Ronda Kaysen in Building Operations on October 10, 2013
Oct. 10, 2013 — The Churchill, a cond-op in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, is widely considered one of New York City's finest buildings. Yet, until recently, the 30 staff members who open the doors, greet residents, help with packages and fix the leaks were lacking 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 then did something novel in the world of residential real estate: It sent them to "school" for "customer care."
Hotel It on the Mountain
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.
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.
The Empath to Success
"It's ... 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."
And training has another benefit, in that it demonstrates that the condo or co-op board 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.
Some property managers are beginning to see the value of formal training. "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 that has been doing this for years. "It's not a confrontational thing at all. They really enjoy it."
As well, the management firm Rose Associates for the past year, has been 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.
Standarding Up for Yourself
"We're trying to make the people feel that they are in a high-end hotel," says Mitch Gelberg, the company's managing director. "It's a professional standard that we want to set, particularly in running an apartment building in New York City."
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, and they believe co-ops and condominiums can learn from the hotel industry.
Photography by Jennifer Wu
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