Community Manager Triage When to Call and When Not To

“My refrigerator doesn’t keep the food cold.”

“The child in the apartment above me screams and bangs the walls.”

“Call the police. There’s a suspicious person walking through the community.”

The foregoing list of calls to managers of condominium buildings and residential communities could grow ad infinitum. Whatever the job description may say, many individual residents, officers, and directors seem to think their property manager is there to answer the phone at all hours to receive and deal personally with their individual requests, issues, and concerns—even when the manager lacks any power to resolve them.

“Some people feel that our responsibility is to handle anything that may be happening with their home and property,” says Joseph Gilbert, CAM, the president of GRS Management Associates, Inc. in Lake Worth. “They don’t understand what community association management is, that our job is only to manage the association itself.”

Gilbert’s company manages 105 associations in 90 subdivisions. (Some of these subdivisions are multi-building developments with a master association to manage the grounds and a separate association in each individual building.) GRS has a 100-person staff, a main office that handles all accounting, and a dozen on-site offices in some of the subdivisions.

At GRS-managed communities, the property manager takes phone calls during normal business hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays), and an assistant is available if the manager is not. “At any other time, we have an emergency service,” Gilbert says. “If you call our main number, someone answers, takes the information, and walks you through the emergency process.”

Gilbert notes that his company communicates extensively through newsletters and websites with residents in the communities it manages. “We strive to keep the homeowners educated so they understand what’s happening and what everybody’s responsibilities are,” he says.

Communication is Key

A website also eliminates many phone calls for residents at Quantum on the Bay, a twin-tower, 698-unit high-rise residential condominium development in the Arts District north of downtown Miami. Its contents include minutes of board meetings; forms for work orders, architectural modifications, and routine maintenance requests; and the weekly report of Sergio Ubilla, Quantum’s general manager.

“Communication is key,” Ubilla insists. “I write about 14 pages every week so the residents know what we’re doing and can see the progress—such as how many light bulbs were changed and how many floors were painted. When the residents know how their money is being used, it improves the relationship a great deal.”

Ubilla works for KW Property Management & Consulting in Doral, which manages developments with a total of 35,000-plus unit owners, but Ubilla and his three on-site assistants are the front-line contacts for Quantum’s residents.

Ubilla says the best time to reach a busy manager is early in the morning, or in the evening if the manager works late. During normal office hours, everyone else is trying to reach the manager, and he or she is being pulled in too many directions at once.

The worst time, he says, is before major events such as board meetings, budget presentations, and personnel evaluations. “Preparing for those events is extremely stressful,” he explains. “I have to be careful and concentrate 100 percent on proper documentation. I can’t be interrupted when that is happening, but in the middle of it a resident comes into the management office to complain about a leaking faucet and is unhappy that the manager’s door is closed.

“I do a list when I come to work, with maybe five or six or seven items, and I end up completing one. I’m at everybody’s disposal. From the board members down to the individual residents, people want immediate response and attention. ‘I pay your salary,’ they remind me.”

The Missing Motorcycle

Time-consuming issues that residents bring to their manager involve disputes between neighbors, such as complaints about noisy children, loud TVs, and encroachment on their parking space by another resident. “My major nightmare as a manager relates to the collision of people,” Ubilla says. “They come to me to resolve these problems, but I’m limited in what I can do. I can send letters, or resort to the association’s attorney to write demand letters.

“I try to help people understand this is a community but adapting to community living is very difficult for some people. This is a people business. I have to try to get inside the minds of these folks and find ways to make peace.”

Then there’s the case of the missing motorcycle: “Its owner demanded I do something,” Ubilla recounts. “We reviewed the video tape, which showed someone driving the motorcycle out of the garage. The owner wanted accountability from the administration. He went to the board of directors and started stirring things up. He threatened to sue the association. In reality, we know there was some connection—a friend of a friend—but we can’t say they’re trying to get money from the association or from a claim against the association’s insurance.”

Email Helps

For everyday operational issues such as reserving the party room, registering a new car with the valet parking service, or reporting a leaning tree, “email is a big help,” Ubilla says. That’s especially true in communities where most residents and board members are employed, busy with their own duties, and content to send a quick email message when they need something. In retirement communities, however, many residents and board members aren’t computer-savvy, have time on their hands, and fill it by calling or visiting the manager and trying to micromanage the community’s operations.

From a manager’s perspective, Ubilla and Gilbert agree that emails are even better than phone calls because receiving them takes less time than a phone conversation, and because they automatically document in writing the sender’s issue or request. “A lot of times people’s concerns are better spelled out in writing than when they call and try to explain them,” Gilbert says. “We prefer to have a work order or a complaint in writing.”

When residents send emails to Quantum’s management office, “we all receive it,” Ubilla says. “I’ll answer if it’s a legal, insurance or technical question. Otherwise, my assistants refer it directly to the responsible member of the building staff.” Ubilla tries to respond personally within a day. If the email goes to someone else, a response within 48 hours is reasonable, he says.

The Gatekeepers

In communities managed by Seacrest Services Inc., residents cannot reach a property manager directly by phone. “We have a full 24-hour customer-service line,” explains Mark Wade, Seacrest’s president. “Customers call that line toll-free. The customer-service representative who answers will open a work order and give the caller a control number. We track all work orders to completion in the computer.

“If the customer calls a second time, the representative will ask for the control number, or look up the work order by name or address. For a second request, the customer gets an immediate callback from a supervisor.

“If there’s an emergency, we respond immediately. For a lighting or irrigation issue, the response time is within 24 hours. Otherwise, it’s within 48 hours. You’re told this when you call.”

But what if a resident insists on speaking directly to the property manager? “You can interact with the manager any time you want,” Wade says. “That would entail a call to customer service, to set up a work order for the property manager to return the call within 24 hours to schedule a meeting.”

Economies of Scale

Seacrest manages close to 700 associations in 50 subdivisions with a total of 30,000 units. It has 465 employees. The company’s headquarters are in West Palm Beach and it has offices in Deerfield Beach, Jupiter, and Orlando for the convenience of managers who lack on-site offices in the communities they serve.

The company’s customer-service staff consists of 12 people, but if all of those lines are busy, incoming calls flip over to accounting and administrative-support personnel who are cross-trained to handle them. “We track our on-hold time,” Wade says. “We don’t want people on hold for more than a minute. Our call abandonment rate is less than three percent.

“We’ve made a significant investment in our customer-service staff and it really helps us. As we reached a certain size, it’s a luxury we have.”

Residents in Seacrest-managed communities also can initiate work orders and receive control numbers on a website.

Same Rules for All

Filtering and redirecting the day-to-day minutiae of operational calls that don’t require the manager’s personal attention gives the manager more on-property free time to do necessary paperwork, prepare documents for board meetings, and confer with the board on major community concerns, Wade says.

All Seacrest property managers carry a smartphone that receives both phone calls and emails. When emergencies requiring a manager’s immediate attention arise, the customer-service representatives can alert the manager.

Board members have their property manager’s direct phone number, but Wade says they’re supposed to use it only for governance matters such as the organization of upcoming meetings and discussion of financial questions.

“We ask them to call customer service like everyone else for common problems,” he explains. “If a board member contacts the manager directly about a problem, it may get sidetracked. When it goes into customer service, it’s tracked. Board members get a weekly or monthly roll-up so they can make sure everything is taken care of.”

When it comes to communication between residents, board members, and property managers, the same rules that apply to any interpersonal interaction apply here; the key is clear communication, courtesy, and respect.

George Leposky is a freelance writer and editor living in Miami, Florida and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.

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