Negative Apartment Community Reviews: An Action Plan for Proactive Reputation Management

By Tami Siewruk

Nobody’s perfect.

That’s a fact, not an excuse; which is why it’s crucial for apartment communities to realize that the way they handle resident complaints is every bit as important as trying to provide great service in the first place.

Because Things Happen

Residents are constantly judging us for service failures, from a glitch on our website to a telephone call. They judge the apartment community first on how it handles the problem and then on its willingness to make certain similar problems don’t happen in the future; and residents are far less forgiving when it comes to the latter. The process of fixing breakdowns in service is so important that it’s been given a name—Service Recovery. Service Recovery has and enormous impact on resident satisfaction, renewals and ultimately the bottom line and value of our assets.

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Unfortunately, most apartment property management companies limit their focus on Service Recovery to the staff that deals directly with residents. All too often, companies leave it to the leasing team or the manager to sort out the immediate problem, offer an apology or some compensation and then assume all is well. This approach is particularly damaging because it does nothing to address the underlying concern—why the problem occurred in the first place—practically guaranteeing that similar failures, reviews and complaints will continue to occur.

What we should be doing is looking at Service Recovery as an integral component of our mission that involves three groups: our residents who want their complaints resolved; multi-site managers who are in charge of the process of addressing those concerns; and the on-site team who are responsible for dealing directly with the residents. All three groups have a key and integral role to work closely together in addressing and fixing service problems; and anytime people come together to address an issue that is probably causing one or more members of the group to experience inconvenience, discomfort and a need for a timely solution, you can expect tensions to naturally arise. For example, residents can be left feeling that their problem wasn’t addressed seriously, even if they’ve received some form of compensation. The on-site team can start seeing complaining residents as the enemy, even when the complaints are fully warranted and the resident is doing us the favor of spotlighting flaws that really need fixing.

Managers in charge of Service Recovery, meanwhile, can feel pressure to limit the flow of critical resident comments, even though acting on the information will ultimately improve efficiency and profit.

It’s important to understand what motivates a resident to openly share a critical opinion. Fairness and feeling a sense of justice are typically the biggest concern of residents who have lodged a service complaint. Because a service failure implies unfair treatment to the resident, the goal of Service Recovery is to re-establish the balance of justice from the resident’s perspective. Residents often want to know—within a reasonable amount of time—not only that their problem has been resolved, but how the failure occurred and what the community is doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

By paying attention to that need, it’s possible to restore a resident’s faith—once. You might have experienced something we call the “recovery paradox,” where residents can be more delighted by a skillful Service Recovery than they are by service that was failure-free to start with. But there is a flip side to this as well: Residents have more tolerance for poor service than for poor Service Recovery. If a resident experiences a second failure of the same service type, no amount of Service Recovery is going to fully restore their faith in you and your community. In all likelihood, that resident will be lost forever.

Our research suggests that after a failed Service Recovery, what most annoys—and even angers—residents is not that they weren’t satisfied, but that they believe their efforts to raise the alarm didn’t result in an appropriate change to the system, making the problem likely to occur again.

The Role of the Manager

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The chief aim of managers in Service Recovery is to help the community learn from service failures so it doesn’t repeat them. Learning from failures—and making the appropriate adjustments to your processes to prevent them from ever happening again—is more important than simply fixing problems for individual residents, because process improvements increase overall resident satisfaction and thus have a larger and more direct impact on the bottom line.

Unfortunately, companies generally obtain and study only a fraction of the service-failure data that could be gathered from residents, employees and managers. Even when managers agree that resident feedback is essential, there is often poor information flow between the division that collects and deals with resident problems and the rest of the organization. In some cases, one study revealed, the more negative feedback a resident-service department collects, the more isolated that department becomes, because it doesn’t want to be seen by the company at large as a source of friction. Some companies even use a specialty survey community that uncovers resident complaints and problems and then never feed this information back to the company as a whole. Others actually reward low complaint rates and then assume that a decline in the number of reports indicates resident satisfaction is improving. Some managers see conflicts between providing great resident satisfaction and achieving high productivity. For instance, incentive structures sometimes place equal values on leasing, renewals and on resident service. But as one manager noted: “If you want to achieve 100% [satisfaction], you don’t have time for leasing. It’s questionable whether you can score 100% on service quality and 100% on [leasing] objectives.”

 

The Role of the Employee

Frontline service employees have the greatest job satisfaction when they believe they can give residents what they expect. These service team members have the difficult task of dealing with residents who hold them responsible even when the failures in question are completely out of their control. The attitudes of the service team, positive and negative, spill over onto residents. And yet most companies do surprisingly little to support them in this aspect of their role.

 

What should companies be doing to support them? To be successful, these on-site team members need to feel that management is providing the means to deliver successful Service Recovery on a continuing basis. Alternatively, when employees believe management doesn’t support them, they tend to feel they are being unfairly treated and so treat residents unfairly in turn. They display passive, maladaptive behaviors and can even sabotage service. If that doesn’t sound dangerous to you, you’re not paying attention; so let’s tell it like it is—an unhappy on-site employee is like a bomb waiting to go off all over your bottom line.

The sense of alienation is compounded when an on-siter believes that management is not improving the service-delivery process (listening), which keeps employees in recurring failure situations (having to deal unnecessarily with unhappy residents over and over again). Even though complaining residents represent an opportunity to fix problems and improve satisfaction, alienated employees will naturally begin to see them as a persistent enemy. Eventually, employees who aren’t empowered to influence changes to a flawed process will simply turn a deaf ear to the problems it creates. The moral of the story? Listen to your on-site employees (On-site mangers I am talking to you and your supervisors here) and empower them to suggest meaningful change—then implement it everywhere it makes sense to. Their role includes being your eyes, ears and voice where the money is actually being made; so use those senses of theirs fully to your company’s and communities’ benefit. Without them, your opportunities for implementing meaningful and profitable process improvements are blind, deaf and dumb.

Resolving the Tensions

My experience in improving Service Recovery indicates that most hope for a quick fix of some specific tensions. But quick fixes only treat the symptoms of underlying problems. Real resolutions should involve closer integration, such as gathering more information from residents and sharing it throughout the company and adopting new structures and practices that make it easier to spot problems and fix them.

I suggest a five step strategy that ultimately creates a “service logic” to explain how every element of the process flows together. The result will be a kind of mission statement or summary of how and why the community provides its services. It should integrate the perspectives of all three groups:

  1. What is the resident trying to accomplish, and why?
  2. How is the service produced, and why?
  3. What are employees doing to provide the service, and why?

Your efforts should focus on delivering service and providing help with service recovery. It should include a detailed study of internal operations; map out how the community responds to resident complaints; and describe how the community uses that information to improve service-recovery processes. Similar mapping should detail every step of resident experiences, including those of residents with complaints, highlighting their thoughts, reactions and emotions along the way. Highly skilled managers and employees who can think outside the usual parameters are a must.

The Role of the Internet

It’s important to recognize the role that social media plays in Service Recovery today. It’s easier than ever for residents to share their sense of injustice with everyone in the world who cares to listen, by spending only a few minutes online.

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A negative online reputation can severely limit an apartment community’s ability to succeed today. With more and more people using the Internet to find their apartment, reviews by other residents are playing an increasingly larger role.

If your apartment community has received negative reviews, you need a solid action plan to work around them. Here’s my five-step process for addressing negative online complaints…

Step 1: Listen to the feedback

What are residents saying about you? Set up tracking tools to be aware of both praise and criticism.

For Google: Google Alerts (email or RSS updates of the latest Google search results).

For Blog posts: Technorati (the largest blog search engine).

For Twitter: Twitter Search (monitor real time feedback).

If you’re willing to spend a little money, tools such as Radian6 and Trackur allow you to monitor everything from one dashboard.

Knowing exactly what your residents are saying helps you take appropriate action.

It’s useful to note that not all reviews are created equal. As any apartment community manager will attest, negative reviews typically come in two forms.

Step 2: Respond to the reviews

When you see a negative review of your community, it can be tempting to fire back with a defensive response. But be careful – doing that can damage your reputation even further. Instead, follow this six step process and best practices for responding to negative reviews:

  1. Thank the reviewer for their feedback.
  2. Respond to any positive comments.
  3. Apologize for any legitimate negative experience.
  4. Explain the steps you’ll take to prevent that from happening again.
  5. Allow the residents to contact you offline if a follow-up discussion is needed.
  6. Speak directly to the reader. Example to a negative review: “To others who may be reading this review while seeking a new apartment home, please know that the worthy concerns of this resident have been or are being actively addressed in order to not only meet and exceed their expectations once again, but also create a better resident experience for all who choose our community as their home. We hope you’ll visit in person and give us the opportunity to show all that our community has to offer, and look forward to hearing from you at (000) 000-0000.”

 

Avoid:

  • Angry, abusive responses or any type of personal attack.
  • Questioning the reviewer’s legitimacy (yes, fake reviews do happen from time to time, but they can be very difficult to prove and it’s better to avoid this accusation).

 

  • Corporate babble with no substantial change – such as: “We are sorry to hear about your inconvenience and appreciate your comments here. We are happy that you have spoken up so that we may better our community…” If I had a poor experience at an apartment community, this type of management response would do absolutely nothing for me. I want specifics! Put yourself in the resident’s shoes and provide an answer that’s as specific as you’d want to receive.

Step 3: Fix what’s broken

There’s no getting around this. Fundamental flaws that repeatedly leave residents unsatisfied cannot be glossed over with a marketing campaign. That’s denial at best and borders on unethical.

Train or change your team … or maybe just get a plumber immediately on that leaky sink! Do whatever it takes with the resources you have.

Step 4: Tell people you’ve listened and fixed the problem

Now that the problem has been resolved, you need to go back to the audience and let them know you listened and acted on the resident’s suggestion or problem.

Tell the residents directly, in your replies on Google and other review websites.

Tell the story of how you did it. You can use videos posted to YouTube or interviews published on your apartment community blog or a well-composed written response.

Step 5: Start building your new positive reputation

Effective online reputation management is more than just playing defense – it’s all about proactively building a positive buzz. This is pretty straightforward stuff, but is an essential ingredient of the action plan.

Ask satisfied residents for reviews. Specifically, ask them to review your apartment community on sites where you’re struggling the most. If you’re not sure, start with the most popular: Google, Yelp and then ApartmentRatings.com.

Begin an aggressive content publishing effort. Content is the key to staying relevant in today’s Internet marketing. It’s also the best way to build a loyal fan base. Publishing a large amount of very useful content on multiple media channels is the only way to make sure your voice is heard. It takes a lot of work, but there’s no better way to build a positive web presence.

FAQs for Dealing with Negative Online Reviews

Can I remove negative reviews?

Yes and no. A few sites let you start over with a clean slate if there was a change in management and ownership, but not if you did a renovation.

Can I get in touch with a resident to resolve a problem?

Usually you can only use a website’s management response function to publish a reply. You may try leaving a service phone number to encourage an offline resolution.

I think a competitor is writing negative reviews.

I recommend you contact the review site directly and explain your reason for concern. I have been successful on Facebook and Yelp with this action.

Can I ask someone to remove their negative review?

Most sites do not allow this. You’ll need to follow the steps above to improve your reputation. BUT some do. I have been asked to remove my review by a company once my concern was taken care of … at the very least, it never hurts to ask. You can also ask the reviewer if they would be willing to publish an update as to how we handled the complaint and this can be done in most cases.

Keep in mind that people don’t expect 100% positive reviews. They understand people make mistakes so one bad review will not hurt you. Many of them, however, will. Constructive reviews are given more credence than rants.

In Summary

Take your resident service reputation seriously, as well as your strategy for making—and keeping it—strong and responsive to your residents’ wants and needs. Remember that great service is not a thing you can assume to create and leave on auto-pilot. It’s a living thing, requiring the continual attention of your entire team in a never-ending cycle of information and appropriate, process improvement, from your residents on up to your company’s leadership and back down again.

Never stop looking, listening and learning … using what you learn to make things better for the residents that you serve and who serve you in turn by assuring your community’s success!

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