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Finishing School

The Churchill, a cond-op in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, is widely considered one of the finest buildings in Manhattan. Yet, until recently, the 30 staff members who open the doors, greet residents, help with packages, and fix the leaks were lacking a bit of the polish of the building’s exquisite lobby.

“We have an excellent staff, but they needed to hear and see the basics,” says Ronald Kaslow, president of the board. “We saw that even some of our better people [could use some advice].”

The board decided to do something novel in the world of residential real estate: it sent them to “school” for “customer care.” The concept of such training is nothing new in the hospitality industry (which, as its name implies, aims for impeccable manners). But when it comes to residential buildings in New York City, in-house managers generally handle the training of staff, offering on-the-job pointers that teach employees the mechanics of their jobs but not necessarily the details of proper etiquette. Few boards provide formal customer service training for staff, although one of their main duties is to serve the needs of the residents.

As New York City condos and co-ops increasingly resemble five-star hotels in the amenities they offer – such as concierges, spas, and luxury services – some boards have begun to wonder if the staff could learn a few lessons from the hotel business.

So, a few months ago, the Churchill board hired a customer service consultant to help the staff pick up some hotel-style glitz – from what constitutes proper attire to how to handle an irate resident. The three-hour course included topics such as the “10 Deadly Sins of Customer Care” and the “Four Biggest Gripes of Shareholders.”

“You go to a fine hotel and expect great service, but [the staff has] never been trained [in hotel-style etiquette]before,” says Les Newlands, owner of Newlands Sales Consulting, which led the Churchill training session.

Training in Earnest

Many of the city’s doormen and concierges began their careers as handymen in the building and were promoted through the ranks. As they move into more public roles, they learn on the go from their on-site manager and co-workers, who also may have little or no formal training in customer service. But client care is a skill that can be learned – universities offer courses in the subject and degrees in hospitality. A person may not know how to gracefully handle a phone ringing at the same time that a resident is complaining about a leaky faucet, but he can learn.

“It’s very essential that it’s spelled out for you,” says Judy Alvarez, an actress and a concierge at a New York City hotel. “Empathy at all times is a way of thinking. It’s not easy all the time, but you really have to develop that skill and put it in your arsenal.”

But getting staff to accept that their manners might need fine-tuning is not always easy. When the board of the Churchill presented its plan to staff, about half were skeptical about taking the course. However, once the half-day session was over, the overwhelming majority were happy with the results, says Kaslow. Newlands charges about $2,000 for a half-day course to train up to 12 employees. At the Churchill, he conducted two courses to train all 30 staff members.

As for Kaslow, the investment was well worth the effort. The training clarified who was supposed to do what when and provided straightforward guidance on how to interact with shareholders in various situations.

Says Kaslow: “If you look at how some members on the staff conducted themselves before and how they conduct themselves now, it’s a subtle change, but it’s dramatic.”

To make sure the lessons have been learned, Newlands sends in a “mystery shopper” to observe employees’ interactions without their knowing.

Getting Value

Training has another benefit: a building thereby demonstrates that it is invested in its staff. The workers, in turn, are better equipped to meet the expectations of residents and to build a long-term relationship with the building.

“By giving them the skills, I’m also making their jobs easier,” says Jeffrey Cohen, a general manager at FirstService Residential, a property management company. “It’s not a confrontational thing at all. They really enjoy it.”

Some property managers are beginning to see the value of formal training. FirstService Residential has been doing this for years. For the past year, Rose Associates has begun offering its buildings the option to train staff in customer service. It uses an outside vendor for the training sessions, and the building pays the trainer directly. So far, a handful of buildings under its management have taken advantage of this offer.

“We’re trying to make the people feel that they are in a high-end hotel,” says Mitch Gelberg, managing director of Rose Associates. “It’s a professional standard that we want to set, particularly in running an apartment building in New York City.”

Union Lessons

The property service workers’ union, 32BJ SEIU, also offers an on-site customer service training program for its members. So far, more than 1,600 of them have taken the free course.

“Doormen, concierges, and porters are working in people’s homes and have to walk a line between being friendly and responsive while maintaining a professional distance and safeguarding tenant privacy,” Teresa Candori, a spokesperson for the union, says in an e-mail. “These classes help workers navigate the gray areas and learn how best to respond in both emergency and everyday situations.”

Jeffrey Cohen began working at FirstService six years ago (when the company was called Cooper Square Realty) after a career at the Marriott hotel chain, where good customer service is a core focus. At FirstService, he began to apply the knowledge he acquired there to the residential side of things. Now, the company trains the staff of every new building it acquires. Throughout the year, Cohen holds refresher courses as well.

“If you want the building to run smoothly, if you want to maintain a long-term client, one of the easiest ways you can do that is by providing the tenants with great service, and that starts with the staff of the building,” he says. “People want to be taken care of and when they’re happy, it’s easier to take care of the big-ticket items.”

Not everyone thinks formal training in customer service is necessary. In fact, the majority of buildings don’t bother with it. Most residents are generally happy with the service they receive. “More often the experienced building manager trains the new staff,” says Donald H. Levy, a vice president at Brown Harris Stevens, a real estate firm. “Generally, it works.”

But for the proponents of formal training, good customer service is the backbone of a building employee’s job. They believe co-ops and condos can learn from the hotel industry.

For instance, New York Guest, which staffs the concierges for many of the city’s top hotels, provides a rigorous three-month training program. It begins with new hires “shadowing” current employees to learn about the position and make sure they even want it. A seven- to ten-day training program follows, in which they learn how to respond to various situations. Then, the new hires visit the neighborhood where they will be working, to learn about every grocery store, deli, hair salon, dry cleaner, or other service available. Finally, the concierge-to-be is paired with a mentor – an experienced concierge. This results in a staff that is well-trained and consistent.

“I look at that person on the desk as the face of the building,” says Richard J. Williams, chief executive of New York Guest. “I look at that person as the one who sets the tone. He’s the first person you see in the morning and the last person you see at night.

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