At Your Service: A Better Approach to Tenant Relations

by Jessica Bates — Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of BOMA MagazineThough some in commercial real estate might be tempted to dismiss tenant relations as “fluffy stuff,” according to Peter Merrett, head of Customer Experience at JLL Australia, that fluffy stuff is arguably the most important factor in successful property management today. In fact, a focus on tenant relations is what allowed many commercial buildings to weather the global economic downturn. Even as properties were forced to cut back on building upgrades, maintenance, amenities and even staff, prioritizing strong customer service skills and fostering relationships with tenants allowed property management teams to keep tenants happy and buildings full without increasing costs. Now, as the commercial real estate industry emerges from the Great Recession, these lessons are continuing to help building teams gain a competitive advantage within a strengthening marketplace.

Merrett believes so strongly in a customer service model of property management that he has eschewed using the term “tenant.” He notes, “I only ever refer to our occupants as customers or guests. It might seem trivial, but it’s all about creating a different mindset.” BOMA International’s latest global tenant survey revealed that the vast majority of respondents—80 percent—indicated that customer service was a high priority when making a lease decision. Simply improving the way in which you work with your tenants can drive up demand—and retention.

The industry is shifting away from a one-size-fits-all approach and, instead, is focusing on learning how to give tenants what they actually need to be successful in their businesses and satisfied with their space. And, a customer service-centered approach to tenant relations not only is a cost-effective way to improve tenant recruitment and retention; it also can help create a sense of community that extends to building staff, vendors and even owners. Indeed, the property professionals who have adopted a customer-centric attitude can seem positively evangelical in their enthusiasm.

The Personal Touch

The best way to meet a tenant’s needs is to anticipate them. “Really excellent customer service means thinking of what someone needs before they ask,” Merrett explains. “To be able to do that, you need to understand how they like to operate.” No two tenants are alike, and property professionals need to take the time to get to know each one to understand what they need from the building. For some tenants, a high level of service is simply having any technical or operational problems addressed immediately. Others might expect regular appreciation events or building socials. “Everyone wants something different, and we shouldn’t presume we already know,” Merrett says. “A law firm, a tech start-up and a nonprofit organization all are going to want different things. We need to make sure we’re providing what people actually need and not just going through the motions.” Tenants who do business internationally, for example, may need 24-hour access to their space and require off-hours HVAC service.

Robert Traeger, general manager for CBRE, says it’s important to get to know your building’s occupants as soon as possible, ideally before they even sign the lease.  “Property managers should be a part of the first showing of a space,” he advises. “You need to get a sense of who may be moving into your building and be ready for them before they get there. The broker may start the courtship, but the property manager enters into the marriage.” Traeger manages 333 South Seventh Street in downtown Minneapolis, a BOMA 360-designated building that won an international award in BOMA International’s The Outstanding Building of the Year® (TOBY®) program in 2010. The property boasts a wide variety of amenities, including a complimentary, fully staffed fitness center; a conference center; and half a block of green space. Traeger, however, considers the approach his staff takes with tenants to be the building’s greatest selling point. “Property management is all about relationships,” he says. “I want people to feel they are taken care of. For us, that’s not just responding to requests; that’s anticipating needs by always being aware of what’s going on around us.”

Getting to know tenants’ businesses and the people that comprise them also can allow the property manager to provide support that goes far beyond responding to maintenance requests. If a business in the building is struggling, it’s in everyone’s best interests to work with them to find out how to help. Mark Wilshire, senior property manager at Peloton Management, Inc., has made it his practice to check in with tenants and encourage them to be honest with him about what they need. Not every problem can be solved, but sometimes a small gesture can make a big difference. “I learned that the deli in one of my buildings was having trouble with the connection for their credit card system, which was having a major impact on their sales and affecting our other tenants,” he recalls. “For us, it was a simple fix. I tied them into our building’s Wi-Fi for a stronger connection, which cost us almost nothing but kept them up and running and even allowed them to expand their business.” Don’t assume tenants prefer an entirely hands-off approach; building a sincere relationship with them will allow them to feel comfortable sharing problems they are having.

“It may sound obvious, but when tenants are successful, the building is successful,” Wilshire says. “It may seem none of our business, but you want them to feel comfortable asking for help. Sometimes, there’s nothing we can do, but other times we can mean the difference between success and failure.”

Say “Yes”

Successful property managers certainly know how to cut costs and streamline operations, but sometimes going the extra mile for a tenant can engender good will that makes the extra expenditure worth it.

“We teach our people here to say ‘yes,’ ” says CBRE’s Traeger. “We meet every tenant request that we possibly can, even if that means figuring out a creative solution.” Traeger’s team has changed tires, replaced car batteries, placed food orders, helped carry luggage and escorted tenants to cars parked several blocks away, among other tasks. “We take care of our people, and they remember it.”

Part of this approach requires absorbing small costs. For example, when Traeger’s staff replaces a car battery, they don’t need prior approval from the manager for the expense and they don’t charge the tenant, which allows them to take care of the issue quickly without discussing costs. Property managers need to work within their budget to determine what they can afford, but letting small charges go can do a lot to foster loyalty and satisfaction. When tenants feel they are getting more than they expected, they are much more likely to accept other costs as fair and to feel they are being well taken care of.

There are, of course, limits to what a tenant can request. Peleton’s Wilshire also encourages his team to say “yes” whenever possible, but when they do have to say “no,” they should do so in a way that doesn’t dismiss the concern. “If it’s not in the owner’s best interest and it’s not in the lease, we have to say ‘no.’ But we should still do everything we can to make the tenant feel like the issue was addressed,”

Wilshire says. “If you can, come up with a different solution that benefits everyone. You have to be tough like leather, but not like steel.” He once had a tenant who was dissatisfied with the location of the smoking area and wanted it moved closer to the building, which was not an option due to laws prohibiting smoking near the building entrance. Instead of simply saying “no,” the building team was able to find another spot that worked for everyone.

Saying “yes” also can mean finding ways to add amenities without going over budget. If a building lacks convenient lunch options, for example, building managers can request that local food trucks make a stop nearby, often at no cost. It also is often possible to cut back on services or perks that tenants simply aren’t using, such as unpopular events. Regularly asking tenants for feedback on what’s working, whether through e-mail surveys or informal conversations, can help ensure that the property team’s efforts are being put to good use.

Making small, personalized gestures on a regular basis that show you appreciate your tenants also can go a long way. Wilshire and his team personally deliver sheet cakes to their tenants to celebrate move-in anniversaries, which is a good opportunity to show appreciation to the entire staff. If the organization places a high priority on tenant wellness, a cake can be replaced or augmented with fresh fruit. And, it doesn’t need to stop at building milestones; when a tenant celebrates a big achievement, building staff can stop by to congratulate them—with or without a cake.

Everyone Is a Customer

Perhaps the most critical component of a successful customer service approach to property management is that it extends to all of the building’s stakeholders. Buildings that do tenant relations well focus on creating a team that feels empowered, connected and respected.

JLL’s Merrett believes the first priority in nurturing the service culture of a property is to institute a brief daily staff meeting. Though this has long been a common practice in high-end hotels, more and more property teams are finding it a useful way to touch base quickly on the day ahead, get to know teammates and foster a stronger company culture. “If you asked 100 property managers how they start their day, I bet 99 would say they get caught up in their inbox,” notes Merrett. “Most people probably would say they don’t have time for another meeting in their day. But a quick 15 minutes spent bringing everyone together often eliminates the need for so many e-mails. And, it’s such an uplifting way to begin your morning.”

During the informal meeting, attendees can review any events happening that day, as well as the list of visitors scheduled to arrive. Team members have a few minutes to share critical information with each other—current maintenance projects, tenant requests, even street closures in the area—that they might not have time to share otherwise. The key to this is including everyone working in the building, including vendors and contract workers.

In fact, creating a stronger relationship between permanent staff and vendors and contract workers is critical. Security, maintenance and cleaning staff also are the face of a property to many of its occupants and can make a huge difference in what type of customer service is provided in the building. “I want everyone in a building to feel like they are a part of that building,” Merrett says. “Whether a guest is speaking with a property manager, the person at the front desk or the parking garage attendant, I want them to see shared pride and identity across every member of the team.” Simply including these employees in daily staff meetings and communications will help them feel better connected immediately. So, too, can moving their desks into the main property management office, which can have the added bonus of increasing the building team’s overall responsiveness to its tenants. At the end of the day, property managers also should ensure that everyone on the team is treated with the same respect and understanding shown to building tenants.

Peloton’s Wilshire recalls a time when he took over a building from another management company and realized that the day staff were using empty closets to eat lunch. He had an old storage room cleaned and outfitted as their break room, and the results were immediate. “A security officer told me she’d been there 15 years and no one had ever cared where she ate lunch,” he shares. “It made a huge difference.”

In fact, everyone who walks into a building should be shown a high level of hospitality and service. Rebecca Buchanan, general manager of Management Services at Vornado/Charles E. Smith, manages two office buildings in Waterfront Station, a mixed-use development in Washington, D.C. 1100 4th Street at Waterfront Station I and 1101 4th Street at Waterfront Station II are both owned by USAA Real Estate Company, which leases space to government agencies serving the District of Columbia, including the local tax and revenue office. The offices see a huge amount of foot traffic during the day as local residents stop by to file a permit request or pay a tax bill. “Our clients are not just the people who work here, but every single person in the District who comes here,” Buchanan says. “We want them to feel taken care of. In a way, we’re an extension of the government, and our services are a reflection upon them.” Rather than explaining that they are simply building staff, the team takes care of as many questions as they can before visitors reach tenants. Though they make sure to direct guests to their destination and not to overstep their purview, the property team doesn’t mind spending time with visitors who arrive frustrated or upset. “In the grand scheme of things, what keeps people happy is not how many times you host building socials with popcorn or ice cream,” Buchanan explains. “It is how you improve their quality of life every day by easing their workload and helping them get their jobs done. When they succeed, we succeed.”

And, that approach doesn’t stop with the people in the building. This customer service approach also should be extended to building ownership, as they are a crucial part of the team. Beyond fulfilling fiduciary responsibilities to the owner, a property management team also should go the extra mile to keep ownership apprised of events in the building and the hard work that building staff members are doing to care for their asset. Traeger credits much of his success to the encouragement and involvement of his building’s asset management and ownership. “They have been willing to take our recommendations and make the investments needed to enhance the building, which has led to greater tenant recruitment and retention,” he says. “There’s a lot of trust there,” and this trust leads to stronger relationships within the building team that can positively benefit all stakeholders.

Keep Learning

Traeger’s building is part of CBRE’s Premier Properties, a specialized program designed to enhance the customer service experience for tenants and their guests. One of the biggest assets of the program is that it allows property managers to hold regular conference calls with other program participants to share experiences and best practices. “We have the benefit of learning from some of the best building teams in the world,” Traeger says. “We hear ideas from people working in London, for example, that we simply would have never thought of here in Minnesota.” For those who lack the benefit of a similar program, reaching out to others through their BOMA local association network can be a critical way of getting outside advice and fresh ideas. Building teams who are willing to try out new ideas and continue to refine their tenant relations strategy will reap the greatest rewards.

When property professionals take the time to understand the various building stakeholders, they end up creating strong relationships that can weather maintenance issues, budget reductions and even an economic downturn. Merrett emphasizes that this is actually the most basic approach to property management. “With the boilers and chillers and the air-conditioning units, we sometimes can forget that we’re a people business, too,” he says. “We can’t just hold each other at arm’s length and expect to work together well. Let’s engage each other.”

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.