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Training NY residential building staff in the fine art of customer service

This article was written by Guest Contributor Carol Ott, HabitatMagazine.com

As New York City condos and co-ops increasingly resemble five-star hotels in the amenities they offer - such as concierges, spas, and luxury services - some boards have begun to wonder if the staff could learn a few lessons from the hospitality industry.

So recently, the board of The Churchill, a cond-op in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, sent employees to "school" for lessons on "customer care." It hired a customer service consultant to help the staff pick up some hotel-style glitz - from what constitutes proper attire to how to handle an irate resident. The three-hour course included topics such as the "10 Deadly Sins of Customer Care" and the "Four Biggest Gripes of Shareholders." Les Newlands, owner of Newlands Sales Consulting, led the training session.

Training in Earnest Many of the city's doormen and concierges began their careers as handymen in the building and were promoted through the ranks. As they move into more public roles, they learn on the go from their on-site manager and co-workers, who also may have little or no formal training in customer service. But client care is a skill that can be learned - universities offer courses in the subject and degrees in hospitality. A person may not know how to gracefully handle a phone ringing at the same time that a resident is complaining about a leaky faucet, but he can learn.

"It's very essential that it's spelled out for you," says Judy Alvarez, an actress and a concierge at a New York City hotel. "Empathy at all times is a way of thinking. It's not easy all the time, but you really have to develop that skill and put it in your arsenal."

But getting staff to accept that their manners might need fine-tuning is not always easy. When the board of The Churchill presented its plan to staff, about half were skeptical about taking the course. However, once the half-day session was over, the overwhelming majority were happy with the results, says board president Ronald Kaslow. Newlands charges about $2,000 for a half-day course to train up to 12 employees. At The Churchill, he conducted two courses to train all 30 staffers.

But is it essential? Not everyone thinks formal training in customer service is necessary. In fact, the majority of buildings don't bother with it. Most residents are generally happy with the service they receive. "More often, the experienced building manager trains the new staff," says Donald H. Levy, a vice president at Brown Harris Stevens, a real estate firm. "Generally, it works."

But for the proponents of formal training, good customer service is the backbone of a building employee's job. They believe co-ops and condos can learn from the hotel industry.

As for board president Kaslow, the investment was well worth the effort. The training clarified who was supposed to do what when and provided straightforward guidance on how staff should interact with shareholders in various situations.

"If you look at how some members on the staff conducted themselves before and how they conduct themselves now, it's a subtle change, but it's dramatic," he says. And to make sure the lessons have been learned, Newlands sends in a "mystery shopper" to observe employees' interactions without their knowing.

Even the property service workers' union, 32BJ SEIU, offers an on-site customer service training program for its members. So far, more than 1,600 of them have taken the free course. "Doormen, concierges, and porters are working in people's homes and have to walk a line between being friendly and responsive while maintaining a professional distance and safeguarding tenant privacy," Teresa Candori, a spokesperson for the union, says in an e-mail. "These classes help workers navigate the gray areas and learn how best to respond in both emergency and everyday situations."

Value for money Training has another benefit: a building thereby demonstrates that it is invested in its staff. The workers, in turn, are better equipped to meet the expectations of residents and to build a long-term relationship with the co-op or condo.

"By giving them the skills, I'm also making their jobs easier," says Jeffrey Cohen, a general manager at FirstService Residential, a property management company. "It's not a confrontational thing at all. They really enjoy it."

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