Knock Talk: Ep. 16 – How to get the most out of your partnerships – the good, the bad, and the innovation

Whether it’s cross departmental, with an investor or with a third party service provider, the multifamily industry thrives when partnerships are transparent and strong. In this episode, multifamily veteran and Knock vice president of strategic accounts, Lucas Bourgeois talks with First Communities’ Senior Vice President of Marketing, Samantha Hoard and Jenn Brown, marketing and operations specialist, to hear their secrets to successful supplier partnerships – partnerships that thrive on transparency and drive innovation, AND strategies to handle the hard conversations.

Full Transcript

Lucas Bourgeois: Welcome, everybody. Welcome to Knock Talk. My name is Lucas and I’m here to shed light on all things multifamily PropTech and the intelligent front-office solution. Today, we are very excited to have Samantha Hoard, Senior Marketing Director, and Jennifer Brown, Marketing Director, both of First Communities.

Our conversation today, we’re going to be talking about partnerships and how to really drive innovation with those partnerships; also, how to navigate those difficult conversations when they pop-up from time to time. Welcome, Samantha and Jenn.

Samantha Hoard: Hi, Lucas. Thanks so much for having us.

Lucas: You are so welcome. We are so excited to have you here today. First of all, let’s start out, what a crazy year. How have you guys been?

Samantha: Thriving, surviving, it depends on the day. I think today probably falls under the surviving category. No, but in all seriousness, it’s been a challenging year, full of really high highs, with some challenging lows.

I think as we look to start 2021, we’ve got a lot of really bright things in the future. I can honestly say our team is stronger, more resilient, and better communicators than we were when we started the year.

Lucas: Well, thank you so much. All right, so let’s talk about, why are we here today? We’re here to talk about partnerships in the multifamily industry. We all know you manage a lot of them, the good, bad, and the indifferent.

I want to hear a little bit about what is important to you both about managing a relationship and multifamily, and then how do you choose your tech partners in this industry?

Samantha: Sure. I think it’s important to start off by noting that as a third-party manager, the way we make decisions is a little bit different. A lot of the decisions that we make are based on a property-by-property basis, rather than something that’s portfolio-driven or globally-driven. There’s not a lot of one-size-fits-all decisions that we make. I think that’s an important distinction because that’s something that separates us from a lot of other companies in the industry.

With that being said, the technical components of each product take first priority, and the integrations are key to us. We’ve had a lot of growth over the last couple of years, and we’ve tried everything from a single stack to the best-in-service. Now really looking at the way things fit together is really important to us. We make our decisions based on data. You’ll find that First Communities really values maintaining strong relationships with vendors built on transparency and consistency.

Lucas: Thank you so much. Jenn, give us a little bit more information.

Jenn Brown: Without the face-to-face contact that we’re all used to having with our partners, it’s more important than ever to really focus on building a strong relationship to ensure everybody is successful. The key component to that success, for us, is ongoing communication and a shared emphasis of supporting our on-site teams. At the end of the day, our angle is always the success of our on-site teams.
When we’re choosing a vendor partner, we find it’s important for both sides to be really upfront and transparent with all the specifics, needs, and expectations to ensure that we’re able to roll out a platform successfully and continue on with a partnership. There are a lot of companies out there selling similar products across our entire industry, but the ones that are always going to focus on that ongoing support are the ones that will always stand out from the crowd, for us.

Lucas: Thank you so much for that, Jenn. It seems like First Communities has quite a process and a good process when it comes to formally vetting out new partnerships. We all know in the multifamily PropTech space, there’s a lot of new technology popping up as well as technology that’s been around for years. Do you have a formal vetting process when it comes to implementing a new vendor at First Communities?

Samantha: Sure. I think like most management companies, we have a couple of hard and fast rules that we have to abide by when it comes to onboarding any new platform or working with any new vendor partner. In the last five years, First Communities have built out a corporate structure that has a team that specifically supports that onboarding process and handles everything that goes into working with a new vendor, making sure, from a compliance perspective, they’re in line with our values, making sure their insurance components and policies meet our standards.

They handle that. As soon as we’re interested in working with the new vendor partner, we engage that group, and they take over from there to make sure all the i’s are dotted, the t’s are crossed, and everything is formally buttoned up.

Jenn: I’d just like to add to that as well, from our marketing team’s perspective. Honestly, much to the dismay of our CFO, our marketing team is often less focused, specifically, on the compliance and insurance when we’re looking at new partners and more focused on the integrations with our PMS system and other key softwares that we use. It’s really, really important to us that every tool we add fits in with our current products and will provide a quality solution for our on-site teams.

Lucas: When it comes to vetting out new partnerships, I know you’ve provided us a checklist, but do you have an exact example that you could share with our audience today on maybe some challenges or some tweaks that a partner has given you to improve the relationship?

Jenn: Absolutely. I think in any implementation of a new technology, the on-site training that’s provided for our teams is really important. Generally, I’ve been available to either go on-site with the teams and provide that one-on-one training. I think it was very important during our implementation with Knock to be able to have the additional training options available. One thing we really needed was different times and dates available for our teams, and you guys were easily able to meet that expectation for us.

Samantha: Yes. I think if I could just add a little more, that was definitely something that I wouldn’t say was a pain point but that was a challenge we presented to you guys at launch. With a portfolio that’s as large as ours is and as many properties coming on board as there were at the same time, I think we identified pretty early on that Jenn wasn’t going to be able to personally train every new associate that came on board with us.

We worked really closely with you guys to create a little bit more of a robust, customized training platform. That’s something that’s been really important and definitely has been critical to the success of the partnership we’ve had. It just meant so much to us to have a partner that was so willing to solve for a problem without a lot of push from us. We identified it, and you took care of it, and here we are, two and a half years later, smooth-sailing.

Lucas: I want to elaborate on that question, Sam. You said pain point, is there a point in a partnership where you have that pain point where it comes to a breaking point and you have to end the partnership? Have you ever come to a situation like that?

Samantha: Unfortunately, yes. I think that’s the reality of business. There’s got to be some give and take in a partnership. Anyone would be less than transparent if they said they hadn’t had that experience. We’ve made a lot of changes in the last six years with different tools, different platforms. Technology has changed, integrations have changed, acquisitions happen, so that’s absolutely happened over the course of the last six years.

I think it’s really important to remember that this is a small industry, and every situation needs to be handled with grace. It needs to be handled the way that you would want it to be handled if you were on the receiving end of that conversation because this is absolutely an industry that what goes around comes around. Just remembering to take that into account, be considerate of people’s feelings, you may not always have the best news to deliver, but there’s always the right way to deliver something delicately that you can both walk away from the conversation feeling heard and respected, and that’s what’s important.

Jenn: I think it’s important to add to that as well that if you go into that conversation knowing that this could not be the end all be all about partnership ending, knowing that there could be a future, then you will come out better in the long run as well.

Lucas: I feel like that mutual respect is never going to go away, right? You never want to burn a bridge, you never want to treat somebody as if they– You wouldn’t want to be treated the same way. I think that this industry is definitely small, and those words of wisdom, Sam and Jenn, are some that I think our audience will take to heart.

Thank you so much. Let’s chat about this. Once you’ve decided, hey, this is a vendor partner that you are going to implement at First Communities. Once you sign that contract, what steps do you take after to ensure an appropriate and good partnership?

Samantha: As soon as the contract’s been signed, the ink is dry, talking through and really establishing clear goals and objectives as it’s related to the implementation process is where you’re going to find the keys to success and having a long-term partnership. I think it’s really important to note that on our side, the owner-manager side, we’re focused on a lot of different things, we support a lot of different properties, there are multiple initiatives that are launching at the same time.

Making sure that there’s a good relationship and a good understanding by the vendor partner that we may be launching simultaneous pilots and just making sure that you guys are invested in helping us create realistic timelines and milestones so that we can achieve them together is really important. Setting and maintaining a consistent communication cadence is something that I found wasn’t always the case with rollouts before.
I think that’s been really important to making sure things are successful, the monthly calls we have with you, the monthly calls we have with Kalvin, and then if there’s a beta or an alpha going on, the regular communication around those projects as well. The follow-up piece, I think, is really critical, too. I think it’s really easy to get a contract signed and move on but making sure that you’re not necessarily holding our hands but that you’re showing continued investment and making sure that our use of the product is successful is something that’s really important.

Lucas: Are there any kind of reports or data metrics that you use to measure your partnerships? If so, will you share some of those with us?

Jenn: It’s really important when you start a new partnership to go ahead and set up those measurable goals and the specific KPIs to ensure that everybody is successful. Without having those in place for a team, it’s hard for them to see the benefit of the platform. It’s really important for us to set those up initially and also share them with our vendor partner so they know what we’re looking for.

Since with Knock, we use Knock Analytics a lot to be able to pull those reports very easily, we also create our own reports from the backend, to be able to not only integrate that information from the Knock Analytics but also pull the information from our PMS system and merge the two together for the most accurate data.

Lucas: Your partnerships, at the end of the day, they need to provide a return on investment. No matter what you’re investing in in multifamily PropTech, you need to be able to prove to your owners and to your management, and to your COO and CFO that this is providing value with the partnership. Do you have any kind of insight on what you look for, for benchmarks when it comes to providing value to your portfolio?

Samantha: Lucas, are you trying to get us to share the secret sauce?

Lucas: You know it, bring it in.

Samantha: I think it varies depending upon the specific goals and objectives of each property. I think, for us, we’ve really worked hard to– We have a target cost-per-lease that we’re looking for across the portfolio that that’s what we’re tracking towards. Across all of our advertising sources, we have a target cost-per-lead that we’re tracking towards for all of our properties across all of our portfolio and just setting those things in place, understanding that things won’t be the same globally.

Things are going to be very different in Austin than they are in Florida but setting goals in place so that across the board we can perform at a high level as a portfolio is really important. I think as we move forward, you’re going to see more dollar-driven metrics in marketing. I think a lot of what we’ve reported on, up until now, has been based on lead volume.

Now we’re in a place where we’re able to, so much more, accurately track conversion that the expectation of us to be able to provide really detailed, accurate reporting, it’s paramount, it’s the most important thing we do. I think clients continue to be impressed with how nimble we can be. You ask for something, and we’re able to give it to you almost real-time, based on the partnerships we’ve opted into because you guys give us the ability to give that information so quickly.

Jenn: One other thing I like to add to that, as well, is the ability for on-site teams to see those measurable KPIs as well because that helps them continuously build towards their goals, going forward. When we share that information and let them know where we need them to be, it’s only going to help them grow and increase their success as well.

One other thing I like to add to that, as well, is the ability for on-site teams to see those measurable KPIs as well because that helps them continuously build towards their goals, going forward. When we share that information and let them know where we need them to be, it’s only going to help them grow and increase their success as well.

Lucas: When you’re vetting out new partners, do you just decide, “Hey, we’re going to roll this out portfolio-wide,” or what is your process? Are you piloting new technology, gathering data and metrics, and then going to asset managers and owners, and presenting that data to roll it out across your portfolio? Any kind of insight?

Samantha: There’s no secret. People think marketing technology is just you press a button, and it happens. I think we’ve been really lucky in having an executive leadership team that really supports us and helps deliver the message that things need to happen incrementally. We’ve found ourselves participating in a lot more pilots than we had in the past, and I think that’s been part of why some of our newer partnerships have been so successful.

There’s a lot of value and taking the time to do something the right way the first time. I think we’ve seen that across the board regardless of portfolio or client. We walk before we run, and once we run, we sprint. I think we’ve rolled a lot of new things out this year, some COVID-driven, some not. Our goal, Jenn and I, was we had this really big, robust roadmap for ourselves before COVID happened. I think about the whiteboard exercise that we did back in February, and we’ve still been able to achieve a lot of things that were on there despite the challenges that COVID has presented to us.

I think that’s because we set ourselves up for success with having those pilots in place and having had those conversations with our vendor partners well in advance of COVID so we were able to keep the ball rolling.

Jenn: I think one other interesting point to that is yes, our whiteboard list was quite robust and very ambitious, but on some of the things that we wanted to accomplish during 2020 were, yes, we had to sprint to them because of COVID, but they were already on our list. We may have had to roll them out a little bit more quickly than we would have thought, but we still were able to take our time and make sure that they were appropriate for our portfolio and, in the end, successful as well.

Lucas: Just to go off of that and ask one more question, when you’re piloting this new technology, how are you setting benchmarks to achieve those KPIs for that new PropTech? Are you working with the vendor partners to establish that? Are you working with your executives? Just share us a little bit on how you’re establishing those key performance indicators for pilots.

Samantha: I think it’s really important to have conversations with all of the stakeholders, all of the decision-makers on the onset, I think working with your vendor to set and create realistic expectations that you’re able to present together to your executives. I look at working with you like a true partnership, and our successes are mutual. When I work with you guys to create the benchmarks by which the success is determined, I feel a lot more comfortable taking that to our executive leadership team or to my client’s executive leadership team and presenting that these are realistic goals that we can achieve together.

Jenn: We would like to keep moving forward with all of our partnerships and making sure that we are accurate in what we’re thinking is possible. We don’t want to just throw a number out there and say, “Oh, this might happen.” It’s really important that we work with you guys and with our leadership to know what’s important to our client and how to achieve it.

Samantha: I think that’s a good point. I think a lot more decisions are going to be a lot more challenging as we go into 2021. Typically, you’re going to look at your actuals, your historicals, and 2020’s are awash. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what kind of decisions we make and what we think is possible as we start this new year.

Lucas: We all know rolling out new technology, there can be blood, sweat, and tears, hopefully, no tears, but there’s a lot involved. When you’re actually rolling out a new property management technology, have you ever come to a point where you’re like, “This is just not going to work”? Do you believe in just ripping the band-aid or giving it more time to kind of prove results?

Samantha: Like we said, we really are solutions-oriented at First Communities. I don’t know that “This is not going to work” is an answer that would ever be accepted. It may be more of a “We’re going to have to find another way to achieve what we’re looking for here” is a little bit softer of a blow. I think the old adage where there’s a will, there’s a way is typically very true.

I think that’s part of why we put so much value and emphasis on vetting out the integrations before we start a relationship because there’s nothing more frustrating than having signed a contract and then realizing it’s just not going to work. I think that’s something that a lot of people have learned from, over the last couple of years, and you’re having a lot less of those “Let’s rip the bandaid off and move on” conversations because you’re doing the homework on the front end.

Lucas: We said we were going to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Well, let’s talk about when a partnership doesn’t go smooth-sailing. How do you navigate that and when you have a challenging situation, are there any kind of key factors that help you get through to the end of that tunnel?

Jenn: I think it’s really important in property management for everyone to realize we have to be quick on our feet. Things are constantly changing, so sticking our head in the sand is never an option. I think you’ll find, across our company and all departments within FCM, that if we find a challenging situation, that we are not afraid to speak up, we’re always willing to work together to right the ship. There’s never a one-size-fits-all option, but being able to be upfront and transparent when there are issues is the only way to move forward.

Lucas: I agree with that wholeheartedly. We have a no-hurt-feelings policy here at Knock, as you know, and I’ve mentioned it many times. I feel like transparency is really the foundation of having a true partnership. Let’s just talk about tips to navigate those hard conversations. Do you guys have any tips or checklists that you go through when it comes to actually handling those difficult conversations?

Samantha: Yes, absolutely. I would say something that’s been instilled upon us as our team is, you never present just a problem, you always come to the table with solutions, and you’re always going to have a much more productive conversation. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but it has to happen, from time to time. When you come to the table with a couple of solutions, a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and something in between, typically, you’re going to be met with less resistance and be able to move forward and re-establish the trust that you may have lost in that situation.

Jenn: I think it really helps people to move forward more quickly as well because that’s important. We’ve talked about, we have got to keep moving in this ever-changing industry, and if we just come with problems, that won’t happen.

Lucas: Yes, it’s always changing just like you said, Jenn. You can never stay status quo. That leads me to my next question. Let’s talk about innovation and changes. When you’re vetting those partners and when you have that long-term relationship, is there anything that you do specifically to look for innovation or push innovation with your current partnerships?

Samantha: I think that one’s a little bit more challenging because it varies so wildly between portfolio to portfolio, client to client. Working with 20 different clients across the country with different portfolios, different asset types, there may be some clients that are more comfortable being the last one to adopt a new technology and some that want to be cutting-edge.

We’re lucky enough to have the entire spectrum that we work with. I think more often than not, you’re going to have the same portfolios that are willing to be those early adopters, and we look to our known goods, our tried and true partners, and that’s a situation where we’re willing to be an alpha or a beta. I think we’re really open to technology. I think we’re really good about finding a nice, happy medium between us pushing the initiatives and letting our clients help us determine what’s important to them.

It’s the perfect marriage. You can’t have one person interested in innovation and the other not. It’s something that we look to really build a mutual path forward with our clients. Then we work with our vendor partners to figure out the best route to get from A to Z where we are to where we want to be.

Lucas: I feel like that’s something that you’ve been really good at is our partnership with Knock and First Communities is really pushing us to innovate. We started out teaching you the platform and being the teachers. We’ve done a 360 since our partnership started and now you’re teaching us, what enhancements can we provide and what other innovations can we add to the platform as far as meeting your needs and keeping up with your client demands? I feel like we have that 360 partnership where it’s like we taught you, and now you’re the teachers, so we really appreciate that in our partnership with First Communities.

Samantha: You’re very welcome, Sensei.

Jenn:  I think it’s really important to note, with that as well, that we’ve been able to work so closely. We get on a call with you or with Kalvin, and we’re able to quickly determine together what works for our needs. It may be us presenting a problem and you guys saying, “Oh, that’s already on the roadmap for us.” That’s something, as we watch you continue to innovate, that we get more and more excited to continue with the partnership.

Lucas: Well, we really appreciate that. Let’s shift gears for a second. You have a lot of partnerships to manage. [laughs] Multifamily has many services, especially in the marketing realm and the marketing world that you’re in. I just want to know, do you have any tips for our listeners today on how to manage all those partnerships and keep your relationships fostered with the various contacts that you’re touching base with on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis?

Samantha: Absolutely. This has been something that we’ve tried to face head-on as a marketing team in the last couple of years, as our department’s grown, as the number of clients we have has grown, and as the number of vendor partners we prefer to work with has grown. One of the things we’ve talked about during our chat is the importance of maintaining that strong relationship.

About a year ago, in an effort to really foster those strong relationships and make sure that we were getting what we needed from our vendors and, just as importantly, they were getting what they needed from us, we put a key point of contact in place for some of our national preferred vendor partners. I may have someone different than Jenn would, but we’ve got not a single point of contact but the primary point of contact who really assists with making sure the whole team is aware of any big initiatives on your side that are coming down the pipe, making sure that there’s a single point of contact when it comes to scheduling calls or meetings, making sure that there’s just a single person that really helps reel us all in because it’s like herding cats when you’ve got this many marketing people, otherwise.

Lucas: I feel like that’s a wonderful way to target that situation. Even from the vendor perspective where you have maybe 30 individuals from the same organization contacting you when you have that project sponsor that can communicate internally, it really helps streamline the process and organize it on both ends of the partnership. I love that idea.

Are you guys ready to shift some gears? We have a favorite question that we ask. Obviously, multifamily, been around for many years, what are you most excited about for the future of the multifamily industry?

Samantha: I think multifamily has changed so much since I started in the industry. I think when I first started, I was met with a lot of, “What’s the way we’ve always done it?” or “That’s just the way things are.” I think you’ve seen a really nice change in mindset over the last five years. People are a lot more willing to embrace technology and change than they ever have before.

As a result, you’re seeing this nice emergence of PropTech, and you’re seeing real innovators that are giving interest to the multifamily industry that never really would have before because all they would have been met with is resistance. I think as we continue, as an industry, to adopt that new technology, the thing I’m most excited to see is how we marry that new technology with the human elements that are inherent and will not change in our business.

Lucas: Wonderful answer. What about you, Jenn?

Jenn: To piggyback off on Sam, if you would have asked me this question eight months ago, my answer would have been wildly different, but today more than ever, I’m excited to see where AI takes our industry. In this world that’s constantly changing, we need to be open and we need to be flexible. I think the new AI tools that have been rolled out in the last several years will help us continue to improve the experience for our prospects and for our residents. It’ll help keep us at the forefront of the real estate industry.

Lucas: Thank you for answering all these questions today. I’m just wondering, do you have any questions for me?

Samantha: Absolutely. I think we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s important to us in a vendor relationship when you talked about the changes that we’ve made to streamline communication, but I think it’s important for us to hear feedback, too. Based on the changes that we’ve made and you’ve experienced over the last several years, are we giving you what you need to be good stewards of the partnership?

Lucas: I feel like the answer is yes. You guys have made a lot of strategic changes, but there was never any kind of hiccups when it came to our partnership. I just feel like the fact that you appointed that one point of contact on each technology sector so now we have that one point of contact for Knock that will then go back internally and be that stakeholder and share with your teams has really helped streamline the multiple emails with the same question.

I feel like you’ve definitely made some changes for the better. At the end of the day, you continue to challenge us, you’re transparent, you’re open, you’re honest. That’s what we look for in a partnership. You’re just pushing us to be better, innovate more, and provide more feature enhancements that help fit your business needs. We really appreciate as far as you having that one point of contact so we don’t have an influx of emails with the same content but also just continue to push and be transparent when it comes to our partnership.

Samantha: We’re certainly glad to hear it. We appreciate everything you guys do for us, and we’re really looking forward to seeing where things grow.

Lucas: We are as well, and we are so thankful. Jenn and Sam, thank you so much for your time today. I hope everyone that listened in found this conversation valuable. Until our next Knock Talk, everybody, have a wonderful afternoon.

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