even going to bother.”
The thing that he had went through, he moved into a new unit, and he probably had four service issues come through and he had to over the course of like six months. It was so bad, sent it online, he tried phoning in what’s happened? The person on the other end of the line wouldn’t know, they said, “I’ll call you back.”
He ended up not hearing from them. He got a call from a different number saying, “Hey,” on the voicemail, because he didn’t recognize it, phone call, except there in… He’s like, “I tried calling them back.” They’re the person actually doing the work. And this happened like four or five times. He’s like, “This is a nightmare.”
So that’s actually how we started the company. But, apart from solving the real problem there, we’ve been really fascinated with this whole resident experience thing because if you solve for that, you’re going to solve for lease renewals.
Megan: Ray and his business partner have used their own personal maintenance experiences to help Property Meld’s customers improve their approaches. Let’s dive deeper to understand exactly why maintenance holds such an incredible amount of weight with residents.
Cat Allday: when you think about the resident experience, maintenance is something that can be very emotional for people. So if you think about living in a home, an apartment, a condo, whatever it may be, when you have a maintenance issue, it can be very disruptive to your life, right? So whether the only toilet in your house is clogged, that’s pretty uncomfortable, right? Or could be something even more severe like a roof leak, right? And so now you’ve got buckets of water all over your house, right? So I do think that when you think about the resident experience, maintenance is a very important component.
It’s going to make people either consider renewing if their maintenance issues are being resolved quickly. When it’s time for their lease to renew, they’ll be more likely to renew cause they live in a place that’s well cared for. And I think there’s a lot of anxiety around maintenance. When you think about, “Hey, you’re going to potentially be letting some maintenance person into your home,” there’s issues around security. I also think that when you think about the not only safety issues, but also privacy and having somebody come into your personal space, those are all things that can make or break the resident experience, when you’re dealing with a maintenance issue.
Megan: Aside from the emotional aspect of it, the expectation of reliable maintenance service is baked into the very nature of a rental agreement. When those basic expectations aren’t met, residents aren’t going to want to continue the relationship with you and renew when the time comes.
Ray Hespen: So if you were to ask me, I’m a homeowner, the biggest pain in the rear is I have to take care of my home, and that’s literally every homeowner. So when you go to rental, it’s like your expectations is you don’t have to do the worst thing that home ownership is, and it’s taken care of. And so your expectation and bar is that, it’s like, I don’t have to take care of it. And so if you sit there and pair that up with the lease, so when that expectation is unmet or the service quality is so low that you sit there and go, “This is not why I signed up for this.” It starts to become very understandable. Unmet expectations equals lease term.
What residents want
Megan: Property maintenance is all about setting expectations and following through on commitments. Ultimately, it’s about building trust and showing residents you care about their happiness and wellbeing. But simply completing maintenance requests is the bare minimum.
As Cat and Ray explain, residents also expect timeliness, and good communication.
Cat Allday: So I really believe that residents have pretty high expectations for maintenance. The first thing is they expect safety. They expect timely resolutions. They want to make sure that their issues are going to be resolved fast. They also care about transparency. They want to know what’s going on in the process. So do they need to order a part, how long it’s going to take for that part to get in, and they also, I think, expect that things are going to get fixed the first time around. And so those are pretty high expectations that residents have.
I think we’ve all experienced this at some point in time where we have an issue and it just takes forever to get resolved, whether that’s in our personal life or dealing with a return on something. But think about it, if it’s in your home and you’ve got an issue that’s causing you to feel uncomfortable in your surroundings, the length of time it takes to fix an issue is really, I think, impactful. So that’s one thing we hear all the time. The other thing we hear is not being informed. Sometimes just letting the resident know that the issues being addressed is like, “Okay, I’m being cared for. My issue is getting attention.” But that sort of black hole of like, “When is it going to get fixed? Who’s coming? When are they going to get here?” Keeping them informed on the status, I think is another frustration that residents will often have.
I think there’s one more thing too. If you think about what happens when you are dealing with a property management company, so maybe you’ve submitted a work order or you’ve done something where you’ve told the property manager what the issue is, and then they hire a vendor or they have a maintenance tech come, and then you have to repeat exactly the issue to that new person and that having to repeat information that the property manager, the maintenance tech, the vendor, the owner, they should all know that already. You’ve shared it once. That should be rippled out to everybody who might be involved in that. So that’s another frustration we hear when we talk to residents.
Megan: From the Property Meld side, Ray also sees the issue of speed becoming more and more critical for resident expectations.
Ray Hespen: One of the things that we’ve spent some pretty serious time in trying to dig into some of the data of exactly like if you were to break it down into pieces, what do residents actually want?
I’ve talked with a lot of customers over the years and one of the biggest things that a lot of people have this preconceived notion of is, we like personal touch, as human beings. Naturally. Every everything that we do, we want personal touch. But the thing that we ended up discovering on our platform, which we’ve had millions of residents go through our platform. We’ve got incredible data on satisfaction, speed of repair and all that.
The number one thing that we ended up finding out that is the biggest leading indicator for resident satisfaction is speed. We tried to line up how much communication, how frequent communication, everything like that. And communication is important, but speed is the key to a resident happiness. They want it done and they want it done quickly.
Megan: What’s driving this change of resident expectations? In short, every single interaction they have with any other company throughout their day.
That’s right. As Ray explains, your residents are comparing your experience to every other consumer experience they have on a daily basis. That’s a lot of competition most property management teams don’t typically consider when looking at their competitive set.
Ray Hespen: Rhe consumer world doesn’t help us out at all, because now we’re down to, Amazon, I order my thing, why isn’t here in one hour, which is just mind boggling if you think about what it was like even 10 years ago. And so everything is fast, I want my thing fast, whatever that is. And so we’re being conditioned that speed, I want that thing, I want it done quickly.
If you think about the pizza ordering experience and you can even go 5, 6, 7 years ago, you always called in for pizza. And at best, like you sit there and you might use the online application, you might order online if you don’t want to do the phone.
But it was kind of almost like the same thing happened. When you place the order, everything else was like fog of war. We’ve all been there. We sat there and go, “Are they coming? Are they here? Where are they at?” And I call back and then, “Yep, they’re out there.” And the dispatcher has no idea where they’re at. They’re sitting there just telling you that. Between now, and I always use this example, I think Domino’s did such a fantastic job.
The Domino’s pizza tracker is like, they’re telling you, and I don’t even know how much of this information is important to the consumer, but they tell you who’s making it, when are they making it, when’s it in the oven, when’s it being expected after the oven, when’s it being dispatched out and where they are out on the road, is such a perfect example of how the consumer great experience out in the market is starting to condition expectations of renters
So it’s very understandable why the consumer is starting to expect this because it’s starting to be prolific in so many other aspects of their life that they’re sitting there going like, the Delta between what I experience in a lot of other things and this, is starting to become like a really major problem in my life, or at least they see it that way.
Megan: Cat sees the same thing happening.
Cat Allday: I think consumers and residents kind of have this expectation for these modern experiences where people are informed of what’s going on. And if you’re thinking about the resident experience, it would be nice to know, “Hey, Mike, the tech’s on his way. He’s going to be in my house in 15 minutes.” That would be a really, I think, a good experience for a resident to have.
And I think that is kind of where their expectations are starting to move towards. I also think that residents, they want to be self-sufficient too. So this interest in a self-service, so I don’t have to have somebody come into my home or I don’t have to coordinate a schedule to make sure that I’m there because I have a dog or whatever it might be, I think residents are looking for more of these things that they can do themselves or where they’re able to have more control of what’s going to happen when somebody comes into their home
Property maintenance challenges
Megan: If simply fixing maintenance speed and communication were all it took to improve the resident experience, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation today. Instead, the reality is that the property management industry is facing very real and very tough challenges right now.
AppFolio Property Manager’s latest research – our 2022 Property Management Industry Pulse – outlines the many challenges facing rental operators. Operational efficiency (62%) and revenue generation (54%) were the two most commonly cited challenges of 2022 – both of which directly impact maintenance.
But that’s not the only challenge property management organizations face when it comes to maintenance, as Ray explains.
Ray Hespen: That’s the reality about maintenance. It is complex. There’s so many different places that can go wrong. And oftentimes those little inflection points of when something is going right or going wrong, there’s no insight of when that happens. I’ll give a perfect example of this. I will start with the initial one. Let’s say your property management company and you assign it to a maintenance personnel or a vendor, knowing that they got that particular repair and they’re on it is a potential deflection in an experience that’s really important to know. The next one. Did they get connected and get scheduled? That is a deflection that a potential maintenance repair can keep going well or keep going wrong. And so there’s all these littered across the maintenance experience that adds so much complexity, that makes it very, very difficult to execute it so exceptionally well, that you don’t create a renting maintenance experience that is a Delta from what they feel like in a lot of other ways.
Megan: On top of complex processes, there are often multiple layers of approvals or budgetary restrictions, as Cat explains:
Cat Allday: So, when we talk to our customers, what we hear is a challenge, has a lot to do with how do you meet the resident’s level of service expectation while also balancing what the owner’s maintenance goals might be. So if you’re a property management company who is a fee manager where you’re managing other people’s properties, that’s a balance you have to strike. An owner might only be willing to invest so much in a particular property. And how do you meet the resident’s expectations when the owner might not be willing to maybe spend as much or their budget for their maintenance is lower than what the resident would expect? So there’s a balance there that has to happen.
I also think the thing that we’ve heard, and this is across the industry in every industry is that maintenance staffing is probably the biggest challenge that property managers are having right now and specifically for on-call and after-hours coverage. So nobody really wants to work those shifts or there’s unpredictability in on call or after-hours. So that’s definitely something that we are hearing from our property management customers is like a big challenge. And it’s been amplified obviously over the last few years.
Property management maintenance solutions
Megan: While today’s property management challenges may add new hurdles for on-site teams, there are several solutions Cat and Ray recommend to help deliver on residents’ maintenance expectations.
First, start building trust by empowering renters with resident-facing tools and technology that they want and need. Tools and technology that can help with speed, build trust, and let them know that you care about their feedback and happiness
Cat Allday: So, as we think about technology and how it can improve the resident experience, I think the first thing is leveraging communication platforms. So there’s a number of these platforms that are available today and residents want to be told or want to be informed of what’s going on. And so if you think about how do you keep the resident in the loop and do it in a way that is their preferred method of communication, right? So those channels could be an app. It could be a portal, email, and then I think SMS. I think text messaging is something that everybody uses. It’s pretty ubiquitous. And so how do you continue to communicate with your residents in a way that is at the right time and in the right channel? And so communication platforms I think are easy technology implementation that will help you deliver great resident satisfaction.
So, if we think about technologies that property should be investing in right now, I would say the number one thing is smart locks. Physical keys and master keys, they do present some risk and liability.
The old way of doing maintenance was the maintenance tech had a key ring with a thousand keys on it, right? If those keys get lost, then you have to go replace all those locks. Also, you think about the time that you could save by not having to have somebody meet you at the door with the keys. You could really reduce the scheduling challenges around that if you can give somebody remote access through a smart lock, and then you could also give them temporary access. So you can say, “Well, this plumber’s going to be there, but he can only access the apartment during these hours and he can only access it one time.” So you do have a lot more control over who’s coming in and out of those units with technology like smart locks.
I think some other technology is around allowing residents to self-serve or self-help. So oftentimes there’s really easy issues that come up. Maybe an outlet stopped working or maybe I just need to figure out how to replace a filter. Those are things that you can use self-help platforms, whether those are knowledge bases or a video library to help provide those residents who want to self-help with the tools to do so.
With Smart Maintenance, we’ve been really focused on what we call resident-reported maintenance issues. So thinking about starting with the resident experience, how does a resident report a maintenance issue and providing them with the tools to do that. So that’s really where we’ve been focused and helping guide the residents in how to report the issue. So if you think about the way somebody who’s not a maintenance professional thinks about an issue, right? They probably don’t know what questions to ask. They probably don’t know what troubleshooting steps to take along the way. So what we’ve been focusing on is how do we help make sure we get all the information from the resident so that we can get the right vendor or the right maintenance tech out to that property as fast as possible. So with smart maintenance customers, their residents can email, they can text and they can call on the phone or they can go into the tenant portal and report their issues.
And every resident is going to have a different comfort level with technology. But what we see is about 70% of residents prefer to use the tenant portal. So they’re logging to their tenant portal to create the maintenance request. And so can we use AI to help guide them through that experience?
They start typing a description as to what the issue is, and based on the words that they’re putting in that description field, we can start identifying what we believe the issue might be related to and we can prompt them and say, “Okay, it sounds like you’re having an issue with your dishwasher.” And then based on that, if they say, “Yes, they are having an issue with the dishwasher,” we can do things like ask them a series of questions.
“Do you know the make and model of your dishwasher? What happens when you turn the dishwasher on? Does it run? Does it make noise?” Those types of things. So you can start getting answers from the resident that will help us get the right person out there to fix it as fast as possible
Megan: Second, look at every property management company’s greatest asset: its people. More specifically, having the right people in place who can build trust with residents and can deliver on what they say they’re going to deliver on.
Cat Allday: So, if you think about the thing that impacts the resident, it’s really the maintenance staff. So having maintenance staff or external vendors that are professional, friendly, trustworthy, those things are all really critical because they’re directly engaging with those residents and the way that the tech responds or is answering questions or showing up on time, all of those things impact the perception of the overall maintenance experience.
When you think about, “what are small things that property maintenance can do?” — I think completing the requests in a timely manner and communicating throughout the process, I think being responsive to issues, and then letting the resident know what to expect. If you say you’re going to show up to their house at a certain time, and they’ve stayed home from work to meet you, you better be there on time. Those are things that I think are easy to do that create a good experience for the resident. Again, it goes back to thinking about the emotion that’s associated with maintenance. So if someone’s living in a home or an apartment that’s now uncomfortable because the HVAC system’s broken and it’s a hundred degrees outside, the sooner that you’re able to provide an update or provide visibility as to when that issue’s going to be resolved, I think that goes a long way to build trust.
Megan: However, as Ray explains, human power alone may not be enough, especially when you’re growing rapidly or have to scale faster than anticipated. Strengthening your team is well worth the investment, and absolutely vital for the resident experience, especially when it comes to maintenance.
But as costs have been growing in every area, revenue and profitability are a major concern, as our recent Top Challenges research report has shown. With this in mind, significantly increasing headcount isn’t always a realistic solution for optimizing the maintenance experience for residents.
Ray Hespen: We as property management professionals and in the industry only have so much money that they can spend into a particular aspect of our business, right? I mean, literally all of us, we can sit there and go, “Hey, in property management, I’m going to hire 1900 leasing agents.” And guess what, we’re going to have exceptional call receiving rate.” But the reality is we don’t get to because we have to make money and that’s the constraints that we have to live under. And so the problem is the resources that we’re allowed to dedicate toward this process and the expected outcomes, the touchpoints, everything that are in there, are just unrealistic to be able to deliver that. And so you’ve got to have some answers to some questions, either (a) I’m going to find a way to augment that human being and make them exceptional, or (b) I’m going to invest more resources, charge more resources, so I can throw a lot more bodies at the problem.
And I can tell you, we’ve been watching portfolios grow pretty quickly lately, which is a great problem to have. But the challenge that usually comes with that, is when you increase your portfolio size, it means you need to increase your leasing, it means you need to increase your maintenance team, it means your potential owner engagement, investor engagement, if you’ve got those.
And the problem is, people and human beings are complex. We require ramp time, we require all this. And the more human beings that you have, the reality of how much supporting resources have to go towards there. And so scaling becomes a huge human being exercise.
Just like so many businesses, when you look at a company that’s scaling quickly, it’s not who has the demand and who provides a service, it’s who can grow the team that oftentimes wins. So if you end up solving that by making it easier or less burdensome to scale your capacity quicker, oftentimes means less headache for management teams, it means less headache for residents, it means less headache for the investors that own the properties.
And so scalability is so important to figure out how to make it less human being dependent, because that’s where every business inevitably runs into challenges with bringing on that new business.
Automation and AI’s role with maintenance
Megan: As Ray mentioned, one way to scale your operations is by adding technology that handles time-consuming tasks, freeing up the people on your team, which is where automation and AI come in.
Not only can automation and AI help scale teams faster to provide a better service, but they can also help ramp up the speed factor that Ray and Cat touched on earlier. This frees your teams to work on more high-touch interactions with residents where soft skills and relationship-building are essential.
Cat Allday: When we think about how do you have your human team members really focusing on the things that add the most value to your business, I think AI technology and automation gets rid of the things that are repeatable.
So if you think about the notifications, right, if that is all automated, you don’t have to worry about, “Oh, the maintenance coordinator forgot to send the text message to the resident, reminding them that the maintenance tech is coming tomorrow morning.” Those are the things where I think automation and technology will support your staff. It doesn’t eliminate the work that they do. It just changes the work that they do. And then they really are focusing on more on those high-touch human interactions where they’re delivering great service to the residents or they’re solving really hard problems, right, that automation couldn’t do.
Megan: As Cat mentioned, automation and AI aren’t replacements for people. Instead, the technology helps them do better, more important work by removing repeatable processes from their to-do lists.
As Ray mentions, there are times where automation is ideal and times where humans should step in.
Ray Hespen: Now the reality is what everybody wants is what they want. So when I’m a consumer, my end goal with my phone is I want a new phone. That’s all I want. Make it as easy as possible for me to get that. When I am a resident, I just want my thing fixed as fast as possible. That’s all I want. I want to know when it’s getting fixed, that’s it. And so the whole thing about automation is figuring out those particular things that have no intrinsic value to the human being and enable the outcome that they want.
So with maintenance, if everything is around compressing the speed and the transparency of what’s happening, the resident really likes it. Where we advise property management companies to save their soft skills, the things where the people are calling. Are those challenging conversations? When you know that repair is going to take four weeks out, do not have that communication via technology, right?
If you’ve got an investor that you’re working with and you’ve got to give them the bad news that the air conditioner can’t be repaired and it’s got to be replaced… Depending on your relationship there, but that might be a phone call or that a leaky toilet actually leaked and it got into the basement and now you’re doing a lot more work. Let’s not automate that and let’s save your team’s calories for that. Not, “Hey, vendor or technician. Did you get that service repair issue? When is that scheduled for?”
So it’s actually figuring out what things to segment to, to allow people to not have automation conversations when they shouldn’t and have automation things where there’s no intrinsic value of a human being touching that.
Megan: So how exactly can automation and AI help your teams do better work when it comes to maintenance? Cat provides some examples.
Cat Allday: I think there’s a couple of things that automation and AI can help with in the maintenance space. So let’s start with talking about some automation technologies.
So earlier, we talked about one of the biggest challenges, which is staffing. So if you think about automation, what you can do with automation is you can reduce the number of steps. You can reduce errors and you can streamline communication. And if you do those types of things using automation technologies, now you’re freeing up the staff that you do have to really focus on the things that they’re experts in, actually getting out there and doing the repairs. It also frees up your coordination staff. You may need less of those folks because you are able to streamline some of the processes through automation.
And then I think with AI, this is where I think I get really excited. So AI is an important part of automation and it can also really help with decision-making. So if you think about the example I mentioned earlier around residents who want to self-serve, so an AI can help residents with their issues. So an example might be the resident is having an issue with an outlet. The AI might be able to guide them through how to reset the GFCI breaker or to go find their breaker and actually find the circuit breaker and adjust that. And you could use AI to kind of guide the resident through that. You don’t necessarily need a maintenance tech on the phone, walking them through how to do something like that. So, I think that’s another thing that AI can help with.
If you think about once the issue has been identified and AI can help identify the issue as well, then you can have a set of rules based automation that will dispatch to the correct vendor based on the type of issue you’re having. So, for example, the resident is able to communicate whether it’s through an online portal or a text message or some other means what the issue is they’re having. In the future, they could take a picture of the issue and an AI could help identify the type of issue that it’s having. “Oh, yeah. It looks like the toilet bowl is cracked.” And it could then smartly dispatch to the right type of vendor to fix that issue, for example.
If you think about the employee experience and how AI can help, there’s nothing worse than a maintenance tech who gets a maintenance issue, they believe that the issue is that the sink is clogged. So they have all their tools, they go to the property, then they actually find out that it’s actually not the sink. It’s some other issue like the dishwasher, for example. Well, maybe they’re not the right person to fix the dishwasher. They could have fixed the sink, but the dishwasher, they don’t deal with appliances. So now you’ve wasted a trip for somebody. And if you could avoid that in the future, that again is starting to streamline the amount of effort and work that the maintenance techs have to do. And they run around all the time, making sure they have the right set of parts, that they have the right tools. And if AI can help identify the right issue, that is something where we’ll see a benefit to the maintenance team directly.
When we think about third party vendors and specialists, how do you find them, how do you keep them, how do you ensure that they also have the information that is valuable to them so that their work is streamlined? I believe the AI can help with those types of communications as well. So just like you’re able to tell the maintenance tech, “Hey, this is what the problem is that we’ve diagnosed,” and get the right maintenance tech out there, we should be able to do the same for our third party vendors. And streamlining that experience for them is going to make them want to work with that property management company in the future. Because they know when they get a work order from that property management company, those issues are well vetted. Again, those vendors know when to show up, who they’re meeting when they get there, what the issue is. They can bring the right set of tools, the right parts with them. I think it goes both ways, whether it’s an internal maintenance tech or a third party vendor.
Megan: Although automation, AI and other maintenance-related technology can help fill gaps in your frontline staff, empower your teams and residents, and improve the resident experience all around, Ray recommends against adding technology just for technology’s sake.
Ray Hespen: But one of the things that we’re very keen on is like, technology is not something you should do. The thing you should do is improve something. What is that metric? Whether it’s resident satisfaction, speedier repair, whether it’s your technician throughput, whether it’s your vendor experience, your resident experience, whatever it is, that’s the thing you want to do. And then you sit there and go, “Which technology will help me get there?” Because I think there’s always the shiny toy. I’m sure we’ve all gotten a technology, even in our consumer lives, that was like, “That’s great.” But if it’s not solving a meaningful problem, then it’s just an obstacle.
But usually when people come in, they’re looking to solve a very, very specific pain and we have to know what that is so we can show them how that’s solved. As opposed to, “Hey, here’s how incredible this platform is. Go forth and be merry.” So the advice that I would say is know what problem you want to solve even at a high level, just know what symptoms you’re experiencing you don’t necessarily like. And best case scenario, you’ve already root caused analysis of what’s causing you that.
And then you can go find a software provider that’s going to like, “Go and you can evaluate. Are you going to solve that root problem for me?” And that makes it very, very easy and not to mention that will give everybody what they need to do to trudge through selling it to their team, to sell it to their technicians. It’s like, “Folks, we all don’t like this, right?” “Yeah. We don’t all like it.” “This solves that and this is how.” “Oh.” And so you get a whole lot more buy-in as well from the entire team
Megan: Once the right automation tools and AI technology are in place, the data provided can be invaluable for your property management organization, both for understanding the current maintenance landscape and how it impacts the resident experience and also for shaping the future of your entire maintenance operations.
Cat Allday: Maintenance has been a very paper intensive workflow for many, many years. We hear it all the time today. Oftentimes maintenance techs are leaving paper door hangers when they are finished with an issue at a resident. Oftentimes the maintenance techs are just given printed out work orders. They may not have access to a computer. And so I think the most important thing is these AI systems will depend on these businesses actually converting to these more digital forms of communication so that we can then start collecting that data. So that’s the first thing that has to happen, right? These businesses have to transform and move to this more digital platform. But once they’ve done that, now what you’ve done is you’ve got all of this data centralized and that’s really where the power of automation and AI comes in.
So now you’ve got all this data, you understand how often a particular unit has somebody coming out for maintenance, the types of maintenance issues that are happening there. Now you’re able to start bubbling up insights around, “Hey, there’s probably going to be some system failure of some appliance or something at this property because of the history of the maintenance that’s been done in that unit.” The other thing I think you were alluding to is how do we identify vendors that are great vendors that we want to partner with? So by, again, having this type of data, being able to send the resident a survey or something after the experience that they had with that outside vendor so you can start scoring the resident satisfaction associated with particular vendors or how fast it takes them to resolve an issue, those are things that I think will give the property management company the ability to make decisions about which vendors to keep on or which vendors they prefer to work with. I do think that the amount of decision-making is pretty limitless when you start getting the data in one place.
The future of maintenance and the resident experience
Megan: As we discussed earlier, resident expectations have changed over the last few years. And they’ll continue to change, which means property maintenance will need to continuously adapt and evolve, too. As far as the future goes, here’s what Cat and Ray see for the future of maintenance and how it impacts the resident experience.
Cat Allday: I think where we will see this technology going is creating more of those consumer like experiences for the resident. So being able to know, “Hey, this is the tech who’s coming. I actually have a picture of him. He looks just like an Uber. I know who the person is who’s coming to my house. I can see where he’s at on his route so I know when he gets to my house.” If it’s a third party contractor, actually being able to see that person’s license information. Again, you’re letting somebody into your home. It’ll be nice to know that it’s a vetted person. And so I think that type of visibility with the resident is going to be something that technology’s going to enable in the future.
I get asked occasionally, do we see robots actually doing this work in maintenance in the future? No, I don’t see a physical robot doing the repairs, at least not in the next 20 years probably, but you never know. I do think that there’s probably some drone technology that could help in the preventative maintenance side or even in inspections, if you think about that, being able to send a drone in to take a picture, video of the unit. There could be some technology like that that’s actually really cutting edge, but I don’t see any of that happening in the short term.
Ray Hespen: I think even before starting where technology is going, it’s actually thinking, “How are the problems going to change in the next 5 to 10 years?” And then you can probably guess where the technology is going to go.
We’ve been working hard to make the maintenance coordinators lives better, the vendor experience better, the technician experience better, the investor experience better, but there is a very glaring and very real problem that’s coming up to us and that’s the fact that rentals will continue to increase. We know that they will, and the amount of professionally managed rentals are going to increase. But the problem is nobody is manufacturing more plumbers, nobody’s manufacturing more electricians. I always joke that if Mike Rowe had his way, things would be better, but the reality is they’re not. The trade school is not where everybody wants to go. And so we have this demand of rentals over here and rental servicing, and we’ve got a huge supply issue of the trades. And these people right now are fantastic individuals. They work hard, great livings and stuff, but there’s not making more of them. So we anticipate over the next 5 to 10 years that it’s not going to go away. As a matter of fact, it’s going to keep being exacerbated. I think the median age of a plumber is like 53 years old. These people are going to retire. What’s coming in the pipelines, not being backfilled, right?
So, our big focus and belief is having to get more people and more resources — either the throughput’s increased, or balancing out the load. And so we believe specifically with maintenance technology, we think the world of preventative maintenance would see a huge shift. One, because it’s better cost and better NOI for an investor. But the second thing is, the demand in the summertime is unmanageable, and you have to level it out to use the same resources. So that’s one, you have to level out the demand. The second thing is you have to increase the throughput of those folks.
So we’re trying to figure out how do we continue to optimize that particular group of folks to where they can do more of what they’re great at and they make money at and it’s going to help solve some of the supply issues. So those are the two things that we think maintenance is going to significantly transform in.
Megan: So, to recap – with maintenance as the nerve center of your property management business, it can make or break your resident’s experience and, in turn, affect your bottom line.
Simply checking maintenance tasks off the list is only the start — clearly communicating with renters throughout the process to avoid unnecessary delays and make the process as smooth as possible is essential, not only for the resident’s experience, but also for your business’ operational efficiency. Although high costs are putting pressure on maintenance teams to do more with less, technology offers solutions that allow you to provide the personalized level of service that residents deserve, without stretching teams thin. By applying technology to the right parts of the process, you can free your people up to focus their efforts on the highest value work that allows your business to scale.
We’d like to thank Ray Hespen and Cat Allday for their fantastic insights on resident expectations and how technology and new innovations can ease maintenance burdens.
Want to learn more about the research mentioned in this episode? AppFolio Property Manager’s 2022 Property Management Industry Pulse outlines the many challenges facing rental operators amid a high-demand but revenue-hungry market. We’ll include a link in the episode notes to check it out.
Thanks for listening.