A very exciting episode! Peter Cook with Annapolis Property Services shares his experience and how he was nervous to get started with virtual staff. We discussed how he overcame that fear and now has embraced all the benefits that using virtual staff offers.
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ANNE: Hi, my name is Anne Lackey. I’m the co-founder of HireSmart Virtual Assistants, and I have the pleasure of introducing and speaking with you, Peter Cook. Peter is the president of Annapolis Property Services. He is originally from Wales, so if you’re like me, you’ve loved to hear him talk because he’s got that wonderful accent. He moved to Annapolis in ’99, was the general manager of Sunsail Vacations. In 2003, he realized that there was a need for longterm residential property management, and so he founded Annapolis Property Services. Of course, he is a licensed real estate agent. He has a NARPM member, and he is a graduate of Southampton University, and of course, he likes to sail. So welcome to the show, Peter. Thanks so much for being here
PETER: And thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
ANNE: Well, I appreciate it. So you and I met about a year ago at a conference, and I remember very distinctly some of our conversations. We had several conversations over those couple of days, and I think you got super excited and nervous, and like, “I’m not sure if this’ll work”, took you a little bit to move it forward, to get your team on board. What was your initial thought when you got introduced to the concept of virtual assistance for your property management business?
PETER: So I loved the idea, but in full disclosure, I was super nervous. I was nervous that someone was working on the other side of the world. I was nervous about time zones. I was nervous about managing them. I was nervous about errors that may not get caught at the time and can come back, as we all know, can come back to bite you in six months, 12 months. So I was worried about control, probably is the biggest thing, and how you would manage someone on the other side of the world.
ANNE: So how did you get past that to make the leap to say, “Okay, I’ll give it a try”.
PETER: Truly, it’s just the glowing reviews from anyone that you speak to that has a VA that you’ve hired was, they just said you had to do it. So Joe Haney, he’s up in Baltimore. He had one. Everyone I spoke to just said, “You won’t regret it”. So that was the deciding factor, and obviously having talked with you and thought about it, it seemed to make sense to at least try it.
ANNE: So you just decided, “Okay, I’m going to go for it.” How was the process when you first hired? Because again, you knew nothing. You’ve never done this before. And here we are, we’re giving you basically an employee, but not. How was the process from order to hire to delivery? Share with our people, what were some of the bumps in the roads and what are some of the things that went smoother than you thought.
PETER: So smoother than you thought to start with, just the process. You obviously, you drilled us pretty hard on what we wanted from the VA, which was key. We didn’t really want someone who answers the phone. We wanted a strong admin that had real good attention to detail and would just do all of our utility bills and all the stuff that no one liked to do here. Like lease renewals, move out letters, move in letters, chasing paperwork. So strong admin focused. And when you drilled this pretty hard, and we sort of left you to it, and the next thing you know, you’d scheduled a 90 minute window with three potential candidates to interview. So probably the easiest bit was, normally when we’ve interviewed, it’s, you know you do the resumes, you do a D, you cycle through it all, and you do the first round of a phone interview, and then you narrow it down, and then you invite people in, and they don’t show up or they go to the firm and change it. And so, hiring is a brutal process.
PETER: So when we first got on, we just schedule the 90 minutes with you. And you said you’ve got three people that are qualified. I’m like, no way. No way. I was excited and nervous because I’d never hired anyone basically using a webcam. I’d always met face to face, and it was weird. But you set it up perfectly. So basically, we interviewed three candidates, two of which were ideal. One, I think all three could have done the job, which was amazing. And we had the process now with what? Less than two hours. I think it was 90 minutes from start to finish, the whole process. So I mean anyone that can hire anyone faster than that, I just don’t know how it’s possible.
ANNE: So how much time do you think it saved you? Because you mentioned a lot of the things that people look at our placement fee, and they go, “Gosh, you know, that’s a lot”. And I’m like, for what I do, it’s really not. But okay. Think about… So how much time would you normally spend with that process versus the 90 minutes?
PETER: Oh, I mean if you add it all up from writing the ad, because I’m just doing mental math here and stuff. You write the job description, which we already had. So you have to do that. Then, create the ad, list it, field all the resumes, do the phone interviews, set it up. I mean it, it’s going to be 20 hours, has to be 20 hours, give or take. And it’s a distraction from what we should be doing. That’s the biggest thing. So probably 20 hours of senior people’s time.
ANNE: And one of the things that I, especially a lot of our clients are property management companies, because I’m a broker owner myself and run my own PM firm. I liken what we do to the application process for tenants, right? So an individual owner could rent his property out, but probably shouldn’t because they don’t have the access to the assessments. They don’t have access to the data that we, as professional property managers and me as a professional recruiter, have, right? I’ve got systems for that. Property managers have systems for that. And so, I think it’s funny to me that we defend our placement fee of our tenants because we put so much time, energy, and effort, and sometimes people say, “Well, I don’t want to pay a placement fee for a hire.” So it’s kind of funny, that dichotomy. How do you respond to people who might say that?
PETER: On the tenant placement fee? But just going back to the placement fee for a VA, it’s, I don’t want to quote your prices, but I think it’s under 2000 bucks.
ANNE: Yeah, 24 95 is our stated price.
PETER: Right, money, it’s incredibly well spent. And just money in general, I equate anything that we do through you as half the price of what it would cost to do here. And that would be, so the cost to recruit someone here is probably four grand, it’s two; cost to have a full time employee here is 40 K, with you, it’s less. It’s about half price. So if anyone thinking about it, just think of, it’s about half the price of what you would do to hire someone.
ANNE: So now you’ve gone through the hiring process. We’ve given you the person. Are they as good as you thought they were going to be?
PETER: They are incredible. So it’s two. They’re way better than we first, than I anticipated. And in full disclosure, they are about doubly efficient. So they are handling about double what someone would handle here. Probably because they are more efficient. They’re not distracted. There’s no distractions. They don’t get caught up in the drama, which is a huge effect. And that they’re not, they’re just, just phenomenal, and it has it’s costs up to, so they just, yeah, they crank through all the things that none of us here wanted to do.
ANNE: And are they happy working for you? Because that’s the other question I get. Like, “I don’t know that they would really want to work in the middle of the night” and “I don’t know that they’d be happy”. But what’s your experience working with your people?
PETER: Yeah, I was super nervous. I’m like, “Am I going to ask someone to work through the night?” I was very much of the mindset that I’d like them to work their hours. I don’t mind if they work over our nights because it’s admin tasks, but you are very adamant they should work our hours, which now is phenomenal. I’ve become very comfortable with it. And AJ and Carl like it, all their friends do the same thing. They have a different lifestyle, but as, you know you are very adamant on the start, And you said to us, “Don’t worry about what time it is there. Don’t think about, they’re working through the night. Just ignore that fact. That’s just how they do it.” And that’s how it is. They’re always happy. They seem happy. They haven’t quit on us yet. They’re great. We try and treat them well. We’ve made them part of the team.
PETER: They join our team meeting weekly on the webcam. They are buyers on our site. They’ve got their own email address. They’re as much a team member as anyone sitting here. Got their own direct phone number. So we really try to incorporate them, which I think really makes a difference to them.
ANNE: It does.
PETER: They’re not just a cog in this machine. They are, if you look at our about us, then their profiles are a part of the team page. So we put their picture up there, and we include them as part of the team. It’s irrelevant that they’re on the other side.
ANNE: And I love that, and I do try to tell people as much as you can integrate them. And I love the fact that they’re in the team meetings. You know, I actually, the first day that a VA starts working for me, I literally take my iPad and walk them through the office so they can see what it looks like and introduce them to my one employee. Because I only have one. But you know, we had our property management meeting this morning as a matter of fact. And Bonnie, who is my pretended occupied VA remote team member. She’s in that meeting. She takes detailed notes, so I don’t have to. Who’s responsible for what. What are the things that I need to be responsible for. So totally love that you guys are doing that too.
ANNE: What piece of advice would you give someone that is on the fence? Because I get a lot of people that says, “It sounds great, but I’m not going to move forward.” So how would you, what would you share with them about your experience as to what they either need to be concerned about that they can think about in advance or alleviate their fears to move forward?
PETER: Yeah, so if this is the one that was my fear, but it is great is you have to be comfortable creating and sticking with the system. If you are just one of those people who don’t like systems, who won’t create and follow a system, the VA won’t work. It’s just, I say it wouldn’t work; I think it’d be really challenging. It works really well when you have a system, which, in full disclosure, we didn’t have five years ago. Now we’ve got systems for everything, and the stress levels, less mess ups and everything.
PETER: So I think everyone should have systems. But if you just one of those people that loves the chaos and likes to do it your own way and not write it down and just do things on the fly, how you just learnt it in your head. If you don’t want to write down how you do things, you will struggle to get good value out of the VA because the VA is really good at following a process incredibly well, and they can even have the processes to do this. If A happens, good. You got a B and C, but you have to have a process for them to be really successful, will be my bit of advice.
ANNE: Okay. And I would agree with that. What I would say is, I have a lot of clients that don’t have processes started, because again, they kind of all work on the fly, and I was honestly, I was that way myself. When I started five years ago, I had what I thought were systems. What I found out was not exactly the way I wanted to, and that’s one of the things that I think is a benefit is that my VA made me a better business because it tested what I thought was a system that really wasn’t a system. It was maybe a roadmap a little bit.
PETER: So that’s exactly it, Anne. And so what it’s done, by having a VA, forced us to tweak our systems and use our systems, and we moved every… We were half in the cloud and half on a server, and it forced us to get everything onto Google drive and really document. I use Google docs instead of half writing it down, half using Google docs. It forced us to follow a system, which has made us way more efficient and less stressed. So, to back up a VA, you just have to be willing to, if you don’t have a system, you have to be willing to put one in place because that’s how you get the most out of the VA.
ANNE: Totally agree with that. And one of the things I did too is I have my VAs responsible for maintaining it. And responsible for doing it or updating it or creating it. So like I said, when I got started, I had this kind of roadmap. My VA then put the structure underneath it to actually make it a system. So for those of you that maybe don’t have a system yet, but you do have how it’s done, even if it’s in your head, you do have how it’s done. Your VA can come up underneath you and create that additional support to make it a system. Because I totally agree. I think especially in property management because we’re so litigious anyway, that anytime you go outside of the parameters, we’ve seen that happen a couple of times with you. Whether it’s our screening process or our phone process, that’s when we get into trouble.
ANNE: And I see that on the Facebook groups. I see that in the listservs. Like well, they said such and such and so and so. Or I knew I shouldn’t do this, but I did because we went out of process. That’s again, that’s where trouble kind of ends up living in our world. So as much as you can, let your VA help you highlight what needs to be revamped or redone, and then give them, task them for changes. Like I know for me, our lists, our property MLS, changes their software all the time. You know, input fields, all kinds of stuff. It’s not major things, but literally they’ll get rid of one type of description and add a new one. I make Bonnie redo the screenshots, re-update that so that literally we’re real time with any of the changes that happen in that software or happen in that business, so that I don’t have to worry about it.
ANNE: Again, if I make a change in policy, let’s say we have, we do have an issue with maybe a tenant fallout, meaning that they screened and they passed, but we had an issue. Well, I unpack and unravel that, and sometimes I will make a change to our system or our whatever. They’re in charge of making sure that that new piece of information is notated on the website, is in the process. So I think that’s great. What would you say was the biggest benefit, other than costs saving? Because we all know that that’s it. That’s obviously the number one reason to do that. But other than costs saving, what other benefits have you had by hiring your virtual staff?
PETER: So there’s a number. I think the biggest thing that we noticed was we went through our peak season, the same as, we’re on the East coast, so our busiest times are May, June, July, August. We do half the work of the year in three months of the year, same as everyone else. But historically, during that time, the admin and the processes like lease renewals, the non-times urgent stuff, gets dropped. And so we always used to get to the end of August and then have to pick up where we stopped doing what we’re doing in June. Typically, you know, lease renewals and just getting ahead of maintenance and walkthroughs. So all the things that aren’t immediately time sensitive always used to get dropped. And we’d spend all of September regrouping and picking up the pieces. And getting back into the process.
PETER: So the biggest thing was that with Carl and AJ, that they keep the machine running, so they don’t get caught up in the drama. They don’t get caught up in the move-ins, the move-outs, the this talent hasn’t moved that. We’re doing four… In our peak season, you know we’re doing 40 turns in a month. So there’s a lot of drama going on. They don’t get caught up in it. They keep doing the lease renewals. They keep sending the move out letters. They keep following up with tenants who just moved in. They always got dropped. So they, seven days off, tenant moves in, they send them that how’s it going list, which we’ve never done in August before because it got dropped, and they keep lease renewals. So we kept lease renewals rolling. So by the time we got to the end of August, we were already working on October, November lease renewals. So we’re already half done. Just because they kept the machine running. They didn’t care. No, not they didn’t care, but they didn’t know-
ANNE: They weren’t impacted.
PETER: -not impacted. They just had a few more… They just, that was on Tuesday, they do lease renewals for the next time, and they send out move out letters, and they send out… So it just happened. So the machine kept running, and it really made everyone, it reduced the stress and really reduced the errors.
ANNE: So I would also imagine that your customer service was increased by that too because you’re giving them, your clients, whether it be owners or residents, the attention that they deserve. They’re not having to ask you for stuff. You’re being proactive. Would you say that that was another benefit?
PETER: Yeah, absolutely. It just, we do what we, we kept doing what we aim to do all year, but it always felt, we always fell off as we got through. There was only so many hours in the day that people could do stuff. So something used to get dropped. Really this year, nothing got dropped. Probably the best example is the, we follow up the tenants once they’d been there seven days just to check it, and it’s the correct thing to do, and they love it. We’ve never done it because it gets dropped because you don’t have to do it.
ANNE: Right. It’s the important but not urgent category.
PETER: That’s it.
ANNE: It always gets in the Stephen Covey model. So totally get that. What else would you want to share with someone that, again, is thinking about it, or what else, what other words or nuggets would you share, things that you’ve learned or anything else that you think would be valuable?
PETER: If you all just do it, as long as you’re prepared to put a little… Write the job description well, really think what you want to do, and what they can do, to make sure that they have access to be able to do what you want them to do. If you’re going to use them for any phone calls, make sure you’ve got a voice over IP phone system. Make sure you can set them up with an email. Make sure they can have access to everything that you want them to do. So if your documents are on a server, and they’re not plant-based, and you want them to access them, think about that.
PETER: It was really good for us to have a deadline, like we knew we had to have everything in Google drive by January 1, so in December 1, we just moved everything. We spent the month trying to find documents, starting to move. But we had it all figured out. So it was really good for us to move it. So think about the things that you’ll want them to do, and when you really put your mind to it, you could get them to do a lot of stuff that you just didn’t think they could do. So we started out with utility bills, and we go, well, they could do that, they could do some letters maybe, and now they can do, AJ’s started to do some maintenance requests. He’s doing some account payables, account receivable, use property mail. And there’s no reason that he can’t do that. So there’s, you really get into it. There’s a lot more and more things they can do.
ANNE: Yeah, I think people are just nervous so they pick what they feel comfortable with. So how do you envision the change in your staff? So five years from now, what is your company look like as far as staffing, and how is that going to change do you think? Share with me your vision for growth and what do you look like in a few years from now?
PETER: Yeah. So we’re in the lovely position that we’re at 540 homes now. We’re aiming to get to around 750, at about 10% growth. So every year, we’ve had double digit growth since we started, and we aim to keep doing that. We started down a little bit intentionally, just because of the demographics and the properties in the area we want to service. We’re not growing the territory. We’re just focusing on our… We’re really just a specialist in the Annapolis area, so we’re aiming at 10% growth, and we’re really, we’re looking to get to 750, which is effectively a 50% growth, with really not adding in any, maybe some extra people in maintenance, actual doers in maintenance as opposed to coordinating. But really, as we grow now, we just going to, we just outsource more, so we’re not going to change our head count in the US.
PETER: As we keep doing more, we need more support. We just going to add in more backup support really, because the VAs do all the things that property managers don’t like to do. So it’s not even, it’s hard to find someone that efficiently does snap utility bills, like literally, when we get, our water bills come in quarterly, and we get, we just had them last week, we had 215 water bills come in, like it was a stack. And they’re mailed, they’re not emailed, so you have to open each one.
PETER: So just our front desk, it just over… Everyone will groan because they all get dumped on different people’s desks, and they get forgotten about, and then they became urgent because they’re time sensitive, and they were late, and so everyone would always groan, and you’d always end up seeing people stay late, just to get it done. Now we just open them, scan 215, and then we can go. AJ does it all. They’re gone. Like they come in, they get scanned, and they get put in the shredder. It’s beautiful. It’s the happiest day. It used to just be the black day, and then, and I’m sure anyone that does it, you come back, and you see these stack. It’s just the dullest routine admin that you have to do, and if you don’t do it, water gets shut off, and there’s late fees. So it just took that problem away.
ANNE: Well, that’s awesome. Well, Peter, thank you so much for being a part of our show today and sharing your knowledge. If you want to get in touch with Peter because you need property management services in Annapolis, his contact information will be on the next page, and we do appreciate your time, and hope you have a great rest of your day.
PETER: Thank you, Anne. It’s a pleasure.