By Kathy Danforth / Published May 2016
With recovery from the recent recession, most property management companies are able to look up from the collections pile to the pent-up demand for progress. Kraig Carmickle, CEO of Evergreen Lifestyles Management, observes, “Since the market crash, residents expect more from their community and property managers.”
Michael Dale with Sentry Management states, “Recession always slows implementation, but in some cases, it speeds the search for more efficiency. Sentry’s effort to redevelop CommunityPro®, our community management software, started in the recession. The recession was a cause, because to survive, the company had to become more effective and efficient.”
Improvements are coming largely from the electronic tools that management companies can incorporate to improve operations. Justin Butler with Evergreen Lifestyles Management comments, “From virtual security guards, to ‘smart’ fitness centers, to robust, online lifestyle platforms, these communities are starting to look more like something Walt Disney would have dreamed up.”
Deborah Myers with Sentry Management explains, “Every manager now has a laptop that she takes to meetings. That makes it so much easier because financials and other information go directly to the server and are instantly available. The manager can look up an account, address, or phone number if needed.”
Dale states, “Our platform is a repository of everything that goes on operationally and administratively—work orders, violations, meeting notes, and financial documents. It is ubiquitous throughout the company, so everyone is operating from the same software. What’s neat is that it is real-time; I joke, but it’s a truism that if I look at finances long enough and hit ‘refresh,’ the numbers will change.”
Rebecca Furlow with Leland Management notes, “The real-time information saves managers time and is a benefit to the residents, since they can know their current account balance and updates on what is happening in the community. Since the banking system and software communicate immediately, there is no wait. It’s the difference between knowing what was done two days ago vs. now.”
Mobile tools and apps take the accessibility for managers up another level. Diane Braswell with Leland Management states, “One of our most important features is a robust mobile app to work on smartphones and tablets, because managers are spending a lot of time in the field. CAMs are all about working anywhere, anytime. If it’s 8:00 p.m. at Starbucks, we have to give the highest level of service. It’s not just our industry—connectivity has become very important. CAMs will use an app to take a picture and take care of a violation all at once, boards may use an app for architectural review board approval and reviewing applications, and residents may use it for banking.”
Dale relates, “Boards are volunteers, so they want to minimize the time it takes to perform their function. Placing a call to a CAM and waiting for an answer is one option, but accessing information online and having instantaneous information is another. We have taken a portion of our management software and partitioned off critical pieces known as the “Board Room” to provide to board members. They have the same access to most of the information that the manager uses.”
Communication with residents is also evolving. “For board members, nine times out of ten the biggest challenge with residents is communication,” according to Paul Queen with Sentry Management. “Many are perplexed at how to handle communicating; not all residents will provide an e-mail address or a phone number for texts or calls. It’s up to them whether to provide that, and then the contact information has to be updated administratively because about 20 percent of e-mail addresses turn over every year.”
“Overall, we have e-mail addresses for about 45 percent of our residents,” says Queen. “All of our communities have a portal where they can make payments and find information about the community, and about 25 percent of the communities also have public websites. Website use is a function of the community size, the attitude of the board, and the time and effort they decide to spend communicating. Communities that communicate effectively have boards with the mindset that they have to pump out new information by every means possible. And, homeowners living in communities with more communication are typically more satisfied.”
Queen says, “Some communities go one step further with a community app, so the board can then send instant communication if there is an event or a situation such as a downed tree or broken gate. Over the last two to three years, the use of smartphones and tablets has increased significantly.” With the ability to push messages directly to the growing number of mobile devices instead of relying on the resident to go to a website to see if there is a message, the effectiveness of board communication is increasing.
Facebook is a communication tool that Queen encourages boards to use. “It will happen with you or without you,” he cautions. “Any resident can set up a Facebook page for your community. I can’t tell you how many associations say, ‘We don’t want to deal with it,’ but the point is that it’s going to happen. If you’re serious about communicating, you should set up a sanctioned page where you can proactively manage it; then if people are abusive or off topic, you can take the posts down.”
“Communication tools are still very dependent on the community,” notes Furlow, “because each association is unique and has its own culture. Some are so active on the website that they are able to handle their communication there, but they may still use paper newsletters. Some associations use e-mail blasts and others use posters, but if there are staff on site, many people just drop in if they have a request. If there are any downsides to the new technological advances, it would be that some people who are not as Internet-savvy may feel left out or pushed if they still prefer paper. The times are changing, but you have to accommodate everyone.”
Any resistance to change is not strictly a function of age; Carmickle states, “The Baby Boomers are just as tech savvy as anyone, maybe more. Don’t forget, these are the people who created this technology in the first place.”
New technology is being incorporated into training of both managers and board members. Myers explains, “We have an institutionalized network of large flat screens in regional offices that we use primarily for training. We can have a board come into their local office and view us from our corporate location with GoToMeeting, a webinar product. It’s a very practical form of teleconferencing for training and meeting functions.”
New tools in security are providing more tracking ability to managers and greater ease of access to residents. “We are piloting a more enhanced point entry program with a card to enter sections and amenities,” says Braswell. “It will communicate with management software so that information is in a resident’s profile. For the manager, this is useful in pinpointing possibilities when we get a call on vandalism or underage children. Security cameras and tracking are both beneficial for security, covenant enforcement, and monitoring amenities.”
“There are some fairly simple but effective security programs,” Dale shares. “In my community, an app provides gate access by phone and enables us to list all the permanent guests and add vendors for a particular period. Previously we had to stop, phone, and leave a voicemail if they were busy. Depending on the level of features, now you can even lock doors remotely.”
Crystal Clark with Envera Systems states that they have added automatic license plate recognition to their Virtual Gate Guard security system, which includes a smartphone app for entry of guests. “On the first visit, the guest will be manually verified by an Envera Class D licensed guard. An authorized guest’s license plate number will be stored for faster, more efficient entry in the future (until that guest’s authorization expires). When the authorized guest returns to the community gate, their license plate will be automatically verified and allowed entry. This technology reduces overflow of vehicles during high traffic times and reduces lines, creating a better experience for both guests and residents.”
Technology will assist in other areas as communities investigate and weigh the costs and benefits. “One tool we’re working on is electronic voting,” says Myers. “Everyone wants it because it’s hard to get a quorum at board meetings. We are seeing if we can integrate it with our software or partner with a firm for implementation.”
“Electronic voting will take time to set up, but then it will be an efficient tool,” comments Furlow. “For one community, we go every year and count 1,200 ballots. Electronic voting would be advantageous for certain communities.”
In addition to changes in technology, as homeowner associations have become a major player, Furlow observes, “Now we have to focus on Florida legislative issues every year. We’ve been fairly successful as management companies in coming together and protecting homeowners we represent. Our homeowners have their own families and routines, and they aren’t looking at the bills being written in the legislature, so we have to protect our associations and company.”
Braswell is now seeing, “People want more out of their communities—their lifestyle is very important. The residents want to have fun and be in a community, not just have a place to live. The more they see that can happen, the more they want, and that can be a good thing.”
Managers will continue to balance new tools and efficiencies with new expectations and demands. Association management has not switched goals, but there will continue to be accelerations and turns en route, with electronic information systems currently leading the way in transforming how work is conducted.
Kraig Carmickle and Justin Butler are with Evergreen Lifestyles Management. For more information, visit www.Evergreen-LM.com.
Michael Dale, Deborah Myers, and Paul Queen are with Sentry Management. For more information, visit www.sentrymgt.com.
Rebecca Furlow and Diane Braswell are with Leland Management. For more information, visit www.LelandManagement.com.
Crystal Clark is with Envera Systems. For more information, visit www.enverasystems.com.