Since stay at home orders first went into effect in March, community association managers have stepped in to help their communities navigate new challenges. From hosting virtual board meetings, to handling a rise in complaints, requests, and maintenance needs as more residents remain at home, association managers have had to find creative ways to continue to provide the same level of excellent service.
Based in Washington state, Vista Community Management offers both property and community association management services. During this time, they have successfully used technology to communicate information rapidly, to empower board members to make decisions and lead effectively, and to meet the needs of homeowners with self-service options.
Recently, AppFolio’s Senior Product Manager Justin Davis sat down with Juan Rodriguez, division manager of the HOA department at Vista, who has been working directly with homeowners and board members during the entire COVID-19 pandemic.
Listen to their conversation to hear Juan’s strategy for maintaining communication during uncertain times, and find out how Vista made the most of self-service tools for board members and homeowners to continue providing excellent service to their communities despite the challenging circumstances.
- “[We’ve been] able to communicate with the board members that just because we’re not in the office, it doesn’t mean things aren’t happening. It puts them at ease to know that the support they have come to expect and to lean on doesn’t disappear because I’m not sitting at my desk.”
With access to the tools and information needed to provide guidance and support from anywhere, Juan and the team at Vista have been able to continue serving communities even when it wasn’t possible to be physically present.
- “We also have the AppFolio Online Portal for homeowners to be able to communicate. Right now as people are at home, we’re seeing a huge increase in architectural requests. So those communication tools help them let us know what’s going on in the community, it helps us track what’s being done, and it gives them a place to provide details. It streamlines the process where we have everything available for them.”
Through AppFolio, Vista Management provides homeowners with access to an online portal where they can submit architectural requests, provide necessary documentation, and communicate directly with architectural review boards, making it possible for them to continue moving home improvement projects forward despite stay at home requirements.
- “Between March and April, I think we saw a 10% increase in our [online portal] activation. People on their own are taking steps to [sign up] because they can’t come to the office… They don’t want to go to the post office. That ability to respond and connect with them has been really critical to our success right now.”
Since homeowners can use the AppFolio Online Portal to pay dues or assessments, submit architectural requests, or get answers to their questions, it has cut down on the need to interact with community managers face-to-face or to mail documents. It has also made it easier for Vista to quickly disseminate information and updates to homeowners.
- “Can you have an annual meeting via Zoom? There’s requirements to publish notice and to send things in writing… Are you barring a whole segment of the community if they don’t have a computer, if they don’t have email? These are questions that each HOA has to struggle with.”
Although many community associations have found video conferencing tools to be effective during this time, some have faced restrictions and concerns over accessibility. While the solution is different for each community, community managers need flexible tools to communicate with homeowners across many different channels, both online and offline.
- People get that it’s not going to be business as usual, but you have to find a way to get creative… We’re actually going to bring in a couple of new associations on the HOA side.
Impressively, the team at Vista has been able to bring on new associations during this time due to their excellent reputation and ability to provide a high level of service, both offline and on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Justin: Well Juan, thank you so much for joining me today. My name is Justin Davis. I’m a senior product manager at AppFolio and for the past four years, I’ve been focusing exclusively on community association management.
I’m joined today by Juan Rodriguez from Vista Property Management. Juan, thank you so much for making the time to join me today. I know that a lot of our customers are looking forward to hearing from managers like you and just understanding a little bit more about how you and your company have been navigating this pandemic. So would you mind kicking us off with a little introduction, a little bit about yourself and your company?
Juan: Like Justin said, my name is Juan Rodriguez. I’m the division manager here with the HOA department in Vista Management. I’ve been doing this with Vista for just under a year and I’ve got about eight years or so managing HOAs in Washington and California as well.
It’s unprecedented times that we’re in, and like Justin was saying, something that we’ve been looking to get from our partners is — how can we navigate these times? You guys have offered some great insights [into] what other organizations are basically doing at the same time right now.
Justin: You guys are based in Washington, and I imagine that was essentially kind of the front lines of the pandemic here in the United States. So could you walk me through kind of those first couple of weeks when the virus kind of made landfall and your company’s response to that?
Juan: We first started hearing about cases in Washington pretty early… with Vista handling rentals and HOAs, we had different questions [in] different departments. So what the renter’s concern is, and the homeowner’s concern is, is different than the community’s concern, right? We were able to pretty early on get the word out to a lot of our associations that when [homeowners] started being laid off, that was a big thing. People were worried how they were going to make their dues payments and their regular mortgage payments even.
We’ve been trying to keep as informed as possible on Governor Inslee’s proclamations, and every time there’s an update on those, we publish that to all our board members. It’s really been instrumental in communicating those changes as they get updated, right? So from week to week, there’s new parts of the economy that are opening here in Washington. And so as landscapers are able to come back, as buildings are able to be worked on again, it’s something that the boards are concerned about just for operational reasons. But early on, we were getting people [to think] about what we can do to help [homeowners] communicate with the board if they needed payment plans, or whatever it was, on a case by case basis.
Justin: Tell me a little bit more about that moment when you started to realize that, “Hey, things are going to change in a big way.” What were your priorities as soon as you realized that your business as usual was going to be disrupted?
Juan: The proclamation from Governor Inslee came out early in April — the official, actual proclamation that affected HOAs. There were a couple that affected wage garnishments for the delinquent homeowners. And there were ones that went mid April through mid May for late fees and interest. And so once the governor was making official proclamations that impacted the HOAs directly, that’s when a lot of the community associations that were waiting to see, that’s when they were able to act. But before that, even before anything was official, there were board members who were concerned… One of the big things was common areas when it was the time for social distancing. “Do we shut down the community parks and what are we doing?”
So we were able to communicate through AppFolio, [which has] a lot of great tools to send emails and messages out to homeowners. Early on when board members were recognizing that there’s maybe a segment of their HOA who is in that vulnerable category… let’s get a message out to everybody that says, “Hey, if you need help going to the store, you need help cutting your grass, if social distancing is making it difficult to do regular household errands, reach out to board members, reach out to your neighbors.”
Early on it was that kind of community outreach, making sure people who needed help were going to be able to get help. As the proclamations went into place, it was, operationally, how do we make sure we’re staying in compliance with the law? And also, how do we make it easier for our owners to live in the community, because they’re stuck at home, right? Different phases of the whole stay at home order required a different kind of response based on what level it impacted the businesses or the people who are stuck at home.
Justin: In terms of your day to day work providing value to your communities, which aspects of your committee association management company have been most impacted by COVID-19?
Juan: Accounting was one of the early departments that was impacted because of the proclamations prohibiting late fees and the accrual of interest. We got advice from our attorney saying that, “You should probably go ahead and extend that violations and compliance issues.” Don’t even play chicken with that line, right? If they’re saying fees and interests are being held through mid May, just do that across the board. The homeowners are going to be grateful for it because they’re going to have one less thing, right? It’s not that you just say, “The dues don’t need to be paid and you don’t have to cut your grass.” It’s, “You still have that responsibility, but we recognize the world is sideways and maybe there’s other things going on. And so we’re not going to charge you that violation this month, but recognize that it’s still legitimately a violation, and you still could have had this fine in place, but we’re going to wait.” So being able to communicate those direct, operational pieces to homeowners… They’ve got other things going on, it’s our job to be able to be able to stay up to date and informed.
[With] accounting, when they had to hold interest… Each HOA charges interest in a different way, according to the governing docs. Some have a flat fee, some have a percentage of the dues and some carry a percentage of interest every month. It just depends on how those association documents are set up. It’s a lot of association to association checking, making sure that we were putting that all on hold until at least mid May. Then it got extended, I believe through the end of the May.
…It’s really convenient that AppFolio has these payment plan options. That was one of the new rollouts that you guys have set up over the past month or so. [For] people who have been laid off, people who have been furloughed from their jobs — if they’ve got a condo association with monthly dues, or they’re already on a previous payment plan for their annual dues. [We’ve been] able to go in and set that up, and help them through that, and let them know that it’s not that we’re not sensitive or sympathetic to their situation, right? But they need to let us know also. It’s got to be a little bit proactive on their side to let us know they need help. But, people don’t know that there’s help available. They don’t always know what to ask. And so to be able to communicate that to the community… has impacted every aspect of how we operate and communicate with our homeowners and board members.
Justin: Yeah. You mentioned the communication, and that sensitivity aspect. I think we as a company have taken an approach of, “What can we do to help?” We want to know what we can do to help our customers. Overwhelmingly what we’ve heard from our customers on the community management and on the residential side is, “What can we do to help our customers? What can we do to help our owners and our homeowners as well?” And so I’m very curious to hear, what has been the response from within your communities in hearing some of these new policies being rolled out and put in place?
Juan: Yeah. A lot of board members were right on board with it. They thought it was a good idea to put all this stuff on the back burner, put it on hold for right now. Before it was made official by the governor, we had a couple of associations saying, “Yeah, if people are being laid off, people are being required to stay home, we’re going to go ahead and proactively say, ‘no new violations, no new fees and if you haven’t pay your dues up to this point, just let us know and we can help out.'” So there were a few associations ahead of that official order that were already letting people know that this is an option. We don’t have to wait for someone to tell us to do it. We can do it on our own. So that communication piece was really important.
Justin: A lot of the organizational change that we’ve gone through, it’s definitely been a very accelerated and kind of monumental effort, right? Everything changed, relatively overnight. So I’m curious from your perspective within your company, are there any processes either working with customers or working internally as a team that have actually changed for the better since you’ve gone remote?
Juan: It’s a great question. Just the ability to work remotely… Because we’ve all been able to login for different meetings that are happening and all that stuff. We can get into AppFolio, we can get into our email, but just to demonstrate over a longer period of time that being able to work remotely is an option, that the technology allows us to really be anywhere [and it] doesn’t really have a huge impact on how we’re working. And so that was one piece that we were able to really prove to ourselves as a company. We’ve been toying around with working remotely, there’s other management companies that do work remotely already, but they’re somewhat smaller in scope. Maybe it’s easier for that type of setup.
I would say recently in the past six months or so, [we’ve been] kind of pushed into the deep end to sink or swim. It was really great to see that we could swim, right?
That was one thing that’s changed for us internally, being able to communicate with the board members that just because we’re not in the office, doesn’t mean things aren’t happening. It’s put them at ease to know that the support that they have come to expect and to lean on doesn’t disappear because I’m not sitting at my desk.
Justin: I agree that customer service expectations don’t necessarily change with the time even though realities change. So it’s great to hear that you guys have been able to meet that expectation. I’m curious, you mentioned earlier there was impact in your accounting processes and accounts receivable, and obviously having to shift to meet what the governor’s demands were. What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned as a company since this all started?
Juan: I think that seeing that mobility as we go, right, [realizing] that we can really do this remotely. Realizing that people really just want to be heard. One of the big things that I keep hearing over and over from homeowners and board members is that when they’ve been trapped at home for over a month now, [issues that were] “out of sight, out of mind” are now the opposite. [They’re] in your face.
[If] you had an issue with your neighbor for two years, this is going to put it under a magnifying glass. If you’ve got a HOA responsible fence in your backyard that’s been down for a couple months, you’re tired of staring at it, right? And so the biggest lesson, the biggest takeaway that I’ve really gotten from the changes that we’ve been dealing with, the new way of processing in our internal operations, is that people just want to be listened to.
And it seems kind of cliche, it seems kind of simple, but really when that homeowner calls, heated because [of] those issues that are now boiling over, he just wants someone to talk to. He just wants someone to vent… once it was off his chest and we started having an actual conversation, we found some resolutions, right? But he needed to get over those feelings first, before we could talk about logistics.
This ending of all the regular operations is going to make people feel a way. You can’t tell someone they’re right or wrong about their feelings, their feelings are real, but you don’t really get the chance to talk about feelings in a normal way… When people are scared, when people are upset, you have to kind of address that elephant in the room before you can really move on and get anything really done.
Justin: Sounds like you guys have been really successful in light of all of these changes, and have been able to adopt a lot of new procedures and continue to deliver that excellent service. What is a piece of advice that you would share with a colleague who’s struggling in adjusting to the times?
Juan: Again, it goes back to that piece of the feelings, and then listening. And you take a moment to listen to their own feelings, right? If they’re having an issue with the ability to function in a different environment, or the new demands of the way we do business are kind of stressing them out, then you address that. Take a moment to really say, “Okay, I need to really work better than I am right now.” And what does that look like, right? So if you need to adjust the way you’re working at home, or if you need to adjust the way you’re communicating with your customers and your board members, then address it and make that change, right?
There’s that expectation that things are going to move smoothly, it’s seamless, there’s no interruption, you can call me whenever, and there’s no problem, I can help you anytime, right? But those lines blur when I’m working at home. And I might have been okay taking that work call on my personal time, once in a while, but now it’s always blurred. There’s different ways that people work, right? So it’s what works best for [them] — it’s just really personal in how they have to get over that difficulty.
Justin: Right. I think that kind of calls to attention this sort of new dynamic. Work/life balance has taken on a new meaning, right?
For myself, I’ve got a 14 month old daughter at home, and on the one side it’s been really awesome to spend so much more time together. On the other side, my wife and I, her mother, both work full time. So it’s just like a whole new kind of set of challenges.
You mentioned a lot about preparing yourself internally for those difficult conversations, as you’re talking to someone that maybe has an issue that you’re trying to work through remotely. What’s another example of an approach that you had before all this that you feel has helped make you and your company more successful in light of these recent challenges?
Juan: We’ve all had those conversations when you can clearly tell the person on the other side has something else going on. They’re distracted, they’re spinning their wheels about something. That approach of recognizing that people are humans, right? And while you might be the landscaper, you’re also Steve, right. Maybe Steve’s got something going on in his life.
Vendors have had a really hard time responding with the restrictions on social distancing and their ability to actually work if they’re allowed to, right? And so this again, puts a magnifying glass on those issues of, “How are we treating and working with our vendors,” right? Are these people that can actually operate for a couple of months, if they’re shut down?
Dealing with the vendors has definitely changed a little bit. There are companies that we worked with that have had to close their doors because they don’t have that ability to take a couple months off, right? So that was one of the things that really served me well, of having those relationships with vendors and board members, so that when we’re in this uncharted territory, you can really connect with them and say like, “We have this rapport, tell me what’s really going on. Is it that you can’t meet this demand, or you don’t want to? Or is it that you have a personal issue with this neighbor or are they really parking in the middle of the street?” Or whatever the case may be, right? So it’s those issues that can magnify because they’re right in front of you. So that rapport and that ability to communicate beforehand really pays its dividends afterwards when you’re in that situation where you need to be able to kind of get through the static of what else is going on.
Justin: Something that stuck out to me from earlier, your point about how people are people, right? And so the process of managing people hasn’t changed. It’s just those tools I believe, are even more critical and more important in these times. So you mentioned the communication tools and payment plan tool as well that’s now available in AppFolio. What are some other examples of how technology has enabled Vista Community Management to respond to this crisis?
Juan: Yeah. So for boards specifically, there’s Washington RCW, the Washington code — anything that happens outside of the meeting has to be unanimous and in writing. So if the board wants to change landscapers or if they want to do anything that’s a board level decision, it’s got to be unanimous and everyone’s got to be on board. In a live meeting, there can be dissent. It can be three to two and it doesn’t have to be everyone on board with it.
And so the technology tools, AppFolio has an approval touch, so there can be different projects put up and it doesn’t even have to be a dollar amount project. It can be, “Do you guys approve this newsletter?” There’s different ways to use the tool because you can throw the attachments in there, you get a nice description, you leave a dollar sign zero if it’s not a spendable amount or a spendable item, but it still gives them all the ability to respond, it still gives them the ability to have that discussion and then dissent also. In that format if one person says, no, it closes the discussion right away. So then you know, “Okay, it’s done because one person disagreed.” But if you get the approval then you know that everyone’s on board with it.
When you try to have those conversations in an email inbox, a thread can get pulled in a different direction because someone has a different topic. It really limits that noise in the decision making process, being able to have those communication tools in AppFolio to get decisions made when you’re not able to sit down.
And we have the portal for homeowners to be able to communicate also. Right now as people are at home, people have time on their hands. Like I was mentioning, we’re seeing a huge increase in architectural requests. People want to get a new roof or paint the house or fix that fence that we were talking about, right? Or even regular maintenance requests… The opposite of out of sight, out of mind. They’re looking at all the little different maintenance items that have been sitting around for a while.
So those communication tools help them let us know what’s going on in the community, it helps us track what’s being done, and it gives them a place to really give details and streamline the process where we have everything available for them… [but] they’ve got to be able to login to that portal.
Between March and April, I think we saw like a 10% increase in our [online portal] activation. So we were right around 55%, 60% of our overall residents using the portal and that jumped up quite significantly. 10% in two months is bigger than we’ve ever seen.
Slowly and gradually is normally what we see if we get a new community association. If we send out another newsletter saying, “Hey, sign up for the portal,” we see an uptick, right?
People on their own are taking steps to get activated because they can’t go out, because they can’t come to the office, right? They don’t want to go to the Post Office. That ability to respond and connect with them has been really critical to our success right now.
Justin: That’s awesome. You mentioned board approvals, which has that in-line communication channel eliminating the need for email. And then more recently, our architectural reviews module now supports two way chat with managers and residents as well.
So I’m curious, at the end of the first quarter of this year, going into the second quarter, when all this started happening, what impact has there been to your annual meeting cycles? And what do those look like now in light of COVID-19?
Juan: Luckily a lot of the associations are on just a regular calendar year. So those happen in the third, fourth quarter. Typically an equity quarter — October, November, December is when we see most of them. Some of them can’t get their act together in that last quarter, then push it into the first quarter of the next year. So luckily we were able to get through most of those. There are some associations that have their fiscal year offset where they go mid summer to mid summer. And so we’re seeing those associations that have to struggle with the idea, “Do we try to do a Zoom meeting? Now that it’s warm, can we do it at the park? Do we go, and have everyone social distance? Everyone put your hands six feet in every direction. And if you want to show up, you can show up and have that conversation and we’ll get the PA system out and we’ll do a social distance kind of annual meeting.” But they get to decide, right?
Most of them had it out of the way before this all started. But for those that have that coming, it’s a conversation. So we’ve been trying to stay up to date with different legal opinions on what that looks like. Can you have an annual meeting via Zoom? There’s requirements to publish notice and there’s requirements to send things in writing, there’s requirements to allow people to get access to this forum, even if they don’t have internet access. So are you then barring a whole segment of the community if they don’t have a computer, if they don’t have email? And so these are questions that each HOA has to struggle with.
Our legal opinions are saying, “Hey, put it off, just wait.” There’s not a judge in the state of Washington, who’s going to say, ‘No, you should have had that meeting,’ right? And so it’s okay to put it off, but tell your homeowners, keep them in the loop. Make sure they understand why. Or if you want to give it a shot, here’s what that process looks like: Send everybody the Zoom meeting. Give people who don’t have the opportunity to join a Zoom meeting to then either participate over the phone or give them some other avenue of participation. If they have no ability to, it’s hard to stop a process for 100 people just because two people might not be able to join. So how do you balance that? It’s going to be interesting to see — if this goes into the third or fourth quarter of this year, it’s going to impact more associations.
People are already a month or two without meetings in some cases. And so they’re considering, “Okay, maybe we need to really look into what does a Zoom meeting for a board meeting look like?” Some of our associations have had pretty decent luck. I think five or six last month did remote meetings. And we’ve been able to actually even bring on a couple of new associations in the same manner, doing things over the phone and via email. So it’s really, we’ll see what happens in September. Hoping that this is a little bit behind us and there’s a better answer by then, but we could be in the same boat. There’s really no way to tell.
Justin: So you mentioned bringing on new clients in a time like this, I imagine that’s presented its own set of challenges. How has that process been in light of the crisis?
Juan: It hasn’t been too disruptive. So when people are looking to switch association management companies, a lot of it is electronic — it takes phone calls, emails, right? And then all that initial communication can happen remotely, can happen over the phone or email. The different part is maybe if they want to do a community walk, or if they want to come in for a meeting, we’re not doing those with people. So we did a couple of sales meetings via Zoom. We went to the associations and had them give us a punch list of things they wanted to look at and then we would go after that.
People understand. People get that it’s not going to be business as usual. You can still try to do business, but you have to find a way to get creative. So yeah, I was actually surprised that people were trying to make shifts right now on our rental side. I know a lot of homeowners were trying to make changes, but we had real low turnovers on the rental side. But yeah, we’re actually going to bring in a couple of new associations on the HOA side.
Justin: That’s awesome to hear. Well, in light of where we are right now, I think a lot of us are still in response mode and kind of taking it day to day. And I know it’s probably difficult to have that frame of mind when thinking about the future, but I’m curious to hear kind of what discussions have been happening within your company about how to best prepare for the future. What time horizons are you thinking on today?
Juan: Yeah, so we’ve been having those conversations of what the next six months looks like, what the rest of this year looks like. And so we were actually considering shifting our time in office to maybe three days in the office, two days at home. It just depends on what the restrictions on distancing look like over the next month or so. But yeah, we’ve been considering those kinds of changes where maybe it doesn’t have to be done the same way. If everything’s up in the air right now, why does it have to come back down in the same pattern, right? Let’s reorganize, right now is the perfect time to do that, to make some changes where we can see that there’s opportunity to make changes.
Justin: Awesome. Well Juan, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate all your responses and sharing your first hand perspective.
Juan: My pleasure.
Justin: It’s really great to hear that things are going well and that you guys have been able to have the appropriate response and stay in touch and keep growing your business. I think in light of everything, that’s all really great news. So thank you again for joining me today.
Juan: Definitely. We’ve been lucky over here.
Justin: Well, I’ll look forward to the next time that we can connect. Hopefully again, more good news and more good learnings to share. Thank you.
Juan: Thank you.