by Kathy Danforth / Published July 2014
No association is an island, even in Florida, and the need for expertise, cost efficiency, or expediency necessitates hiring independent contractors for ongoing or special project work. Thus, another web of relationships is entered, with all the communication that entails. “Every aspect of vendor management involves good communication,” states Dennis Masch, CAM with Greystone Management Company. “Whether the topic is development of specifications, identifying potential contractors, contracting, selection, project management, or dispute resolution—good communication is the key.”
Identifying reliable, prospective vendors is the first step, and CAMs within a management company are able to share their infor-mation. “We have developed a vendor list over the years with firms that have demonstrated their work and track record,” shares Lisa Christian, CAM with Don Asher and Associates, Inc. “What’s key for us is quality work and a timely response. Typically, we’ll only try out a new vendor at a board’s request, but we are approached at trade shows, and if we like what we read, we’ll check references.
We always check with the Better Business Bureau, and if there are projects on the website that are not in their presentation, we’ll check with them as well. I’ve gotten some poor references in the past, because the references they provide are probably going to be other HOAs, and if a board member was not happy, they’ll share that with us.”
In addition to vendors used in the past, Masch suggests checking vendors who are members of associations such as CAI (who are experienced with association work), vendors referred by the manufacturer or distributor of the products to be used, and vendors recommended by other contractors.
Another great association source is Florida Community Association Professionals (FCAP). Their CASP-designated members are vetted, experienced, and qualified service providers for association work.
In checking references, Masch advises asking multiple questions, such as the following:
“However, the contractor with the best recommendation is not necessarily the best choice for your project,” Masch notes. Christine Evans, Regional Vice President with Associa, reports, “To find good people, we pool our experiences on a regular basis. The executive team also tries to ascertain what the managers can do better to effect better results. If we’re surprised at a poor review, we’ll talk to the contractor to get their perspective. Most often, there’s another side to the story, and with so many moving parts in an association, there can be a lot of misunderstandings.” Particularly in the case of projects, Evans relates, “The more thorough a contract and specifications are, the more smoothly a project is likely to go. We see managers that don’t have specifications in depth, with no definitive dates or no recompense if the dates are not met. The specifications should include a technical list of items to be done, and also draw on the manager’s experience to avoid unnecessarily getting people riled up. What will the site look like at the end of the day after clean-up? What are the provisions for bathroom breaks and lunch breaks, and where will those be taken? You have to know your crowd; some may find a crew sitting around under the trees unacceptable, while others will be taking them lemonade.”
“The timing and promptness of a contractor is important for both routine maintenance and special projects,” Evans explains. “When does the board expect the work to start and be done? What is the protocol for weather delays, and does the contractor work on other waiting projects before embarking on yours? Some homeowners may object to crews starting early or working late, but the contractor may need to do that to stay on schedule. If those things are not stated, they can snowball and cause contention. Once these details are ironed out, they should be publicized to the membership so they have a general understanding of what to expect.” “The manager should think through how she would feel about someone working in her home, and if she doesn’t have that experience, then talk to someone who does. Associa maintenance is trained to use booties in homes and bring their own towel to dry their hands. Working around windows is often a big issue if people haven’t been notified. Usually, a contractor routinely addresses these types of things; you can tell from their response if they think you’re too picky. If they’re huffing and puffing, this isn’t their cup of tea,” Evans advises.
Christian observes, “Contracts are pretty standard, but the board will look at the rate, frequency of service, and termination clause. Most boards want the option to terminate with or without cause with 30–60 days written notice because they don’t want an ongoing argument or a legal issue. As the manager, it’s hard because I am often in the position of communicating the board’s concerns even if I think the vendor is doing a great job. It’s all in the art of communication—I will tell the board that this is a teachable moment, and some vendors will step up their game to keep a contract.”
Evans comments, “Experienced managers have a level of measurement about how many complaints are reasonable and also if they are justified—you have to look at the complaints themselves. Besides what happened, there’s also how reliable the contractor is to respond. It’s better if errors don’t occur, but some can’t be avoided. If the board is being unreasonable, you need to have that talk with them.” She also notes, “I prefer contracts to have some reason for cancellation; I don’t think it’s fair for people to lose jobs they are doing well just because the board changed or someone’s uncle started a business. If you have good reason for termination, there shouldn’t be much of a legal snarl.”
Communication through proper channels with both the vendor and with the community is essential throughout the project. Masch states, “The first contact with potential vendors should be from the individual, most likely the association manager, who will be dealing with every aspect of the work effort. It’s also important to know which people in the vendor’s organization you are dealing with and what their authority is. Nothing is more detrimental to project success than a vendor being given instructions by multiple parties. Similarly, a vendor’s representative who lacks decision-making authority can lead to serious issues when what the salesman promised is not what the vendor is willing to deliver.”
Christian comments, “Board involvement in vendor management varies; some are hands-on and want to meet on site, talk face-to-face, and share their expectations, though I may have done all that. Other boards engaged the CAM with the expectation that he will do all the communication. The job results are no different, but with the boards that are very hands-on, some vendors feel that they’re constantly monitored because they’re not doing a great job.”
Evans also observes a wide range of board involvement. “Many retired people like things to do, and some may feel it’s their duty to watch what workers are doing, review it, and let others know how it went. It’s great when they call the manager and say, ‘These guys are terrific!’ but it’s not ideal when they start finding fault and become the foreman. The manager has been hired to be the interface between the vendor and the board, and that’s who should do that job.”
The community needs to be informed of what will happen, when, and what the status is; and Evans says, “You can’t over-communicate as far as I’m concerned. If the manager says painting will start June 15 and then it rains, people are wondering if they’ll be painting during their family picnic. Keep telling them the broad schedule and keep letting them know where you are in the process. Communicate until they yell, ‘Stop telling us so much!’”
Associations should keep in mind that satisfaction works both ways, and Masch points out, “Homeowner and condominium associations have a long and well-deserved poor reputation within the trades industry. For the last few years in a flat economy, it has not been difficult to find vendors, but with better business opportunities, they are becoming more selective.” Masch notes that vendors, also, may request references and exchange in-formation on “difficult” customers with unreasonable demands or late payment. For improved vendor relations, Christian reports, “Our accounting department processes payments every week; that encourages contractors to respond quickly because they know they’ll get paid promptly.”
Evans concedes, “Associa-tion work isn’t for everyone. It does take an expanded level of customer service and customer awareness to be successful. Some contractors don’t want to work for an association because they’ve had a bad experience, while others have their own way of thinking and don’t want anyone interfering.” The manager serves as the pivotal point between the association and the vendor, and Evans states, “Good contractor relations come down to communication. Talk and be honest. It’s always a shame when something goes wrong, and the vendor is clueless as to what the expectation was. If that’s communicated very clearly at the beginning to both sides, you can avoid a lot of issues going forward.”