By Robert L. Cain
We all know about PR, Public Relations. That’s where companies send out news releases and put on promotional programs that tell how wonderful they are. They also spin a disaster their company was responsible for that injured or killed thousands of people and caused untold property damage so it doesn’t look nearly so bad. Bad customer relations negate all the goodwill or lack of bad will from PR. After all, there’s that inconvenient rule of thumb that customers who have a bad experience with a company will tell 50 people while those who have a good experience will tell only five.
What we’ll look at here is TR, Tenant Relations. It’s similar to customer relations and has little to do with Public Relations. Tenant Relations are one-on-one. That’s mostly what rental property management is, one-on-one relations. They can make or break a rental property business. After all, a tenant who has a bad experience with a landlord will tell 50 people, and maybe more, if he or she can get the news media interested.
What brought this to mind was the example of abominable property relations I saw at a property owners’ meeting last year. My wife and I own 38 acres of land in a sub-divided ranch that was sold off in parcels for recreation property. At the property owners’ meeting last year, one owner complained, rather loudly and heatedly, about the condition of the roads. The roads are “maintained” by the property-owners’ association, but are admitted to be bordering on “primitive.” They don’t have huge ruts that will swallow a vehicle, but they are rough and rock-filled with rocks of all sizes. The guy who maintains the roads a few times a year just levels them out, but doesn’t pave or surface them. Anyway, the woman who complained said that rocks in the road near her property had torn up her tires. The board member who answered her did an execrable job of customer, or owner, relations. He argued with her, belittled her, made excuses to her, and generally aggravated the situation to the point where lawyers may end up involved. There was no need for that.
If he had handled it as we can effectively handle Tenant Relations, there might have been fewer problems.
If we have tenants, we get tenant complaints some time or other. How we handle them affects how well we keep our customers, our current tenants, satisfied and living in our properties.
The first thing to remember is that it’s not about us; it’s about the difficulty that the tenant is having. That means listen. We ask questions that begin with the five W’s and the H, who, what, when, where, why, and how. Once we ask the question, we shut up. We listen to what our tenant has to say and don’t interrupt. It’s okay to occasionally say “uh huh,” or “Yes, I understand”; we just keep the debate of it.
We show respect for our tenant. That means we at least act as if we are taking the complaint seriously. After all, our tenant perceives he or she is having a problem or wouldn’t be complaining to us. Yes, I know, some people like to complain. Let them. It makes them feel “better” somehow (and it’s not about us).
If it’s a repair issue, we know what to do. Get it fixed. But often these are complaints that require something besides sending the plumber. They involve issues that aren’t so easily resolved, such as parking, children, and/or disturbance. They need to be addressed. Even if we have heard from this tenant every month for a year, we still need to act as if we take the complaint seriously.
After our tenant winds down with the complaint and answering our follow-up questions, we need to paraphrase the answers and complaints to make sure we are talking about the same thing he or she is. “Okay, so Joe in Unit 4 is hogging parking places several times a week. Is that right?” Or, “What you’re saying is the kids who live in Unit 3 are running all over disturbing the rest of the tenants.” We get a “yes” back before going on.
Now we don’t debate. Even if we know that Joe has done that once by accident, and that we saw it and have spoken to him about it, or that the kids in Unit 3 are generally well-behaved, we don’t argue.
Now we ask our tenant for a solution. “What do you think would be a fair way to handle this?” Notice I didn’t say “How do you think we should handle this?” I asked, “what would be fair?” As a rule, people want to be fair. I know, occasionally we come across people who will grab and gouge, taking everything they can. But usually, if we ask what would be fair, we will get a solution that comes close to something we can work with.
Now our job is to try to resolve the issue. We want to solve the problem whether it is only perceived as one or actually is. That’s our job as landlords. First and most important, we only promise what we know we can deliver. Of course, we would not immediately promise to evict Joe and the tenants in Unit 3, ever. We look into it. That’s the best we can do at the moment.
Now we do what we say we will do and report back to the complaining tenant. If the complaining tenant has offered a fair and reasonable solution, we can use that. If the solution the tenant suggests needs some modification to make it work, we thank our tenant for the idea and explain what we will do. Then we do it.
When we finish with our Solomonesque mediation, or whatever else is required, we get back to our tenant explaining in general what we have done. What we don’t do is give a blow-by-blow, word-by-word account. We treat this as we would a personnel matter and tell the complaining tenant what the resolution will be explaining that we believe both parties will be pleased with it.
What we have done is listen, show respect, worked to come up with a solution, and maybe defused a situation. We hope to have solved a problem, whose problem we may not be sure.
Had the board member who attacked the property owner about her complaint handled it that way, it would have resulted in a solution to work out the issue and calm the waters. And I wouldn’t have sat in the audience cringing at the board member’s unprofessionalism and lack of respect for one of the people who hired him.
Good TR is far more important than good PR for rental owners. Think how much money our tenants pay us and what a valuable asset they are. With good TR, we have a much better chance of keeping them, and keeping a smooth-running business.