Dealing with "Difficult" Owners

So how do boards deal with their “difficult” owners?  This is something that community managers have to deal with all the time and so we either develop the skills to deal with them or we cease being community managers.  No joke.  When I use the phrase “difficult” owners I’m not implying that these are bad people; they rarely are.  Many times they simply don’t understand what they’ve bought into, and that can cause a negative reaction.  They may also just be frustrated by some other thing in their lives that they can’t control; it may not even really be about the HOA.  So what’s the best way to deal with them?

Here are the strategies that I use when dealing with them:

  • Stay calm and try to hear them out.  Sometimes just taking the time to listen to (and really hear) what the owner is concerned about can be enough to diffuse the situation.  Unless the owner is abusive, it’s usually best to let them talk until they’ve talked themselves out.
  • Offer information to address whatever they’re concerned about.  If they ask why the dues are so high, you can send them the budget.  If they don’t understand why they received a late fee, you can send them the payment resolution.  It’s good to tell them the information as well, but I have found it is more powerful (and harder to argue against) a document, especially if it’s one they have probably seen before.
  • Ask them to put it in writing.  I use this technique quite often if someone is so upset that they can’t talk themselves out.  It’s important that you make this ask in a very particular manner, because you don’t want them to think that you’re simply trying to fob them off.  This is not what this accomplishes!  When you make this request, explain to the owner that you really want to help them get this matter resolved, but that the entire board needs to consider it, and rather than you trying to relay the owner’s concerns, it would be much more helpful to have the owner put his/her concerns in his/her own words, to ensure there is no miscommunication.  What this does is it forces the owner to think very clearly and logically about what s/he is upset about, and it allows the manager or the individual board member to bring the issues to the entire board to determine if these concerns are valid.  One important note:  when you receive that written document, make sure the issues raised in it that require discussion by the board are placed on the next meeting’s agenda and a decision to take or not to take action is made at that meeting.  Otherwise the difficult owner will simply go back into frustration mode and nothing will have been accomplished except that you are more likely to face the final option (below).
  • If all else fails, apologize and hang up.  This is a hard decision to make, but no one deserves to be verbally assaulted over the phone.  If the owner cannot be civil and he or she has been warned, it is perfectly acceptable to tell him/her:  “I’m very sorry but I don’t think we can resolve this problem at this time and so I’m ending this call now.  Goodbye.”  In my entire career (13+ years as of the writing of this post), I think I’ve only had to use this technique three or four times in the hundreds (thousands?!) of phone calls I’ve had with owners over the years.  I always try my best to hear them out, alleviate their concerns, provide them information, etc., but there may be an owner that is simply too difficult, and rather than have to accept the abuse, it is okay to end the communication.  At that point, nothing positive will happen anyway.

Remember, the difficult person at the end of the phone may not only be upset about the association.  They may be facing any number of troubles in their lives (personal, professional, financial) that are making them feel angry and hostile.  Try to hear them out, offer information, ask them to put it in writing, and if all else fails, apologize and hang up.