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The Business of Customer Care

Jaime Sikorski, a charismatic and articulate instructor, stood in front of a makeshift basement classroom on a recent morning to talk about professional appearance, etiquette, body language, and effective listening skills. After her Power Point presentation, she conducted two games, doled out gift cards, and, most importantly, told funny anecdotes to teach her students about the appropriate methods of dealing with people, whether they were young or old, happy or frustrated. “Even if you didn’t think so before, know that you’re in the customer-care business,” she said to the 15 attentive students who sat in a semi-circle around her. Some nodded in agreement; others sat politely, with poker faces.

To the uninitiated, it would seem that Sikorski, an employee of the property management company FirstService Residential, was leading a training session for new hotel employees. But Sikorski, the general manager at 15 Broad Street, a luxury condominium in the Wall Street area, was actually teaching the mechanics of high-end customer service to the office staff, porters, and security guards of a multi-building co-op complex in upper Manhattan. For boards in what were once working-class cooperatives and condominiums, the city’s real estate boom has brought on a new wave of shareholders and unit-owners: the young(er) and affluent. Besides expecting certain amenities, they demand better building services and personnel.

So like hotels, which regularly train and retrain their employees, property management companies have been educating their staffs on the basics of first-class customer service. “People who work as part of a building staffs usually have a high sense of pride in what they do,” Sikorski says. Even though there are continuing-education classes for technology, security, and skilled labor, she found it odd that customer-service skills weren’t being taught to residential building staffs.
“Whether you’re in a hotel or an apartment building, you’re still dealing with all kinds of people on a daily basis,” says Sikorski, who worked for hotels for about 20 years before taking on her current role. She formed her own class curriculum and has been teaching various FirstService staff members for over a year. “In larger buildings, you need consistency” in communication and service, she notes. With smaller buildings, the staff, which can consist of three or four people, needs to learn how to handle difficult situations quickly because there’s a limited number of people around who can help.

Michael Berenson, president of AKAM Associates, says his management firm first brought in an outside consultant to teach senior staff members about hospitality training. Then AKAM developed an in-house training program for all the buildings it manages. “People pay good money to stay in five-star hotels during their vacations and dine in fine restaurants, so when the service dramatically decreases in their own building, that’s disappointing,” he says. “This is where you live.”

AKAM’s in-house training session, which the firm has conducted for about five years, gives staff a common goal and teaches them the meaning of first-class service. It starts with how staff members answer the phone, says Berenson. Instead of saying the building’s numerical address, staff should pick up the phone and say: “Good afternoon, this is 685 West End Avenue. John speaking. How may I help you?” (The address and name are fictional.)

Sikorski says she likes to teach two separate classes for each building. In the first session, which lasts about two hours, she introduces the basics of hospitality. The second session, however, involves role-playing. “I’ve found that putting staff members in specific scenarios and working with others to come up with a good response really helps,” she adds.

Berenson says his firm’s training session also involves employees shadowing staff members who work in other buildings. “Watching a good example at work is a great way to learn,” he says.

There are other options. So far, about 3,000 members of 32BJ SEIU, the property service workers’ union, have taken the union’s customer-service class on-site, while another 500 students have taken the class online.

The challenge of learning customer-service techniques is definitely steeper when you don’t think that your job is to serve and serve effectively, says Vernon Gray, the instructor of the union course for the past eight years. He recalls a student in a recent class who had been working at an apartment building for 50 years and had never taken a professional development class until now. “I do believe more people are recognizing that the profession is about finding solutions for the customer,” which in this case are the residents, Gray adds.

Boards that are mulling over whether such classes are worth the money don’t need to worry about breaking the bank, says Les Newlands, founder of Newlands Customer Care & Sales Consulting. Most property management companies will ask for about $3,000 to be allocated in a building’s annual operating budget for one training session, which covers about a dozen people. “It’s a modest cost that can really boost your building’s value,” Newlands says. In the past, many property management companies approached Newlands after the board had gotten complaints from residents about building staff’s lack of interpersonal and resident-care skills. “I have seen boards lulled into complacency,” he says. As the city’s demographics continue to shift, some boards have seen that younger, upwardly mobile residents are much more concerned about staff behavior – especially if they’re paying $1 million and more for an apartment. “Now you’re seeing property management firms proactively offering training to their staff to avoid confrontations before it happens,” notes Newlands.

Howard Slavin, president of RoseTerra Management, estimates the company spent under $10,000 for all of the corporate office staff to take four hospitality training sessions. RoseTerra is in the process of hiring an outside company to train the buildings’ staffs as it looks to brand itself as the “Four Seasons of property management.” “It’s a way to differentiate ourselves from the other firms,” says Slavin.

Like high-end hotels and restaurants that have files on their regular customers, noting family member names, hobbies, and personality traits, Slavin thinks residential front desk personnel should, at the very least, know which residents like chatting about sports and which simply need to be greeted with a polite “Hello,” then left alone.

Slavin notes that many of the city’s older residential buildings have yet to ask their property management companies to inaugurate this type of training for staff. But he deems such training a necessity for all kinds of buildings. “Staff training of all types should be ongoing,” says Slavin. “Why should you settle for mediocre service?”

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