We have seen many companies in the spotlight as yet another example of poor service- from Ryanair’s cancellation of 20,000 flights, which is estimated to affect some 750,000 customers to the ever viral videos of United Airlines removal of passengers. Sadly, these are far from the only example. In every sector, from retail to property, one doesn’t have to look for long before finding unhappy customers.
Why? What is so fundamentally difficult about making our customers happy? If we have a good product then why not deliver a consistently good service, treating people as individuals, each with their own identity and priorities?
These questions frustrate me on a daily basis. Growing up in the US, I was surrounded by a world where customers are at the heart of every successful business, and it’s an ethos that the Atlas Residential team holds foremost. As we grow our teams this side of the pond, we strive to instill this same approach into our UK operation, and I am proud to see many Build to Rent operators are now turning their eyes to the crucial element that makes our businesses “tick”. Providing outstanding customer service isn’t a bolt-on – it should be an integral part of every company’s mentality.
Whether through regular customer service training, or simply recognising the triumphs of our teams on the ground, investing in our teams is crucial. After all, our staff are our customers, too. They are our front line who help define our company to the residents, contractors and all those that the company works with. Happy teams stay longer, will build trust with customers and take better care of the residents with which they interact daily. It’s this holistic approach that ensures the ethos applies across the board.
In the case of our staff, this approach means that we’re investing in the team’s career paths, including online specialty trainings, one on one skillset growth, and undertaking courses to provide a broader understanding of the market through courses like the Institute of Residential Property Management (IRPM) Build to Rent qualifications. Staff feel more valued as a result, while also enhancing their skills to deliver an even better service to our customers and, ultimately, reduce staff turnover costs by allowing staff to grow within the company.
Interestingly, many modern property companies focus solely on facilities and amenities, overlooking the team building and customer service elements which tends to be an incredibly short-term outlook. Good customer service is what builds brand loyalty. For the build to rent sector, that means residents who want to stay long-term, are happy to recommend the company they rent from to their friends and will seek to remain with the same company even if they need to move to a new area. It also means happier residents, fewer complaints and a healthier bottom line.
Strong customer service isn’t hard to deliver, and it, at times, feels staggering the volume of companies which have either not embraced or simply lost sight of it . Customer service is the most important amenity of all, regardless of the business sector!
Markets can look to each other to find examples on how to achieve a better service approach, often in retail, food service, and hospitality. Those from the US will recognise the department store Nordstrom. The business has an incredible customer service ethos right at its heart. A few years ago, a friend of mine bought a suit for an important meeting shortly before she was to fly out, only to find upon settling into her hotel room later in the evening that the hem on her skirt had dropped. Naturally, she was trying to sort how best to correct it before her 9am meeting. She called the store, asked what time they open, explained that she had purchased it in the Denver store before flying and had a meeting first thing. Within minutes, they arranged for the relevant department to open earlier so that she could drop in and replace the skirt before she got to work. She (and I) have been a loyal customer since.
Walt Disney World and Disneyland are known for fun days, great rides and nostalgia. What most don’t realise is the great example that every company can learn from, where every employee is a ‘cast member’ – their future is invested in the company’s success and vice versa. The result is a team that pulls together to deliver magical experience for each and every customer. Part of that experience means cleaning and painting the park every single morning and looking at it with a new customer’s eyes to ensure they provide a memory that will bring a smile for years to come. There’s absolutely no reason why UK property companies can’t do the same. It doesn’t matter where the development is, the approach will work every time.
It’s the simple things which build customer loyalty that lasts for life – it’s about genuinely caring about your customers and the various pressures that they face. The word ‘genuine’ being key. Good customer service isn’t for show – it’s a real, built-in part of the way a company operates. Paying lip service won’t work.
An incredible mentor I had in the States taught me to under-promise and over-deliver- another cornerstone of providing good customer service that can easily be implemented in the property industry, particularly in the build to rent sector. If you’ve committed to respond to all customer requests for maintenance works within 24 hours, have an internal team target of responding in just two hours. Customers will be delighted by the faster-than-expected service.
It’s also important to understand that residents have varying communication and interaction preferences. Some love a quick chat, while others very simply don’t like calling, and prefer emails or submitting information via an app. Make things as easy as possible for your customers by exploring the various options to determine the best way to help your clients and keep things streamlined. Technology is a great enabler here, particularly for those residents with busy working lives and hectic social/family schedules.
Sticking with the maintenance request example, that means enabling your customers to communicate with you in whatever manner suits them. Not just by phone and email, but also through WhatsApp messages and an online portal, as well as face to face, keeping in mind what works on one of your sites may not suit the residents on another! Be flexible and don’t be afraid to ask your customers about their preferences.
At Atlas Residential, while readying ourselves for that rewarding moment when the building was ready and residents were (finally!) moving in, we sent out updates to residents every fortnight, providing information to make their move easier, and included survey questions on select occasions to give residents a voice in operational decisions we were making for their future homes. It is important to encourage residents to make their own suggestions, intelligently use that feedback to improve the service, and then follow up by providing feedback to residents to let them know that we’ve done so. It’s a continuous cycle from which everyone benefits.
That being said, delivering first-rate customer service isn’t about always saying ‘yes’ – it’s about being open, honest, and understanding the customer’s values, motivations and stressors. If you have to say ‘no’ to a customer, say it the right way. Explain that you can’t meet their request but that you’ve found an alternative solution. The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always the customer.
Historically, an undersupply of property in the UK has meant that companies have been able to churn away without focusing on customer service. However, the build to rent sector is changing that mindset, and building a base of loyal customers is incredibly important for these kinds of developments. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that customer service is the biggest area the residential property sector should strive to focus on in 2018.
Stephanie Smith, UK Portfolio Director at Atlas Residential