Editor’s note: The following is a transcription from Episode 2 of the Business Un-usual Series: Communications Accelerated. In this episode, with the help of three experts in the property management space—Glenn Russell of Coastal Group Inc., Mitch Deminski of Solutions for Real Estate, and Troy Evans of Marketplace Homes—we rap about how communication has evolved during COVID-19 with owners, residents, and between property management teams.
Lauren Mason: There’s never a slow day in property management, but lately things have been, well…different—especially in the ways that we connect with all of our stakeholders.
In Episode 2 of Business Un-usual: Communications Accelerated, we talk with three property managers of single- family rentals about the swift changes that COVID-19 has brought upon their communications with residents, owners, and team—and what’s working best for them in navigating these uncommon times. Featuring Glenn Russell from Coastal Group Inc., Mitch Deminski from Solutions for Real Estate, and Troy Evans of Marketplace Homes, we’ll also dive into how some of the changes are actually a silver lining for the industry. Question number one. We know that communication is one of the most important topics when it comes to property management.
How have you adapted your communication strategy with residents and owners?
Mitch Deminski: We do a really good job communicating with tenants because working through Buildium, which by the way, has really helped us, our delinquencies, because now we’re pushing, “Hey, by the way, tomorrow we’re going to charge you a late fee if you don’t pay today.” There’s certain points of during the calendar where we’re reminding them, “Hey, we’re going to put a three day on your door before we start the eviction.” So it allows us to automate that in pre-written verbiage that we can send out to the tenant.
But the only thing that’s really changed is communication with the owner. It might be a fault of mine that I don’t communicate with my owners, but there’s so much activity that my team does. When this all went down, I was doing a weekly state of the union of what we were doing and I’m starting to back off. I have one actually due today or tomorrow, and I think I’m going to back off. And business as usual in June.
But just a little bit more with the owners, and they’ve been really supportive. At the beginning, it was a little bit, “Hey, I have to pay the rent. I have to pay the mortgage, so they need to pay,” but within three weeks they’re all like, “What do we do to make sure we don’t lose a tenant?” So that’s been rewarding to see the owners kind of back down.
We have about 150 owners that we manage for, and I would say less than 20% have been through 2008. So 80% of our portfolio are people that have never been through this. So it’s been going great for a lot of our owners. And so to just let … This is why you hired us, let us do what we know we need to do, we’ve been through this before. But it’s a little bit of a different conversation that we’re having with them now. So that’s been a little eye-opening.
Glenn Russell: Well, those are good questions. Because we operate in a team function for the bulk of the properties in our company, we do have several individual property managers who do their own thing hands on. But because we do it in a team function, each person knows what to recognize. Whether it’s an application coming through—that’s for Kim, who’s the leasing agent. If it’s a maintenance request, that’s Ben. If it’s some kind of accounting issue, Megan, the operations manager, knows to handle it. And then we will often take texts or emails coming in from owners or tenants and turn it into an owner or resident request, so that they see that functionality and they see it getting logged. It’s just kind of training them to get used to the system.
Troy Evans: I think one thing, let’s just talk residents for a second, is the idea of empathy right now. It’s very easy, on a regular day-to-day basis, to forget personal issues. I can’t pay my rent. Well, this has been a pattern over time. How do we advise our homeowner on how to move forward? Now, it’s become a lot more common to try to take that empathy piece and point our homeowners in that direction. Putting our hearts on our sleeve to help tenants, as well as our homeowners. I think sometimes (and I think we’ve done this before too), you forget that while you make your money from the homeowners and management fees and things like that—that there’s a really real life situation with tenants. So we’ve definitely had to change that.
I also think that communication times have become very important. So we we’ve implemented Freshdesk to help track incoming communication from our operations team; keeping track of when they’re responding, when they’re solving the problem, internal notes, things like that, timestamps. Making sure that we’re staying on top of not only response and how accurate it is, but also those times. The issue also being, having a single message that you can put company-wide that keeps changing. You have the federal government changes rules, the local governments change rules, laws.
We have a law office internally, so that’s very convenient, making sure that we’re staying up with local regulations, changing our message as it needs to happen, but also making sure at the same time, we’re understanding where the tenant’s coming from—pointing our homeowners to a point where they stay successful without sacrificing the tenant at the end of the day. So it’s been sort of a hurdle in all these different steps, sort of taking more of a workplace element and adding a human element into it.
In fact, our collection rate was up in May compared to April. And in April compared to March, it’s gone up. In fact, our collection rate was up 25% in May compared to April. So I wonder if it’s the stimulus checks and people getting their tax returns and unemployment, things like that, helping drive that. But I also think people are starting to understand the priority levels. I’m a huge Dave Ramsey fan, and one of his things when people are struggling, is you need to one, make sure you have food in your stomach, and two, make sure you have a roof over your head. People are starting to get that idea that priorities are priorities and we need to make sure that we have a place to stay.
Now, for those who unfortunately can’t do that because of the situation, let’s talk about it. We’re here, let’s sit down and talk about it. Don’t stay silent because we can only assume the worst. Let’s sit down and come up with a plan together to figure it out. And that’s been a big communication key.
How have you found working and aligning with your team remotely?
Troy Evans: It was a struggle at first, obviously keeping up with those sorts of things, and communicating internally. How do you keep up with what people are doing? How do you make sure that they’re letting you know what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis, so that whoever the homeowner ends up talking to, whether it’s someone in our communications team, to property managers, to finance, what’s going on? You can’t just walk down the hall and say, “Hey, what’s the deal with this,” anymore. Slack, emails, phone calls, Freshdesk, Salesforce, all of these things have become very beneficial to keeping communications internally, in making sure that we’re keeping up with the homeowner with whatever that situation is.
And having that internal communication so we can have that external communication at the exact same time. Things like Zoom, I think everybody’s gotten too familiar with Zoom (I just figured out how to do those cool backgrounds behind me). So things like that, staying in front of people. We have an all-company Zoom meeting at one o’clock today. So, “How’s everything going? Here’s where we stand. Here’s where our goals were. We hit it. Fantastic.” Keeping up with conversations and morale that way has been quite the hurdle.
Mitch Deminski: I mean, another thing, again, I’m worried about my staff getting isolated, I don’t want to say depressed—but just isolated and not connected. But we celebrate our wins. We get a great Google review, BOOM, everybody’s seeing that and saying, “Hey, great job,” whoever got, if their name is in there, of those things. I’ve got a two second thing that plays a bell whenever I get a new property management contract. So BOOM, we got a new contract coming in. So trying to keep everything going until we can start meeting up again. So we will still have meetings as soon as things open up a little bit more.
How do you maintain a strong employee culture and accountability in a remote-work environment?
Glenn Russell: I think more than anything, it’s just giving people a pat on the back. I mean, the team members, especially, just saying, “We realize this is weird.” Now, one thing I did, and there’s a company in Colorado, Grace Property Management, and he said, “Reach out to your people and make sure they know they’re going to get paid.” And so what we’ve done is taken the high averages for last year and said, “As a minimum, this will be your pay. So you don’t have to worry about missing some showings that would generate fees or missing that inspection or two that would generate fees. You’re going to get paid either way.”
Mitch Deminski: It’s either I’m doing a Skype call with them…Marco Polo is an app where we, it’s basically video text. I want to make sure that they’re seeing me and I’m seeing them throughout the day, and they also communicate between each other. I think that’s very important.
Troy Evans: Chaz, who runs our new construction sales side, started a Name This Baby internally. Something small, right? But it was the staff, he would talk to somebody, they’d give a baby picture and everybody had to guess who it was. And it’s something small, but it turned into something everybody was looking forward to every morning. Who’s this baby? I think the last one was Brad Pitt. Not internal, but I ended up guessing it correctly anyway. They’re going to give out gift cards. When you can go get lunch again, they’re going to give gift cards for people.
So morale has, I think, adjusted. We’ve always been friendly to working from home and things like that, but when you have to work from home, it’s different. You get caught in the day-to-day. Sometimes they don’t realize when seven o’clock hits, so making sure that you’re staying in front of people, keeping them happy. Knowing that there’s still a team around them has actually been fairly easy. I think people have started to come together through all this to still maintain those friendships. Calls, phone calls, Skyping, Zooming, Slacking, all of those things.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with communication during the crisis?
Troy Evans: I think the challenge has definitely been … I think, and this is going to be definitely honest, we all get in those situations where you may be texting somebody and you think that the message is definitely not what they intended, those quick responses. I think reading between the lines of what’s going on and people not personally taking it internally, has definitely been a challenge. You want to make sure that that morale stays there. When you’re having to email, Slack, quick message people, it could come off a little bit different than what it was intended. So making sure everybody keeps a cool head sometimes is important. We’ve all been there and done that.
I also think on the other end, is making sure that the communication’s even happening. You want to make sure that things aren’t dropping, people aren’t forgetting.
That, “Oh, I didn’t…I started working on it, but somebody called me and I forgot.” Things like that. I think Freshdesk has honestly helped us with that a lot, to make sure that responses are being taken care of, communication. If somebody else needs to get involved, getting them involved, and what the resolution is in tracking those sorts of things, has been a plus.
Again, I have to keep going back to it. The message that we have that we’re trying to communicate out, and that changing on a day-to-day basis, is also difficult. When you have almost a hundred people, having to give that message out on a day-to-day basis, if one person’s out sick for that day and maybe misses an email update (or something), you don’t want to get stuck in a situation where we say the wrong thing. Locally, in Georgia, we can’t say what we’re going to say in Michigan, necessarily. And things along those lines have been extremely difficult as well.
Mitch Deminski: Remember, I kind of worked out all this stuff starting September 3rd. I thought I had worked all that stuff out. Owners were, “How’s this going to work out?” The tenants are saying, “Where do I bring my check now?” Because we couldn’t even accept them at the building at that time. But that has allowed us to reach out to them and say, “Hey, you have a tenant portal, please pay online.” So we kind of forced that way.
But I think what’s happened, is we laid down the groundwork before COVID even came into play. It came into play, I get it. I mean, we look like geniuses now because we’re already used to it. And meanwhile, a tenant or an owner is seeing everybody working at home, they’re experiencing working at home, finding out they don’t need office space, what they need to work. And they’re making it work. Now, there might be kids running around and hanging on them, but at the same time, the media has allowed us to say, “This is more acceptable.”
How do you stay up to date with the latest news and resources on COVID-19?
Glenn Russell: Well, of course, on the login page to Buildium there’s a very interesting weekly update section. I go through that and make sure I’m not missing anything there either. You’ve got that. Our state association’s doing it. Our local association of realtors is doing it. We have a property management and leasing council; they’re staying on top of things. So it’s interesting. There’s a lot of innovation going on.
Mitch Deminski: Yeah. When it was first coming down, when it started closing down, I couldn’t get my hands on enough information. Luckily, there’s a lot of Facebook groups out there that you can pose those questions, and everybody’s asking the same questions. Whether it’s about the PPP loan and all those things on there. But we were also, and I’m sure everybody can agree to this, we were getting inundated from all the people that, “We’ll get through this.” It’s almost a lot now. We get updates from our state on what’s essential, not essential, what’s opening up, what’s not opening up. In the last three weeks, it’s been coming to us, we don’t have to reach out to it/ for it at all.
Troy Evans: Right, one is CNBC because I have it on constantly. Two, would just be your regular news, having it on my iPad or whatever it is, keeping up with what may be coming out, trying to navigate around the opinion pieces and getting more to the raw data of it all. And then three, Facebook Groups has honestly been a big help. You have BiggerPockets, which is a really good one to be a part of, just for property managers, where you have these forums where you can ask question. Or just some of the investment groups that I’m in, you have people post, “Did you guys see this? In the State of Texas, now you can’t do this or this.”
And sometimes it’s wrong—you get The Onion. The Onion makes its way into some of these, but then you see, “Okay, so have security deposits regulations changed? Have rent deferments changed in this area?” Things like that, that affects those more on a micro level on a day-to-day basis, and them staying in front of it, and their ability to share those articles and that information, has actually been a huge help staying in front of everything that’s been going on.
Lauren Mason: Thanks for watching. We hope you gained some insight and learned new tactics to try out right away with your communications. Stay tuned for the next episode of Business Un-usual: The Post-COVID-19 World, where we’ll get into just what we think the future holds for the industry, what we hope stays and how the industry could adapt for good.
What have you tried that’s worked well for communication with your team, owners and residents? Tell us in the comments below. Until next time.Read more on COVID-19