How to Manage Difficult Residents? Communicate!
An Ounce of Prevention
Dan LeBlanc is a portfolio manager with FirstService Residential in Boston. He says that it’s important to communicate clearly from the beginning: all new homeowners get the condo documents and important paperwork when they move in, and he makes sure to send all the rules and regulations once a year and as needed. “A lot of condo documents in our area read that you don’t have to pass an amendment to make a rule change,” he explains. “So if the board changes a rule, it’s our responsibility to make sure that is communicated to everyone.”
Executive Director David Abel, also of FirstService Residential, says that he recommends that boards consider having as many open board meetings as possible, as well as to provide ample notice of meetings. Both of those issues make the entire board and its dealings more transparent to residents.
“I work with a 227-unit property that had trouble with a small, vocal group of activists, he recalls. “The board changed to make meetings out in the open, announced well in advance. They did the vast bulk of their business in front of the residents and conducted a Q and A session at meetings. That eliminated this group’s ability to accuse the board of hiding things and doing business without letting people know. At the same time, the community was undergoing an extensive capital improvement project. That board learned a lot about communication in that process! They started providing written summaries of meetings for those who couldn’t attend. And those activists? They don’t even come to the meetings.”
“I have one board in the South End in Boston. We constantly update the board and residents when work and repairs are being done,” he says. “The board wants me to send very specific emails detailing what happened – not just “the lights went out,” but “a ballast burned out and the lights went out.” That community only has 25 units, so the board takes the personal route and delivers copies of meeting minutes door to door.
LeBlanc works with another board that will personally reach out to residents when the resident approaches management with a problem. “Residents often think that we don’t forward their concerns to the board and this makes it clear we do, and that the board pays attention to those concerns,” he states.
No homeowner wants to get a violation, and of course, many are upset by violations. To head off vocal disputes, LeBlanc uses a personal touch. If the situation is a rarity for the homeowner, he will visit in person to discuss the issue with them. He gives them a week or two to rectify the problem, and most who get that chance do so.
Abel cautions boards not to wait too long to communicate issues to residents. “Take a leaking roof. The board knows it’s a problem. They’ve contracted an engineer and are awaiting that report before letting the community know what’s going on,” he says. “That can take weeks. In the meantime, there’s a vacuum that’s being filled by negativity from the residents. It’s better to say ‘We know there’s a roof leak. An engineer is looking at it and we will let you know more when we do.’ Don’t wait for answers to communicate. The longer there’s a problem and no communication about it from the board, the more likely someone is to erupt.”
A Pound of Cure
Despite your best efforts to prevent problems, they are still going to crop up from time to time. What to do? Again, communication is the answer.
LeBlanc details a recent example of a miscommunication on the part of management that resulted in residents becoming understandably upset and how his team used communication to rectify it.
“I had planned a water shut off at a property to do HVAC work. I always give residents 48 hours notice and asked the onsite administrative assistant to send that notice out. It got lost in the shuffle and didn’t go out until 4:45 p.m. the afternoon before the shut off,” he recalls. “So the next morning, residents lost their hot water without warning and were understandably upset and called to tell us exactly that. We owned it – we made a mistake. Of course, we apologized for the error and sent out a mass communication detailing what happened and how we were addressing it. Accepting accountability and apologizing go a long way toward smoothing things, even when it’s management’s mistake.”
It’s important for the board to take complainers seriously, Abel asserts. Often there’s a germ of truth to the complaint and boards need to look closely and get to the heart of the issue, not just dismiss it.
LeBlanc also likes to visit residents who are having problems. “Residents like to see faces, so I try to be visibly out and about. But when I find out that someone has a complaint or problem, I often knock on their doors,” he explains. “That face to face contact cools things down. People won’t say things to your face that they’re happy to put in an email! That brings down the level of emotion overall. It also means a lot to most residents that management took time to knock on their door and meet with them. That communication builds great relationships so that then when things do go wrong, residents are less likely to get upset quickly.”
Abel says that asking a complainer to join the board is a tried and true technique to address problems. “Many of them become excellent trustees!” he says. “Once they get an inside look at what happens on an association board, they realize that there was nothing wrong going on and it changes their entire outlook.”
That said, try to find some point that the board can concede, if possible. Doing so will engender future goodwill, as well as letting the resident know that your board is taking them seriously. Sometimes, a small win will make someone happy enough that they don’t push the issue further. Then make sure that you explain why there can’t be any further concessions. Find as many of those answers as possible in your community’s governing documents. Don’t let the issue get emotional.
Along those lines, it is critical that your management understands what’s in the rules and regulations and what’s in the state law when they deal with an upset homeowner. People can interpret language differently or misunderstand it, especially when it’s written in legalese. Being able to explain the rules or law in plain language goes a long way toward resolving disagreements.
You will have to work with difficult or unhappy residents at some point in your tenure on your association board. Effective communication can prevent disputes (or minimize the number of them) and help resolve them when they occur. The right property management company will have the expertise, technology solutions and depth of resources to help your association manage any difficulties that arise among your residents.
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