Clear Communication Makes a Difference with Difficult Residents
An Ounce of Prevention
Donald Hucks is an executive director with FirstService Residential, in his fifteenth year in community management, managing different types of communities. “The biggest problem I see is a lack of information on the part of the homeowners,” he says. “We have a lot of homeowners who move here or buy a second home after living up north where HOAs may not be as common. They don’t know how an HOA works or why they can’t paint their house pink or have a purple front door. Explaining things to them up front can avoid a lot of problems.”
In terms of keeping homeowners informed, communication is critical. “We send e-blasts on a regular basis, letting people know what’s going on and explaining or reinforcing policies. For example, our communities open their pools on April 1, so before that, we send out a communication that details the pool hours and all the rules,” Hucks says. “If a pool gate isn’t working, we let people know immediately via a mass communication. Not only does that cut down on the rumor mill about what the board is or isn’t doing, it saves us answering phone calls from well-meaning residents reporting something we are aware of.”
The communities that Hucks oversees use the proprietary FirstService Residential Connect software to communicate with residents. It’s how they send out notices and newsletters, using Connect’s mass communication tools. Using Connect to communicate regularly with residents changes the relationships between both the board and residents and management and residents.
The board and management go even further in communicating with residents. “When we send out the 60-day notice for the annual meeting, we include a questionnaire that lets owners list their questions for the board,” Hucks explains. “They send it back with their proxies after they get the 30-day notice, so they have plenty of time to think about all the things they want to know. Then, at the annual meeting, the board answers all the questions and looks for patterns as to what people need or want to know the most.”
Hucks feels that social media is detrimental to communities because it allows the rumor mill to operate at light speed. “Facebook and NextDoor allow disgruntled residents to post information at their will, no matter how accurate it is or isn’t, and then it snowballs,” he says. “I often advise board members not to engage on social media. If we see something that needs to be addressed, it should be addressed with the homeowner one-on-one, not in the public forum of Facebook or NextDoor. Thumb thugs, as we call them, just get riled up by online responses.”
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.
Sometimes, residents who are upset or complaining simply want to be heard. Consider giving them an audience with the association board in a structured, closed door environment. Ask them to present their issues, why they are issues and what action they would like the board to take. Boards must be willing to listen to unhappy residents with an open mind. They just might have a valid point or a new way to approach an issue, something that the board hasn’t thought of yet.
After the resident has spoken to the board, make sure they know that they were heard. Summarize what they said before the meeting is over and then provide a written summary afterward. Better yet, ask them to get involved!
“When someone complains about the landscaping over and over, we ask them to join the landscaping committee,” Hucks explains. “The people who are genuinely concerned about improving the committee jump at that chance. The ones who just want to complain will find an excuse not to. I had a gentleman once who criticized every action the board took, so I suggested he run for the board at the next opportunity. He made it clear that wouldn’t happen. Some people just want to complain.”
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.
Once in a while, talking to the property manager just isn’t enough for the resident. In that case, it’s helpful to have a property management company that has a depth of resources to have someone high up respond to a homeowner if needed. “More than one homeowner has told one of my managers, ‘I want to speak to your boss,’ and that’s fine,” says Hucks. “I’m happy to talk to any homeowner who needs to speak to me. I don’t want them coming to me first because I feel it undermines my managers, but I’ll talk to anyone who needs to. And it’s funny – I can tell them the exact same thing the manager did, but they’ll accept it better because I’m the boss.”
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.