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THE ART OF TELEPHONICALLY SCREENING PROSPECTIVE TENANTS   Copyright 2001-2011  Landlord.com

Is the telephone a major failure as an instrument of communication? Mark Twain had a lot of fun with it in a number of his humorous sketches. The reason for the telephone's failure is that the telephone conversation is a pure technological artifact, it is not natural. Much of the information which comes from face to face conversation is visual. Eye contact, postures, mannerisms, all these and more can modify the literal meaning of the spoken word. A reader in doubt of this should try reading a transcript of a conversation. Often it will be nearly incomprehensible. The reason is that the visual clues are missing. The telephonic conversation is similar, in that it lacks these visual clues. Better than a transcript because it retains many of the aural prompts -- depending on the quality of the phone -- it is still a poor second to face to face contact.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Similarly, the landlord's telephone, though less desirable than an in person conversation, is a valuable screening tool. Modern life being what it is, the first approach in response to the landlord's "for rent" ad is most likely to be by phone, not by letter or walk in. We assume for this column that the landlord has decided on the profile of the desirable applicant for his property. The phone contact is the first opportunity to screen, that is, eliminate undesirable applicants.

In order to use the phone effectively, telephonic technique and etiquette must be perfected. These are based on practicality and good manners and are not difficult to master, they only require a little thought and practice.

The landlord is in the position of answering telephonic inquiries, presumably from prospective tenants (but not always, more on this later). If the line is a dedicated business line, then the first sentence in response to the ring should be sufficient to inform the caller of the location reached and a working identity of the speaker on the receiving end. By this last we mean a name, actual or fictitious, to give personality to the respondent. This is the usually unexpressed but core complaint most callers have with robotic answering systems: no personality. The next step in the etiquette is for the caller to identify himself and the purpose of his call. Most people nowadays are so lacking in manners that they fail to identify themselves over the phone, but will make a demand for further information, such as "do you have a one bedroom for rent?" It is permissible here to inquire of the identity of the caller. When given this information, write it down, together with the date and time of the call, and prepare to make a note of what is said. Keep this note. If identification is refused, the landlord is justified in terminating the call. It is a poor idea to risk anonymous communication over the phone.

This is more than just good manners, it is a safety device. The landlord has no way of knowing if the person calling is a legitimate prospect or an investigator from a fair housing group trying to entrap the landlord into a misstatement so as to enhance his case load, or someone else with an ulterior design. Insisting on identification over the telephone does not ensure that the information given in response is correct, but if it is false, the landlord's notation of the misrepresentation of identity may be significant later on. Caller ID is a service which merits consideration in this regard.

If the telephone line is not a dedicated business line, but, say, the landlord's home telephone, then the etiquette is a little different. The recipient of the call is justified in answering the ring with "hello." If the recipient feels in a generous mood, he might answer, "So and so residence." It is then the caller's responsibility to give identification and the purpose of the call. In the absence of this, the landlord should request it before giving any information whatsoever. The caller may simply be a criminal calling to determine if the unit is unattended. If it is, he may want to drive over to steal the stove. Again, obtaining an identity does not guarantee that this will not happen, but by listening carefully to the reaction, the degree to which interaction with this person must be guarded can be assessed.

Having gotten over the preliminaries, there are a few guidelines to effective telephonic communication which should be observed.

Be succinct. There is no way to know how much time the other person has. It is grossly impolite to waste it. Convey the information requested and ask for that which you require and then terminate the conversation in a polite manner. The phone in a business context is no place to get chummy, it is functional. This does not mean that amenities must be ignored, but amenities are not the object of the conversation.
Remember the limitations of the instrument. All visual communication is lost. Careful listening, together with direct speech, confined to the topic being discussed, can make up for this limitation. Most people do not communicate for a living, or, at least, they think they don't. The truth is that all of us communicate for a living, and enhancing the efficiency with which we can communicate will enhance the living we earn. The first step in selling a prospective resident on a rental unit is communication. The limitations of the instrument having eliminated a major factor in communication, the visual, the mode of carrying on the conversation must compensate. Avoid abrupt changes in subject, or flighty and directionless blather. When in a face to face conversation an abrupt change of subject takes place, all sorts of visual clues are given, by facial expression and posture, and some aural ones such as subtle changes in intonation which may not carry over the phone line, to advise the listener that the change is taking place. All this is lost over the phone. If you doubt this, try the following experiment. For one day, put a small mirror on your desk, the kind that ladies use when they pluck their eyebrows, and every time you speak on the phone, look at your face in the mirror. I guarantee that you will be amazed at what you see. The caller cannot be amazed because he cannot see it. He also cannot interpret the clues your facial expression gives. Without these clues, he may become hopelessly confused and totally misinterpret your statements. Keep the conversation simple and to the point, advising aurally when the point changes.
You should not talk too fast, or too slow. Words spoken over the telephone are disembodied from all other reinforcement and so are extremely volatile. If too many are piled atop each other, they evaporate before they can be assimilated by the listener. If too few are spoken in a given time frame you risk sounding like Henry Kissinger. If you have a telephone answering machine which permits the taping of conversations in progress, use this feature, and listen to yourself in a typical situation. Is the progression of your thought easy to follow? Is there time to assimilate one thought before another is presented? It is impossible for a person to put on a costume for one purpose and replace it with another for a different purpose. But a natural and practiced technique is perfectly valid and honest. When Ed McMahon calls to advise that you have won the sweepstakes, let it all hang out. When discussing business with actual and prospective customers, be circumspect and under control.
The tone of speech is also important. Returning to our example, have you ever listened carefully to an interview of Henry Kissinger? He always talks in a monotone as if he is speaking for the record and not to any particular person. This is not a criticism of what he is saying, which may deserve criticism or not. Rather, that sort of tone gives the impression that one is selecting tracks of a recorded message. If you ask one question, you get track "A," ask another and you get track "D," and so on. Remembering that the telephone disembodies the voice from visual cues, the speaker must convince the listener that he is talking to a human being and not extracting messages from a tape machine. Varied intonations give life to the delivery and satisfy the listener's visceral need for reinforcement that he is involved in a two way conversation.
Because you cannot be seen, it is important to insert aural cues which advise the speaker at the other end that you are there and listening, and that he is not on hold. Something like "I see," or, "I understand," works well, as does a simple grunt like "uh-huh." Even better is an apt question, like "well, by this do you mean so and so?" In other words, the conversation must be interactive so that both parties know that there is a conversation.
Productive conversation, no matter the purpose of the call, will be facilitated by a positive, up-beat attitude. If you cannot smile into the phone when you answer it, then do not answer it. In almost all cases you will be much better off letting your answering service or machine do so if you are in a bad mood, and then call back later when you feel better, than if you pick up the receiver and snap out something like "XYZ Properties, what do you want?"
Speak on a clear line and directly into the receiver. Nothing is more frustrating that hearing an unintelligible garble because the speaker is not talking into the receiver. Understand the design of your instrument and utilize it according to the instructions for maximum effectiveness.
The subject of cellular phones is much in dispute as it is a new technology, and the etiquette of cellular conversations is still evolving. The most highly prized characteristic of cellular conversations is brevity, unless your cellular caller is an entrepreneurial millionaire tycoon, because the cellular caller is paying money for each minute that he remains on the line. The call is designed as an attempt to elicit one or two specific pieces of information to justify a later land line call. Allow the caller to direct the conversation, thereby showing due regard for the cost, and your good manners will be rewarded.

The basics are techniques, but not mannerisms which can be turned on when required. It is important to work on the basics so that they become second nature. They amount to mastering the ways to identify the parties to the conversation, keep the conversation within the bounds of the topic, present information in such a way as to be understandable, be interactive with the caller, and use the instrument as it was designed so as to convey a clear signal to the caller.

Having given due thought to the operation of the telephonic mode of communication, it is now time to consider how it might be used in screening prospects. The phone is not for closing the sale. The telephonic contact is made in the absence of any of the information you will need for proper qualification of the prospect. It costs nothing to sound good on the phone, everyone can sound as if he is a financially stable, responsible person easily capable of paying the monthly rent. But to make this decision on the basis of the sound of the person's voice and content of his speech, not an examination of his application and confirmation of his income and references, is a dubious procedure. The purpose of the telephone contact is to exclude, if possible, obviously unqualified applicants, and to convey certain categories of information and obtain others so as to structure the showing, qualification and closing, which will occur in person. We emphasize that there is no justification for use of the phone for discrimination on the basis of invidious criteria. See our article on tenant screening in general for a discussion of this issue.

It is necessary to convey certain information in order effectively to discriminate between those potential applicants who are actual prospects, and those who will disqualify themselves because you are simply not offering what they want. This facet of the conversation is the information which you are conveying to the prospect before the face to face meeting is scheduled. Neither your time, nor the prospect's, should be wasted on a meeting if the product being offered is obviously not what the prospect needs. Because this article is structured so as to discuss the categories of information to be conveyed and sought in a certain order does not mean, however, that you begin the conversation with a speech about units and rental rates, neighborhoods and connecting bus lines. Remember what was said above about interactivity of the conversation. The following should be covered in the conversation, but in a natural and conversational way.

First and most important, ensure that the caller understands what is being offered. A 60 year old widower might not need the three bedroom unit you have for rent. He should know that the three bedroom is all you have before he drives across town to fill out an application. A family of five probably will find a studio a bit confining. If all you have is studios, say so. If a range of apartments is available, describe the types that are vacant. Your prospect may be calling from the informative and descriptive ad which ran in the real estate section on Sunday, but, on the other hand, he may simply have gotten a tip from a friend who saw the for rent sign in front of a nice looking building. Introducing the subject to what is available at an early stage is also a good ice breaker, it prompts the caller, who may not be as organized as you are, to ask questions which he thinks are important.

The monthly rent and advance deposits are the next most important thing to ensure the caller understands. This permits the caller to qualify himself, that is, to decide whether the rental is financially feasible for him.

The location of the property may not be apparent to the caller if he is from another town or area. The relative location of the property to transportation, stores and other amenities is always helpful.

If there are special house rules, it is important to make sure that these are mentioned. For example, if you have been advised that your older building is not structurally capable of accepting a waterbed on the second floor, and all you have is a second floor unit, this might be mentioned. Attractions, such as a pool, playground, or rec room, should also be part of the information conveyed.

What is gleaned from the conversation is also important to you. You will want to know what prompted the call, whether it was an ad, a referral or a drive by look at a for rent sign. Will the prospect be moving soon? Why is the prospect moving? Above all, find out who is calling.

Identifying the caller cannot be too heavily stressed. Is this person an investigator, or worse, a criminal, or a legitimate prospect? Even a legitimate prospect reluctant to give an identity is likely to be more trouble than he is worth.

Determining what prompted the call will yield information which has many uses. When done at an early stage, it will tell a lot about what to stress in the conversation. If the person simply saw the for rent sign and is making what amounts to a cold call, then a description of the property will be an important qualifier. On the other hand, by keeping track of where prospects come from, advertising for future prospects can be channelled into those media which are most productive.

When the prospect intends to move will say a lot about whether this person is serious at this particular time. A lot of people may contemplate a move in the future but are checking out the market now for planning purposes. For example, a family desiring to move after the school year ends might start making calls to test the market in February. You might not be willing to hold a unit open till June, but might well offer to call in May if any vacancies are expected at that time. It may well be that the unexpected vacancy occurring on May 31 does not even have to be advertised. On the other hand, if the prospect responds that he needs to move that afternoon, the next issue becomes even more pressing.

Always obtain a plausible reason for the move. If the prospect says that he needs to move instantly, take it as a danger signal. He may be skipping out on back rent, he may have received an eviction notice, or he may simply be separating from his spouse, or tired of a lousy, inattentive landlord. In any event, be meticulous in verifying all the information on the application and with the credit check. If the tenant provides a reasonable explanation for the move, this also is valuable information which can be used later.

The application of these principles will have permitted you to weed out those who are either obviously unqualified to rent, or shopping for something you do not offer. As to the balance, the information obtained will be extremely useful in structuring the showing, and the pitch which you intend to use in selling the qualified applicant. The telephone, used skillfully, can be a very useful screening tool.

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