As anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop knows, technology makes life easier in countless ways. The management of co-op and condo properties is no different, with new digital tools emerging all the time to streamline, facilitate and improve ease of use for property managers, residents, and shareholders alike. And all this has changed in a relatively short period of time, evolving quickly over the last decade-and-a-half to a point where digital solutions are a must for almost all property management teams.
“Just 10 years ago, property managers kept track of resident and property information on index cards, and got their phone messages from carbon-copy memo pads,” says Michael Mullin, president of Integrated Business Systems, in Totowa, New Jersey. “Today, communications, billing and payments, and maintenance requests all take place electronically. In such a brief time, we have gone from a paper business to a totally automated business – and these once-manual functions are handled via a central property management and accounting system of record.”
Much of today’s digital solutions stem from a need for greater efficiency and cost effectiveness by property managers. “In order to satisfy the needs of a property manager today, we have to deliver solutions that automate most back office processes,” says Adam Friedberg of MDS Property Management Software, based in Hauppauge. “If there is a procedure that requires significant manual data entry, the expectation is that technology should be able to drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the cost associated with that process.”
For example, Friedberg says, “It is becoming harder and harder to find a back office full of bookkeepers whose full-time job is punching in resident payments. These days, the work of several full-time employees can be done with a desktop check scanner, as long as it’s running the right software. In the past, providing our clients with a rock-solid accounting platform was enough.”
Sarah Sutka of the Gilbert, Arizona-based software firm eUnify agrees on the value of automation for property managers. “While the industry as a whole has been slow to adopt new technologies, many property management companies are realizing the competitive edge software can provide by simplifying operations and providing better service to HOA clients,” she says. “Firms adopting software can reduce time and overhead while managing more communities, serve more homeowners while fielding fewer calls, and work more efficiently while decreasing their margin of error.”
Many of the digital expectations held by property managers stem from their own experiences with technology in their everyday lives. “Over the last several years, expectations have changed dramatically among property managers, as well as residents,” says Zachary Kestenbaum, principal at BuildingLink, which is based in New York. “In their personal lives, property managers are used to being able to do everything from their phones or computers, and they now look for that same level of convenience and automation in their jobs.”
He also says the same is true for unit owners and shareholders. “Similarly, residents are used to self-service and having everything they need at their fingertips, so when it comes to their home, if they need to complete some cumbersome processes, or wait several days for a paper copy of some document to be found, that puts pressure on property managers to upgrade the building’s procedures.”
The Right Solutions
Today, there exists an ever-growing range of products available for property managers as well as residents, covering everything from billing to notifications of package deliveries. Mullin’s firm offers a product called Imperium, providing a “full financial management and reporting suite – including utility and service billing features.” It also includes integrated solutions for electronic payments, payment processing, and resident screening. It also has the capability to mesh with other software options for budgeting, marketing, contract management, legal services, and more.
Friedberg says that his firm’s goal – along with the industry as a whole – is to “free property managers from the menial, error-prone tasks associated with manual processes so that they have accurate data more quickly in order to help them make better decisions in real time.”
eUnify’s suite of digital services include a cloud-based tool designed specifically for office personnel that serves as a central repository for all association and account-related information. “The mobile component is designed to provide managers with all the tools they need while on the property to make their job more efficient, providing information and more right at their fingertips,” says Sutka. The firm’s Community Resident Portal keeps communities connected through exchanges of information as well as social interactions.
BuildingLink solutions also look at all angles of a building or community, reaching out to managers, residents, and on-site staff. “It gives them quick access to nearly everything having to do with the building or resident all in one system,” says Kestenbaum. “It gives them the tools to manage the building and communicate with residents in a fraction of the time that it would otherwise take, allowing them to provide a higher level of service as well as relieving at least some of the intense time pressures that are placed on every manager today.”
Members of the building’s maintenance team also can use the system. “They are empowered to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, freeing up the property manager from having to micromanage every interaction,” says Kestenbaum.
Despite all of the options offered by today’s software and applications, the designers of these products believe firmly in the human side of quality property management. “More and more, residents are looking for self-service options,” says Friedberg. “Whether that means checking their account and paying their monthly maintenance online, or requesting a work ticket, self-service can be more efficient for everyone. That said, there is definitely still a demand for a live operator who has the time to deal appropriately with resident issues. With the right technology solutions in place, property managers have more time to patiently and appropriately deal with people on a level that computers will never be able to replace.”
Staying Up to Date
As technology continues to evolve, the one seeming constant in this whirlwind of change is the concept of mobility. No one wants to be locked down at their desktop, or even toting their laptop these days. It is all about the computers in the palms of our hands.
“Most people are so addicted to their phones that they rarely put them down – which makes mobile apps and mobile notifications the best way to reach an audience,” says Sutka. “eUnify is turning its homeowner portals into a true mobile app. This will give managers the opportunity to engage with homeowners more directly, and make it much easier to get alerts and notifications out.”
As software and app developers create new products, they keep the needs of their clients firmly in mind. “Many people simply define ‘business technology’ as computers, applications and the specific functions those items provide,” says Mullin. “We disagree. Effective, impactful IT solutions stem from the intersection of people, processes, and technology – and they are custom designed to meet a company’s (or a community’s) overarching needs.”
New technological developments are helping to meet those dynamic needs. “Advanced technology like machine learning and artificial intelligence will be used to identify trends and problems much earlier, and to further automate processes that have been trickier to handle to date,” says Kestenbaum. “Using smart sensors and IoT [Internet of Things] technology will also provide deep insight and actionable data around parts of the building that are hard to track right now.”
For example, BuildingLink is currently outfitting a client with automated shut-off valves and line flow meters for all of their water mains, so if sensors detect a flood in a third-floor apartment, the manager will quickly be able to check their app and see that water is flowing into other units and instantly shut off the water mains to those floors.
When choosing the right software for the buildings they represent, property managers should consider a number of different factors, says Sutka, including scalability, accessibility, mobility, innovation and integration. This means the tool must work with the size of the buildings or associations involved, that it must be easily accessible and preferably cloud-based, that it has a powerful mobile application, that it will continue to evolve with the manager’s needs and that it can be integrated with the platforms the manager and his or her team currently use.
Friedberg also suggests working directly with current software vendors to stay ahead of the curve. “The industry is constantly changing, and it can be tough even for a seasoned IT professional to keep up with,” he says. “Because it can be time consuming to change software vendors, the first key is to do your best to select a vendor with a proven history of innovation because often the easiest, least expensive way to stay current is through communication with your current provider.”
In addition, it never hurts for managers to speak with their peers about their technological choices. They also can visit their colleagues’ offices to see the type of software they are using and get involved in local industry trade groups, Friedberg says.
There are more choices than ever before for today’s property managers, giving them the kind of tools that can help them stay agile and responsive in ways they never before could. As technology streamlines much of the administrative side of the business, it also frees managers up to pursue creative new approaches to service, anticipating the needs of their residents and shareholders before they even arise.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to The Cooperator.