EPMEPM: Customer Service

The Great After-Hours Phone Debate

A CURSORY GLANCE THROUGH any of our industry social media groups shows story after story about the trials and tribulations of being responsible for the dreaded after-hours ‘emergency’ phone. In an industry renowned for staff churn and burnout, Brock Fisher asks: Why does it have to be this way?

In a previous role was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for three years until eventually I quit a job that I quite liked, working for awesome people whom I respected and admired. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but the ever-present issue of never truly being able to ‘switch off’ was a huge contributing factor.

It’s worth noting that during that time, of all the calls I ever got, there was never anything that couldn’t wait until the following day. They were often about things that I needn’t be involved in at all. Refereeing domestic disputes, people locking themselves out or neighbours being noisy are all issues that can be managed in a number of other ways, apart from calling your property manager. I recall on more than one occasion telling tenants that I was not a 24-hour concierge service and if they needed that style of assistance they should go and stay at the Marriott.

Upon reflection, being a little older and wiser now, I’d have handled those instances differently. That retort is certainly out of line with customer experience standards, but this was the result of festering frustration about my time never truly being my own.

Apart from commission-based scenarios, property management is the only industry I can think of where having staff on call outside their normal working hours as part of their duties is just an accepted norm. I have many mates who work in various trades; all are paid significantly to be ‘on call’, and then paid again each time they actually have to action a job while rostered on.

Starting at Rental Express as a property manager, I was amazed that not only did we not have a work mobile but no property manager ever had a mobile number advertised or promoted. Everything was done via Direct Office line, with property managers having the option to have MessageBank messages emailed to them from our phone system in real time.

I was gobsmacked at this initially, wondering if the world would continue to spin on its axis. I curiously asked our managing director about this arrangement, and he replied simply that property managers deserve to switch off. When they leave the office for the day, they should be able to do that.

This was a business that managed several thousand rental properties and added up to 900 new properties organically each year, so this after-hours approach had negligible impact on the growth of the business.

Similarly, at Little Real Estate our scale allows us to handle this issue in a slightly different way, but the same principle applies. We have our own Customer Care team with extended operating hours who handle the majority of tenant phone enquiries. Outside of that, phone MessageBank and tenancy sign-up processes actively direct tenants to our website should they require emergency maintenance outside of hours.

Tenants are then able to select one of our approved after-hours tradespeople, who themselves are trained in troubleshooting issues by phone, to handle after-hours callouts in line with our expectations.

Residential Tenancy Acts in all States comprehensively cover the rights and responsibilities of all parties in relation to emergency and after-hours issues. As an industry, what is stopping us from using these provisions more broadly and giving our hard-working property managers the real chance to switch off?

Empowering tenants to take action after hours need not be viewed as ‘anti’ customer service. Property managers often become the unnecessary third wheel between tradesperson and tenant, relaying messages and coordinating times and troubleshooting when the parties could be communicating directly with each other for a faster and more efficient outcome.

The same applies to noise issues and things like flooding or roof leaks in storms. Tenants are able to call the Police or the SES directly to address these matters, and will do so provided that this is clearly explained to them during the sign-up process.

I understand that there can be apprehension about being completely unavailable after hours, but there are still ways to filter out issues and only have the ‘real stuff’ get to you.

For example, consider an after-hours call service where the office phones get directed to a professional answering service outside of hours. These solutions can be quite economical; your provider can be given guidelines and training in relation to what really is an emergency that you need to be involved in, and how to handle other types of enquiries that may come in after hours but are not urgent.

Even on a smaller scale, in single-person businesses where support services are not financially viable, there are ways to lessen the after-hours impact. I recommend having a detailed and specific ‘out of office’ email message that you can turn on as you leave the office. If a tenant emails with an issue outside of hours, then this auto-responder is able to guide them regarding what actions they can take, and state that other issues will be responded to in the morning.

In addition to this, simply customising a MessageBank greeting so that it is informative and able to guide tenants on these issues outside of hours assists with the amount of calls that you need to deal with specifically.

Staff retention and engagement are critical factors in property management, and I have no doubt whatsoever that after-hours accessibility has a huge impact on both. In all businesses large and small, I would like to encourage everyone to find a way, in their individual circumstances, to switch off as they leave the office. Refresh and recharge – you deserve it!

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