Olivia Pope, the main character on ABC’s Scandal, is a professional fixer. If you have a problem—any problem—she can fix it. Over the past two seasons plus, she’s rigged elections, covered up murders, employed professional hit men, exposed secrets, made and ruined countless lives, and played hard to get with the President of the United States. But the most amazing thing about Olivia Pope is that she’s always available. Walk into her office, she’s there. Call her cell, she’ll pick up. And when she answers, she can make even the biggest problems disappear.
In another life, Olivia Pope would be a terrific association manager—the best association manager who ever existed. After all, if she can rig presidential elections, she can handle complaints about noise and leaky pipes. But Olivia Pope is fictional in more ways than one. No one answers the phone every time it rings.
Whenever a problem arises in a community association or homeowners association—whether it’s a leak, a noisy neighbor, or some procedural question that has come up—it’s the impulse of many board members and residents to pick up the phone and immediately call their association manager. Most times, this is the right thing to do: the manager is first in line in an HOA’s administrative hierarchy. That said, there’s a right way and a wrong way to call your manager—and sometimes, it’s not appropriate to call at all. Enough calls at the worst possible time, or for the most trivial matters will only make you a total pest, and could even make your manager less enthused about helping you with future problems.
When to Call
Association managers and management companies work for condo associations and HOAs, which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so association management is not a nine-to-five job by a long shot. But that’s doesn’t mean its okay to call your association manager at 2 a.m. in the morning because of your neighbor’s yapping Jack Russell terrier. If it isn’t urgent, use a little discretion.
“You can call our office 24 hours a day, seven days a week because we developed our own customer care center,” says Dan Wurtzel, president of FirstService Residential in New York City. “How it works is that you call a managing agent, you get a voice prompt saying if you’d like one of our customer care representatives to assist you press #1. Then you get a live person. You ask your question and we have a record of that call. If it’s a simple question like ‘What do I have to do to hold a private party in an amenity space?’ that’s a simple request. The customer care representative will send out the proper forms and boom, it’s done. If it’s a more complicated request they will take down the information and call you back. We manage close to 600 properties and each of our buildings has anywhere between 400 and 600 questions that are building specific. Just about every question that’s asked can be answered immediately. Last year our customer care center handled over 100,000 calls.”
“I don’t know if there is a 'best' time to reach a managing agent,” says Nancy Hastings, CEO of MAMCO Property Management in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. “I don’t think there is a particular time—each individual manager may have their own work habits.”
“Anyone should have the ability to reach a busy managing agent at any time as long as there are established office hours,” adds Joseph Balzamo, president of Alliance Property Management in Morristown, New Jersey. “The first thing in the morning is usually the best for me and the reason is, if you have a problem we can look into facilitating whatever it is.”
Just as there are best times to call your association manager, there are worst times. “Five o’clock on a Friday afternoon with a non-emergency is not a good time,” says Hastings. “I would think we are no different than other business professionals. In the case that there is something we can work on during the course of the business day to prevent an emergency from happening, that needs to be addressed in that minute, therefore I would think something late on a Friday afternoon is something I’d like to get.”
“Any time after 3 p.m. is usually not a good time if you are dealing with utilities or municipals,” says Balzamo. “When you are dealing with a lot of trades, they usually work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. If I need a plumber or an electrician or someone like that and I call at 3 p.m., I’ll end up paying time-and-a-half. If it’s the weekend I could be paying double for a service. If you knew something on Thursday but you don’t call until Saturday because that’s when you are home, that’s not necessarily a good thing. I can get a plumber to you on a weekend, but there is a strong possibility that the plumber might not be able to get a part until Mondays.”
This changes if the situation is a bona fide emergency, or otherwise urgent. In those cases, association managers will make themselves available no matter what.
“Leaks, fire, flood or anything that could result in additional property damage is considered urgent,” says Hastings. “Those issues should be addressed right away.”
The majority of association managers believe any form of water intrusion is considered urgent so residents and board members should contact them immediately in that instance because it has the potential to cause a lot of damage.
Why to Call
Another point about Olivia Pope: every situation she deals with is a legitimate, dire emergency. If she doesn’t produce the documents in 24 hours, the story breaks and all hell breaks loose.
This is not the case with managers—although sometimes board members, HOAs, and residents can think that it is. The reality is, not every problem is a matter of life and death. If the heat stops working and it’s 13 degrees and it’s the middle of the night, that needs to be addressed right away, same thing with a gas leak. Almost anything else can be handled as soon as administratively possible. Indeed, much of an association manager’s job is prioritizing.
“Needing a copy of the association minutes from the last meeting is something that is not considered urgent,” says Hastings, “Or requests for paperwork that typically there should be some lead time on are not considered emergencies.”
Or adds Balzamo, “if your neighbor’s dog is barking or if someone is parked in your spot that is not considered urgent. This one I got yesterday—a guy didn’t pay his utility bill calls me at 9 p.m. at night and wants to know if I can come over and open the door for him. That’s not an emergency to me. If you don’t have electricity because you didn’t pay your bill that is simply not an urgent matter.”
Association managers note that in today’s society, everyone is used to instant responses—while managers would like to be able to do that, sometimes it’s just not possible, given their workload. If you’ve called or emailed your association manager the time in which you get a response often depends on the urgency of the situation, but you should get a response within 24 hours.
“Different managers and different companies have different policies,” says Hastings. “We like to see a 24-hour return call policy whether we have the answer or not. The majority of calls that come in are handled the same day.”
There are those impatient residents and board members who, if they don’t get a response to an email in an hour, send the email again. If three hours go by, they begin calling and demanding to speak to a manager—or the manager’s boss. Sometimes, an immediate response is not possible, or necessary.
“I like to think of myself as uniquely different from my competitors,” says Balzamo. “My properties can reach me directly at any time. What I do is I have established my number so when you call my office it will automatically route to me out in the field. Any one of my homeowners can get me immediately.”
One way that both boards and HOAs and managers can be proactive is to alert homeowners of projects in the building. If there’s banging and clattering at seven in the morning on a Wednesday, residents might call in droves to complain. If the manager sends around a notice explaining that maintenance workers are coming early Wednesday to repair the heating pipes that will eliminate all those extra calls.
The general consensus among association management professionals is that most companies should have an open door policy where comments and feedback are welcome, but equally important is insuring that everyone follows a protocol that is put into place.
“Every community is different and one size does not fit all,” says Hastings. “Representatives and CEOs of management companies need to have a clear understanding of what the expectation is in the communication category and that will avoid any confusion down the road. I don’t think there is one standard you can adopt.”
Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.