“By the time the call got to me, it wasn’t about the toilet or they forgot to fix the oven,” he said. “It was the manager was rude to me and she yelled at me.”
Reaching Resolutions with Angry Residents
The phone rang as Anacan was about to leave for an event. As the caller ranted for a minute or two, he followed the company protocol of diffusing angry residents and apologized profusely for the general manager’s actions, saying he couldn’t imagine such a thing could happen. He felt good that he took the right steps, and was looking forward to tying up the call and getting to his event. Barely two years into his new apartment industry career, that’s when the green behind Anacan’s ears turned darker.
The more he toed the company line, the resident accused him of covering up for the manager and threatened to call the president. “In the middle of this, she called me barbaric,” he said with a laugh.
Many in the industry who routinely interact with residents have no doubt heard worse, enough they may be desensitized to angry voices or, worse, get defensive. Perhaps Anacan’s inexperience was his greatest asset in getting a handle on the call. As the resident’s tone grew terse, he decided to just shut up and listen.
Over the next two minutes, she had the floor. Anacan remained silent, enough that she asked if he was still on the line.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“You’re not saying anything.”
“Obviously, I upset you and made you feel like I wasn’t listening to you, and I’m really focusing and listening.”
The conversation’s tone quickly changed. Her voice got calmer and they soon found middle ground. “We finished up and talked another 10-15 minutes,” he said. “By the end of the call she said thanked me for listening and she never called anyone else. It didn’t escalate.”
‘The lesson I took from that call was … pay attention and be engaged’
Anacan, now a 20-year multifamily teaching veteran, who regularly speaks at national and state housing conferences, tells that story often. It was the moment that the President of Relationship Difference realized that successfully handling angry residents doesn’t always result from a textbook approach.
In his training sessions – he’ll be speaking at the National Apartment Association’s Education Conference & Exposition in San Francisco in June – he offers a seven-step approach and phrases to use or avoid when dealing with upset residents. But not every resident complaint is going to follow an outline. Often, it’s best to first just listen and try to understand.
“The lesson I took from that call was you just have to pay attention and be engaged,” he said. “But it was one of those times if you follow the rules and you’re not connected, you’re not engaged and your ego is leading out in front, it could have been blown to pieces.”
Natural tendencies can get in the way of resolution
At the risk of sounding self-serving, Anacan says the multifamily housing industry needs to embrace training on-site personnel and anyone in contact with residents about how to effectively manage complaints.
According to a Satisfacts survey, 60 percent of residents that move-out do so for reasons that can be directly impacted by the community team. Your residents are someone else’s prospects, Anacan says.
He believes too often emotion gets in the way, especially with employees who have been in the game a long time. A veteran property manager may try to shut down an angry resident quickly and move on. A less experienced employee could get defensive and cause the complaint to escalate.
Leaders, he said, sometimes feel that people skills should come naturally.
“What I’ve found that what a lot of people do naturally are really what end up making it worse,” Anacan said. “When someone is accusing you of something, your natural tendency is to want to defend yourself. The more you do it the more the person on the other end of it is saying you are covering up, you are lying. What trips us a ton is what we naturally think is the right thing to do, and it’s not the right thing to do.”
Listen to the complaint and compromise if necessary
Anacan recommends taking a timeout if the conversation begins to get unruly. Staying calm will also help both sides reach an amicable concession without wasting valuable time and money.
Giving up small concessions – like waiving an application fee – rather than letting an argument escalate to the corporate level is a much better solution. He says on-site personnel sometimes forget that the resident-manager relationship is a two-way street and usually works best with compromise, especially in tenuous situations.
“In multifamily, handling someone who is angry and upset is not easy, especially when it’s not your fault,” Anacan said. “And it’s not easy when it is your fault because every defense mechanism we have comes up and you don’t want to be the guy who screws it up. Just by allowing a customer to have their say, just by listening, just by making sure we know the story, gives us a starting point. Then after the story is done, it’s really about trying to find what is I can do.”
The resident-manager conversation doesn’t have to become a battle with casualties.