Episode 22 - Expert Insight: How to consistently wow your residents and staff
What engages residents and staff and how to bring to your communities
Advice on creating a rewarding career in property management [3:14]
- Be eager to learn. This will help you build core competencies.
- Engage with residents! Stay visible with them and build connections.
- Connect with your team and build a solid foundation of respect.
Any technology and tools you use that enable staff to deliver world-class resident experience? [10:10]
- Branded building app
- Resident benefits: It’s quick and easy for residents to use to communicate with management, pay rent, chat with other residents, etc. One feature, the more the resident uses the app, the higher discount they get for the services they book in the future.
- Staff benefits: They can quickly and efficiently communicate to all residents, even at the last minute. They can also run reports on work orders and find common problems, etc.
- Especially when managing multiple sites, business intelligence platform is vital to success.
Advice on best practices to build more effective teams and to effectively manage properties? [15:10]
- Led a team with a servient sort of management style and manage from the heart. Examples of this:
- Have a ‘no one left behind’ mentality where the team will divide and conquer to get work done and no one leaves without checking in with the rest of the team.
- Celebrate every milestone!
- Be honest and speak straight with each other - treat everyone (residents and staff) with respect.
How did you win the Chicagoland Apartment Marketing and Management Excellence Award 3 times? [17:47]
The award is judged on your entire performance. They look at performance to budget, online reviews, ratings, resident satisfaction, staff turnover, etc. For Linda, what has led to the win includes:
- Don't leave any stone unturned - everything matters!
- Be picky with aesthetics, and it starts from the beginning - what does the property look like when a person pulls up in the lot, how is landscaping, etc. Pristine is the baseline.
- Clearly communicate expectations to every team member. Then ensure everyone is thoroughly trained so that they can meet the expectations.
- Have fun and care. Mindset is that no one is left behind and we’re all in this together.
What is the resident activity “dinner with 12 strangers”? [22:40]
- Started during COVID as a virtual dinner. A chef came in and he virtually prepared meals. Ingredients were purchased, packed them up, and delivered to the doors of the residents. The 12 people were selected based on their move-in dates to help engage people that didn't know anybody. Chef was funny and did a full demo creating the meal with the residents.
- For in person, we take the same concept and mix it up. We’ve brought the Chef to the building, sometimes indoors and other times grilling outside. Occasionally go out to a restaurant nearby.
- The key is to hand curate the 12 residents and that they don’t know each other.
- Results: it’s shown that retention increases for the residents who participate!
Other fun and interactive ideas for resident engagement? [25:43]
- Key is to base your own activities on your building demographic.
- A lot of pets:
- A pet service that sits on site that provides things like overnight hotel stays, play care, dog walks, minor veterinary things, etc.
- An annual Pet Olympics: games like peanut butter licking competition, toy gauntlet - lots of fun things that are videotaped and then posted online.
- Family oriented:
- Movie night, have the Easter Bunny, or Santa come to the building, etc.
As General Manager for RMK Management Company, Linda oversees property management operations for a 469-unit luxury high-rise property in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood of Chicago.
Linda brings with her more than 33 years of property management experience. Prior to joining RMK Management Company, Linda worked for JVM Management and The Habitat Company in the capacity of Regional Manager overseeing assets in Chicago and outlying suburbs; Milwaukee; Kansas City; Minneapolis; Tulsa; Saint Louis and Indianapolis.
Linda studied Business Management and Marketing at Northern Illinois University. Linda holds an Illinois Managing Broker’s license and is a CPM® (Certified Property Manager / IREM). Linda also served as a labor negotiations committee member for ABOMA.
Linda also received the CAMME award for High Rise Manager of the Year in 2009, 2011, and most recently in 2022.
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Linda, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much.
So you've been an all star property management for a while now and so I'm curious if you could share a little bit about how did you get into property management originally?
Of course. So I have been in property management for a long time. I won't tell you how many years because then you'll guess my age, but I got into it basically right out of college. I needed a job, I had a marketing and a business degree, and I wasn't really sure where I wanted to go with it, but I was out looking for apartments. I was following leasing agents around on tour, and the girl really seemed to really love her job, and I kind of asked a lot of questions as to how she got into the industry. And at the time, they were offering leasing agents a rent-free apartment as part of the compensation with a very, very low salary. But I went ahead and did my research and got into it, and it's been history since then.
That's an interesting perk though, certainly, for a job.
So as you've progressed in your career, are there certain actions you've taken or maybe traits that you've worked on in order to move up?
So I think that just I was very eager to learn earlier in my career and pretty much every year I accepted a promotion to a higher level. I was always constantly asking for more things to do so I wasn't bored, and just kept growing in the companies that I worked for. The first 10 years in my career I spent with a very well known management company here in Chicago and worked my way up to a director's position and had oversaw multi sites. But then throughout the years, I switched companies a few times and really took with me the core competencies of companies that I worked for to create the management style that I have today.
I would say the most important thing, especially in today's world, is really connecting with your team, really building a solid foundation and respect to the team and creating... It's hard to teach someone to have passion about their job, but I think after a while I've been able to recognize those who have it and those who don't, and creating a team that is tight-knit with the same common goal and the same common passion is super important, especially when it comes to resident engagements.
Got it. So for the property management professional who might be in the early stages of their career, do you have a few tips for them on what they can work on in order to have an equally rewarding career in the field?
I think getting back to the resident engagement, that is so vitally important to the success of our business. Getting out there, I think many managers, they get eaten alive by these residents with respect to Google reviews and things like that when they're not visible. So staying visible with the residents has been really important to me. Earlier in my career, it would've been... I attend a resident function and someone would say to me, "Oh you're Linda? Oh my god, you're so nice." Because they never met me. I didn't really attend a lot of these events. And I think getting out there, touching lives, shaking hands, now that we can again of course, petting dogs, kissing babies, do whatever you need to do to be front facing with your customers.
I love that answer. I love that it's come through in your answers to both my prior questions, this concept of touching lives and making sure that residents are having a good experience. So my next question really expands on that, and I'm just curious if you could share your own personal definition with me of two terms, the first being resident experience, and then the second being resident experience management.
So resident experience to me is like one of the most vitally important aspects of our business. Obviously happy people refer happy people and friends and colleagues and so on. It's kind of everything that we do on a regular basis is, like I said, attending the functions, having FaceTime with the residents, when there is a conflict and there always will be, not ever dealing with conflict via email or in writing. I always do a very basic email saying request for formal face-to-face meeting. Then we might have a little bit of dialogue via email, but getting them into the office, talking to them one-on-one, again showing my personality, learning theirs and so forth and so on is important. And then the second part was again, how do residents-
Residents experience management.
So it's kind of, again, everything that we do. I train my team to... It is a requirement to say good morning to the residents. It's a requirement to learn their dog's names. It's a requirement to say, "Welcome home," when they come into the lobby after work, when they leave out to go to work, "Have a safe night," "Have a safe day." Those are some things that really make a difference. And I require my team to carry a smile on their face every single day because we are scrutinized if we don't have a smile.
I think that I took over this property from two... There were two different management companies. The property's only six years old and there were two different management companies in and out of the door. And the last management company was managing the asset for 18 months. During that time there were 16 property managers in and out the door. So basically, a new manager every month and 10 chief engineers. So there was no stability, the residents were frustrated, the Google ratings were terrible, the property was so young but yet looked so run down. It was very sad to see. And we really took a very semi-pronged approach to get it back on track. And then of course COVID hit, so we dealt with that, and we still were able to ride the ship and create a positive experience for the residents.
But following up on every single work order, following up after every single move in to do a welcome call, it was kind of like going back in time and doing things the old fashioned way. We take walk-in tours, we don't turn anybody away. If the leasing agent can't take the tour, the assistant manager takes the tour or I take the tour or the front desk person will take the tour. We never turn anybody away. But I think just really, really staying engaged with, and managing the whole process. We ask for reviews, we strive for five …strive for five meaning five star reviews, and we ask for reviews. So we were able to change the perception of the residents with the former management company. I've been there almost three years and my management team has been there at least three years. My maintenance team, my chief engineer and his assistant have been there three years as well. So there's stability, there's happy residents. We host events. Like I said, we attend the events, and we're always open to feedback.
Awesome. You talked a lot about the human element of delivering a world-class resident experience, saying, "Good morning," saying, "Stay safe when you leave the building," attending those events. I'm curious if we could talk a little bit about the non-human elements now. So what types of technology or other tools have you found that have been helpful in enabling your team to deliver a world-class resident experience or to manage that experience even?
One of the tools we use, we have a building app that's branded for our property. And through that app, it's kind of a very, very quick ease of use for the resident. Essentially they go to their phone, they open up the app, they're able to log a work order, pay their rent, check the balance on their account, reach out to anyone in management if they have a complaint, comment. Otherwise they can chat with other residents through there. They can post something for sale, they can order a whole host of services in their apartment such as massage therapy, cleaning, maid service, dog walking, all that kind of stuff through the app. And the more they use the app, the higher discount they get for the services they book in the future. They can RSVP for events. So basically, they can see absolutely everything through the app.
And then for us in terms of managing it, let's just say at the last minute there's an event and it was meant to be outside and it starts raining, we can immediately notify those residents within seconds that the location of the event has changed. We can speak to our residents, we can run reports to the work orders and see if there's any common problems and those type of things.
The other thing I would say, especially if someone gets to the point of they're managing multi sites, a business intelligence platform is vital to the success. At one point I had 17 properties and I was able to open up my computer and see the health of 17 properties all on one screen. So it's a very, very helpful tool if the company allows them to use that sort of technology.
Yeah, I can imagine. So this next one is a little bit of a two-part question and sort of out of the box. First, I'm wondering is there a technology or an innovation that's currently in the market that maybe you've yet to try but you're excited by it? And then to go along with that, I'm curious, are there any innovations that you would love to see emerge but they don't quite exist yet in the market?
Of course. So I actually just this morning attended the Chicagoland Apartment Association trade show. And going to the events like the trade show or the National Apartment Association events are great because you get to sample some of the new technology. And this morning I was actually pretty impressed by a company called Quest. They offer a virtual reality sort of interactive tool where there's... It's not like you're talking in a chat box, you're actually talking to a bot that has a human face on it. And I didn't have much time to spend with the agent, but I'm definitely going to, because after the pandemic, a lot of things changed and a lot of our onsite leasing agents, quite frankly, got very lazy, and there were a lot of virtual tours taking place. And now, certainly not at my property, but in the industry as a whole, I'm hearing from other managers and regionals that their leasing agents don't want to take tours anymore. They refer the calling client or the onsite walk-in client to their website to take a virtual tour.
It's so frustrating to me being in the industry for so long. You have to have that human contact, and by sending them off to do the tour themself or a self-guided tour was very popular during the pandemic. I get it. That's what we had to do at that time. But now that we're back, there's nothing that can compare to that human touch. And although, like I said, I was very impressed with the Quest technology today because you are seeing a leasing agent's face at least, and you're making a connection virtually, but nonetheless, and they can tour 24 hours a day.
That's awesome. So we usually talk about technology through the lens of how it helps management, but the truth is that, to your point earlier, there are also a lot of old fashioned best practices that can be applied to build more effective teams and to effectively manage properties. And so I'm curious if you have one or two best practices that you've turned to throughout your career that have really made a difference.
Yes. For me, I've always led a team with a servient sort of management style. We've put together my team, my team and I, a whole list of fundamentals that we live by sort every day. Like I said, you can't teach passion, but if you find a little glimmer of hope, of passion in somebody and you put them on your team, there's another way that you can kind of teach that. And I think for me it's always been the servient type of management style, and I'll give you a couple examples of our fundamentals.
We are a team. We all divide and conquer to get work done and no one leaves without checking in with the rest of the team. Or at least if you're working under the chief engineer, you would check in with the chief to make sure there's nothing else he needs at the last minute. It's kind of like this no one left behind sort of mentality. We work hard, we have fun, there's no doubt about it. We celebrate every milestone. We celebrate everyone's birthdays together as a team. When it comes to resident events, sometimes the maintenance guys pitch in and we cook, we grill for our residents, which goes a long way. We're honest with each other, we speak straight. We always strive for five, five star ratings that is, and at the end of the day it's about how we serve the resident that matters and how we treat each other with respect that matters.
I'm a firm believer that if you don't have morale on your team, everything sinks. So you've got to recruit, hire, train the right people, keep them highly satisfied. And in this day and age when they can go to the next property or the next job and make a few bucks more, it's challenging. But the reason I feel that people stay on my team is because of the way we manage. We manage from the heart.
Now, this has come through a little bit already in our conversation, but I know that you are a three time Chicagoland Apartment Marketing and Management Excellence Award winner. And so I'd love to hear you toot your own horn and tell us why and how you won so many times.
I think that, first of all, I'm an icon in the industry, not to toot my own horn, but I'm pretty well known. I am a very hard worker and I've always had that team spirit about me with regards to my teams. I would jump under the bus for somebody if they're on my team and they're a hard worker.
But I think that when you are judged for this type of award, they look at absolutely everything. They look at your performance to budget, they look at your online reviews, your ratings, they look at your resident satisfaction. So they're looking for testimonials, they're reading the reviews. If you had to go online and take a look at our reviews for the property, you'd see a very different history in the past with all the different management companies and all the different managers. And then it gets to the RMK point in time and you see everything really changing, really making a difference. And they look at what type of events, what type of resident retention aspects you have in play, turnover in staff, obviously everything.
So I think that my claim to fame has always been like... It's hard to say to do everything well, but I don't leave any stone unturned. I think that everything to me matters. I'm very picky with the aesthetics, and it starts in the beginning. Someone pulls up to the property and they see a very pristine... I'm a stickler about landscaping. Just overall aesthetics. And my team, I've taught them to... When I pull up in my car, they're like, "Here comes Eagle Eye. She's going to spot something." I've had really great mentors in the past that have really shown me not just clean, it's pristine. So pristine is the baseline.
So again, I think it's everything that we do as managers. I mean, no two days are alike in our business. We could have a very well spelled out roadmap for the day, for the week, for the month, and then all of a sudden there's a flood or an emergency and something is thrown into loop. But keeping everyone on track, and they know. They know the expectation. They call them Lindaisms. Those are all isms, and they know they have to meet those. But in such a way that, again, we all have fun. There's challenging days, but at the end of the day, we care for each other, and again, no one's left behind. So I think that that's the management style.
But in regards to this last one that I won for the property that I'm at now, it was a challenge with 16 managers in and out the door. And it's a very complex property because there's so many moving parts. It has 35,000 square feet of amenities on four different levels of the building. So it's a lot. It's challenging to manage. And we don't have an amenity director that is supposed to spot check everything. So it's having to train everybody on the team to see everything and to understand the importance of it. If one of our old-fashioned retro electronic games isn't working in the bar, even though it may seem small, it's big to me. So I think that this one, I feel like I really did earn. Not that I didn't with the others, but this one was challenging and especially during through the whole COVID thing and trying to keep the residents engaged throughout that time, which was definitely not easy when we couldn't see each other.
Yeah. That sounds like quite a feat and certainly well deserved, so congratulations again.
So I was on LinkedIn a while back and I saw posts that mentioned you had executed an idea pulled from NAA's 60 Ideas in 60 minute session at Apartmentalize, the dinner with 12 strangers. I'd love to hear more about what inspired you to try this, what it all entailed, and how it went.
So Dinner with 12 Strangers was one of my ideas that I submitted to NAA for that Apartmentalize conference. So I've been doing this for quite a while and then it kind of fell off the radar, but during the pandemic, everyone was looking for a way to kind of be close to somebody. Everyone was separated, everyone was isolated. So we started doing kind of like a virtual Dinner with 12 Strangers. We had a chef come in and he virtually prepared meals. He had sent the list of ingredients to the residents. We actually had them packed up. We purchased the ingredients, packed them up, delivered them to the doors of the 12 people. And we kind of selected these 12 people based on their move-in dates. We wanted people that didn't know anybody to engage with other residents, even if it wasn't in person.
So this chef got on... He's very funny, he's very good at what he does, and he went through a cooking demonstration with these 12 people who could all see each other on the screen. And he prepared like a three to four course meal, and they had their wine in their apartments or whatever, and by the end of the thing they were all really engaged, virtually nonetheless, but engaged.
And so as things started to open up, we started hosting these events. We do them once a quarter and it's lovely. They're very intimate. Sometimes we have a chef come into our building, do a grilling demonstration outside by the grills. Sometimes we cook something indoors. At times, we've gone out to restaurants. We kind of mix it up. And we hand curate the list of 12 people that don't know each other, and by the end of the evening they're sharing each other's contact information. So it's been really nice to see. And obviously people that move to a new city or a new building and they don't know anybody, whether it's COVID or not, they are still looking for opportunities to meet new friends. And so we found that our resident retention has definitely increased as a result of that, 12 residents at a time.
What a neat idea. I remember when I moved out to San Diego from the East Coast and didn't know anybody. I think that would've been such a fun program to take part in when I moved into my apartment building.
Yeah, because who doesn't like free food?
Yeah. Yeah. And making new friends-
And new friends.
... meeting people in your actual vicinity.
So I guess along the lines of unique program ideas like that, is there anything new and exciting you're looking to try out or maybe that you've done recently?
So my property, it has a very wide range of demographics. We have everything from little studio apartments all the way up to four-bedroom townhomes, and then penthouse units. So it's a wide range of demographics. So we have to host events that kind of cater to everybody. But we have a large pet presence in our building. One of our amenities is a pet service that actually is right on site. So they do overnight hotel stays for the pets, they do play care, dog walks, and so forth and minor veterinary things.
So we do a pet Halloween costume contest and parade every year. It's annual. The residents get very creative with their costumes. And then after that we do a pet Olympics annually and we do all kinds of interesting things for the pets. And we do one event where it's a gauntlet where we put toys and treats all the way up and down the side of this room and the pet owners on one end and someone else releases the pet and they're calling the name, and they're so distracted by this. We do a peanut butter licking contest. We do all kinds of things like that, but everyone videotapes it, they post it on TikTok. It's gotten very popular. So we'll be doing that again.
We also started doing some events with kids because after the pandemic, we started noticing some more babies in the building. So doing events like that. We do an outdoor movie night, we do something for Halloween, we do a Halloween costume thing for the kids. And then we always do for the holidays, Easter and Christmas, we do events where we have the Easter Bunny comes to the lobby and takes pictures with pets and kids and Santa Claus comes as well. So those are definitely things that we like to do.
I love that. Just putting my marketing hat on right now. That all must make some fantastic social media content.
So, Linda, this has been a fantastic conversation, and my final question for this podcast is always an ask for a recommendation. So we like to believe that good people know other good people. And so is there
anyone you would recommend us to invite on the show for a future episode?
Yes, and I haven't asked her yet, so you're probably going to surprise her by asking her, but her name is Jennifer Sosito. She has been in the industry for a very long time. She is kind of known as the lease up queen in Chicago. Developers, they hire her before the building is even built because they know she's so great at building a team, building morale, building these dream teams that are highly successful in their lease ups. She's got a very vivacious personality and I'm sure that you would really like her. She is in Chicago and I believe she works for a company called Hines Development. So if you can't find her, I'll find her and send her to you.
Thank you so much. We'll definitely be reaching out. It was great to have you on, Linda. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I'm excited for our listeners to enjoy this episode.
Thank you so much for the invite.