Last modified on October 26th, 2021
By Brittany Benz
Communication has always been key in the association management industry. However, in today’s digital world, instant communication is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ but an absolute necessity. We all are accustomed to having immediate answers and information at our fingertips — and homeowners and board members expect the same experience from their community association. Due to these changing expectations, association management businesses have had to pivot their communication strategies in order to keep their homeowners and board members informed and satisfied. From community updates to board financials — everything has had to transition from traditional to mobile modes of communication. While it may have been challenging initially, today these strategies have paved the way for stronger, more connected communities.
In this episode on The Top Floor, we explore the role communication plays in association management and customer relationships, and how businesses are working to streamline their processes to increase transparency, satisfaction, and efficiency. Throughout the episode you’ll hear from various association management companies, who will share how they have successfully boosted communication within their associations, along with an AppFolio product expert, who will talk about the emerging technologies your business can take advantage of today to strengthen your communications.
Meet Our Guests:
Jordan Levine is the President and Co-founder of Pelican Property Management. Having worked 20+ years in the the real estate industry, Jordan is well versed in all aspects of commercial, multifamily, and condo/HOA management and leasing. Jordan is inspired by companies that are innovators and disruptors such as Tesla, Peloton, and AppFolio. That fits with the mission of at Pelican Property management: challenging the status quo through technology, innovation, and communication.
Warner Johnson is Vice President of Duckworth-Morris Real Estate, which is one of Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s oldest continuously operated businesses with its roots dating back to 1867. In 1991, he accepted a position as a Property Manager and has remained with Duckworth-Morris Real Estate since that time. The portfolio that he manages includes apartments, single-family rental homes, homeowner associations, condominium associations, retail, office, and industrial properties. Warner has earned his Certified Property Manager designation through the Institute of Real Estate Management.
Ari Shore is the Chief Operating Officer of CAP Management located in Denver, CO. Ari has been in the industry for about three years, prior to that he worked in complex building solutions, heavy facility and infrastructure management, as well as high-level organization management. With a history as a strategic, motivational, and innovative business leader, he develops and implements inside and outside of the box thinking that furthers organizations’ missions and leads to higher ROI’s.
Beth Gilbert is the Sr. Director of the Community Association Market at AppFolio and its all-in-one association management software. Beth brings over 15 years of product experience to AppFolio and is currently responsible for developing the vision and strategy for the association market. She is passionate about building relationships with customers to learn about new ways to partner in the success of their businesses. You can read Beth’s articles in various association management publications, and join her in webinars where she is often joined by industry experts to discuss a variety of topics.
Joe Saldaña is a Staff Product Manager with a decade long background working in the SaaS industry. He is passionate about building products and services that have a real impact. His current focus centers on the Community Association market and he leads the homeowner experience initiative, leveraging AppFolio as a platform to connect communities and deliver exceptional experiences to managers and the residents they serve.
Sean: You’re listening to The Top Floor, a podcast featuring critical conversations around property management, community associations, and real estate investing. I’m your host, Sean Forster, an industry trend researcher at AppFolio. Once a month we embark on a narrative journey into the height of industry disruption. And with the help of thought leaders and change-makers, we bring you the insider knowledge that’s fueling our industry’s future. Now let’s turn it over to Megan, who will take us through today’s episode.
Megan: Communication is central in real estate, especially in community association management. In today’s tech-driven world, everyone is accustomed to having information at their fingertips, and homeowners and board members expect the same, instant, on-demand experience from their community association.
However, facilitating communications isn’t always easy. In fact, according to a recent AppFolio survey of association management businesses, 21% listed communication as one of their top business challenges. To overcome this challenge, many association management businesses have already begun to change their communication strategies in order to better meet homeowners’ and board members’ needs. For many of these businesses, everything from regular community updates to board financials has gone digital. While this initial shift may have been challenging, today these strategies have paved the way for stronger, more connected communities.
Today on The Top Floor, we explore the role communication plays in both association management and customer relationships, and how businesses are working to streamline their processes to increase transparency, satisfaction, and efficiency. Kicking off the conversation is Jordan Levine. Here, he unpacks how he’s built relationships with homeowners and board members using open communication and responsiveness.
Jordan Levine: I’m Jordan Levine with Pelican Property Management in Maryland. We’re about fifty-plus units in our fifty-plus properties and six-thousand units. And we’re continuing to grow every month.
Jordan Levine: We’re always communicating with our boards and our residents and we have no idea what’s really going on in their lives in particular. So we have to be empathetic to the situation that they’re calling in or emailing us about or chatting with us about. I always tell people in the office that sometimes it’s just worth it to make a call.
Megan: One more statistic before we continue. Returning to an AppFolio survey we conducted back in 2019, we found residents were generally not satisfied with the responsiveness from their property management companies, and there’s a lot of room for them to grow to build better communities. And a staggering forty percent of homeowners said their management companies were unresponsive, and fifty percent of homeowners believed their boards were unresponsive. That’s a lot, especially given the fact that this data was collected prior to the pandemic. Jordan has more insight on how his team is working to address this.
Jordan Levine: So one, we always answer the phone. No matter who calls in from 8:30 to 5:00, we answer the phone or at least somebody from our office will answer the phone. But what we’re trying to do is eliminate that, best we can by getting a newsletter out or a newsletter alerts out to the community, through our live chats. So people can just sign onto our website and they can chat with us directly and resolve an issue with their bill or something like that.
Jordan Levine: So, I guess we call it like a Swiss army knife. So we’re happy to use any of them, but we want to push it more to the most efficient process, which is really receiving, ideally it would be great to receive all the communication through AppFolio. I think someday we’ll be there, but at the moment we use AppFolio, we’re still using constant contact for our newsletters. We use an email system called however, for our info emails, which is fantastic, so we can distribute work efficiently. So that’s how we’re communicating with everybody at the moment.
Warner Johnson: Communication is the most important thing that we do as association management.
Megan: Warner Johnson with Duckworth-Morris Real Estate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an association management company that oversees more than 50 associations and over 3,000 units, joins the conversation. Here he talks about the role communication plays when it comes to the board representation.
Warner Johnson: We’re doing everything we can to communicate the board’s message. So we work very hard to make sure we do a lot of associations where there are several different unit styles of maybe some single family homes, some townhouses, some garden homes, all under the purview of one association. So we try to make sure that every part of that community is represented on the board and that the people that the other homeowners tend to listen to are involved on the board. And when someone calls me upset and complaining, a lot of times I’ll turn it around and say, “You sound like the perfect person to serve on this board. You’ve got some very good ideas and some very strong opinions. And I think when it’s time for the nominating committee to meet, do you mind if I recommend you to the nominating committee,” and they’ll do either one or two things, they’ll either say yes or they’ll say no, and then they never call me again. Because they don’t want to serve on the board. But trying to get everyone represented and everybody involved, and the people that the other homeowners are listening to involve them on the board is one thing we’ve worked very hard to do.
Megan: Sometimes, managing all of these communications can be overwhelming. Messages can get lost in translation or misinformation can spread. Here, Warner dives deeper into these challenges association managers often face, and what happens when association managers, boards, and homeowners are not aligned on messaging.
Warner Johnson: When we get in trouble as association managers it’s because we’re not communicating our message or the board that we’re working for message well.
Warner Johnson: I started doing this in 1991 and in 1991, there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, there were no GroupMe text. And you would think that would make our jobs easier, but it’s actually in a lot of ways made our jobs harder because misinformation can spread like wildfire.
Warner Johnson: And I’ll give a specific example. We’re working with a developer who is building a 650-lot neighborhood. He’s into the second phase, he promised the pool, we’re about to get the pool open next month. And in the neighborhood GroupMe text, which is totally on-off a client says, the board is not a part of it. We’re not a part of it, but these homeowners get together and they create this GroupMe text, someone drops in that GroupMe text that the developer is going to sell memberships to anybody in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who wants to buy a membership, can buy a membership to this pool, which is totally false. So we go about dispelling that rumor communicated to everybody. And this was four or five months ago. Well, we think we’ve got it squelched, and then boom, it ups again, even after we’ve repeatedly told them the developer is not selling memberships, the pool is for homeowners only. So it’s stuff like that. In all of these neighborhoods, we’ll have an official Facebook page, which we have someone on the board that can pull down false posts and all of that. But then there’s all these unauthorized Facebook pages where we get a lot of false information. We have the battle, the homeowners are not always good at communicating with us. They think that they can post something on Facebook and that’s like a work order. So we struggle with that. No one told me the steps on the gazebo were loose. We didn’t know it. And then their response, “Well, put it on the Facebook page.” Well, you have a homeowner portal, why don’t you just send us a work order, posting something on Facebook is not a work order. So those are the types of things that we battle communicating.
Megan: Like Warner explained, everyone needs to be on the same page with how they get and exchange information, that goes for homeowners, board members, vendors, and association management teams. In an age of hyper-connectivity, it’s so important to leverage multiple channels for communication to relay messages fast and efficiently. Take virtual board meetings. Many association management companies switched to virtual meetings to keep communities safe over the past two years. While it has been a challenge to onboard some members, the remote meetings make it easier for more people to attend, boosting communication and engagement for the better. It’s up to association management companies to implement reliable, fast, and efficient methods of communication that work for everyone. Here, Jordan discusses this topic with Warner and Beth Gilbert, AppFolio’s Senior Director of the Community Association Market.
Jordan Levine: So the challenge that we face is getting all of our boards and residents to buy into electronic communication, electronic voting, electronic anything. And because it ends up saving us time, it saves them a lot of money. We have this over 55 year old community that everybody said to me, there’s no way we’re getting them on electronic. And as of about a month ago, I was listening in on their board meeting, which we can do through Zoom now. I can actually sit in our board meetings, which is kind of fun. And the board actually decided to switch all to electronic, notices, letters, everything, unless legally they couldn’t. But for the most part, it’s all electronic.
Beth Gilbert: Absolutely. And that’s so great. Those examples are perfect. And this is an area actually, we focused on quite a bit last year at the start of the pandemic of introducing some new tools to help with providing better communication and demonstrating value to your communities.
Megan: Warner agrees. He’s experienced first hand the challenges of adapting to new communication methods during the pandemic when people had to transition from in-person communication to apps and mobile tools, particularly at home — whether it was to submit an architectural request, pay monthly homeowner dues, or inquire about the status of the reopening of communal spaces.
Warner Johnson: We actually have just unlocked the door and are letting people in our building for the first time in over a year. If you had told me prior to 2020, that we could lock the door to our building and not let a single soul in here other than staff, I would have told you, you were out of your mind, because again, we’re a part of this community. People have traditionally screened through this office. We literally would have homeowners come in and hand deliver their check every month. Without AppFolio, without the homeowner portals in all the communication tools that we had available to us we would have been up a creek. But we came through it actually, it went as smooth as it possibly could. We were able to communicate, collect the fees, we didn’t see any dramatic increase in any sort of fee collection issue or anything. And if anything, the elderly people who were suspicious of these things to begin with, actually embraced it this year. And in the percentages of people who use their online portals and started using the tools like the auto-pay and all the other things that we’ve been reaching about to them, until we were blue in the face, that they weren’t paying any attention to all of a sudden they did. And it was actually good for our business. And it demonstrated our value to the people that we work for.
Jordan Levine: Warner is right. We try to drill this in over time, but it’s fun to see it actually taking place. And it’s fun to see them actually talking to their residents, the board’s talking to their residents saying, “Hey, it’s not worth it for our community to send you a piece of mail. It’s not fair to the rest of the folks in the community. If you want to see something physical, we’ll post it to the three or four people that didn’t sign electronic authorization forms or something like that.
Beth Gilbert: And I think that’s a true sign of success when you can get the boards, basically having the message that you’ve been honing in on for so long, having them communicate it. That’s real success right there.
Megan: Recently, the pandemic put more pressure on association managers to respond more quickly to everything from amenity updates to architectural requests. Ari Shore, the Chief Operating Officer of CAP Management, shares how tech solutions have played a vital role in assisting with this.
Ari Shore: Yeah, absolutely. It was a very challenging year. And the one thing we noticed is that expectations with our homeowners and our association absolutely spiked. People were at home more. They are interested in more amenities, not just in terms of swimming pool or exercise equipment, but stuff that would help them while they’re in their community. Maybe a park or a nice community garden or something along those lines. But overall we noticed a massive spike in expectations, and a sharp decrease in patience. So responding in a timely manner with clear and accurate information became really critical to success for anybody that was offering a service, especially a management type service for residents communities.
Joe Saldaña: Most definitely. And we certainly saw that, the data on our side, we saw a spike in architectural requests.
Megan: Speaking now is Joe Saldaña, Senior Product Manager for AppFolio Property Manager.
Joe Saldaña: We saw a spike in maintenance requests, and I think that’s just, as you mentioned, a function of people being home and wanting to make their home kind of their sanctuary, then also just being exposed to their amenities. They may be using it more because there weren’t a lot of places to go over the last year.
Megan: This influx of requests and communications — often after hours and on the weekends — has made it more difficult for association managers to keep up, leading to longer response times and bottlenecks. Ari discusses how tech has been helpful to manage the influx of ongoing requests and the types of mobile communication tools businesses are leveraging.
Ari Shore: Yeah, there’s really a couple different vehicles that we use it for. First of all, for us, we’re a professional organization. We try to at least pretend that we work standard business hours, Monday through Fridays, eight to five, but the reality is a large percentage of our customer base. And by large, I mean, ninety-eight percent, they are also working professionals. So while we’re at work, they’re also at work and while they’re at work it’s hard for them to communicate with us. And so quite frequently, they’re looking for information after hours on the weekend. And again, they want to be able to receive that information quickly. So having a portal, I’m utilizing technology where we can now host the vast majority of this information and have that system be intuitive enough that anybody from a teenager to a senior citizen can navigate it and get the information that they’re looking for and already know the next steps that they need to take before the next day rolls around is a huge, huge benefit to the way that we’re managing and the systems that we’re using to help keep the homeowners happy.
Megan: As Ari notes, traditional communication methods can slow down the process when it comes to relaying information. Mailing and printing can not only lead to human error, but they take more time , money, and bandwidth. Businesses can benefit from management software like AppFolio’s Mailing Service, which lets association management companies send a number of document types to their homeowners and board members in bulk with just the click of a button. So this ensures they don’t miss a beat when it comes to receiving important updates and documents.
Joe Saldaña: So we know lots of folks are still paper-based, they’re manually processing these requests. Then that might start off with a call to the management company, or maybe their side texting a board member. Then they’re setting up a time to visit in-person or perhaps collect forms, printing them out. Lots of folks don’t have printers. But then they’re having to scan it back in or mail it or turn it in in-person, which can definitely be a hassle. But then compare that to the experience of a homeowner who’s able to accomplish that same task, but they can do it all online from the comfort of their own home. And zooming out a little bit, I want to think about how companies, not just those within real estate, but more broadly are really shaping the expectations of our customers. So these are the brands that are shaping those experiences today.
Joe Saldaña: And the use of technology in our industry is still somewhat rare. Surprisingly, when we survey folks only thirty-percent of folks have the ability to pay their assessment online, compared with the majority that would like to do so. But when people talked about technology that they were using, homeowners often talked about the experience of being disjointed as a result of stringing together multiple systems for managing all of their various tasks. So for example, they might have one portal to make their payments. They might be using email exchanges to manage invoice approvals for architectural approvals. They have a different site completely or reconciling violations and whatnot, but the need was simple over and over again. We heard from homeowners that they wanted a one-stop shop for all of their association needs, and they underscored that it had to be approachable and intuitive, because we serve a wide variety of customers.
Joe Saldaña: There’s the concept of having on-demand self-service experience. So this was really all about having information that’s available when they need it. Homeowners often felt like they weren’t empowered. They were kind of frustrated by how paper-based their associations were, and then having to lug out a huge file if they wanted to reference their governing dots, they lamented the dependence on getting information from their managers. So, they’re thinking about it after their workday is complete at 6:00 p.m and they want to get an answer to a specific question. You have to send an email and then wait for your doors to open the next day to get a response.
Joe Saldaña: They really want it to have that information on demand. And that leads into kind of the other aspect of on-demand with the self service. This came up a lot in the context of architectural reviews, where people talked about how paper-based their processes were, they had to get on the phone to even find the form they needed to fill out. Then they had to find somewhere to print it, which over and over again, we heard people just don’t have printers at home. They relied on their office to print things out. With a lot of offices have closed over the past year. That became an additional point of stress.
Megan: Like Joe notes, communication works as a two-way street so community association managers could benefit from polling homeowners using a digital survey to ask for their input on how they wish to communicate with their management company and ways the experience could be improved. Ari explains how getting these insights have helped his association management businesses to be more transparent and build stronger, more connected communities.
Ari Shore: We received tremendous feedback. Ultimately it increases the happiness of the homeowner, the general demeanor of the community. It’s been absolutely fantastic in the sense that people know that we’re there. We were able to significantly increase our standard of service through the use of technology and really have the end user, if you will experience that directly, it was no longer us telling them a story of what we’re going to do and how this makes a difference to them. They felt the difference; they experienced the difference.
Ari Shore: We started the process very early on, especially with communities that were becoming newly engaged with having an alignment on expectations is going to be critical for all the parties that are involved. So even whether it’s the interview process that we’re in or the onboarding transitional period, we hold a number of different informational sessions, use technology to deliver messages out there, have surveys, have some community forums really to allow everyone to get on the same page and understand what is it that, what we like to say, every community has three personalities, the personality of the property, the personality of the homeowners, and the personality of the board. What are the expectations of all three of those personalities? How do we marry them together? And it’s a big challenge and is probably the most critical factor for success between hundreds of individuals that have to engage in a partnership in an association is to know what it is everyone is able to provide and what they are expecting that will be provided for them.
Joe Saldaña: That’s amazing. Yeah, we have some similar stories just from some of the releases that we did earlier last year, that facilitated better communication when it came to architectural requests, right? So people are in their homes. They’re trying to make the best of their situation because we accelerated the way in which folks could communicate and get those approvals, approved or denied or answered in any regard, we were able to speed up that time to resolution. So there was a really classic example. A family wanted to install a trampoline in their backyard because their kids were driving them crazy. And it was so great to see in real time the communication that happened and the fact that it got approved within a few hours was phenomenal, compared to the previous experience of having to go through the back and forth of emails and waiting and not knowing the status and calling and following up to just see that all happen within 24 hours, it was really powerful in really making an impact on the daily lives of both management and the homeowners.
Megan: Communication is key, especially when it comes to keeping communities connected and engaged.
Thinking back to Jordan’s insight earlier, we learned that a little empathy can go a long way when it comes to authentically building trust and relationships with homeowners and board members. That means being engaged and responsive through multiple forms of communication — whether it’s by phone, email, text, or through an online portal, and establishing an “always on” presence, even if that means outsourcing tech tools to help accommodate that via text messages or email replies. When there are barriers to communicating effectively, misinformation can spread and contribute to errors and frustration on all sides. Even though migrating residents to digital platforms can pose a challenge, in some cases, remote board meetings can ultimately boost community engagement, and even lead to more attendance.
Expectations from homeowners have greatly changed in the past two years, with more residents working remotely, home improvement projects have been on the rise and the desire for instant community updates has also increased. As a result, the need for things like online architectural requests and mobile modes of communication such as texting and email have become essential. Additionally, we’ve learned that communication isn’t a one-way street. It’s also important to ask for feedback from your board members and homeowners to ensure they are satisfied with your service.
By incorporating some of the communication insights we’ve discussed today, you can increase transparency, get work done faster with less back and forth, and give your team more space to focus on building customer relationships and strengthening your communities.
Special thanks to our guests, Jordan Levine of Pelican Property Management, Warner Johnson of Duckworth-Morris Real Estate, Ari Shore of CAP Management, and Beth Gilbert and Joe Saldaña from AppFolio. And thank you for joining us on The Top Floor.
Sean: Thanks for listening to The Top Floor and remember to join us here monthly for each new episode. For more information about today’s guests, visit our industry insights page at appfolio.com. And to view the latest property management insights as they’re published, follow AppFolio on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Don’t forget to subscribe to The Top Floor on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. We’ll see you next time.
Comments by Brittany Benz