Service with a smile may seem like a dying art, but savvy office properties have found this to be the secret ingredient in many sweet deals. With successful companies retaining between 70 and 90 percent of their tenants, it’s hard to argue with their customer-centric strategies.Not surprisingly, building owners and property management organizations are living up to old-fashioned ideals of customer service – a practice resulting in happier employees and happier tenants. With vacancies at an unsettling rate, gaining a competitive advantage is not only important – it’s necessary.Act Fast!Tenants’ complaints and requests should be addressed as quickly as possible. Confusion and lack of response from property management professionals communicates to tenants that their needs are not important. Whether the job is as simple as changing a lamp or as complex as fixing a leaky roof, every request should garner prompt attention and action. Software programs can streamline the recording and dispatch of service requests, making it simple for tenants to log in and communicate needs. Brandywine Realty Trust, the largest office landlord in the Philadelphia area, has implemented a program called e-Tenants. With 100 percent of Brandywine’s tenants registered to use the program, processing service requests is standardized and simple. For tenants who are registered, fields pre-populate with information, easy pull-down menus help pinpoint the specific source of problems and concerns, and once the “submit” button has been pressed, the request is automatically forwarded to the company’s tenant service desk. “We have our maintenance mechanics carry Skytel pagers. They get an instant message with the e-mail[ed] tenant request. Each time there is a change in the status, the tenant is updated by e-mail. They know when we get it, they know when it’s dispatched, and they know when it’s closed,” explains Barbara Yamarick, senior vice president of tenant services and administration, Brandywine Realty Trust, Plymouth Meeting, PA. Expediting tenant requests with a sense of urgency matters. With software in place, you can measure the ability of maintenance and property management staff members to address requests in a timely manner – setting goals and benchmarks with which to improve upon and aspire. When working to secure new tenants, response time data can be useful marketing fodder. “It’s a great tool when you’re talking to a prospect or a renewal. You just pull up the history and you can show how fast we responded,” explains Yamarick. “Speed, accuracy, and the follow-up are important to us.”Communicate EffectivelyWhether your property management team is implementing a new landscaping plan or addressing a tenant service request, it’s important to communicate the initiatives being taken to improve the property. If a repair cannot be made immediately, explain to the tenant the reason for delayed action. Communication can divert feelings of frustration that result when it may appear maintenance and property management aren’t being responsive.Make sure that interactions with tenants are recorded. With individuals from leasing, maintenance, and property management all interacting with tenants, an effective log of conversations can make communication more productive and convey professionalism, efficiency, and organization. The Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp., the largest publicly traded office and industrial real estate company in the United States, has implemented a Complete Customer Satisfaction (CCS) program. As part of CCS procedures, effective internal communication is stressed. “Any time anyone in our company meets with a tenant, be it the CEO or a maintenance person at the company, they log in that they’ve met with them in our DREAM system so everyone knows what dialogue is going on,” explains Robert M. Chapman, senior executive vice president, Real Estate Operations, Duke Realty Corp., Duluth, GA. DREAM (Duke RElAtionship Management) is a proprietary software program developed by the company’s Information Technology department.To improve or enhance communication with tenants, consider implementing a Tenant Outreach program. This is just another aspect of Duke Realty’s CCS program, and involves scheduled meetings and walk-throughs of tenants’ spaces. Regular visits with tenants can help clearly define expectations and satisfaction levels. “A lot of people just wait for when the broker or the client calls and says, ‘I’m thinking about renewing my lease. Let’s start talking.’ They really haven’t had any contact during the lease period. I think they’re at a decided disadvantage,” says Chapman.Make Every Interaction PositiveAs simple as it sounds, employing pleasant people who understand the benefits of customer service is a big step in improving the owner-tenant relationship. According to authors Howard K. Lundeen, Laurence C. Harmon, and Kathleen M. McKenna-Harmon in The Tenant Retention Solution: A Revolutionary Approach to Commercial Real Estate Management, “Real estate managers know from their own backgrounds as consumers that customers decide whether to be patrons of a company – or to continue patronage – primarily on the basis of their contacts with its frontline employees.” Establishing a good rapport involves continuous interactions that are not only professional, but also pleasant.“We really hire nice people. We want customer service-oriented people,” says Yamarick. Brandywine’s quest to improve the tenant experience involves first finding quality people who are willing to provide service at a level above what’s required; and secondly, to acknowledge their performance. “We have instituted some programs to help reward our own employees and encourage that type of behavior,” Yamarick explains. The company’s Trust Builder Award recognizes employees who’ve demonstrated superior customer service. The benefit of employee recognition programs is two-fold: Employees are proud of their work, and tenants are satisfied with the management and maintenance of their leased space.Offer Benefits to Tenants’ EmployeesNot every office property in the city can offer solid benefits to tenants’ employees. Providing programs or an environment that can increase employee productivity and retention is a definite competitive advantage. Through a partnership with VIP Desk, Brandywine’s e-Tenants program provides a concierge service available to employees. “We market it as an employee retention tool. If you’re a tenant in a Brandywine building, all of your employees have access to e-Tenants and instead of your employees spending a lot of time during the day to do personal things, they can just ask e-Tenants to do that for them,” comments Yamarick. Tenants (and their employees) are looking for the right space at the right price. But with so much available office space for lease, providing an “adequate” environment isn’t going to wow prospective tenants. Those companies achieving higher-than-average tenant retention have mastered the art of customer service and continually strive to provide a unique experience for tenants and their employees. According to authors of The Tenant Retention Solution, “Good service organizations strive to meet their customers’ expectations; outstanding service companies endeavor to dazzle their customers in unforgettable ways. If they are successful, these firms achieve a marketing advantage that can be detected at the bottom line.”Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.