Communication Is Key To A Good Relationship Between Managing Agents And Their Customers

Sometimes It's Just Not That Easy, As Sue Maunder Taylor Reports

When faced with an irrational or unreasonable 'won't pay, can't pay’ leaseholder, or control freak director, communication is difficult. You cannot hold a discussion with 'brick walls', 'crusaders', the obsessed and the entrenched. They know only one way to communicate - their way or no way. The self-interested director of an RMC and the amateur lawyer know every principle and authority which supports their case and refuse to listen to any alternatives. And the apathetic directors who will not make decisions or give you instructions present a whole different set of problems.

There are also the leaseholders who habitually avoid payment of service charges and ground rent. Either they think they will pay you when it suits them or, because they are a director and see themselves as “your client”, they think the obligations of the lease do not apply to them. And there are the leaseholders who won't pay and insist they never received the invoices, nor the reminders or indeed the final reminders. Ordinary communication will not solve these problems. This particular type of lessee is a game player and the game is played out every time the service charges are due. So how can managing agents tackle these problem leaseholders and ensure that other residents' lives are not adversely affected by these difficult and often intransigent characters?

Resolving the problem

Successful communication results from:

  • listening;
  • being objective and fair;
  • balancing one person's position with
  • another person's position;
  • finding areas of agreement and buildingupon them;
  • giving logical reasons for disagreement;
  • correcting any misinformation and agreeing relevant facts;
  • admitting an error and sincerely
  • apologising;
  • being knowledgeable about the consequences of a particular decision or agreement;
  • being willing to consider different options for resolution; and
  • firmly, but courteously, effecting a decision and confirming it in writing.

Communication involves at least two people. You are lucky if each is prepared to engage in the old cliché of two ears and one mouth. You do not need an experienced and trained managing agent for that. A table, chairs and coffee will do just as well.

There is a certain amount you can learn from training but experience is invaluable and natural people skills are irreplaceable. As a managing agent, always start by carefully reading the lease; reading what it actually says and not reading into it what you want to find there. The first mistake of some agents is that they see what they want to see, not what is actually there. They only read the obligations of one party and do not form a balanced view of the obligations of both.

Having checked the facts, next comes discussion. E-mails are no substitute for picking up the telephone, or having a face to face meeting (depending on the severity /urgency of the problem). At this point you will find out if you are dealing with reasonable and rational people who want agreement or resolution on fair terms or whether you are dealing with one or more irrational and unreasonable people who either do not want resolution or want it only on their terms.

The formal letter should identify the problem, set out the relevant lease terms, set out the agreed facts and state your advice as to how the problem ought to be resolved. After this point in the procedure, reasonable problems will have been resolved and you will be left with the brick walls and crusaders to contend with.

Dealing With Unreasonable People

Every dispute is different and requires its own individual approach but there are general principles which can be followed and adapted to take account of the individuals concerned or the circumstances of the problem.

I have set out above the importance of getting the facts right when communicating with the individuals in dispute or the directors. If there is an unresolved problem which now involves the whole block then a report setting out the facts sent to all leaseholders is something that might be considered. One of the rules of communication is total transparency - without transparency you can resolve nothing.

Sometimes, such a report needs to be followed up with an evening meeting to give all residents the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers. Take care to avoid being accused of holding an evening meeting on the day before a religious festival, during the period when most people are on holiday and other inconvenient times.

It may be that the individual/group causing the problem will boycott the meeting. That really doesn't matter because they will have been given notice of the meeting, an opportunity to attend and participate, and the meeting will be followed by minutes being sent out to all lessees. If the issues subsequently go to the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) or Court, the published agenda and the minutes, including an attendance list, will be important documents.

Every leaseholder should receive adequate notification and an agenda. The aim is to bring all participants in the dispute and their views out into the open for maximum possible exposure. If a report has not already gone to leaseholders it must go out with the agenda.

It goes without saying that the property manager or other senior person from the managing agent must be fully conversant with the problem and ready to answer some difficult questions. There are likely to be some surprise questions to which the only possible reply is that the question had not been anticipated and the answer will be published in the minutes. Even if the whole problem cannot be resolved at such meetings there will be no doubt in anybody's mind about the position taken by each party and the facts on which each party relies.

The minutes must be fair and informative. Remember, if this matter has to go to the FTT or court, the honesty and objectivity of the managing agent will be measured against the accuracy of those minutes.

Dealing With The Board Of Directors

Sometimes advising a board of directors is difficult. In many cases they are well meaning people but do not have training in the terms of the lease or up-to-date law and are trying to do the impossible – keep everybody happy.

The managing agent needs to be able to give reliable advice to avoid the risk of unnecessary litigation leading to disproportionate costs. The most effective tool which a managing agent has is a formal letter sent to each individual director following this format:

  • These are the facts;
  • This is my advice; and
  • Please let me have your written instructions.

Some breaches of the lease may be waived by demanding or accepting rent (ground rent or service charges) with knowledge of the alleged breach. That is one of the facts which ought to be brought to the attention of the directors.

When Change Is Needed

The only managements worth having in the long term are co-operative managements. If a reasonable level of co-operation cannot be achieved after every effort has been made, then it may be time, however uncomfortable that may be, to bring this management to termination.

There are some blocks out there which are literally unmanageable until some structural changes have occurred to the ill informed, entrenched, dogmatic attitude of some of the people to whom the service has to be delivered. Never be afraid to call time when you have done everything possible. Your investment should be in your staff and the service they deliver, not in building up numbers for the sake of volume.

Sometimes the managing agent's resignation can trigger those fundamental structural changes which were necessary; sometimes blocks pass through the hands of several managing agents within a short space of time; and sometimes they end up being the subject of a management order by an FTT appointed manager (see page 47 of the last issue of Flat Living for more on this).

Many blocks of flats achieve co-operative management without too much difficulty, largely because of good communication between all persons involved. A few blocks are in mild or serious difficulty, often because communication is either ineffective or has broken down. Restoring good communication in these cases involves a much greater depth of skills and understanding than is generally portrayed by motivational speakers, or by those involved with co-operative managements. It is worth remembering the old cliché that a good communicator is not judged by performance when everything is going well, but by performance when all the lines of communication are down.

Why Should We Be More Social With Our Media?

Just how good are property managers at communicating with their leasehold customers, asks James Biley

Knowledge is a beautiful thing… but just how much of that knowledge are we keeping to ourselves and how much are we sharing with our colleagues and our customers. Today communication isn't just key, it's essential to the way we live and work. It's about keeping customers informed; telling them what will happen, when it will happen and how it will happen. It's about involving our customers in what we are trying to achieve, because that involvement will lead to better understanding and greater cooperation.

This may seem obvious and you may say you do this already – but do you really? How often do you update your customers on your service? How involved or consulted do your customers feel? We all need to communicate, to share and impart others with our knowledge - after all we are here to provide a service. So the message is to communicate and make the best use of social media to stay in touch with your customers - but how? Well that's not always the easy part!

First, you need to understand how you reach your customers; once you have established this, you will find that the method of communication you use will dictate how reactive and informative you can, or need to be.

My perception is that the vast majority of managing agents rank their communication with customers in this order:

  1.  Email
  2.  Letter
  3.  Telephone
  4.  Face-to-face meetings
  5. Text

I'm guessing no one is using fax any more. If we assume this is the standard ranking (If I'm wrong let me know - I'd love to hear) where does that leave online communication or social media? If they are featuring in sixth and seventh place you may just be missing a trick.

Certain kinds of information, such as major works, needs to be set out and sent out formally. But just how frequently do we write letters or emails to individuals about other building-related works that would answer a question for one person and help to inform everyone else at the same time, thus reducing the property manager's time and making that single piece of communication much more effective.

Today people are constantly on the move; many don't always arrive at a desk in the morning or even return home every night. Technology has allowed us to be more flexible and accessible. Great you say, let's just do EVERYTHING online! Well, maybe…

Agreed you will probably reach the vast majority of your customers more quickly by using an online portal, such as ARLO, with the most up-to-date information and help stop the repetition factor, but text and email are still important. So what do you do?

The answer is you have to use the method of communication that best fits the majority of your customers and work out solutions for the rest. The most important thing to remember is that you need to reach your customers and provide them with channels to reach you. Many of your customers will know you have a website, but how interactive is it if someone does want to contact you? Also, if a customer does have a question they probably want a quick answer – in this day and age they EXPECT a quick answer there and then.

Twitter is probably one of the best business communication channels to help and respond to customers quickly and efficiently. Anyone who saw my talk on social media in London last year will know how Countrywide has embraced Twitter as the chosen method of quick, accessible customer assistance and we showed a case study of how this can make a huge positive impact.

So, in terms of your customer engagement and sharing of information, stop and think - are your communication methods outdated; could you be more effective and reach more people more quickly by opting for other solutions?

My goal for 2015? To get the property management industry to #BeMoreSocial

James Biley is the Marketing & Communications Director for Countrywide Estate Management. If you enjoyed this article and would like to comment or ask questions you can tweet @JamesBiley and @FlatLivingLoves using #BeMoreSocial