Are your communities hearing from friends, coworkers and family of former residents? You should be, but it takes a powerful referral strategy to make that happen.
Imagine this likely scenario:  John Doe leased an apartment, and two years later, he purchased a home. Two months later, his brother called to find out about an apartment, and signed a lease.  Not long after, a co-worked called to find out about a 2-bedroom apartment, and signed a lease.  That co-worker has a family, and friends, and other co-workers, and so the chain continues.
The moral of this story is that the best new business comes from old business; but referrals don’t happen all by themselves.  They’re the result of a great referral strategy that’s founded on building great relationships with your residents.
Is your focus on devoting the best possible service to your residents?  Are you making meaningful contact with them, and actively managing that relationship to make sure that it stays strong and positive?
We’ve heard from thousands of successful communities who continually receive referrals because they understand that to receive the best possible benefit of bringing a new resident into your community – i.e. leasing an apartment, retaining that resident, and encouraging them to help you find even more great residents just like them – you have to not only lease an apartment.  You have to build a strong and positive relationship.  Here are a few relationship-building tips to help you fine-tune your referral strategy!
1.  Develop a plan. In order to make your relationships yield the most (and best) referrals, you’re going to need a plan.  A referral promotion is a great way to remind your residents, and even previous residents, that you’re looking for others like them.  This includes regular reminders to not only your residents, but also to previous residents.
Action:  We’ve heard from communities who say they’ve received the best referral results by posting and distributing quarterly reminders to their residents, local employers, relocation companies, locators, and human resource departments; and sending bi-annual cards or postcards to previous residents.  It doesn’t have to take more than an hour or so per month, but make certain that your plan includes emails, phone calls and handwritten notes.  There’s no substitute for the personal touch.
2.  Be a Resource. The most successful communities implement this ideal across the board, whether they’re serving someone who just called in a phone inquiry, or a long-time resident.  It’s also one of the most impressive ways to set your community apart from the crowd.  Know all about your neighborhood so that you’re armed and ready to provide the absolute best, on-the-spot service, information, and advice.  Toni Blake calls this the “Village” approach, because your community borders aren’t the end-all and be-all of the lifestyle that you offer.  That park around the corner, fabulous café down the block, and the farmer’s market that’s within walking distance are all part of what makes your community special enough to refer others to!
Action: You don’t necessarily need a community concierge to serve as your one-stop information source.  Providing information is a job that can be shared among your team, or it can even be the passive function of an “information directory” that sits on the coffee table in your leasing center.  Just research, gather, and keep as much information handy as you can – menus, brochures, flyers, coupons, business cards, price lists, maps, schedules, phone books, you name it – for whomever might ask.  Share this information with your residents as actively as you can, because the more they know about and use the resources around them, the happier they’ll be as a resident of your community, and the more likely they’ll be to invite others in!  Don’t be afraid to ask the other businesses in your “village” to help you spoil your residents with coupons or gifts – every new resident in your community is a new customer for them!
3. Exceed Expectations. Speaking of ways to set yourself apart from the crowd, let’s talk about how to not just make a resident happy, but blow their mind entirely.  Providing great service is fundamental to your success, but honestly, residents expect great service.  When you exceed their expectations by providing superior service or outstanding attention to detail, it makes an impact on their relationship with you that’s tough to beat.
Action: It’s surprisingly easy to do.  Just imagine the appropriate response in any situation, then go one better.  Don’t just say thanks – once in a while, send flowers.  Don’t just file the finished paperwork – call personally to follow-up.  Don’t just smile – give them a compliment and call them by name.  Residents are most inspired to tell others about you when your resident-retention efforts (especially where service is concerned) exceed their expectations in at least one of the following ways: by providing service in ways that are faster, more convenient, and possibly fun, or with some added-value benefit your competition doesn’t offer. You’re certain to stand out from any competition when you are the first community to provide some of these points of difference. Competitors who institute your “extras” will be copycats, playing catch-up to you. Once you have accomplished this, you can inspire residents to refer their friends and colleagues to your community. By doing so, they can gain “bragging rights” for showing others what a wonderful community they live in… YOURS!
4. Keep it up. Your relationship with resident doesn’t end with the signing of a lease. It’s just beginning.  Make sure they know that you’re in it for the long haul.  You and your team are there for them, whether they have a maintenance issue or just need to know which dry cleaner can get a red wine stain out of a silk blouse.
Action: Start big on day one. Don’t underestimate the impact of pizza or sandwiches and cold sodas on moving day.  Put toilet paper in all of the bathrooms and paper towels in the kitchen.  Leave a bag of ice in the freezer or turn the icemaker on and leave a card that lets them know that it’s fresh ice.  One of our favorite tips is to place a sign in front of the closest parking space for 48-hours that reads “This space is reserved for the next 48 hours for your new neighbor”.  Make sure that the things that you do are supporting the relationship building process.  Take a close look at your move-in gifts, and if they’re not making move-in easier, or enriching the experience of living in your community, make some changes now.  Now, here’s the tough part.  Don’t wait until their next big event to make that same kind of a great impression, like when they have their first maintenance emergency or worse yet, when renewal time rolls around.  KEEP IN TOUCH!  Call within 48 hours after they have moved into their new home and ask for feedback.  Send a note after they have lived in the community for 2 weeks; contact them again with a note or by phone in three months, and then call or write again three months later.  Each note, card, or reason for calling should convey the message loud and clear that they’re appreciated, and that you care enough to make sure they’re happy living in your community.
5. Create a sense of community. Mailings and phone calls can make a positive impact on a resident, but nothing like the overall experience of being a part of your community.  The best thing about building a sense of “neighborhood” among your residents is that you don’t only have to rely on the things that are included within the confines of your community.  You have, as a rich resource, the resources, character, and offerings of your surrounding area.  Build ties between your community and the surrounding area in order to build and strengthen your presence within your marketplace.  This not only makes your residents feel like real neighbors instead of co-inhabitants; but it makes your residents, surrounding neighbors, and local business establishments more aware of your presence – and more likely to refer others!
Action: Get out there and meet, greet and get to know the businesses in your area.  Remember, more residents for you means more customers for them.  Even your competitors might be willing to work out a referral arrangement, provided it’s a mutually beneficial one.  Meet the people who make their homes in your neighborhood!  Host holiday parties and seasonal events that are open not only to residents, but to the surrounding community.  Work at least one charity event into your schedule that benefits a local organization.  Plan resident appreciation events that capitalize on your community involvement (i.e. a plant sale that includes a “Patio of the Quarter” contest).  Is it worth the time and dollar investment?  You bet!  Building great relationships doesn’t cost.  It pays… in referrals and more!
6. No matter what it is, do it right – preferably the first time. There is an old adage that we have heard time and time again “you never get a second chance to make a first impression“.  No matter what your residents need or expect, do it right.  Here’s the rule:  give your residents great reasons to refer, and never give them a reason not to!  Why are people more likely to tell others about a bad experience than a good one?  Because bad experiences make BIG impressions.  When your actions and your efforts to prove to residents that you care about them and their home make equally BIG impressions, you can bet they’ll tell their friends, relatives and associates.
Action: From the very start of the relationship building process, listen carefully.  Get the correct pronunciation of their name.  Understand their wants, needs, and concerns.  Make the move-in easier.  Keep in touch.  Fix it when it’s broken.
7. Come right out and ask. There are two schools of thought when it comes to asking for referrals.  Many people feel that it’s a good policy to never overtly ask for a referral, because it makes a resident or previous resident feel used, and nobody wants to be used.  The other school of thought feels that happy residents should be happy to contribute to your success; and that it gives them a sense of ownership to know that they have an influence over who might become their neighbor in the future.  We hold with the second school of thought.  Happy residents will be more than happy to volunteer a referral, if asked… but like all things worth doing, there’s a right way to go about it.
Action: Make it without question that your reason for keeping in touch with your residents is because you genuinely care about them. You want them to be satisfied not only because it’s in your best interest for them to stay, but truly because you want them to have a home that they’ll always be happy with.  Do that first, and do it well; and while you’re at it:  once in a while, put out a referral door hanger; mention in every newsletter that referrals are always welcome; offer a reward if the local law allows.  Make your request for referrals something that you do in addition to relationship building; not in place of it.
8.  For heaven’s sake – don’t forget to say thanks! A resident who is willing to refer others to your community is an invaluable resource, so treat them that way!  Showing appreciation is not only the appropriate thing to do when somebody helps you close a several-thousand-dollar sale, but it’s the key continuing to receive referrals. Even if you pay a referral fee, send a personal thank you note.Even if they don’t lease the apartment you need to call to say thanks and let them know how the meeting with their friend, family member, or associate went.  Make a big, appreciative fuss about the wonderful thing your resident has done.  Send flowers, buy a gift certificate for lunch, or give tickets to a show or athletic event; and if you find yourself asking whether the added expense of a thank you gift is really necessary, stop to consider the lifetime value of a happy resident, not to mention one who continues to refer others! The current consumer trend is to reward your residents with a memorable event that they want to tell even more people about. An example of this would be to give them tickets to a “backstage” event. This gives your resident bragging rights about your community.

Here’s one great example of a program that you can use to improve the performance of your referral strategy!

Replace Yourself Program
Contributed by Sara Soleymani

Congratulations on the purchase of your new home!  Do you need some extra cash for closing cost or moving expense? All you have to do is refer a friend to Arlington Park to rent your apartment home.  If your friend leases your apartment home you will receive a check for $000.  It’s that easy!!!

Here’s how the program works:

1.    The prospect must tell the leasing associate on their first visit that you referred them.
2.    They must lease your apartment home before you move out.
3.    You must give proper notice according to your lease.
4.    You must provide proof of purchase of you new home.
5.    You will receive your check for $000 at your new home within thirty days of your friend moving in.  Don’t forget to leave your forwarding address.

See, I told you it was easy!  If you have any questions, please call the leasing office at 555-5555.

*This program expires on <Month> <Day> <Year>.