Managing Your Online Image in Multifamily: How to Turn the Tide of Negative Reviews
Feeling burned by a bad review about one of your communities? It’s time to change the narrative. HappyCo explores the most effective approaches to online antagonism, revealing a range of ways multifamily operators can take the sting out of scathing reviews.
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“You see the city from high up. Big deal.” When the Eiffel Tower can be dismissed this way in an online review, it goes without saying: in our digital age, no multifamily company is safe from merciless feedback.
Here’s a reputation-shattering example one apartment community recently faced: “There is consistent marijuana use as you walk down the halls and ride the elevators. There is consistent prostitution in your face.” Were it warranted, this feedback might have inspired an important sea change in resident experience. Unfortunately, as NAA writer Priyanka Agarwal notes soon after sharing the post: the reviewer had no ties whatsoever to the property he or she described. In a word, the writer was … a troll.
It’s natural to ask: why respond at all to someone so intent on stirring the pot? Stats like this make clear: “93% of U.S. apartment seekers have used online reviews in their rental property search.” Thus, rather than ignore your online adversaries, it’s time you play their game — on your terms. To help operators take control of their online image, HappyCo explores the value of reviews for renters, the instincts of online trolls, and the art of responding effectively (and quickly) to their criticisms.
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Fortunately for operators, a recent Real Estate Weekly article is rich with data on just why reviews can prove so persuasive for would-be renters. A thorough Binary Fountain survey found that: “64 percent of renters use online reviews to search for a rental property at the beginning of their search.” Even more telling is this conclusion: “74 percent of renters read between 1-10 reviews before making a decision on a rental property.”
Interestingly, what prospective renters discover online about a community may even trump the comments they’ve heard from friends or loved ones. As Multifamily Executive makes clear, “eight-five percent reported looking at online reviews after a friend or family member’s recommendation.” From there, Multifamily Insiders reveals something fascinating: “that 88% of people trust online reviews more than personal recommendations.”
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Real Estate Weekly also suggests that the tone of these posts can matter significantly to would-be renters. The Binary Fountain survey REW highlights found that “57 percent of respondents selected ‘negative reviews’ as the most important aspect of a rental property’s online ratings.” Relatedly, the same survey reveals: “64 percent of American renters are willing to pay more for a property with more positive reviews and/or higher rankings.”
With this in mind, it’s wise for operators to consider: which topics mentioned in online reviews prove to be the strongest drivers of a prospect’s decision to rent? Multifamily Executive provides this guidance: “at the core of it, 80% of respondents chose value and cost as the most important factor when it came to choosing a rental property.” Location comes in second place at “seventy-seven percent,” according to Multifamily Executive. However, “safety and security” proves to be a critical factor as well, coming in at 65-percent.
This should signal to operators when a reviewer weighs in harshly about the value of a community or its level of safety and security, that company should feel increased pressure to respond swiftly and sincerely. However, for multifamily companies to pull this off successfully, it’s critical for them to understand what’s going through the minds of their biggest detractors: the internet users known as trolls.
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In her NAA piece on negative multifamily reviews, writer Priyanka Agarwal shares a definition of a “troll” from someone inside the industry: Kevin Patterson, Marketing Operations Manager at Gables Residential. To Patterson, a troll is a person “who stirs the pot via the Internet to distract or cause angst.” By “trolling,” the person “does something or says something (most likely incorrect or exaggerated) to generate a response and by continuing to push the envelope.”
Acting out because they “feel horribly wronged,” trolls, according to Forbes, “want to get you angry, frustrated or uncomfortable.” From a troll’s vantage point, this exercise proves both cleansing and free of consequences; they “find it easy to hide behind the keyboard and unleash a fury of words instantly damaging a property or company’s reputation.”
In a multifamily-specific instance, a disgruntled resident on a trolling mission is likely to post “the same negative review for your property on multifamily review sites or often updates the review hoping that you’ll be coerced into fulfilling their ‘demands.’” The end goal, as Agarwal puts it plainly? “To shame you in public.”
Fortunately, a separate NAA piece hints at one preventative measure operators can take to stop would-be trolls before they act. Writer Les Shaver notes: “the people who come to the office or who call to complain are usually on the onsite team’s radar.” Thus, Scott Manning, Regional Manager at CA Student Living recommends giving trolls what they want most: attention. He advises: “if you know who is behind the complaint, take the initiative to get into contact with them so they can be heard.”
In the same spirit, it’s important that you always give negative reviews a fair shake, seeing them as opportunities to improve your communities. With this roadmap in mind, it’s time to cover how your multifamily teams should approach the discovery of bad news.
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Faced with a scathing review of your multifamily community, it’s important to understand what you should definitely not do: “get angry or defensive.” Forbes contributor Kalin Kassabov explains the massive consequences: “you don’t want to get into a flame war with an angry customer. You can’t win and you’ll end up alienating more potential customers.”
So, after taking a breath, you should first assess: is this complaint part of a pattern? Kassabov stresses, “if you see multiple complaints on the same issue, it’s worth paying attention.” NAA writer Agarwal advises that operators use this feedback as a much-needed conversation-starter, a nudge to “talk to your onsite staff to better understand what happened.”
From there, Agarwal urges operators to “bring the problem to the attention of higher-level management and find a permanent solution.” Then, it’s best to come clean online about just that soul-searching process. In a piece for Entrepreneur, actor and TV host Jeffery Hayzlett argues: “if what a critic is saying is true, fix the mistake and…Let the person who wrote the complaint know you have corrected this error and explain what you did [to make it right].”
However, after carrying out Agarwal’s recommended “fact-finding mission” wherein you determine the status of the reviewer, you and your teams may find that the person does not fall into any of these categories: prospective resident, current resident, former resident, or guest. You may also find that the complaint at hand is invalid — or at least exaggerated.
Facing either of these outcomes, you’ll still need to respond with an authentic apology. Forbes offers the primary reason: “you may argue with the facts of the situation (which you probably shouldn’t, at least publicly)…but you can’t argue with how they feel.” Secondarily, a key finding from a Harvard Business Review study should steer multifamily operators towards saying “sorry.” As Forbes summarizes: “when businesses respond to customer reviews — good or bad — their rating subsequently increases.”
The reason: society’s collective discomfort at the possibility of confrontation. Forbes notes: “according to the study, customers who see previous management responses decide not to leave trivial or unsubstantiated negative reviews to avoid a potentially uncomfortable online interaction with the manager.” With this guiding principle in mind — “a little sympathy goes a long way” — it’s time to cover just how multifamily operators can massage their messages and improve their online reputations along the way.
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First off, when it comes to online apologies, Forbes warns it’s best to have somewhat low expectations about their effect: “Very rarely will you be able to completely resolve a reviewer’s bad experience thanks to your empathetic online reply.” If a review centers on a specific transaction, Forbes suggests “it’s best to resolve the issue privately.”
In cases like these, a representative from your team should offer contact information along with their name and title with a message along this framework, according to Forbes: “If you’re open to discussing this further, please call us at (888) XXX-1234 and ask to speak with Jamie, our General Manager. We’d greatly appreciate the opportunity to make things right.”
As contributor Kalin Kassabov argues, this kind of sentiment serves a range of purposes: sparing readers a multi-paragraph explanation, protecting the reviewer’s privacy, demonstrating your receptiveness to feedback, and, most importantly, “turning a monolithic organization into a personable one-on-one encounter.”
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In this same vein, Multifamily Insiders recommends that you “pinpoint areas in the review to acknowledge.” Rather than offer “canned responses,” it’s critical that your team highlights specifics from the review at hand. Interestingly, writer Jennifer Carter makes clear: you can indeed turn negative feedback into a positive narrative. She recommends that operators “look for marketing opportunities to reiterate in the review response…don’t miss out on a chance to promote your community,” especially considering these posts will be visible for years to come.
When a review is negative, for example, she advises that 70-percent of a multifamily company’s response should acknowledge the grievances and 30-percent should serve as a marketing opportunity to highlight what your company is doing well.
However, even when your team makes its best effort to address a negative review thoughtfully — and gently tries to steer the encounter offline — the person may not take the bait. Should they post again, Agarwal suggests transparency is your path to success. She recommends companies respond with a repeat apology and a reveal of their sincere efforts to engage: “We are sorry you feel this way. Our team has made several attempts to contact you to review the condition of your apartment upon your move-out to no avail.”
Agarwal argues transparency is also your best friend when a person posts a scathing review and proves not to be linked in any way to the community at hand. One example might be a troll posting about ice-cold water in their shower. In this situation, Agarwal advises crafting a message along these lines: “Thank you for reviewing…Our records indicate that no work orders were placed about a lack of hot water. We are unable to trace your relationship with our community. Can you please contact us at (email/phone number) so we can better understand this situation?”
When your teams follow up like this, it signals to readers that you take resident experience to heart. As Forbes argues, “it also shows that your company takes customer service seriously enough to have someone in charge of addressing those problems.” Indeed, it’s useful to view negative reviews not as one-offs but as an ever-present threat in our digital age. For that reason, it’s helpful to have a seamless protocol in place to handle these scathing posts.
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In crafting a sure-fire company policy to handle negative reviews, your team should consider the following concerns, according to Agarwal: “what constitutes a troll; who within management should receive escalated reviews; what contact information to include in responses; and how to determine if legal counsel should become involved.”
Forbes notes that while some companies turn to partners for this content, other multifamily companies write up guidelines that their local operators can follow. No matter your company’s preference, Forbes contributor Randall Kirsch recommends that you “define clear roles and rules” and “hold the organization accountable to the process and the results.”
While this might sound like quite the burden, Multifamily Executive asserts the payoff is significant. It cites a broad renter survey in which “almost all respondents said they thought it was helpful when property managers responded to reviews, and 89% said they would post an online review of their community if asked.”
Indeed, in “Taming Trolls,” Agarwal ultimately argues: “an absolute focus on customer service” will eventually “turn the tide in the community’s favor.” She turns to Ryan Sundling, Group Marketing Manager at Cardinal, who stresses: “If we succeed in crafting a remarkable living experience, real organic reviews will come. This is the most powerful tool in combating any trolls and fake reviews.”
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