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Have we lost the customer in customer service?

When I opened my company back up after retiring to return to speaking and training, it was very evident the changes in how we deal with and interact with our residents and customers has been altered significantly.   The day of calling a property or company and getting a real live human being are long gone.  While some of this has been a gradual change over the years, some of it has also been related to COVID and other excuses, which has in some cases forced us to revert to technology rather than human contact. 

Now I’ve been in the industry for more than a couple of decades and have witnessed us going from answering machines and ledger cards to everything being technology driven.  Some say this is for the good, while I know having talked to the real humans out there and reviewing comments, reviews, and ratings, the customer or residents for the most part are not happy.   This includes those that totally depend on technology being frustrated with their inability to go back to the basics of communicating and a desire for real customer service. People are now being lost in the internet or trapped in a circle of “press this if you want that,” scenarios without any real human interaction. 

When I made the decision to go back to doing workshops, seminars, and keynotes, I first made a commitment to build an extensive database of not just associations (both state and local), but also of management companies of all sizes and locations.  Let me say, it has been both labor intensive and eye opening.   While I have hundreds of contacts in the business through experience, LinkedIn, IREM, NAA, Facebook, and other platforms, I knew there were hundreds and maybe more than a thousand resource contacts out there that were going to take some detective work; and in my case, using some of my military intelligence skills to drill down and tap into and find these resources.    This is where my frustration came into light and discovering the frustrations of our residents and even prospects came into play.

I started by using platforms such as Apartments.com to discover not just the primary and larger property management companies, but also wanted to tap into the smaller and mid-size companies that may not have a large training and employee enrichment program and department.   I then visited their web sites to identify key contacts, corporate office locations, phone numbers, and the number of apartments and communities if that was available.   This is the first trend I was seeing where some management companies did not even have a phone number where someone could contact them on their web site or listed their corporate office physical address.   It raised the question, why would they not want that available to the public and what were they afraid of by not disclosing this information.   I also found “contact” pages where you could not ask a general question or request a contact, with the only option being to put a property you were interested in could not move forward.   There were many sites where unless you were a resident with an apartment number as reference, you were stuck in perpetuity, unable to go any further.   I also found that a vast majority of property management companies who had phone numbers listed were on an automated system and you couldn’t even press “0,” to get a human because it circled you back to the original message of pressing numbers or if only you knew the extension of of the person you were calling could you get to the next level.  My first statistic was how many companies had a number to press for a dial by name directory, only to find out it was not set up or didn’t work.  I found that 57.6% of companies with a dial by name directory didn’t work and took me back to the original message.  It reminded me of a video game that unless you eliminated all the adversaries in the game, only then could you get to the next level and if you could not, sorry you were stuck.   This raised my desire to look at reviews and ratings on various platforms from Google to Apartmentratings.com and others, to see if residents or others were frustrated and confused by the lack of ability to communicate with someone “up the ladder,” so to speak.   What I found was again not only eye opening, but disturbing.  I started taking statistics when this pattern emerged and out of 275 management companies contacted, only 11.3% were you able to talk to a human being.   This equates to 244 companies out of the 275 where a living, breathing human was involved. It used to be if you pressed zero, you at least got a receptionist or someone to answer the phone.   In 87.1% of the cases where I pressed zero, it circled you back to the original message and the endless circle of frustration.  WTH?

Postings of reviews from residents on various platforms were showing the same frustration with hundreds and hundreds of notations saying they had the same experience, and comments were emerging from residents saying such things as, “Can’t wait for my lease to expire because you can never get anyone in the corporate or regional offices.”  Google searches through BBB and Dunn and Bradstreet listings did result in some numbers, with quite a few of them being older numbers that were disconnected or rang with no one ever answering.   I had one company that I was bound and determined to get a corporate contact because if was apparent, they could use someone’s help with resident and guest service.   On multiple sites there were reviews and ratings where both residents and guests were frustrated and could not get past the site personnel who would not even give them a phone number at the corporate office.  Several times I read, “they were informed not to give it out.”   AYSM, is an acronym you can figure out for yourself.  As I said, I was determined with this one company.   No phone number, no contact page on their web site, nothing and a company that had as they stated 22 communities.   I decided to call one of their properties here in Florida and you guessed it, a human did not answer the phone.  It did give me the option of leaving a cell number for a return text message (yes, that was how they stated it), or a phone number if I preferred a call or didn’t do text messaging.  I clearly stated in the voicemail I was looking for their corporate contact information and why.   I chose the latter and waited for the call.   About an hour later I get a text message (not what I asked for) asking what size apartment I was inquiring about.  Apparently, they didn’t listen to the voice mail or maybe chose to ignore it, because I was very clear as to why I was calling.   I did the call again and one more time requested a call and not a text and got the same result (Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result).  This time when the response came back a text message I replied asking if they could please call me.   Two days later, I finally get a call and she asked what size apartment I was interested in.   Again, maybe you should listen to your voice mail and not just calling someone back.   Anyway, I told her I did speaking and training in the apartment industry and asked if she could give me the corporate office phone number.   Her response was and I quote, “Can I ask what for?”  I repeated myself as to what I did and for a second time asked her for her corporate office number.   She replied, “I’m sorry I don’t have that.”   I asked, “you’re telling me as the manager of a property you don’t have the number to your corporate office.”  She said, “It’s not that I don’t have it (ok you just lied to me), I’m not allowed to give it to you.”  You can’t make this stuff up.   I then had to reply, “so if I’m a resident and not happy and want to speak to a regional or someone in your corporate office you would not give it to me?”  Her response was classic.   “In that case I would be happy to relay your message to someone and they would review and call you back if they needed to.”   I had to write it down because I was flabbergasted in what I was hearing.   On a side note, their rating on of the main review sites was 1.3%.  Out of 22 local sites I called for a corporate office number, only 53% of them would give me the number.    Again, what are they afraid of?

More trends started showing up when I called corporate numbers (mostly large and a few not large national companies).   First, if you were able to leave a message only 6.3% of those companies returned my phone call.   At least have the courtesy to call me back and say you’re not interested or thanks for contacting us.   Out of the 275 companies I researched on the web, 37% of them didn’t have a “leadership,” tab, and of those that did have one only 38.9% listed other than the president, owners, and top executives and not the boots on the ground type people.   Of those that had other than top level executives listed, only 4.6% of those people had an email associated with the person’s picture and bio or a way to send them a message.   In researching reviews, I also witnessed “canned” responses from companies and properties not to mention the lack of a response in many cases for both favorable or unfavorable reviews.   We complain about negative reviews; however, either don’t know how to or are afraid to rebut or respond leaving those that do their homework on finding a new home asking the question, “Do they really care?”

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe our residents and prospects want human contact and human service, and not artificial intelligence or artificial communication as I call it.   This is very apparent in the hundreds and hundreds of reviews and rating comments I witnessed on the various platforms.   When COVID hit, I know staffing suddenly was a challenge and it was easier to go to technology than to pay someone to actually answer calls and review messages and emails in detail.   I get it that this industry like many were struggling to keep staff because the government was paying them more in unemployment and extra benefits than they were making at work.   I understand our industry has evolved and will continue to do so in the future.   We went from physical showings to virtual presentations and processes, and the excuse was a virus caused the change; however, I also heard so many of us wanting to return to some sort of “normalcy.”   I’m just not sure this new normal is providing the service our residents really want.  

You can’t go to McDonalds now and order from a human who might smile and thank you for their order, and are forced in many cases to use a “kiosk,” to place an order.  Good luck if you want a special order such as a Big Mac with not middle bun, because there is no where on their system to put it.   Basically, you are left to stopping an associate and telling them before they make it or just removing it when you get your sandwich.   Try calling customer service at Amazon or any of the hundreds of other companies, or even just finding their phone number and having to resort to submitting a ticket online for help.   I had done some traveling recently and decided to visit some apartment communities in the multiple markets and found some properties that don’t show apartments unless you have an appointment.   YHGTBKM (yes, figure that one out).   I walked into one property where there were no prospects in the office and two associates sitting behind their desk not engaged in other activities and I was informed unless I had an appointment through their web site, they were not allowed to show me an apartment.   And by the way, neither of them got up from their desk or came around from the barrier they were behind to welcome me or make me feel welcome.  Is this a reflection of the new normal?  Is this where I industry is going?  Is this how we want our residents to feel that there is no one who cares or no one else they can turn to for help?   I hope not.  

We are in a very vulnerable position right now with rents raising by double digits and our resident’s income is not increasing at the same rate.   We are in a very vulnerable position where home interest rates having been recently raised (largest since the 1980’s as recently reported) causing two conditions.  First our owner’s ability to borrow just changed and the NOI and cap rates are going to require even further increases when our residents are having a hard time as it is to meet an owner’s expected return.    Home prices have skyrocketed and the average person now can’t afford to buy a home, and can’t afford the rents being asked in many markets.  There are only two practical results that are possible and that is our residents will have to alter their lifestyle and go to a lower-level grade apartment where the inventory is not going to change in the near future and the demands will increase, or get a second job so they can afford the lifestyle they desire and have worked for.  We are at the tip of a double-edged sword and only those with exceptional resident and guest service will survive because that is the one thing that will at least give them some sense of hope and that we care.   We focus on leases when we should be focusing on retention.   We give bonuses base on leases, when we should be giving bigger bonuses for retention.  We should be focusing on people and not technology (both staff and residents/prospects), because until we are leasing to robots, it all boils down to the human experience and not the ability to use a mouse or a cell phone because it also boils down to how we make people feel.   That my friends, will never change.

I continue my research for my contact list I will continue to monitor the statistics; however, don’t expect them to reflect any improvement for our residents and guests.  I am afraid not for what I have found, but where we are inevitably going.  To an industry that is following technology, and not following what our residents and guest really want.

 
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Lawrence, your research is heartbreaking but I'm so glad you're doing it!

  Lilah Poltz
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thank you Liah and I have contacted another 33 companies since writing this and the results are unfortunately not improving.

Larry

  Lawrence Berry, CPM

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