By Pamela Babcock
©2023 Community Associations Institute
COMPANIES RENOWNED for customer service—think Disney, the Ritz- Carlton, or Amazon—may sell more family vacations, book more lavish hotel rooms, or dominate e-commerce. But what impact can a customer-focused mindset have on community associations? Apparently, more than you might think.
“What customer relations really does is increase the value of the building because when one is providing good customer service, typically your associations and stakeholders—residents, shareholders, homeowners and developers—are happier," says Susan Fitzpatrick, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president of Orsid, a New York City property management Firm. She adds that when a property is well run, residents are happy, and word will spread to potential buyers.
“We treat our clients like they are part of the family," Fitzpatrick says. “The expectation is that we will get back to people quickly and resolve their issues. People want help or information quickly. We are not building nuclear weapons here. We pretty much have all the answers; we've been doing this for a very long time."
Customer service wasn't always at the forefront for community associations. When master-planned communities were first conceived, “There was no real concern about customer service. It was, 'You bought into this association, here are the rules, and you better follow them,' " says Sandy Denton, CMCA, LSM, PCAM, general manager of Sienna Associations in Missouri City, Texas.
Today's communities don't want their residents to stay in their homes all day or ignore the broader neighborhood.
“We want them to enjoy living in the community and to feel good about their largest investment," says Denton, a CAI past president. “We need to make sure that our teams are prepared to demonstrate that message to the residents, whether it's in person or in written communications."
Opportunities to provide standout service happen any time a resident contacts a manager or board member with a question, request, or complaint. How well you communicate on your website and on social media also is critical to building a sense of community.
Many agree that customer service is more important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the negative effects it has had on mental health.
Evelyn Saavedra, CMCA, ASM, PCAM, regional director for Worth Ross Management in Denver, says now more than ever, residents want to be “in the know" and have a sense of belonging.
“People are on edge. They are expecting the worst," says Saavedra. “When you stop and give them the attention they need, many are taken aback. The impact (of good customer service) is so much greater today than it was prior to the pandemic."
Bruce Gran, CMCA, ASM, PCAM chief financial officer for PMG Services, AAMC, in Scottsdale, Ariz., defines exceptional customer service as the user simply having a great experience. “It's all about user experience," he says.
Transparency, along with accurate and timely communication, are critical, Gran says. His company, which provides customer relations management software to the industry, affords residents and boards of directors with the opportunity to get information seamlessly through a cloud-based portal for each association.
“We put everything in the notes—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and can even drop in voicemails and that sort of thing," Gran says. An owner or board member can access information 24/7, 365 days a year via their portal. “They don't usually have to come to us, and I think that empowers people since it's very agile and can be updated or changed as needed."
HIRING AND TRAINING
Engaged employees are key to creating a culture of customer service. Denton recently interviewed a woman for a front desk position who ran a popular boutique, then worked as a real estate agent. “A customer service attitude is one of the traits we look for," Denton says.
At the Ritz-Carlton, staff members go through an extensive orientation process covering the Ritz-Carlton's “Three Steps of Service" and “12 Service Values."
Those values are emphasized during daily team lineups. Every employee carries a laminated trifold card containing the company's “Employee Promise" credo and service values. “It's part of everybody's uniform or business attire to remind them what the values are," says Fitzpatrick.
There are several ways community associations can spruce up their customer service skills. The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers virtual and on-site courses covering its best practices. It also provides an advisory and consulting service. Other companies are recognizing the importance of customer service and providing internal training to employees and building service employees. CAI offers courses on customer service and communication. And, there is a plethora of books on the topic.
For example, Sienna Associations' management team and community relations department received Pete Blank's book 55 Ways to Add Disney Magic to Your Organization. They frequently share tidbits from it at meetings. The community periodically invites guests to provide training to its 33-member staff. For example, a couple of years ago, it invited the owner of a local Chick-fil-A franchise to speak. The fast-food chain is known for its customer service and employees who respond by saying “my pleasure" when customers thank them.
The community also trains lifeguards and landscapers, who are contractors, to avoid negative answers such as “That's not my job," or “I don't know" when residents ask questions.
Learning by example is another way to boost customer service skills. Saavedra says finding a mentor can be helpful if someone in your area manages a community known for stellar service. Ask if you can visit and learn what they are doing. Recognize top-notch service with monetary or nonmonetary awards and share kudos received by staff at meetings and online.
Wonder if you are getting it right? Customer service success can be gauged by board satisfaction with management, whether owners treat staff respectfully, surveys, focus groups, complaints, and even employee turnover.
Saavedra says she finds unsolicited positive feedback more powerful than surveys, particularly at a time when people are more likely to write scathing reviews or rant about what's wrong rather than recognize a job well done. “When I hear words of appreciation from members and team members, I know things are going well," she says.
CAN'T HAVE IT ALL
Managing expectations can be tricky. Fitzpatrick says many want a Ritz-Carlton level of service, such as a doorman who dashes to the taxi to open an umbrella when it's raining, guides the owner into the building, carries their packages up to their unit, and then retrieves their dry cleaning. Fitzpatrick says buildings that want improved service need to consider cost and whether they have the right amount of staff.
“The reason this happens at the Ritz-Carlton is because in a 289-unit building, there can be 30 staff members providing an elevated level of service," Fitzpatrick says. By contrast, many New York City co-ops and condominiums might have one doorman covering a 250-unit building who receives and distributes 500 packages a day. “Many buildings are considering adding staff to the lobby to accommodate increased demands, especially with more people working from home these days, but this can be costly."
As a result, management and boards should determine expectations for customer service, then create a customized program and budget to cover extras.
For example, the Ritz-Carlton Residences budgets for things that “surprise and delight" residents annually. On Mother's Day, Fitzpatrick keeps a couple hundred long-stemmed red roses in the lobby. As moms walk in or out, a doorman hands them a rose and wishes them a “Happy Mother's Day."
On a birthday, residents might awaken to find a card and balloon on their door. “I can't begin to tell you how many people come downstairs crying tears of joy and saying, 'Oh my God, how did you ever know it was my birthday? I'm so overjoyed that you remembered!' "
“Those things cost a little bit of money," Fitzpatrick notes. “You need to have money in the budget."
Orsid manages more than 20,000 co-op and condominium buildings. When it assimilates a property into its portfolio, it evaluates the current level of customer service, particularly if the board is displeased with it. At one building, board members complained that the doormen seemed inattentive and always on their personal cellphones. After speaking with staff, Fitzpatrick learned the building's intercom system wasn't working and the only way staff could alert residents about a package or guest was on their personal cellphones. Orsid informed the board, and the intercom system is now being replaced.
When Rebecca Welsh, CMCA, an association business manager with Association Management Services NW and on-site manager/chief concierge in Portland, Ore., trains concierges, her first rule is there are only three possible answers to any question: “Yes," “It's taken care of," or “I'll find out."
Sometimes, however, the best service is a polite “No." Say an owner drops an earring down the sink drain and asks the concierge for help. The concierge is not a plumber but tries to lend a hand. However, he doesn't know plumber's tape should be applied when fittings are screwed together.
A few months later, the owner discovers that the pipe has been leaking as a result. Cabinetry and flooring are damaged. The owner would have been better served hiring a plumber, and the concierge likely could have provided the name of tradespeople others in the building used.
In the end, concierges and managers don't always get it right on the first try. But unlike hotels or restaurants, where the majority of guests may never return if service wasn't good, Welsh says there is one upside: “The association concierge is nearly always afforded a second opportunity to reset the client's experience."
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.
Communicating frequently is key to customer service, whether via email, newsletters, email blasts, or on your website.
“Don't be shy about sending emails," says Evelyn Saavedra, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, regional director for Worth Ross Management in Denver. “When you believe you've sent enough, send one more for good measure."
Here are some other recommendations for effective communications:
MAKE RESIDENTS FEELS HEARD. “Even if I'm pressed for time and can't provide an answer on the spot, I try to make sure I listen carefully" and respond in a timely manner, says Jocelyn St. Hilaire, CMCA, AMS, senior community manager for Cheval Property Owners' Association in Lutz, Fla.
ANSWER YOUR PHONE WITHIN THE FIRST THREE RINGS. “We don't ever let a call go to voicemail unless of course you're on another call," says Susan Fitzpatrick, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president of Orsid, a New York City property management firm. Fitzpatrick spent 13 years managing two Ritz-Carlton Residences in Westchester, N.Y. If staff are available, they're expected to answer despite what they're doing. “The most important person in the entire customer equation is the customer."
RESPOND TO CALLS WITHIN ONE BUSINESS DAY. If somebody calls you at 7 p.m. on a Friday and you can call back, do so. If not, return the call the following Monday. If you don't have the answer, tell the person you're working on it and when you'll follow up with a call back, Fitzpatrick says.
PRACTICE EMPATHY. Many people are frustrated and want to diffuse anger. If someone has a problem or issue, try to find a prompt and reasonable solution.
KNOW YOUR STUFF. Residents look to you for knowledge. Understand governing documents and local, state, and federal laws that may affect your property. Be able to answer questions that may range from a simple noise complaint to an issue that may have larger ethical or legal ramifications.
UNDERSTAND YOUR ROLE AND THE ROLE OF OTHERS. Be supportive and know where to go for answers, Fitzpatrick says.
AVOID JARGON. Don't tell a resident, “The CC&Rs say you can't enclose a carport." Say the community's governing documents prohibit it and provide a link to those documents on your website or elsewhere.
SOFTEN THE BLOW. When something goes wrong, such as a landscaper damages a resident's sprinkler system while mowing, use phrases such as, “I'm sorry that happened," or “Let me be sure I understand."
BE RESPECTFUL. “In every direction, up, down, and sideways." Fitzpatrick says. Employees should be trained to recognize and respect cultural and generational differences among residents, colleagues, and vendors.
PUT ON A HAPPY FACE. Greet residents when they enter your office. Smile when you are speaking with them. “When I'm in a bad mood about a particular issue, it even helps to have a smile on my face when I'm writing an email," says Bruce Gran, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, chief financial officer for PMG Services, AAMC, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
TRY TO BE UNEMOTIONAL. If a resident is angry, strive to remain calm and professional. To a point. Someone swearing and screaming on the phone? Denton advises saying this: “Excuse me, would you please stop speaking with me that way? If you feel now is not a good time to discuss this, why don't you call me back when you are calmer." If a threatening resident shows up at the front desk, staff is instructed to hit a panic buzzer to alert managers. If someone makes serious threats, call 911.
DO A POST-MORTEM. When there is a customer service failure, employees should collaborate to find out “what happened, what worked, what didn't," and how they can do better next time, Gran says. —P.B.
Join CAI to get the full issue of Common Ground magazine and receive additional member benefits.
Communications: How Community Associations Stay in Touch. Available in print and digital.
Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People: Ready-to-Use Phrases for Handling Conflict, Confrontation, and Challenging Personalities
Perfect Phrases for Customer Service: Ready-to-Use Phrases for Handling Any Customer Service Situation
M-202: Association Communications. Learn key communication techniques to improve resident and board relations.
M-390: Leadership Practices in Customer Service. Acquire necessary customer service skills to communicate confidently with your clients and find solutions to common issues.
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