By Robert L. Cain
How much does it cost to find a new tenant? We lose at least a month’s rent. Then there’s the advertising and marketing costs, the trips to the property for showings, the time spent screening. After that, we endure the aggravation, the no-shows, the no-way-I-would-rent-to-them applicants, and the stress over no rent to cover the mortgage. It’s much more cost-effective and less stressful to keep the good tenants we have. Here’s how.
Keeping good tenants begins when they first move in. Their impression of us is etched in stone within the first five days after they back the truck to their new home. So keeping good tenants starts with creating a good first impression. We want their attitude to be, “I chose this place as my home, and I like living here. Things may not always be perfect, but I have a landlord who cares about me and the property”; rather than “it’s a place to live.”
Here are five ways to keep good tenants. In fact, many of the five are also ways to make marginal tenants good. By making rental properties great places to live, the marginal tenants may not want to do anything to mess up living there, so, you never know, they just might be on their best behavior. Great service is contagious.
1. Follow up with new tenants a day or so after they move in to make sure everything is as promised and expected. Have you ever had major dental work done and gotten a call from the dentist personally that evening to find out if everything was okay? Wasn’t that a surprise? Weren’t you pleased? It made you feel as if the dentist cared about you, didn’t it? We can create the same positive impression with a new tenant, simply by making a phone call. If something is not as promised or they expected, we want to know. Then we can take care of it—right then or at least in the morning. Even if our new tenant has no complaints, he or she will be just as surprised and pleased as when the dentist called.
2. Inspect the unit regularly and fix what’s broken. Good tenants don’t mind regular inspections. We just let them know when they move in that we will be doing inspections. The idea is, of course, we want to maintain the property in tip-top condition. After doing the inspection, we fix what’s wrong. Of course we expect our tenant will call for things that are broken, and we encourage them to do that. What to look for during quarterly or semi-annual inspections are little things that a tenant might not call about: a cracked window, loose screws, cracked or broken floor tiles, loose handrails. Nitpicky things. That will impress a tenant that her landlord cares about her home.
3. Under promise and over deliver. We must always do what we say we will do. Just as important—never promise something we can’t do. This goes right along with number two, but adds another dimension to it. For example, suppose a call comes from a tenant complaining about noise or inappropriate behavior from a neighbor (another tenant). Tell the complaining tenant, “I’ll look into it and get back to you. If you haven’t heard from me in two days, call me.” Never, under any circumstances promise to fix the problem or to do something specific by a certain time. For one thing there’s the other tenant’s side of the story and we don’t know when we will be able to reach the other tenant. He or she could be out of town, working long shifts, or having to deal with some family issues that keep him or her away from home.
After investigating the problem, either text, email, or call the complaining tenant with a summary of the findings and what is happening to correct the problem. Even if there’s no resolution yet, they get the message that we are dealing with the problem. That is under promising and over delivering.
On the other hand, a promise to resolve the situation by a certain date and time is uncontrollable. And not being right on time with the report will mean the tenant will remember only that the landlord lied. That is customer service on a par with the cable company and a flaky contractor.
4. Survey tenants to discover unfulfilled expectations, then fill them. Every so often we can send out a survey form to all tenants who have lived in a property more than a month or so. The objective is to find out if there is anything they had expected that they are not getting from their home. Let’s go back to the example of the noisy neighbors. In this case, however, the tenant never called. He just seethed in a dark corner of his apartment, thinking about moving. In fact, he’d even checked Craig’s List to see what was available. Then he gets a survey form wanting to know how things are in his home. Oh, does he ever take advantage of that.
Who knows why tenants don’t call to complain about conditions in their unit. It could be a variety of reasons—there is no way to anticipate all of them. We need to cut through all the reasons and ask customers if there is anything we can do for them. Give them the opportunity to say what’s on their minds. This is a golden opportunity to keep our best customers. Take advantage of it.
When the survey forms come back, it is important to acknowledge receiving them, even if they are glowing reports. If they were complaining, though, it is essential to acknowledge them. How do we take care of the complain? Go back to number three—under promise and over deliver and spell out what we plan to do to correct the issue.
5. Make every tenant feel unique and special. Know the names of tenants’ children and their pets. Know where they work. Know their birth dates. Know when they moved in. Create a database that tells all that. We want customers to know they are special to us and not just a rent check. So if tenants call, we can look them up on their tenant card or the contact management software and ask how little Johnny and Suzie like school; if their dog, Fido, was okay after the emergency visit to the vet; how the job is going at ABC Co. They will be surprised and pleased that we remember them and were thoughtful enough to ask.
No matter what, some tenants move for new jobs, buying a house, or getting married. Those we can only wish the best of luck and thank them for being great tenants. But many others move because they got a better offer somewhere else or a landlord they thought would be more on the ball. We don’t need to lose those customers. Making our properties far more than “a place to live” goes a long way toward keeping good tenants.