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Oct. 9, 2013

Happy, At Last

By Keat Foong, Executive Editor

Overhead View of Couple Relaxing on CouchAre your apartment residents complaining about high rents? More than bad customer service, flimsy walls, or inadequate security, rent rates have emerged as the number one customer concern in apartment communities across the country, according to the latest research by J Turner and Associates. This is no surprise in light of the nationwide apartment shortage that has been a dominant trend over the past few years.

The good news for apartment owners is that a solution is well within reach when their customers are highly dissatisfied with rent increases—or other conditions—at the community. The one surprisingly straightforward panacea to many of these complaints is better staff training. Indeed, Rosemary Carucci Goss, Ph.D., Residential Property Management Advisory Board professor at Virginia Tech, makes the argument that there are few resident complaints that better personnel training can’t alleviate.

According to Goss, one way to effectively address resident dissatisfaction with what they view as excessive rents is for apartment companies to train their staff to communicate to residents exactly what they’re getting in return for the cost of the apartment. “From the management perspective, we need to do a better job of making sure customers understand what they receive for what they’re paying. I’m not sure we explain as well as we can the benefits for what they’re paying. That is one of the things we can do a better job of.”

It’s a well-known fact in the apartment field that leasing agents have difficulty informing residents of rent increases. “Very often, leasing professionals are not comfortable when the rents increase, when the notices are sent out, and when residents come in to complain,” says Goss.

Training can help onsite staff feel more comfortable with communicating these price increases. The staff can be trained, through role playing, on what to say to residents. For example, are the rents returning to where they had been in the past? Have expenses increased for the owners? “We really need to help the leasing professional sell the product again and be aware of all the benefits that have been added in the apartment community,” Goss adds.
Besides high rents, the next most common multifamily apartment resident complaints, according to J Turner and Associates’ latest research results are: poor grounds/common area upkeep; disorganized staff/lack of communication with staff; quality of response to maintenance requests; and overall customer service provided by management staff.

Goss thinks it’s unacceptable for such concerns to be registering [with residents] as they are related to the quality of property management. “These are all items that should not be a problem. They are all items that really should have been addressed by the management team, and should have been taken care of beforehand. If they’re problems, or perceived to be problems, there really needs to be an organized way to address those issues,” says Goss.

Goss acknowledges that some areas of resident complaints, such as quality of responses to maintenance requests, could in reality be staffing issues in disguise. When residents are unsatisfied with the maintenance response, “I would ask, do we have an adequate maintenance staff? The apartment community may be trying to run with too few maintenance technicians, which is often the case.” If the property does not have the budget to hire another maintenance technician, Goss would suggest that “the property can cut down on the socials or welcome gifts and use that [money] to hire another maintenance technician or a part-time technician. [The property] would be better served by focusing some funds on maintenance staffing.”

A related resident complaint, lack of upgraded amenities, which also made it to the resident complaints list this year, might have to be addressed by upping the budget. “At a certain point, you have to make the case to the owner that it’s time to put some money into the property and upgrade the amenities,” says Goss.

The other most frequent resident complaints revealed by J Turner Research’s latest survey, such as disorganized staff, lack of communication with staff, or poor customer service provided by management staff, are all areas that can be addressed with proper training, according to Goss. “I don’t care whether it’s a Class A-plus, Class C or affordable housing community—your staff should be on top of things.”

The starting point of staff training can be personnel evaluation. The staff can also be professionally shopped in order to discover customer service strengths and weaknesses and areas in which improvements can be focused. Supervisors can then provide one-on-one coaching to their staff, says Goss. The apartment company can also organize in-house educational seminars, which present additional opportunities to impart the company culture.
Staff can be sent to external educational programs as well. Local apartment associations are always great sources of such courses, says Goss. “It is always great to obtain an overall perspective” in such outside classes, and “not just the company’s perspective,” adds Goss. Plus, residents may more readily accept certain viewpoints if they originate from a seemingly impartial outside source.

Continual education is important in the apartment field, Goss emphasizes. Too frequently, apartment companies “bring on new people, put them through training, and assume that they know everything they need to,” says Goss. “We forget that people may get lax, they may forget what they have learned. Keep your staff fresh and engaged through training, and you will get better customer service.”

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