Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cool It Down: Dealing With Emotional Residents


By Linsey Isaacs

If there’s any hard lesson property managers will learn throughout their day, it’s that dealing with residents can be an emotional process.
But as the face of a community, managers need to first overcome their own emotions before diffusing someone else’s.
“A good property manager will realize this and remain empathetic and calm” in such situations, says Steve Heimler, president of Calabasas, Calif.-based Cirrus Asset Management. “Especially in the face of someone being dramatic.”
As the founder of Woodlands Hills, Calif.–based Stratus Real Estate, and in his new venture, Cirrus, Heimler has dealt with resident drama for more than 25 years across over 100,000 apartments. Throughout the years, and communities, the customer service issues haven’t changed. 
He advises property managers to remain as stoic as possible when faced with resident animosity. An upset tenant isn’t your typical businessperson—after all, this is someone with an important stake in his or her home, Heimler says. 
“It’s about listening, letting them vent, and trying to resolve the problem,” he says. “People appreciate professionalism.”
Heimler knows firsthand how a bad relationship with a tenant—even one at fault—can escalate. One resident’s anger can quickly spread to multiple residents who then join together to take up an issue.
“We’ve been involved in class-action–type matters,” Heimler says. “And if you have a bunch of residents who band together, you can get into a situation where you’re just not renting units.”

Damage Control Despite management’s best efforts to remain diplomatic, it may not take much for a tenant to become disruptive, or even a downright nuisance.
Ed Wolff, Chief Operating Officer at Atlanta-based Cortland Partners, has known renters who’ve felt neglected when their units haven’t been upgraded in a timely manner during a  building renovation. Raising the rent can also obviously elicit ire. But almost any issue, even eviction, can be handled tactfully. 
Cirrus, for instance, gives residents every possible chance to avoid an eviction. “We don’t evict anyone, they evict themselves,” Heimler says.
Community managers on location at Cortland  properties are encouraged to approach tenants about difficult issues to negotiate a reasonable outcome.
“If we can work on a payment plan, we do so,” Wolff says. “It’s far more beneficial to work with the tenant versus taking an approach [such as starting eviction proceedings] that costs time and money.”
Thus, even if the problem in question is the resident’s fault, the best response is to play offense.
“We want to empower our community managers to solve issues early on and quickly,” Wolff says. “Our experience shows that if you don’t deal with a resident’s issue quickly, it tends to get out of hand, and then you’re doing damage control and playing defense.”

Leveraging Technology
One of the best ways to appease unhappy tenants is to communicate early and often.
That can be difficult to do across the board. Cortland manages communities that range from 150 to 700 units, and the more dense the building, the more potential for issues to arise. But by communicating with residents in a timely manner, many problems can be nipped in the bud. E-mail, texts, and resident portals can help keep renters in the loop regarding maintenance requests, for example.
“I’m a big believer in leveraging technology, because the next generation wants to use it 24/7,” Wolff says. Maintaining a constant presence in the leasing office doesn’t hurt either, he adds.
Heimler finds that maintaining continual contact with residents and tending promptly to service requests helps tremendously in avoiding common problems. More than half of all resident requests at Cirrus properties are handled in up to four hours, and each event is recorded, both audibly and in the company’s property management software.  As a result, the company has been able to more effectively train incoming managers, as well as set new benchmarks to enhance its customer service.
That’s what it comes down to, after all.  
“Maintaining a good relationship is necessary, whether you’re right or wrong,” Heimler says.