Landlording & Rental Properties

How to Pacify Your Most Indignant Tenants With One Simple Strategy

Expertise: Mortgages & Creative Financing, Business Management, Landlording & Rental Properties, Commercial Real Estate, Real Estate Deal Analysis & Advice, Real Estate Investing Basics, Personal Development
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When it comes to tenant relations, there are few, if any, more important skills than being able to de-escalate situations with unhappy tenants. And if you have any experience with tenants, you know there will be more than a few unhappy ones.

Whether it’s a maintenance order that’s taken too long (in reality or just in their mind), a late fee they don’t think they should pay, a policy violation they disagree with or an eviction, tenants — at least some tenants — have the tendency to get very, very mad at you.

The natural human reaction is to get mad at them back or at least to become defensive. The natural response is to argue with them and defend your position. If they raise their voice, the natural response to raise your voice in return. If they insult you, the natural response is to at least defend yourself and perhaps go so far as to insult them back. Tit for tat, and on and on it goes. But it’s important to go in the opposite direction of what you’re natural inclinations tell you to do. Don’t become defensive, but actually be empathetic. Don’t raise your voice, but speak more calmly.

Doing otherwise is nothing more than escalating the situation.

Do the Opposite of What Feels Natural

With regard to learning this skill, the first place to start is Dale Carnegie’s fantastic book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The key that Dale Carnegie discusses at length is to do the opposite of what feels natural. If they’re mad at you, don’t get defensive and certainly don’t get mad. Flip the script and empathize with them. I don’t mean to blame yourself or cave in to their demands. I’m not recommending to be a door mat. This is all a matter of presentation. It’s the how, not the what that I’m highlighting here.

I merely mean to sympathize with them over the problem. We had a receptionist a few years back who was great at this. Someone would call in angry about a maintenance issue, and she would respond as follows:

“Oh no! That’s awful. Let’s make sure to get that taken care of right away. Could you please describe the problem so I can work up a maintenance order?”

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Or something like that. But notice that she puts us and the tenant on the same team: “Let’s make sure to get that taken care of.” The enemy is the maintenance problem. We are the tenant’s ally. Why would anyone get mad at their ally?

Related: 6 Things Every Landlord Should Do to Win Over the Hearts of Tenants (A Renter’s Perspective!)

On another note, it's important not to fall into the temptation of avoiding contact with people who are mad at you. This is also a natural response, but the worst way to deal with a situation. We had a mold issue that was actually rather small, but it blew out of proportion, and we ended up letting the tenants out of their lease because the situation dragged on to the point that the tenants were beside themselves with anger.

Why did they get so angry? Well, the mold issue was part of it, but it was resolved relatively easily. The big problem was that our property manager at the time refused to call them back. So in the tenant's minds, she might as well have told them she couldn't care less about them and wouldn't even care if they died of some horrific pulmonary disease. In reality, she was just nervous to call because she was embarrassed about the situation. Don't let that happen to you. Maintain contact even when it's uncomfortable to do so.

Fair But Firm

With regard to collections, evictions, deposit refunds and things of that nature, the key is to be fair but firm while also having good documentation. If you can point to the documentation, you can explain why they owe what they owe without blaming or being defensive. These are just the facts. Don’t get mad. Don’t match their tone. Empathize with them.

My brother is now our property manager and has basically mastered this. In some corners of the office he is known as the “Tenant Whisperer” for his uncanny ability to get a tenant who comes into the office steaming mad to leave saying “thank you” with a smile on their face. He does this by being on their side as much as possible. For example, say something like, “I know it’s a tough situation, but this is the amount it costs to do the repairs, and here’s the documentation.” (Again, keep good records.)

Be Your Tenant’s Ally

Make something other than yourself the “enemy.” It could be the lease, the law, company policy or even the owner. But the enemy is certainly not the property manager. No, you as the property manager are the tenant’s ally. So for example: “I appreciate how hard this is; however, we have to follow the lease, and the lease mandates that we charge these expenses. We legally can’t make an exception for one unless we make it for all.” Or perhaps, “I think we can find the best possible outcome given your situation that will fit with what the lease requires and the owner will accept.” You are on their team trying to come up with the “best solution” (not necessarily what they want). The rules dictated by the lease, law, policy or owner are the “enemy” in this situation.

Related: Why Good Maintenance is the Best Way to Retain Tenants

This principle also applies in many ways to employees, vendors, sellers, buyers, lenders and partners, as well as our friends and family. It’s amazing how quickly someone will calm down when you don’t match their anger and empathize with them. There’s even a scientific term for it called “social proof.” Basically, in general, people will match or trend toward the tone and behavior of people around them. If you are calm, they may not start calm, but they will almost certainly become calm.

It is so much easier to reach a win/win solution or at least the most tolerable solution when everyone is calm and feels like they are all on the same team. Fighting back will just make the tenant dig in their heels and set you up at antagonists. Just remember, with tenant relations, it’s often the opposite of what feels natural that will produce the best result.

Landlords: What have you learned by dealing with tenants? What approach do you take when trying to de-escalate a situation?

Let me know with a comment!

Andrew Syrios has been investing in real estate for over a decade and is a partner with Stewardship Investments, LLC along with his brother Phillip ...
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    Michael Noto Real Estate Agent from Southington, CT
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Very well written article
    Michael Boyer Investor from Juneau, AK
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Neat piece… Not nearly enough discussion on landlord communication strategies and scripts .. Great idea for a topic to emphasize in 2016!
    Cheryl C. Investor from Reston, VA
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Nice! And excellent advice. Being responsive and empathetic goes a long way and doesn’t take much effort. If YOU care about the property and the situation, they will care about it and treat your investment well. Immediate response to repair issues (I find) is the most important tenant issue. Sometimes contractors and repairmen don’t measure up and cause delays. Be apologetic and express your own disappointment with the appliance people, etc. (“same team” concept). That being said, there are tenants (especially new ones) that are over the top in anger/ complaining about minor stuff – things that despite my best efforts, can’t get fixed in a day. Perhaps it’s because they have had a bad LL experience. If they are completely unreasonable and looking for a fight, I employ the following: “It seems that you are unhappy here. I will release you from your lease. I want you to enjoy where you are living”. This universally, in my experience, results in a “we love it here and don’t want to move!”. They just want to know that you care and want them happy.
    Minh Le Investor from San Jose, CA
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Andrew, You’re too smart. Thanks for sharing some great tips on how to handle tenants.
    Andrew Garwood Investor from Rahway, New Jersey
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Thanks for the advice & I plan to put it in action.
    Scott Weaner Rental Property Investor from Yardley, PA
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Excellent article. I have a tendency to raise my voice, and I will remember this advice. I did read Dale Carnegie’s book in college. I should read it again. I you don’t believe that doing the opposite is often right, watch the video below.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Haha, nice! Seinfeld is brilliant, well played sir!
    Brendan M. New to Real Estate from Colorado Springs, CO
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Great advice, Andrew. I try to take this type of approach to any conflicts I have, and especially with tenants, but admittedly it can be really tough in practice! Thanks for the well written reminder.
    Jerome Kaidor Investor from Hayward, California
    Replied over 4 years ago
    I have a new tool for improving communications with my tenants – TEXT! I encourage them to text me maintenance requests. I promptly pass them on as texts to my technicians. I send the tenants notices about e.g. pest control service by text. This saves me a LOT of time vs talking to everybody on the phone. I should mention that I do NOT send and receive texts on my cell phone, but rather on my desktop computer. I have also written software to send rental receipts via text. Nowadays, ALL my tenants have cell phones, even the indigent ones. I do maintain a toll-free number for my tenants to actually call me, and I practice de-escalation on the angry ones. Especially since if they are angry, there’s often a good reason. I once fired a maintenance man because of info that came in through that toll free line.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied over 4 years ago
    That’s a good idea, albeit one that will certainly cause some hassle. But it’s critical to know how your staff is doing. Good maintenance is the best of form of tenant retention, so that’s especially important.
    Christopher Lyerla Investor from Seguin, Texas
    Replied over 4 years ago
    I’ll second the advice about text communication with tenants. I’ve used it for a couple properties for over a year now, and it has worked out great. The tenants love it for the instant responses, and I love the written record of communication it gives.
    Shawn C. Investor from Cedar Park, TX
    Replied over 4 years ago
    This was a very well written article. I am thinking about getting into SFR and Multi Family rentals and this article is very helpful to me as well as the books you reference. Thanks for writing this article.
    Alex Craig Real Estate Professional from Memphis, TN
    Replied over 4 years ago
    We stopped receiving verbal request from our tenants. We made everything have to be in writing. The main thing that was unexpected was the level of customer service we give with our tenants went up several notches. Rather then listen to voice mails and return calls, our maintenance comes through our email. The response time is almost instantaneously. We can now respond while sitting at red lights, waiting in line for lunch, during the middle of the 3rd quarter of a Memphis Grizzlies game, in the bathroom (I know, TMI), etc. Also, we can give them more updates because we are not wasting time on the phone getting the entire story of the situation, rather we communicate via email which most of the time eliminated having to hear all the useless info. We get several “thank you for your communications” now.
    Rick Santos from Rocky Hill, CT
    Replied over 4 years ago
    Great article, working with difficult/irritated people in general will feed off of your tone. Bring them down to the level/tone that you want before resolving the issue. Empathize, offer a solution, set expectations. Great advice for any situation to handle those that are a little worked up.
    Karen W. from Houston, Texas
    Replied about 3 years ago
    Great article!