Building and deploying back-office solutions for property management

Ease of communication and process efficiency are key characteristics of any successful business. These traits are especially important in the business of real estate investing and property management.

In 2015, we began working with a client who had purchased and was managing around 100 apartment units in Chicago. Initially, the company's principal had communicated with existing and prospective tenants via his company email and cell phone. At first, this system worked well. It was simple, direct, and ensured that outstanding tasks were immediately dealt with. Though, as the firm's investments had scaled from a couple of dozen units into the triple digits, these lines of communication had become inundated, and this direct method of communication became less of a virtue and more of a burden.

A new system was needed that would scale with the volume of inbound tenant requests while still preserving much of the direct communication that proved so valuable in the firm's early days. Instead of one person handling the issues of every request, inbound communications needed to be classified based on their nature and delegated to new employees in the company tasked with handling specific types of requests. New tenants should be directed to a different party than those with maintenance requests, and the scheduling of building inspections should be handled by a completely different party.

This seems like a simple problem, and if the situation was relatively static it would be, but all the while the firm was investing in new units, hiring new employees, and working with additional contractors, regulatory bodies, and other parties. The new system needed to provide a simple and static interface for tenants that was flexible enough to work at ten times the firm's existing size. We had to additionally account for the fact that the firm's employees spent most of their time outside of the office and managed their own devices.

We started by designing and implementing a phone tree with the virtual PBX provider Jive. Their interface allowed us to create trees and sub-trees that could be swapped and modified independently of one another which allowed us to maintain modularity without modifying the caller interface. From there, we added logging by attaching the PBX to an Amazon Web Service S3 bucket. The S3 integration meant that we could store call recordings very affordably so that the firm could look back on any individual call if the need ever presented itself.

The leaves of each phone tree led to a forwarding number that was easily interchangeable and that we could tie into one or more configurable voicemail boxes. These forwarding numbers and voicemail boxes allowed us to implement the phone tree without setting up individual VOIP accounts for each employee. When employees missed a call or at certain times of the night, the voicemail boxes of the PBX (not those of the individual employees) would take the call and provide specific instructions on what information to leave.

We didn't want employees to have to call-in to voicemail boxes, remember dial-in passwords, or handle individual voicemails through a phone-in interface, so we integrated the voicemail boxes with the email system that we'd previously set up for the firm using Google Apps. We assigned email groups for each voicemail box, and configured the PBX to email voicemails to their relevant email groups. This greatly simplified the handling of backlogged messages, and allowed employees to share voicemail box responsibility and email relevant notes about voicemails to one another along with the recordings.

Since the system's implementation, the firm has grown to invest in and manage over 1,200 properties and the system is still functioning flawlessly. We've also worked with the firm to implement additional tenant issue-tracking software, manage technical stacks for remote employees, and perform a variety of data harvesting functions.

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