How to Set Up a Successful Remote Maintenance Division

Talk to any property manager and the conversation will eventually shift towards maintenance and all of the challenges that come with it.  Our property managers would report that over 50% of their time was dealing with maintenance and the time studies we had them do prove it.   Our managers were not able to manage additional properties or their existing properties more efficiently because of having to do a lower level, lower-skilled job – coordinate maintenance.  Maintenance challenges were numerous ultimately resulting in clients firing us.

What we were doing was not working, we needed to do something different.  We needed a low-cost solution that was scalable.

The solution – Create a remote maintenance division using the proper tools for communication and performing maintenance operations.

Here are the steps I took to turn around maintenance from being the black eye of the company to a shining star!

Step 1

Hire the right people.  We focused on hiring remote team members (Virtual Assistants) from Mexico based on the fact that many of our residents speak Spanish and that the culture in Mexico is more problem solving than only following the rules and then escalating.   We did not focus on experience.  It is our job to train the team.  We focused on personality.  Will they be able to have conversations with residents, vendors, and owners?  Are they detailed enough but can also deviate and make decisions?

Step 2

Train Your Team.  This sounds easy but this is the most difficult, time-consuming and takes the longest to see the fruits of your labor.  We had to take a step backward to take two steps forward.  I personally trained the maintenance team two hours per day, every day for over three months.  The team created a policy & procedure manual from that training.   Creating a manual and having the team create it is key as they take ownership and actually use the document.    We created a Google Doc that had a Table of Contents. We created a policy on everything we ran into, from the number of days we allow for a home warranty company to schedule before we use our approved vendors to policies on escalating to property managers.  The document is a working document that is updated routinely.  This is incredibly useful when you hire your next team member.

We also conducted maintenance training classes for everyone in the company including our sales and marketing teams.  We wanted everyone to know basic property code challenges, and daily challenges the team had to solve.  We even created a test that everyone took after the training.

At first, this seems like it is not working.  The team escalates everything to the PM, there are multiple people working on the same work order and confusion ensues.  However, after about 60 days you start to see escalation calls to PMs get reduced, confusion gets reduced, items that were being missed get reduced, etc.  By 120 days, the maintenance team becomes more efficient, better communication and overall just better at the job than the PM ever was.  It’s a long road but it is worth it!  Stay the course!

Step 3

Empower Your Team.  The team will make mistakes, the longer you train them the fewer mistakes they make.  You must allow the team to make decisions and allow them to make mistakes.  Remember always praise in public and re-direct in private.  Each mistake is a training opportunity!

When I was training my team daily we reduced mistakes because they would bring all of their challenges they didn’t know how to solve the training.  This made for great real-world training and reduced mistakes as I was able to guide them.

Step 4

Communication is Key.  When you have a remote team member that is working from home and in a different country it is difficult for them to feel like they are part of something bigger.  There are many tools to overcome this challenge.  The one we found to be most useful was creating an ongoing Zoom link.  We installed a big TV in our office.  Each team member logged into the zoom link.  Team members were able to ask quick questions to a PM through Zoom to get guidance while a vendor, client or resident was on the phone.  This too reduced mistakes and escalations to the PMs.

Step 5

Find the Right Structure for Your Business.  We had a call center approach.  Meaning when a resident or owner called, whoever answered would work the call.  Regardless if it was a follow up to an open work order.

The challenge with this approach is that no one was accountable.  We had 300 work orders and no one was responsible for closing out a work order.  It was impossible to track.

We changed from a call center approach to a team approach.  For Example, Gilbert was responsible for all work orders for Ron and Trey.  Any client, resident or vendor communication for those portfolios was Gilbert’s responsibility.  When Gilbert was on vacation, one of the other maintenance coordinators would cover for him along with the PM.

Step 6

Track the Work Orders Per Each Step In The Process.

At our company, we moved maintenance from our property management software platform to Property Meld.  There were many reasons but the ability to track our work order throughout the lifecycle was invaluable.  Regardless of what software you decide to use, you will only create more chaos in your organization if you do not have the correct structure (see step 5).

We created filters that showed us exactly where a work order was in the life cycle.

Here is our life cycle:

  1.  Nothing has been done to this work order  –  This means a resident entered a request and no one has started working on the work order
  2. Troubleshoot with Resident – The work order needs more info or we are asking the resident to perform some type of action to see if it will resolve the challenge
  3. Sent to Vendor but not accepted –  We dispatched a vendor but they have not accepted the request.  Once 24 hours is up, we dispatch to another vendor
  4. Vendor accepted but not scheduled – After three days, reach out to the vendor to determine why the work has not been scheduled.  Typically it is the resident who cannot schedule
  5. Vendor Scheduled but not completed –  Looking for work that has a past scheduled date but has not been completed.  Typically, vendor completed but waiting on an invoice before they complete in system.
  6. WO > 7 days – This is the KPI metric we are focusing on.  The team knows as soon as a work order hits this bucket they need to keep an eye on it.
  7. WO > 15 days – Another KPI metric, by having this filter makes it easy for the team to fill out their KPI sheet
  8. Emergency WO > 3 days

We have others that we review but these are the main ones that once created put stability into our maintenance division.

Step 7

Define KPI’s and Incentivize.   KPI’s or Key Performance Indicators are the 3 – 7 metrics that you want to track to determine if the role is producing positive results.   For our maintenance team, the indicators were percent of work orders > 7 days, percent of work orders > 15 days and customer satisfaction score.  When developing key indicators follow these rules  – less is more, must be easy to get the data and it must impact the overall result you are expecting.

We chose these KPI’s because after talking to PropertyMeld we knew the data.  People get upset the longer the work order is open.  We wanted to make sure that our resident clients were happy with our service.

Each maintenance team member had their own set of KPI’s.  All of their personal KPI’s funneled up into the team KPI sheet.  The team was paid an incentive when the team KPIs were all green.  This created a culture of team.  It did not matter if one person was successful, they did not get a bonus unless the team was successful.

Step 8

Don’t forget about accounting.  Once all those invoices come in, someone has to approve them and pay them.  We had our maintenance team approve all invoices.  Once approved in MELD the invoice was automatically created in our management platform along with all the photos and chat threads.  Accounting knew that any invoice in our management platform was approved by the maintenance team for payment.  Regardless if you can automate or not, you need to make sure you have a system in place to get the invoices from maintenance to accounting for payment.

Overall Results

Overall the results speak for themselves.  The number of escalated issues to property managers is at an all-time low.

  • 2 / 5 rating (was 3.0)
  • < 5% of work orders are older than 15 days
  • > 80% of work orders are closed within 7 days
  • Positive online reviews have replaced negative online reviews
  • Complete trust between maintenance team and property managers
  • Clients no longer leaving us due to unhappiness with maintenance
  • PMs can manage more properties with less stress

Pete Neubig is currently a Regional Director at Mynd Property Management and the Regional Vice President for the National Association of Residential Property Managers (NARPM).  Pete co-founded and was CEO of Empire Industries LLC prior to Mynd.