Answering the Call
By: Nena Groskind
Condominium owners can be demanding. This hardly qualifies as a stop-the-presses revelation to association managers, who are acutely aware that owners - and board members - expect managers to respond quickly, even instantly, to their questions or concerns.
When owners call, regardless of how early in the morning or how late at night, they expect a manager to answer. One way to meet that demand is to have a manager or a management company employee available to answer the phone 24/7. Another option, far more desirable for management companies and their managers, is to have an answering service field after-hours calls. And many management companies have adopted this solution.
This is not a new development. Some companies have been using answering services (known as call centers today) for two decades or more. That they continue to do so despite the introduction of new communications technologies, such as blast e-mails and texts, says much about the needs these services address and how well they work for management companies and their community association clients.
Owners who try to reach a manager after-hours are usually calling because they have an emergency, or think they do. The suggestion that an owner sufficiently upset about something to call a manager at midnight will be happy to reach an answering service instead seems counterintuitive , until you consider the alternative - a recorded voice inviting the caller to "please leave a message after the beep."
Avoiding Voice Mail Hell
The caller leaving a message has no idea if the manager has received it or when the manager will reply. "They're left in voice mail hell until someone calls back," notes Steve Dannin, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, owner of Dannin Management Corp. A text message creates the same uncertainty: Did the message get through and when will the manager see and respond to it?
An answering service provides a live person to answer the call, take a message and deliver it ¨D immediately, if necessary - to a manager, who can respond.
Most management companies have similar protocols for handling after-hours calls. If a problem requires immediate attention, the operator will contact the manager on duty. If that manager doesn't respond, the operator calls the next person on the emergency call list and the next one after that, until a manager is found.
Ryan McGowan, CMCA, a portfolio manager with Mercantile Property Management Corp., instructs his answering service to text managers as well as call them. If the on-call manager doesn't answer or text immediately acknowledging receipt of the message, the operator waits 15 minutes and then tries once more before going to the next manager on the list.
Peter Westhaver, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president and director of business development at The Niles Company, Inc., AMO, instructs his answering service to delay reporting a "trouble" call (when a fire alarm sounds, for example) until the fire department has assessed it. If the department dispatches a truck, the manager is notified; if the department "clears the code," determining that no emergency exists, the manager will get the report the next day.
Creating a Buffer
An answering service doesn't eliminate midnight calls to managers. "It doesn't get them out of the line of fire," McGowan notes. "Managers on call are still on call." But the screening process does reduce unnecessary calls, because only true emergencies are relayed. The answering service also creates what McGowan terms "a time line buffer," giving managers time to gather their thoughts and possibly initiate a response before responding to a call. And because the operator collects basic information, the manager doesn't have to waste time quizzing the owner for details.
This is another advantage of getting a detailed message from an operator rather than a voice message or a text from the owner, which may contain little more than the caller's name and phone number, with no indication of where he/she lives (an obvious problem for portfolio managers responsible for multiple properties) and little if any information about the emergency.
"Owners expect managers to know everything" when they return an emergency call, Westhaver observes. An answering service can help ensure that is the case. With the answering service fielding and responding to calls, Westhaver adds, "the manager can concentrate on dealing with the problem."
Another major benefit of an answering service, managers note, is the ability of operators to convey information to multiple owners calling about the same problem, informing them that the issue has been reported to the manager and updating them on the response - telling them, for example, that a plumber has been dispatched and is now on site dealing with the broken pipe, or assuring them that an HVAC technician expects to have the heat or air conditioning working before long.
Many companies have the ability to send blast e-mails or texts to owners providing information on the status of an emergency repair, McGowan notes, "but you can't be certain owners will be checking their e-mail or I-phones in the middle of the night."
"The answering service can make sure that owners know what we know and know what we are doing," Dannin agrees.
Sometimes operators do more than simply report an emergency - they actually help deal with it. Fielding a late-night call from an owner stuck in a stalled elevator at one of Dannin's properties, the operator connected the panicky caller directly with the manager, who kept her on the line to provide reassurance until the repair service arrived. Responding to another stalled elevator call, Dannin recalls, the operator herself stayed on the line, keeping the owner calm until the manager responded.
Deciding whether a situation rises to the level of an emergency is an answering service's most important task. Not all situations that owners report as emergencies meet that definition, and answering services are instructed to know the difference between situations that must be reported immediately and those that can wait. Fires, floods, gas leaks and loss of power clearly represent emergencies - complaints about a broken light or leaves in the lobby do not. But the distinctions aren't always that clear. For example, some managers say they would consider the loss of heat an emergency in a high rise, but not necessarily in a town house where only one owner is affected. But if the occupant of that town house is seriously ill, an emergency response might be indicated.
There is also the question of perception: If the emergency an owner is reporting sounds more like a minor inconvenience to the operator, he or she would tell the owner the problem will be reported in the morning. But if the owner still insists on talking to the manager, "we're not going to stonewall," Westhaver says. "We tell the service to put the call through."
Management companies typically give their answering services limited discretion to provide basic information and to deal with what Dannin terms ¡°non-emergency emergencies." For example, his service has contact information for the towing company the company uses, which the operator can relay to an owner whose car has been towed after hours.
But most managers, including Dannin, agree with McGowan that "it is best to err on the conservative side" and limit the information answering services can provide and the questions they can answer. An operator may be able to make "an educated guess" about the proper response, McGowan notes, but if the owner doesn't like the answer, "you don't want to be defending the answering service. You want to fight your own battles - not theirs."
Selecting a Service
When selecting a service, the primary considerations are experience and reputation. You are unlikely to find any companies serving association managers exclusively, but you want them to include some community association or rental property management companies on their client lists, and you should call those companies for references.
You want to have some idea of how operators deal with callers, Westhaver emphasizes. "You want to know what the operators sound like. How do they relate to clients when they call?" You also want to know how services train their operators and what professional standards they enforce, for example, Westhaver suggests, ¡°do they prohibit operators from chewing gum on calls?"
It is hard to answer most of these questions before hiring a service, McGowan notes. "You can't make a one hundred percent decision right away. "It takes several months to assess a service," he says, based on the feedback, positive or negative, that owners provide.
Most management companies seem to be satisfied - and extremely so - with the services they use. Many have been working with the same companies for a decade or more.
"You get to know the operators," notes Dannin, who says he's been talking to one operator ("Sandy") for nearly 20 years. Answering service operators, in turn, get to know the managers and the community residents, Dannin adds. "They become almost like members of your team."