The relationship between property managers and residents determines the success of real estate operations. Effective communication builds mutual respect and encourages tenants to renew lease agreements, which limits turnover and spares building owners the expense of filling vacant units.
A proactive dialogue also helps protect the physical asset because residents become more inclined to request maintenance. Timely notifications allow property managers to resolve minor issues before they develop into serious problems, and the heightened contact ensures units remain in good condition for future tenants.
Listen and act accordingly
Bart Sturzl seldom receives phone calls from residents who just want to say he is doing a great job. If a tenant reaches out to Sturzl, a property manager in Austin, Texas, he realizes the message will likely involve some kind of complaint.
“They’re unhappy about something—their A/C has stopped working, it’s 110 degrees in Texas, and it’s August,” says Sturzl, co-owner of Bella Real Estate Inc. “They’re not calling because they’re happy; they’re calling because they need something, and they want it taken care of immediately.”
The anticipation of bad news enables property managers to brace for confrontation and helps to keep the conversation productive. Empathizing with residents after hearing their troubles, asking what they need and telling them how their problems will be fixed shows a sincere concern and urgency for the situation.
“Most of our communication with tenants deals with something being broken, or they violated the lease in some way, shape or form,” says Sturzl, who currently serves as president-elect for the National Association of Residential Property Managers.
“Knowing that this is the kind of communication we receive really helps because it lets us be prepared,” he adds.
Identify different styles
Technology advances such as email and text messaging have transformed the way people interact with each other. Many property managers find the best method of communicating with tenants depends largely on individual demographics.
“We leave it up to the resident in terms of what their preferred form of communication is,” says Lela Cirjakovic, senior vice president of operations for Waterton Associates in Chicago. “What we find is most people want email correspondence; but some people don’t want email correspondence, and they opt out of that program.”
Giving residents a choice in how they communicate with management creates a sense of collaboration and makes correspondence sound less authoritative. A company must offer multiple touch points, however, to account for all possible ages and abilities.
“A lot of our communication has gone digital,” says Jeremy Lawson, reputation manager for Fogelman Management Group in Memphis, Tennessee. “It just makes it a lot faster to communicate with them.”
No matter how a tenant speaks with management, the company should generate a formal summary of the conversation afterward and send a copy to the resident so any agreements or stipulations become permanent record.
“Even if you communicate with someone verbally, you should follow it up with an email,” Sturzl says. “I always follow up everything in writing, just so we have it and we can document it.”
Share uniform expectations
In the past, property managers typically sat down with each new tenant and personally reviewed the lease terms. But, amidst growing concern over fair housing practices and potential discrimination, consistency now trumps all other considerations.
“When you’re doing things verbally like that, you don’t tend to do them the same way for every single person every time,” Sturzl says. “You have to treat all tenants the same; you have to do it the same way for every tenant. You can’t give one tenant one thing and not give it to another tenant.”
Setting the appropriate expectations begins with the initial inquiry from a prospective resident. Sturzl includes the qualifications for new tenants in writing on the company website and invokes them to avoid any ambiguities or perceived favoritism.
“They see that and they know upfront what they have to do to apply for a property,” says Sturzl, who sends qualified applicants a standard lease provided for free by the National Apartment Association (NAA), along with a short video explaining the document. “That way, it’s explained the same way every single time to every single tenant.”
Fogelman Management leverages technology even more to assist new residents with completing the NAA lease. “They can actually sign it electronically,” Lawson says.
Make contact collaborative
Property managers must learn as much as they can about each tenant to establish trust and facilitate future interactions. Encouraging feedback and proactivity in reporting all issues related to repairs and neighbors can ultimately give residents the confidence necessary for many of them to extend their rental agreements.
“Sometimes our industry concentrates so much on getting people in the door, we’re not as focused on communicating with our current residents and ensuring their satisfaction,” Lawson says.
A constant willingness to work out individual problems with tenants on a case-by-case basis—as long as they hold up their end of the agreement—can strengthen resident satisfaction and differentiate property managers from their competitors in the long run.
“Listen to what the tenant is saying, what the problem is and what they need,” Sturzl says. “If you can keep a tenant happy, you’re going to save your [property] owner thousands of dollars.”
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