Open Lines Communication is the Key to a Successful Community

Open Lines

Nobody knows who said it, but it speaks volumes: "If we don't take care of our customers, someone else will." Think about it this way—we just passed the holiday season. When you were in the store doing your holiday shopping and no one was available to wait on you and get you what you need, what did you do?

Perhaps a store manager finally ran by telling you how busy they are, and promised they'd get to you soon, but they didn't. Eventually, if you're like many people, your patience wore out and you left to give your business to another store. If this scenario happened while you were in a restaurant, you might, once again, walk out and take your hunger elsewhere.

Laura Baddish, a Passaic County, New Jersey resident, knows that when she has a problem in her building she should contact the management company. When a particular repair and billing issue of hers was not resolved, she took her complaint to a higher authority—her board of directors. Unfortunately, she didn't get the response she had hoped for there either.

Nobody's Listening!

"My stack of papers on this is about two inches high," says Baddish. "The board was so unresponsive; the management company would print out computer-generated invoice after invoicewith no explanations. Additionally, they would hold checks forcing late charges to occur. I have since resorted to sending checks return receipt."

This is just one example of poor communication between an association board and its residents. Unfortunately, when the lines of communication break down at any point, problems and animosity are the almost unavoidable result.

This isn't any different when it comes to living in a condominium or co-op community. Unit owners and shareholders may eventually have to contact a trustee or a property manager to discuss or complain about an issue that is important to them. When residents feel that their concerns and grievances are falling on deaf ears, it's only a matter of time before a tight-lipped group of trustees finds itself ousted in favor of a chattier, more accessible governing body. In other words, just like when they were shopping, residents just want their voices to be heard.

The truth of the matter is that one of the major complaints building/ association residents and unit owners have about their trustees is lack of communication: calls not returned, letters not responded to, meetings unannounced to non-board residents. "There's no reason for silence," says Richard Williams, president of Paradigm Partners in Boston. "Give them an answer or let them know it's a good question and, if it's not an emergency, you'll have the answer for them soon."

Nan Andrews Amish, a communications consultant in San Francisco, says that there are reasons why the board may not communicate well.

"One of the issues with association boards is that they typically are not professional managers, nor are they required to be skilled in community relations or communications, or for that matter, finance or real estate to serve on the boards," says Amish. "Many board members get overwhelmed with communications from residents/ shareholders and they tend to not communicate. They often just make decisions and then issue dictates basedupon decisions, which often do not have any input from other residents."

Manage the Complaint

Of course, how the board responds may depend on the community's bylaws or governing regulations.

"The issue of how to handle day-to-day complaints depends on the nature of the complaint itself," says Eric D. Sherman, a real estate attorneyat the New York-based law firm of Pryor Cashman LLP. "The first step is ascertaining whose responsibility it is to address the complaint. The answer to that question most often is found in the relevant lease and bylaws."

Assuming it's the board's responsibility, Sherman says, it will almost always be the property manager who attends to the complaint.

How and when a board responds to a resident homeowner should be written out in a defined protocol of response that the unit owner should be familiar with. It should be noted whether the resident should be complaining to the board or to the manager, and whether it should be done by phone or in writing. Once this is defined, it sets the system up for good communication.

But how fast is fast enough—24 hours? A few days? A week? Very often, replying to communication from a resident is delayed on a board's part due to the time constraints placed upon board members by other associationbusiness, as well as their own personal and professional lives.

"It depends on what (the problem) is," says Williams. "If it's an emergency, you need to give it your immediate attention, but if somebody wants to ask you a question about, say, what the policy is on pets, that's not something you need to get back to right away, especially if you have a lot going on with the property. You can respond to them within 24 hours or even within a few days—it's not an urgent, life safety situation."

Alan Slawsby, of Alan Slawsby & Associates, Inc., in Wellesley, Massa-chusetts, adds that how fast you respond also depends on the temperament of the unit owner or shareholder.

"Get in touch with the unit owner or shareholder right away if they have a history of being extremely difficult or make unreasonable demands on issues that are not the responsibility of the board or manager," says Slawsby, who explains that residents can be demanding when they want answers.

"We can get 50 to 100 emails a day for any reason and some want us to respond within 20 minutes and that's at the high end of the response rate, but we do get back in touch with everyone within 24 hours," says Slawsby. "We also encourage unit owners and shareholders to contact us, not the trustees. If we can't handle it we'll go to the boards, but most of the time we'll handle whatever the problem is."

Good communication is an essential skill for any manager and there are many ways to communicate with the residents and shareholders. "What type of communication you use depends on what type of community you have," says Williams. "You might use a bulletin board to notify residents or shareholdersor put things in their mailboxes."

Newsletters, E-mails & Websites

Newsletters are documents that inform, announce, remind, advise, instruct, advertise and communicate and that are used to disseminate information to the community members. They should be short (perhaps two, four or six pages) and be interesting and engaging.

"Newsletters are always the best ways (for us) to communicate," says Williams. "It goes out on a regular basis—a monthly type of newsletter—andis a summary of what's going on. Depending on the size of the community, it can be handed out or you can send it by e-mail."

Slawsby says that his firm tries to avoid e-mail and website communication to keep residents updated.

"Our client base is four to 48 units and we have discouraged the use of websites, because some of the residents might not have a computer to log in, so we use individual memos and (sometimes) e-mail if they have e-mail, and an occasional newsletter. Some associations have a greater need for thesecommunication devices than others."

Access to Financials

However, although residents have the right to be kept informed, there are certain limitations as to what they should and shouldn't know.

"Under the [Massachusetts] condo law, residents can know a lot of info, but they can't have access to employee information, certain private contact information," says Slawsby. "There is a great deal of information they can have if they want it, but most of the time, they don't ask."

For example, residents are allowed to have access to financial information. "We don't disclose who owes money," says Williams. "In Massachusetts, unit owners are entitled to come in and review, but personnel information is completely off limits. But if someone wants some financial information, there's no need to hide it. If you give a feeling that there is something secretive, they will think you have something to hide. Instead, welcome them in and ask them when they want to set up an appointment for. Try to defuse the concerns right away."

The board doesn't have a legal responsibility to respond to a resident owner or shareholder. As to whether aboard member can be held personally liable, however, for a failure to act, legal experts say that the threshold issue is whether the person acting is acting in his or her official capacity as a board member.

Communication is Key

Good communication can head off potentially nightmarish problems. Boards should review—and update if necessary—any protocol that has already been established about responding to residential complaints.

If there is no protocol, develop a system informing unit owners or shareholders of the chain of command for whatever type of complaint or concern they have. Finally, if there has been no response, the board members should acknowledge their individual concerns and work quickly to rectify the situation or keep them updated on the status. But we'll repeat it again—good communication, between all parties—property managers, unit owners and trustee members alike—is the key to running a successful, solvent condominium.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer for New England Condominium magazine.

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