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Customer Service: A Top Skill for Maintenance Techs

Customer Service
November 2018

This is the second of a two-part series examining the importance of apartment maintenance teams. The first installment in June provided a general overview about how operators approach hiring quality maintenance technicians and keeping them in the fold. This installment looks at the importance of maintenance teams displaying soft skills during resident interaction.

Maintenance technicians searching for employment in today’s apartment industry will discover they need to bring more to the table than extensive knowledge of HVAC systems or vast amounts of experience handling plumbing issues.

There is such great emphasis on customer service and resident experience at Camden, for example, that it trains its employees to wake each day to not only do their jobs well, but to seek opportunities to improve the lives of its residents.

That objective is instilled in the “Camden Values,” which aim to deliver “Living Excellence,” says its Vice President of Employee Development Margaret Plummer.

The company’s brand promise is to provide “exemplary levels of customer service and great management, which can only come from an organization that listens to and understands the needs of each customer. Living Excellence is our commitment to deliver excellence at every point of contact, to ensure that our customers see excellence everywhere they look.”

During its communities’ weekly meetings, the focus is not simply about the volume of work-orders that were performed, but “how did you complete them?” Plummer says.

Small moments can make a big difference, she says. Camden focuses on these eight “customer moments” to drive resident satisfaction:

  • Provide a warm welcome
  • Create a connection
  • Lasting impression
  • Share Camden
  • Close with confidence
  • The ultimate move-in experience
  • Own it!
  • Surprise and delight

Did You Hear About This?

The eighth opportunity listed above is well documented.

According to a message sent by Camden resident Debb Davis, who lives at Camden Lansdowne in Lansdowne, Va., “Yesterday, when I came home from work, one of my 15-year-old cats was missing. After searching for a while, I called the office and within minutes a very helpful maintenance staff member, DJ Mills, showed up at my door to help me find my cat. It was after he had clocked out for the day, but that didn’t stop him from giving his free time to help me with the search. He got down on his knees and looked under the beds and the furniture, and even looked in the fireplace. After a while, we finally found her in my garage. I don’t know who was more excited: Me or DJ!”

Another example came soon after a three-person family moved into the Camden Hayden community in Tempe, Ariz. The father had purchased a bike for his daughter so she could roam the nearby shopping areas and ride throughout the community. About a month after it was purchased, the bike was stolen from the community bike rack, even though it had been locked.

Upset about what had happened, the father and daughter came to the office to notify the staff and seek any advice on what could be done. The onsite staff couldn’t offer much other than to take a description of the bike and keep an eye out for it. Just by listening, they helped the father, who just wanted to vent – he never once asked for or expected anything to be done.

The assistant maintenance supervisor at the time, Jay Adrian, overheard this conversation from the back office and at that moment took it upon himself to make a difference. After work that day, Adrian went home and dusted off a bike he had sitting in his garage. The bike had belonged to his teenage daughter, and after sharing the story with her, they decided to give the bike to the girl who had hers stolen.

Adrian scrubbed it clean and even replaced the handlebars to get the bike into mint condition. The following week, he brought it in, and wrote a card to the family, apologizing for their loss. He took the bike with its shiny new finish -- and even a basket on the front -- and rested it on the family’s front porch and waited for them to arrive home. The young girl and her parents were delighted and extremely grateful for Adrian’s generosity.

Camden’s Mission Statement summarizes their goals well: “We provide homes where people make important memories. We create jobs at a workplace where team members can be themselves, do their best work and create value for our investors.”

Hiring for skills such as an approachable demeanor and a positive attitude is a trend industry-wide. That’s because operators know the indispensable role service technicians play in driving resident satisfaction can lead to renewals and aid in creating positive online reviews that attract new renters.

“With the ability renters have now to pay rent and make service requests online, the maintenance team is without question the part of the onsite staff that residents have the most exposure to,” says Kevin Villont, Vice President of Construction and Maintenance at JVM Realty Corp. “So it’s critical not only that technicians take care of service requests in a timely manner, but also that they do so by being friendly, kind and professional in the process. If residents don’t receive that from the maintenance team, they’re likely to look for someplace else to live.”

Personality Goes a Long Way

Operators say the process of building a maintenance team with the right combination of hard and soft skills begins in the job interview process. When evaluating candidates for maintenance positions, apartment executives note that an applicant’s personality and attitude are of paramount importance.

“We really look for soft skills first,” says Tony Hogrebe, a Regional Service Manager for Mill Creek Residential’s West Region. “We want to see a candidate who exudes customer service in their DNA and who has a positive attitude that will come across to our residents.”

Eweami Powers, a District Manager for The Bainbridge Companies, says she looks for maintenance team members who are professional, friendly, well-spoken and who radiate confidence.

“I’d rather hire someone who’s got those soft skills and the drive to improve versus someone who’s got the technical skills down pat – we can always teach and improve those,” Powers says.

After they’ve hired technicians with the right attitude, apartment companies are attempting to reinforce and strengthen these attributes through training. At JVM, for example, maintenance technicians participate in a customer service course within 90 days of their start date.

Operators also are incorporating technology to support their service personnel and lay the groundwork for positive, friendly interactions with residents.

“Property and resident management software can not only help maintenance technicians efficiently manage service requests, but it can give them access to information about residents that they can use when interacting with them,” says Joshua Renberg, Product Manager for Entrata. “They can learn about the history of the unit before going out on a call and even learn the names of the residents’ kids and pets. When you have a tech with a good personality who can incorporate that kind of information into their conversations with residents, it can leave residents with a very good impression.”

Following Up

In addition to ensuring their maintenance technicians communicate professionally and warmly with residents before and during service calls, many operators also require that someone from their teams – be it a service supervisor, technician or leasing agent – follow-up with residents after a request has been closed. This allows an onsite team to make sure the service request was handled satisfactorily in the eyes of a resident.

The importance of communication from maintenance technicians to residents throughout the service process cannot be overstated, Powers notes. At Bainbridge, technicians leave behind an attractive card after being in a resident’s apartment for a service call, she says.

The cards, which are in addition to emails the resident receives after the visit, detail the current status of the service request.

“We’re coming into people’s homes,” Powers says. “That’s a really big thing, so our technicians have to make our residents feel comfortable and well taken care of, and we have to communicate every step of the way. These are the things that lead to resident happiness and, in turn, resident retention.”

The soft skills of maintenance techs play a critical role in resident satisfaction outside of service requests, operators add.

“When a resident has a pleasant interaction with a technician on their way to their car in the morning, that creates a really good vibe,” Villont says. “Something as simple as a technician waving hello to a resident who’s driving by or asking how a resident’s kid is doing or offering to carry a resident’s groceries up the stairs – those might seem like little things but they create a friendly, comfortable atmosphere that makes residents feel at home and encourages them to renew their lease.”

A Boon to Online Reviews

Maintenance technicians’ interpersonal skills do more than keep current residents in the fold. They also help attract new residents.

That’s because technicians’ demeanor and how effectively they respond to service requests play such a big role in the online reviews an apartment community receives.

“Online reviews have come to play such a huge role in how prospective residents shop for apartments these days,” Hogrebe says. “When customers read about less-than-desirable cleanliness at communities, slow responses to service requests and unfriendly maintenance personnel, they likely won’t consider living there. On the flip side, of course, positive reviews about friendly service technicians and quick responses will help compel a prospective renter to consider a community, especially when compared to less favorable reviews from competitors.”

Powers agrees with Hogrebe about the importance of service technicians in creating positive reviews, as she has witnessed their impact firsthand. Previously, she served as the community manager at Bainbridge’s Axis Wellington Green in Wellington, Fla. The property has ranked highly for two consecutive years on J Turner Research’s ORA Report, which rates communities with the best online reputation.

“They’re huge,” Powers says. “Maintenance personnel are interacting with your residents all the time, so reviewers are going to comment on how they’re treated by service techs. We’ve found reviewers also frequently comment on how the grounds are kept, and that’s part of a maintenance team’s responsibility as well. If you want to see good reviews for your community, you must have technicians with great people skills.”

In today’s rental housing industry, operators have learned it’s not enough to have technicians who can just make repairs. As important as hard skills are, technicians have to have great people skills as well. When technicians are friendly and treat customers warmly, that’s when true resident satisfaction begins to take hold.