Mary joined Timberland Partners in 2009 as a regional vice president. Since that time, she has been instrumental in guiding our operations team. Mary’s strategic vision is focused on how we serve our three customer groups: the residents who choose to call our communities home, the team members who keep each property running efficiently, and the partners who have trusted us with their investments.

COVID-19 is a crisis that has put many businesses in a challenging position. What has been Timberland Partners’ experience dealing with this pandemic?

Heading into a completely unknown situation like this, the challenges we needed to prepare for were going to be changing daily – sometimes hourly! But we felt that Timberland Partners had the advantage of being in a position of strength, with high occupancy and a well-trained team, when the crisis hit. This allowed us to narrow our focus on what efforts were essential to maintain our strong position. To do that, we leveraged the strength of our team, with leaders from all levels and departments of the organization, to build a plan that could continue to evolve.

What adjustments were made as a result of this collaborative response?

Our leadership team began meeting daily to evaluate new mandates and identify ways to effectively address issues and provide support. Open communication across the organization was crucial, as we worked to leverage the expertise of each team member. We had several initiatives already underway that played right into this challenge. We had been focused on online leasing for quite some time – from online applications to digital lease signatures. We had also been beta testing online renewal proposals and leases. It was reassuring to realize that the initiatives we had already made a priority were going to help us not only continue leasing but to keep our team members and residents safe throughout the process. So rather than having to launch new initiatives from the ground up, we simply leveraged and expanded these existing resources to make them available portfolio-wide. We also found that as the apartment shopping process moved to be almost entirely digital, the reviews online for our communities became even more valuable. Reputation management has been a major initiative at Timberland Partners for several years now, and our on-site teams have been highly engaged with soliciting and managing online reviews. These strategies meant we already had a large inventory of reviews for our prospects to consider when choosing their apartment home, and our efforts ensured we stood out from our competitors.

How do you continue to operate an apartment community and lease apartments without being able to engage with your customers in-person?

Our on-site team members really showed their strength and creativity. Our office team members amazed us with their willingness to quickly adapt to virtual leasing. Within two days of our offices being closed to in-person leasing, our teams had already worked with our IT department to install mobile applications that would allow for video tours of communities. They started pre-recording tours of apartments and even created video welcome messages for new residents. Our quick response meant we were out ahead of our competitors, engaging with prospects in a way that was helpful, engaging, and, most importantly, safe for all involved.

How do you provide great customer service to your residents when your doors are closed? Do those relationships become difficult to manage?

It is always a priority for our team members to maintain a strong, positive relationship with their residents, and while COVID-19 did present us with some unique challenges, our teams embraced them wholeheartedly. As a safety precaution, we stopped accepting rent payments in the office. However, before this pandemic, we had very strong adoption rates of online payments by residents and had even been testing 100 percent online payments at a few properties. We were in a position to quickly roll these options out portfolio-wide. We also understood that many of our residents were being financially impacted by the pandemic. With that in mind, we waived all payment processing fees for our residents in April and May and offered payment plan options to offer more flexibility. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to continue to pay rent. We also suddenly had a much higher volume of residents relying on package delivery to receive essential items for their homes. To ensure they could receive those packages promptly, while also minimizing risk to all involved, we began delivering packages directly to our residents’ doors. They were able to receive what they needed safely, and we were able to minimize traffic into our office to protect our teams. We received a lot of positive feedback from our residents as a result, and it is a practice that many of our communities will continue. We also saw our maintenance teams really step up with some innovative ideas. Because of social distancing requirements, our team was only able to respond to emergency maintenance requests. To avoid frustrating our residents with a lack of resolution for necessary fixes, our maintenance teams from across the country started creating “how-to” videos. Whether it was how to reset your garbage disposal, or how to property unclog a toilet, our teams created easy to follow videos that were made available to residents across the portfolio. We have been amazed by the success. These videos, available in both English and Spanish, have been viewed more than 3,000 times! They also started engaging with residents virtually, providing real-time support to diagnose issues with residents via video chat.

We’re now two months into this crisis. Are you seeing positive results from the response plan you implemented?

Absolutely. As we continue to monitor and measure performance, we’re seeing positive results in a variety of ways. Portfolio-wide, we are actually exceeding 2019 metrics for prospect creation and apartment tours. Renewal efforts at our communities have been very effective. And our efforts to collect rent have been very successful. More than anything, this crisis has taught us to pay attention not only to the reports and metrics we review regularly but to our customers and what they need. Our goal is always to be easy to do business with, and our team rose to the occasion. I truly could not be prouder of each and every one of them.