Improving the digital customer experience lifts ROI of all marketing efforts

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Gables Residential saves $1 million with new Digital Customer Journey


A great customer experience (CX) is a powerful way of connecting with your customers. But you still need to invest in sales support, advertising, and other marketing to be successful, right?

Actually, no.

A great customer experience has far-reaching benefits that can save you money in unexpected ways. It can reduce advertising costs, streamline sales, and even increase productivity.

That’s what happened after we completed a digital customer experience project with Gables Residential. “(W)e saved over $1 million in advertising costs,” Lynette Hegeman, Gables Vice President of Marketing, said in a recent review of our work.

Those savings were just the beginning. Through improving their customer experience, Gables was also able to address other sales and marketing challenges, reducing their costs and increasing their potential sales.

They are not alone, as more companies are realizing what a strong customer experience can do. A recent McKinsey & Company article contends, “We know that brands that can improve the customer journey see revenues increase as much as 10 to 15 percent while also lowering the cost to serve 15 to 20 percent.”

For Gables, the results were even more pronounced.

CX investment yields big results

As one of the largest apartment complex developers and operators in the United States, with 120 properties in major cities around the country, Gables has significant sales and marketing costs and challenges.

For prospects to even find their properties, Gables advertises with almost a dozen apartment referral services, including Apartment Guide and These services provide leads to Gables in exchange for hefty per-lead fees. With so many apartments to fill, Gables spent millions of dollars for these leads.

On the sales side, Gables employs leasing agents at each property. These are highly qualified, well-compensated individuals whose job is to make prospects feel welcome, find them a unit that’s right for them, and, ideally, sell upgrades.

Ordinarily, when faced with a sales and marketing challenge, a company like Gables might invest millions of dollars more in advertising and more salespeople. But as they discovered, an investment in their customer experience affected the whole process, and allowed them to spend less on sales and marketing.

And get more out of their current investments.

Understanding the customer journey

When Gables came to us, they wanted to improve their existing web site, which was outdated and didn’t represent their brand well. “(C)ustomers did not have a very good search experience,” said Hegeman.

In addition, Gables sought to understand how effective each of the referral services were in supplying leads, both in quantity and quality. It was not uncommon for the same leads to come from multiple sources, which meant they were paying two or even three vendors for the same lead. They also had no way of knowing which sites generated the most leases, so the ROI was unclear.

Most importantly, Gables wanted to streamline their sales process. Leasing agents were experiencing bottlenecks during weekends when the most apartment showings took place, and Gables struggled to staff their sales offices appropriately.

In short, prospects were not experiencing the best of Gables online or on the properties, and leasing agents, who are paid on commission, were not able to do their jobs effectively. All this despite millions of dollars in sales and advertising spend.

The answer began with gaining a complete understanding of their customers’ journey — the path prospects took from conducting their first apartment search to signing a lease.

Growing organic traffic

The first problem that needed to be solved was determining the ROI of their referral services. The leads from the referral services, in both quantity and quality, vary widely. Using our lead attribution analytics, we were able to show Gables where the most leads originated, and which of those turned to leases.

This gave Gables the ammunition they needed to renegotiate their fees, going to a pay-per-lease arrangement instead of expensive subscriptions. “That was a big thing because we wanted wanted to grow our organic traffic and cut down on our advertising,” said Hegeman.

Growing that organic traffic was a separate challenge, due to their customers’ discerning nature.

Gables’ target customers are affluent young professionals. To cater to this market, the properties feature upscale designs and amenities to make the apartments more desirable. But an outdated site and difficult navigation threatened to undermine that luxury positioning, to say nothing of alienating their tech-savvy target market.

But the customer experience isn’t just online. It continues at the leasing office where prospects meet with leasing agents to see their apartments and sign their leases.

Gables needed that entire experience to work seamlessly. That started with understanding what the experience was, and what it needed to be.

Creating a seamless customer experience

Working closely with Gables, we mapped the customer journey in detail, from lead to lease, making sure we understood every interaction, touch point and key moment customers have along the way. Here are some of the key findings:

Gables’ target customers preferred to search for apartments online, then look at the ones they like on weekends.

Customers expect the apartments they choose online are available.

When customers meet with a leasing agent, the first 20-30 minutes of the meeting is spent gathering information (apartment preferences, move-in date, credit information, etc.), even though the customer may have already provided much of that information online.

Gables’ leasing agents are high-value employees who earn a commission on apartment leases.

No one likes the information gathering portion of the meeting. It’s not a good use of the customers’ or the leasing agents’ time, and does nothing to sell apartments. Customers also get annoyed by having to provide information twice.

Armed with this information, we set out to build a solution that would improve the entire sales process, both online and offline. It would not only enhance customers’ experiences with the Gables brand, but it would also enable leasing agents to provide better experiences during sales meetings.

The key was to allow users to do more themselves online in the initial stages of the experience. We built a web application that allowed users to select preferred price levels, amenities and floorplans, search for available units, and select the apartments they liked. The application made this possible by tapping into Gables’ database of units, floorplans, vacancies, and pricing, so the customer could select the precise units that interested them.

The web application also gathered the customer’s contact information, desired move-in date, and other information. Users could then easily schedule appointments, automatically providing all of their information — including preferred apartments — to the leasing agent. That provided the seamless transition from the online experience to the offline meeting.

With all of the customer information already in hand, leasing agents were enabled to do what they do best — sell apartments. Instead of spending valuable time gathering information, agents can immediately start property tours, showing prospects all of the units they’ve selected, as well as all of the amenities of the complex.

Understanding that the customer is not the only user that’s important, we also developed a tablet app that made life even easier for leasing agents. The app integrates with the web application, letting agents access prospects’ information as they walk the properties. It also makes it easy to gather missing information about the customer during the tour.

Finally, the web application has built-in customer relationship management tools that automatically schedules and sends correspondence tailored to individual customers’ preferences and experiences.

A CX that works the way it should

Together, all of the features of the application virtually eliminate the manual tasks that, while necessary, took time away from agents’ main responsibilities. The resulting productivity gains mean that agents can see more prospects in a day, and Gables is better able to staff sales offices to meet the demands of busy times.

All of that, of course, is invisible to the customers. They don’t perceive a system that’s designed to put more responsibility on them for searching and entering information (and they prefer it that way, anyway).

What they notice is an online experience that works the way it should, leasing agents that seem to know what they want when they arrive, and the best possible use of their time.

And Gables notices greater visibility into their lead generation, lower sales and marketing costs, better productivity from key employees, and a better lead-to-lease conversion rate.

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