Few things are more important for a building than having a competent managing agent willing to work closely with board members to make their home a safe, harmonious place to live. A big part of any good managing agent’s job is to be "on call" when emergencies arise, and to address board members’ concerns about their building. When board members show disrespect for their managing agent’s time and professional expertise, however–by calling them at home with problems that could be addressed the next business day, or constantly bothering them with minor concerns–they strain the relationship with their agent and hobble the agent’s ability to get things done. While it is crucial that board members feel free to talk to their managing agents to voice their questions and concerns, it’s also important for them to understand both the point at which constant phone calls become counterproductive, and the ways in which they can cultivate a positive relationship with their building manager.
To Call, or Not to Call?
Like everybody else, managing agents value their time at home with their families. Obvious as it sounds, it is important board members show respect for that by only calling their agents at home only when it is absolutely necessary. "I hope that in the natural course of business people would know enough not to call someone on a Saturday morning unless there’s an emergency," says Gerard Picaso, president of property management firm Gerard Picaso Inc., in Manhattan.
Steven Pinchasick, president of Carlton Management in Holliswood, New York, says that board members should call their managing agents at home only in the case of "fires, leaks, no heat, no hot water, or any situation where danger might arise–such as if two employees get into a fistfight, or if there’s any problem with essential employee services." However, he adds, "it is inappropriate to call at night with a bookkeeping question–or anything else that could wait until the next business day."
Although board members should always notify their agent of a serious emergency, they should remember that the building superintendent is the first person to contact with day-to-day building repair issues. If the superintendent is unavailable, or unable to help with something that needs immediate attention, it is acceptable to contact the building manager.
When a real emergency arises, agents expect to be called and are willing to give whatever assistance is necessary. "I get calls all the time at ten at night, and I don’t mind," says Pinchasick.
Other management companies stave off the late-night call problem by establishing lines for that very purpose. Leslie Kaminoff, chief executive officer of AKAM Associates, Inc., a property management firm in Manhattan, says his company has established a 24-hour emergency phone line that residents can call for prompt assistance in the event of an emergency.
Excessive daytime phone calling can also be irksome to managing agents because it hinders their ability to get things done. While board members should feel comfortable calling their managing agents about their concerns, they may want to reevaluate their behavior if they find themselves calling multiple times a day on a regular basis.
Picaso warns that board members who call their agents too frequently risk becoming the proverbial "boy who cried wolf." When board members constantly call their agents, their messages may start to be taken with a grain of salt; board members who call their agents with discretion will have their messages taken seriously and may get a more prompt response when something serious comes up.
Picaso says that phone calls can also become damaging when board members call often "to ask for personal favors," or when they don’t give him enough time to perform a task before calling to ask about its progress. According to Picaso, this often happens with people who are at home most of the day. "They start to bug their agent about everything that goes on in the building," he says.
Kaminoff also feels that board members need to have a clear understanding of the amount of time it will take to complete a given task. "Repetitive phone calls are unproductive and can cause frustration on both ends. To avoid such a situation, AKAM policy provides that the manager give board members a time frame in which he or she feels a request will be completed or a problem solved."
While most agents feel that it is inappropriate for them to set guidelines as to when and what types of phone calls board members are permitted to make, board members can always talk to their agents about this issue if they’re unclear as to when it is OK for them to call, and at what point calling becomes a nuisance.
Boards Behaving Badly
Although Pinchasick says that "any question is usually a good one," and that his company’s client base usually doesn’t take advantage, he believes board members "need to ask intelligent questions, to think about what they are asking before they ask. We give clients a lot of information to process, and if it’s difficult to understand, they should ask for help. But they should not ask questions like, ‘Hey, where’s all the money going?’ When we’ve already given them that information."
Most managing agents are more than willing to help board members understand their buildings’ financial situations, but they may chafe if board members bring up these issues in a confrontational manner. "Remember," Picaso says, "we’re all on the same side, doing the same job. There’s that saying, ‘Don’t kill the messenger’: it’s not our fault if maintenance costs need to go up; when that happens we’re not happy about it either."
Poor etiquette at board meetings can also strain a board’s relationship with its agent. It is important that meetings be conducted in a business-like manner, for the benefit of everyone involved. According to Picaso, "All too often, someone is late for a meeting, and when they come in, the meeting stops–and we spend the next 20 minutes explaining what just happened. Then we start the same discussion over again, and almost always end up with the same results. It’s a waste of everybody’s time."
Board members should think of board meetings as professional obligations and make every effort to be on time. Of course, outside circumstances sometimes make it impossible for people to be punctual, but when this happens, agents recommend that latecomers wait until the meeting is over before they ask someone for a briefing on what they missed.
Maintaining Good Relationships
By simply showing their agent professional respect, board members take a huge step towards forging a strong relationship with their managing agent. This in turn contributes to the efficiency of the building and makes everyone’s job easier–and more enjoyable.
When agents feel that a board member is being intrusive, they may let that individual know that their behavior is inappropriate in an off-the-record meeting, or they may use the board president as an intermediary.
Picaso says he tries to maintain good relationships with board members by talking to them before a board meeting when he senses that they are unhappy about something. "Sometimes they’re not aware of a problem, maybe they’ve just been having a bad day."
Likewise, board members should feel free to ask their agent if anything is wrong when they sense some tension in the relationship. By showing their concern, as well as an openness to work things out, board members can go a long way towards working out any problems that exist–or they may even find that the perceived problem is not as big as they thought it was.
Acording to Kaminoff, putting verbal agreements in writing can often help managing agents avoid conflicts and misunderstandings. "Within 24 hours after a board meeting, the manager is required to submit to the board and to our executives, an itemized list of problems, requests, and tasks; a ‘to do’ list," says Kaminoff. "This way, the desires of the board are on record and registered with the board, the manager and the AKAM office...this policy promotes a healthy, communicative, working relationship between the managing agent and board members."
Running a building is complicated business for everyone involved, and although board members and managers want the same things for their buildings, conflicts and misunderstandings will occasionally arise. But when boards and managers make an effort to maintain relationships that are based upon a foundation of mutual respect and honesty, they can overcome everyday conflicts. Board members need to remember that good managing agents always have the building’s best interests at heart, and that their agent works hard to make their building a pleasant place to live. Managing agents are professionals who in most cases are capable of doing their jobs without constant interferences. As Picaso says, "Ideally, a managing agent and a board have healthy professional respect for each other; they’re almost friends, business friends, but the relationships have some personal aspects as well."
Ms. Baker is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.