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?”
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?
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.
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!