One of the most overlooked aspects of property management is maintenance. The maintenance team is on the front lines of the community, interacting with and satisfying residents, and saving money by extending the life of appliances and equipment. It’s a mistake to underestimate their value.
“The service team is the heartbeat of return on investment, and selection is paramount to success of the bottom line,” said Mark Cukro, founder and owner of Harrisburg, N.C.-based Serviceteam Training that has been providing certification training to multifamily technicians nationwide for 15 years.
According to Cukro, companies that rate highly for both customer service and performance almost always have a good service team and enough techs to care properly for the community.
The general rule in the multifamily industry for the number of technicians per property is one per 100 units, which Cukro says is the absolute bare minimum for mediocre to average service.
“For instance, if you have a 30-year-old property with 200 units and two maintenance techs, there’s no way your property can provide amazing service. But if you have 200 units and four technicians and the property is 40 years old, you are probably going to have really good service. Residents don’t mind living in old buildings. What they do mind is someone taking too long to respond to service requests,” he said.
The first step toward building a quality maintenance team is hiring the right people. The next is retaining them. But in today’s tight job market, it has become increasingly difficult to find qualified technicians. One reason is the shift in the education system that has pushed high school graduates toward a four-year college degree while nearly eliminating trades as an educational option.
According to Cukro, baby boomers seem to have the most proficient level of trade skills of the two largest generations, but as thousands retire every day, those trained in the trades are exiting the work force.
As millennials and the smaller Gen X cohort enter, they are less proficient in trade skills but bring to the workforce greater understanding about mobile and cloud-based systems and software. This has created a technical trade skills gap. For this reason, Cukro stresses that managers change the way they advertise for, hire, recruit and train service techs.
“Every tech I’ve met wants to work for a great company that respects and appreciates them and pays them fairly. That’s a reasonable expectation. They want to understand that they contribute to the team. Provide that environment and you will have a low turnover, wonderful company culture and technicians who will work for you as long as you want them to,” he said.
In recent years, the process of advertising for maintenance technicians hasn’t changed. Ads that hype the company and not what the company has to offer the employee are still the rule.
Cukro suggests highlighting what the company has to offer potential candidates rather than how many communities are in the portfolio.
Verbiage might include, “Do you want to work for a company where people take care of each other? We will help you build your career and excel in every area possible. We’ll invest in you as a human being and an employee. We offer a career path.”
“That’s a completely different advertisement than, ‘You’re fortunate to work for us.’ I think that’s an important shift in approach that needs to take place,” said Cukro.
Next, he said, pinpoint the skill and experience level of the candidate you seek. Identify those traits that will best enable them to engage with residents, and fit in with your team and company culture. Interview questions that focus on knowledge, skills, attitude, integrity, maturity and competence can help ascertain if the candidate is a fit.
“If you want good techs to stay, the pay scale has to be appropriate. Remember, if you call an electrician to replace a circuit breaker, it’s going to cost between $100 and $150, maybe more, so every time a service technician makes a repair, the community is saving a tremendous amount of money and the job is completed in a shorter amount of time, he said. “Be prepared to offer fair pay.”
Besides compensation that signals that maintenance team members are appreciated, a company culture that gives them a voice and empowers them to make important decisions is critical.
Training—how much is enough?
Once the team is assembled, a consistent training program is necessary. Most industries recommend one week a year of tech training, but multifamily typically provides less than half of that, said Cukro.
He says this needs to change and recommends a minimum of 40 hours, or one full work week per year of training for a tech position and twice that amount of training for tech supervisory roles.
Some managers and supervisors think that if techs receive training they can be lured away by the promise of more money. “What if you never train them and they stay? What will that cost you?’ The lack of training will cost you much more than the training itself,” Cukro said.
Cukro sees a direct correlation between great training programs and great retention.
“People don’t leave companies where they are respected and treated well, or they are trained them too much. They leave because they are mistreated,” he said.
As technicians move up in a company they need business acumen to handle administrative responsibilities and a level of social maturity to deal with people. Office managers should provide technicians with both technical and soft skills training and attend at least one training session themselves, so they understand what goes in to fixing things, said Cukro.
When managers understand why maintenance techs do things in a certain order, they gain a greater connection to the work and a deeper understanding of how service is delivered. If they only know how to read a report and a budget, they may not have needed insight and might try to micromanage the technician, he said.
“Interrupting the technician during a job wastes time causing stress and frustration. Every time you interrupt a tech it takes, on average, an extra 20 or 30 minutes out of the work day, so if you interrupt a technician three times a day, you’ve taken an hour from their productivity.”
“The less you interrupt techs in their tasks or the flow of their routine, the more productive they will be. Managers who micromanage have tremendous team turnover rates. I’m pretty sure the service tech doesn’t tell the office team how to market the property,” said Cukro.
The value of organization
A clean and organized shop is key to cost savings. Every property should have a shop that is so clean it could be part of a tour. The entire staff should be required to clean the shop once a week.
“Once everything is color-coded, put away and easy to find, then you can work on inventory control. Once that’s done, it’s easy to eliminate unnecessary expenses and increase efficiency,” said Cukro.
Some of the greatest unnecessary expenses result from a lack of understanding owners’ needs and expectations when it comes to repairs versus replacements.
“Appliances today are designed to last 12 years, plus or minus two. My rule is if an appliance is at 50 percent of its life and the part is 50 percent of the replacement cost, replace it. Below that in any category, repair it. Once a company rule is established and communicated, your field people have a basic compass of judgement,” said Cukro.
The right stuff
Never forget that field techs are the lifeblood of the multifamily community, said Cukro. “They’re knocking on doors, shaking hands, making problems go away, making people smile and building relationships. Don’t respond to them appropriately, or fail to get them the tools, resources and training they need, and they can’t do as good a job,” he said.
While hammer, pliers and wrenches don’t change much, some tools, especially those used for diagnostics, should be updated or replaced every several years, said Cukro.
Manual gauges and meters should be replaced with digital ones that communicate wirelessly to smartphones or through Bluetooth, enabling techs to upload data and troubleshoot systems.
And, if technicians are required to use their phones as part of their job, they should be provided a phone, because now their phone is a piece of equipment necessary to do their job.
Trade shows, seminars and workshops can help service managers stay up to date on the latest tools and technology, as can talking to industry experts and tradespeople outside of the industry and then bringing their specialty equipment into the multifamily industry.
If you listen to the people in the field and get them what they need, they stay and residents get what they need. When the residents get what they need, they stay and the company performs.
“When you own an apartment property, it should be your highest priority to make sure everyone looks forward to coming to work and to home where they live. If you believe you can do that, that’s when the magic of service happens,” said Cukro.
Mark Cukro is the founder and owner of ServiceTeam Training. Mark was also the keynote speaker at the 2020 RealPage Energy Summit. This article originally appeared in the Journal of Utility Management.