For Property Managers: How Mobile Technology can make a tough job easier

The life of a property manager…

The life of a property manager can be tough.  You’re probably managing several properties that span a whole city, a state or even multiple states.  This means that you can’t see all of your properties every day.  In fact you’re probably lucky to see all of your properties once a month or less.  You need work to get done on your properties but can’t be there every time the janitors or grounds crews show up.  So you line up your vendors, explain the scope of work to them and trust that they’ll do everything their required to do. 

Then, it’s just a matter of time until you get a call from a tenant or the property owner.  They’re not happy because the vendor you lined up missed something.  The janitors didn’t clean the third floor bathroom or the grounds crew didn’t show up yet this week.  Or worse yet, you get a very angry call from commercial tenant informing you that it is 9:00am and the snow removal crew never showed up this morning.  They ask you why you’re not doing your job and want to know what it’s going take to get this right and “when exactly” will the snow removal crew be there.  You apologize to the client and promise to make things right. When you contact your vendors this is what you hear; the janitor said that he did clean the third floor bathroom but there were some kids playing down the hall and they must have messed it up again, the grounds crew said they were running a day behind this week and will be there tomorrow and the snow removal crew said they were there this morning from 6:00am to 7:00am and that it was snowing hard and snow piled up again.

Does this sound familiar?  Do these things happen over and over again?  In the last few years there have been many advances in mobile technology that can help solve some of the problems that plague property managers. 

Mobile applications can help…

Mobile applications can help solve these problems by helping the property manager stay more informed about what is happening on their properties.  Mobile applications bring information to the property manager rather than leaving the property manager with the task of visiting properties or making calls to get the information they need.

A good mobile application for property managers should have the following features:

  • The ability to issue work to specific vendors or crews
  • The ability to see a history of work performed on your properties
  • The ability for the you, the property manager, to visually document the work you need done with photos and videos
  • The ability for the crews to visually document the work they perform with photos and videos
  • The ability to generate reports for your vendors, managers and customers
  • The ability to see the status of work on your properties (what’s done and what’s not done)
  • The ability for all parties involved to collaborate. Property managers should be able to “see” what the vendors are doing, vendors should be able to demonstrate their work to their property managers, and both property managers and vendor should be able to show the end customers that everyone is doing their job. 

There are many mobile applications available Apple’s App Store or on the Google Play Store that are geared towards property management and field services industries.  They usually run on the iPhone or Android phones or both.  Some mobile apps are optimized to run on tablets like the iPad or on the numerous variants of the Android tablets.   Some mobile apps are self-contained applications that store all information on the mobile device itself while other mobile applications send data back to a central server or “cloud service”.

Mobile systems range from the simple stand-alone mobile apps to highly sophisticated “Computerized Maintenance Management System” (CMMS).  The very high end systems may give you more features than you’ll probably ever use but can also be prohibitively expensive for all but the largest organizations.  The simplest systems may not provide the features needed to truly make a difference in the property managers work life. The key is to find something in between that works.

The challenges of mobile technology…

Mobile applications for property managers can present some formidable challenges.  Some apps are free or very low cost but most apps are sold on a “per-user” basis.  That is, there is a monthly fee for each person that will be using the app.  Monthly per-user fees often range from $30 to $100 per month per user.  Under the per-user fee model, even a small property management firm with five employees who manages 10 field crews can expect to pay $450 to $1,500 per month.  This doesn’t take into account any setup or installation costs.

Most mobile apps require an “always-on” internet connection to function properly.  If the remote crew is in an area of poor cell phone coverage they fail to work, causing frustration for both the field crews and property manager.  The best mobile apps do not require an “always-on” connection and will store data locally and then upload the data when the internet connection is re-established.

Sometimes it is not the cost of the system or the internet connection that presents the challenges.  Sometimes the problems come from the crews in the field.  The people who write the mobile applications are highly technical people and it’s likely that they’ve never actually worked with field crews and don’t understand the way they think.  Field crews are very good at their job but more often than not they are not good with highly technical systems.  The single most important consideration when implementing a mobile system is whether the app is easy and intuitive for the end user.  If the technology you implement is too complicated for the end users, they simply will not be able to effectively use it and your efforts will fail.

The questions property managers should ask themselves before selecting a mobile technology…

  • Does a prospective solution include most, if not all, of the above listed features?
  • How many users will need to have access to the mobile technology?  Make sure you count everyone and decide whether you will give access to your customers in addition to your field crews.
  • What kind of mobile devices do your users already have?  You don’t want to be stuck having to buy new phones or tablets for all of your users.
  • Is the prospective system simple and intuitive enough for your people to actually use?   
  • Are the field crews ever in an area with poor internet coverage? If so, the application should work in offline mode for the times when an internet connection is not available.
  • Is English is a second language for your users? If so, find a system that is multi-lingual and works in the native language of your users.
  • Do you perform invoicing, billing, inventory control, payment processing from the field or is that a back office job.  For the property manager, these are usually back office functions that you can leave out of any mobile technology.

Summary…

The right mobile technology should make the property manager’s job a lot easier and should make the end customer a lot happier.  When looking for a mobile system, look for features that will make you as a property manager more efficient.  You should not invest in a system that gives you the feeling that you are just going to have one more thing to manage.  You should get the feeling that the system works for you and not the other way round.  It should be a system that will lighten your work load by reducing trips to your properties, reduce frantic phone calls from customers, reduce calls to vendors, reduce paperwork, record keeping, etc. When you find the right system your life will become a lot easier because the system will make you more efficient. 

Some salespeople will give you the standard sales line that their product provides X percent “Return On Investment” (ROI) and that by implementing their system you’ll instantly make X percent more money.  Don’t implement a mobile system based on vendor claims of ROI. Evaluate a system based on how much more efficient it will make you as a property manager. Then look what that system costs to get that efficiency and make your decision.   Seek “return on efficiency” first and the Return on Investment will follow.