by Julie Adamen

The other day Dan asked me “What’s changed since you started managing (in 1987 – when it was Hip to be Square), and do you think the client experience is any better now than it was then?” He does this for a couple of reasons; one is out of curiosity, the other to get me thinking about an article for the NewsLine. The funny thing is, I really had to think about it. I know what’s changed: Technology. But is the client experience any better?

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the centerpieces of workplace technology were pagers, fax machines and electric typewriters. The majority of community management-related communication took the form of phone calls to your office and actual snail-mail letters. If you wanted to get hold of a vendor, you paged him and he had to stop at a pay phone to call you back. We typed up the minutes on typewriters (yes, we took minutes), copied Board packets and hand-delivered them to Board members. Service orders were paper and in triplicate. By contract, we had 30 days to respond to owners (not tenants – we only dealt with owners, also by contract) on non-emergency items when they wrote us a letter.

Back then even big companies were small by today’s standards. I worked for what was at the time was one of the largest management companies in Southern California, and I think we only had about 300 employees and 3 satellite offices. Most companies were Mom ‘n’ Pop operations, with 15 – 50 accounts. Today, it all seems very quaint and very slow and the aforementioned technology has greatly changed how we do things in the business. Yes, we still have an office phone, but we carry one in our back pocket that ensures we can connect in an instant, as well as order groceries and calculate the square root of pi. There are various business phone solutions available in today’s world and if you want a phone solution like us, you might want to check out Eatel Business offers an amazing option as they offer similar phone features. Board packets are for the most part all electronic, either available on a website or emailed to the members and service orders are part of whatever software platform the company chooses. Apps allow violations to be photographed and transmitted to our office in real time. You now have 30 minutes – or seconds – to respond email. And what the hell is a phone booth?! What is clever is some offices have something similar to this office phone booth, so, if you’re in an open-plan office, you could have a private conversation with anyone eavesdropping on an important call.

But you know all this. Technology has made things faster and more easily trackable but is the client experience really any better? For that matter, is our experience any better? With limited exceptions, I have to say… No to both questions. Why? Because technology doesn’t change the human fundamentals of this industry, it only changes how messages and information are delivered.

The manager experience

In general we know that at any one time, 70% (+ / -) of our clients, be they residents or Board members, are satisfied with their HOAs and by extension, with management. 20% are marginally satisfied, 7% unsatisfied and 3% are very, very unhappy. My experience, as well as homeowner satisfaction surveys, says… Those numbers haven’t really changed. What has changed is how that unhappy 10% communicates their unhappiness: Much faster and much nastier. Faster due to email, nastier because social media has given folks the ability to broadcast every little thought they have – smart, dumb, nuts, nasty or psycho – immediately and virtually without repercussion (especially if they can remain anonymous). This “communication in a vacuum” (all “send” and no “receive”) without thought or care to its effect on the human being(s) on the other end is now part and parcel of our society. For anyone in a service industry, this isn’t for the better. This is not to say that back “in the day” we didn’t get ugly communications, it’s the level and regularity of ugliness that’s changed. Is the average manager’s experience better today than in 1990? Well, it’s different. But not better.

The client experience

From a technological standpoint, the case can be made that the client experience is better. Board members can view financial statements online, see what checks have been written, communicate to the membership more easily, etc., but these advances mirror of the rest of the service industry consumer experience. As far as our Board members are concerned (unless they were a Board member 20 years ago) it’s just another day, as they have no historical point of reference. So is the client experience better for the technology (whether they know it or not)? Yes. But the real client experience comes from the quality of the management companies and the managers themselves. Is that experience any better today than in previous years? Let’s talk about how, and if, it’s changed.

In the past 15 years management company consolidation has moved at light-speed. Company owners that had decided they were done with night meetings, the 24/7 lifestyle and would really like to improve their golf game found the timing right to make their exit. This created tremendous opportunity for a few intrepid entrepreneurs: Buy those companies, increase market share, aggregate services, change deliverables, increase profit and theoretically decrease costs to communities. I’m a good capitalist and I wholly applaud this innovation; however, my observation is (based on conversations with literally thousands of you) the one factor that should have been on the list (noted above) was enhance the client experience. And you can’t truly enhance their experience if there is not enough emphasis placed on the employee experience, which sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. How? Blueboard puts an emphasis on how HR can play an integral part in improving the employee experience of a company.

As smaller companies fold in to larger ones, then fold in to even larger ones, the client and the employee experience can become abstract to executives as they become detached from the line staff. This detachment can adversely affect far-flung satellite offices as day-to-day management realities become academic to the corporate office, some of whom may never have attended a Board meeting. And of course, the challenge of managing hundreds of staff either through others or by remote is no small undertaking, adding to the complication of the process. Is the client experience better by consolidation? Some ways yes, others, no.

There are good companies out there – small, mid-sized, big and HUGE – providing great client experiences. Smallerand mid-sized organizations can still keep that personal touch between executive and staff. Larger companies – especially those that still manage accounts out of their corporate offices – have a tendency to have executives less detached from line staff as they still share work space (and pain). This points, again, to the personal and human aspect of successfully managing and caring for employees. As I always say, the valued employee values the client. So are these good companies better than good companies back then? No, because good staff management transcends time.

The wrap

Is the overall client experience better today than in the 90’s? I don’t think so, because technology can’t change the human fundamentals of this industry, it’s only changed how messages, data and information are calculated, tracked and delivered. Just like back in the day, it all depends on the quality of the management company, the type of staff they attract and retain to manage accounts and how that staff is valued in the long-term. The client experience is directly attached to the manager experience, and no amount of technology can overtake this human component.

Before I drop the mic… May I address the elephant in the room and ask all of you: Is it really possible to make the client experience better? Let me know your thoughts.

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