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Building relationships with commercial tenants.

Traditionally, the property manager served as a "Mr. Fix-It," someone who handled a variety of customer complaints and rarely bothered to cultivate relationships with tenants.

However, as we head deeper into the 1990s, the role of the property manager has changed dramatically. In an increasingly soft market, the issue of tenant retention is becoming more and more important. Commercial property managers, as part of a team that includes marketing, maintenance, and leasing professionals, must do more than simply respond to requests for new carpeting and air conditioner repairs. To be truly effective in retaining tenants, we must know--and market--our product.

Before the lease

The first step toward tenant retention comes before the prospective tenant has even signed a lease.

To ensure a tenant's early satisfaction, the marketing, leasing, and property management departments must work together to keep the lines of communication between landlord and tenant open. For example, a property manager may assist in the presentation to a prospective tenant, providing information regarding building operations, services, and tenant mix, as well as introducing him- or herself as the person with whom the tenant will be dealing on a day-to-day basis. This type of early interaction is crucial, as it allows the prospective tenant to discuss any management issues or concerns he or she may have before moving in.

In order to best serve a potential tenant's needs, the property manager should strive to be as knowledgeable about the tenant's business as possible. This knowledge enables the manager to communicate more effectively with the tenant and demonstrates that he or she truly cares about the success of the tenant's business.

In addition, the manager also should be familiar with the tenant's space plan/buildout requirements and ought to attend any pre-lease space plan meetings. Upon completion of the fit-up work, the manager also should accompany the tenant on any pre-possession walkthroughs with the construction crew that provided the fit-up services. In these instances, the property manager must act on behalf of both the owner and tenant to make certain the space is ready for the new tenant.

One way to ensure that the work is completed to the tenant's satisfaction is to use a "punchlist" that details all necessary work outstanding and specifies when it must be completed. When the work is finished, the construction manager or building engineer will ask the tenant to sign the list, indicating that the work was completed satisfactorily, and return it to the property manager. This process provides accountability on all levels and eliminates any unpleasant surprises for either the property manager or the tenant.

Managers must stress to construction or maintenance crews the importance of completing tenant-requested work quickly and completely. Lingering problems, as trivial as they may seem to a landlord or manager, ultimately could cloud the relationship the manager is striving to build with the tenant.

Vendors

Another way to better serve the tenant is to establish a positive and communicative relationship with the vendors serving the building: janitors, landscapers, and elevator and HVAC maintenance crews. Many managers have found that vendors who are made to feel that they have a vested interest in a building or project will provide better service. In addition, these vendors often will offer valuable suggestions and/or advice concerning potential problems or repair items they may see while servicing a building.

For instance, managers might meet regularly with cleaning, landscaping, and other maintenance crews to hear their thoughts on the project and to keep them informed of any special concerns. This practice can keep the lines of communication open and make the outside service-providers feel that they are part of the property "team."

Training

Property management firms should provide ongoing training programs for their managers that include both inhouse and outside programs. For example, providing managers with membership in trade associations, subscriptions to pertinent magazines, and enrollment in property management seminars enables them to keep abreast of current trends, network with other property managers, and exchange ideas that will help them do their jobs better.

In-house training might include role-playing sessions, conducted by an in-house marketing specialist, that help managers learn to deal with a variety of tenant service situations. Such exercises give managers an opportunity to take turns playing the manager and the tenant.

For example, managers can be asked to play the role of a disgruntled tenant while the trainer acts out a variety of responses as the manager. In this case, the manager literally can put him- or herself into the tenant's shoes and respond to the trainer's various approaches. Exercises like this can help managers be more sympathetic to tenant concerns.

Also helpful are monthly "brainstorming" sessions among the marketing, leasing, construction, property management, and engineering staffs. These meetings provide an opportunity to discuss new ideas and resolve any existing or potential problems.

Because so much of tenant retention hinges on a manager's ability to deliver quality tenant service, training programs should focus to a large extent on developing managers' skills at "following up," or checking with a tenant to make sure that a job was done to the tenant's satisfaction.

Good follow-up service, like preliminary work performed before move-in, can be guaranteed through the use of a work ticket issued by the property manager to the building engineer after a tenant makes a service request. Upon completion of the job, the engineer signs and dates the ticket and returns it to the manager, who will follow up with a service call or visit to the tenant to verify that the tenant's needs have been met.

Accessibility

Another critical concern for property managers is being available to tenants. This includes maintaining continuing personal contact with the tenant. A phone call once a week and an in-person visit each month lets the tenant know that the property manager is accessible and reliable. A good property management team is "on call" around the clock to handle any emergencies that may arise.

To guarantee that tenant problems will be solved quickly, the names and home telephone (or beeper) numbers of managers and other building staff should be made available to building security. In the event of an after-hours problem, security should be instructed to call the building engineer first, followed by the on-site manager, the regional property manager, and so on, until a staff member who can respond to the problem is found.

Managers also should know that telephone protocol is very important in building solid tenant relationships. The way a tenant's telephone call is handled can make or break a tenant's confidence and trust in a property manager.

In order to ensure quality service, managers should strive to convey an "I care" attitude. This applies both to tenant requests and simple, incidental conversations. Managers should encourage tenants to report any changes, good or bad, in building operation and appearance. In order to effectively serve the tenant, managers must make the tenant feel that any concern he or she has is justified and deserving of immediate attention.

Service-driven property managers also must be able to prioritize their work. For busy managers, delegating clerical and administrative tasks--like collecting rent, computing rent increases, tracking tenant insurance requirements, and updating and maintaining tenant information and lease files--is imperative. By passing along these tasks to other staffers, managers can concentrate more closely on tenants and their needs, a practice that ultimately leads to better tenant/manager relationships.

A good rule to follow when delegating tasks is to maintain all direct tenant contact, including personal visits, phone calls, and correspondence, and to delegate any behind-the-scenes support functions that do not directly or personally involve the tenant.

Surveys provide feedback

In order to determine that their service efforts are, indeed, encouraging tenants to renew, managers must periodically call upon tenants to evaluate their efforts. Few managers today will want to wait until renewal time to gauge the effectiveness of their service programs, and so can use the data provided by surveys to bridge the gap between day-to-day communication and lease renewals.

For example, our firm distributes an initial survey to all new tenants, before they move in, requesting their evaluation of the services provided by the leasing representative. Questions include whether the leasing representative was well informed on different aspects of the project, if he or she was easily accessible during lease negotiations, and if the tenant felt fairly represented.

Later on, an annual survey is forwarded to all tenants asking them to rate levels of service on such items as provided building services, response time, availability and competency of the property manager, and adequacy of existing space.

Feedback from annual surveys enables managers to examine both the strengths and weaknesses of their service, as well as the effectiveness of any training programs. For example, if a tenant complains that the property manager is unsympathetic to his or her needs, the management company can monitor the interaction between that tenant and manager, work individually with the manager, and offer specific suggestions for improvement. Often, the solution to these types of problems is as simple as suggesting the manager modify the way he or she speaks to the tenant when responding to a complaint or request for service.

In addition, surveys allow managers to evaluate the performance of vendor-provided services, focusing on weak areas and evaluating the feasibility of providing additional requested services.

Conclusion

In summary, to meet the challenges of the competitive market of the '90s, property managers must redirect their focus from simply resolving problems to achieving and maintaining positive tenant/manager relationships. To do so, managers must establish contact quickly with new tenants, maintain that contact throughout the lease, and strive to provide prompt and courteous response and follow-up to tenant concerns.

Using this formula ultimately will enhance the success of the building and help the property manager comfortably negotiate and attain lease renewals.

Nashwa Gallahan, RPA, is property director of Wellborn Commercial, a subsidiary of Miller and Smith Companies, McLean, Va. Ms. Gallahan has 14 years of real estate experience, and is in charge of her firm's commercial and industrial management portfolio.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Gallahan, Nashwa
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:1674
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