Students often ask me how to sell to condo boards. I’ve experienced things from both sides. I was on a condo board for four years in Philadelphia, and two of those years I served as president, so I know what it’s like to run a board of five or six people and hold a three-hour meeting each month. It was tough at times; however, it ultimately gave me an insider’s view of how major decisions get made in these settings.
To start, there are three main players in the condo world in addition to the condo owners and renters themselves. Each player has different priorities:
- The condo board
- The property manager
- The onsite maintenance staff
The challenge is creating a solution that interests all three at once. I've used this paraphrased quote from Eisenhower in the past: “Whenever I run into a problem that is seemingly intractable, I almost always find it easier to solve if I make it bigger.” My recommendation would be to open up the aperture and take a wide-angled view of this selling opportunity.
Here’s what you need to know about boards. First of all, many of them lack financial and technical expertise. What they don’t lack is a variety of personalities. Some board members may have been on the board for 10 years while others are rookies and just trying to figure out what's going on. There are others who are on the board because they're frustrated condo owners (in some cases holding multiple units) and want to take matters into their own hands to protect their investment and have their voices heard. There are a variety of motivations at play, and the sooner you’re aware of them the better.
Second, in my experience boards have no set structure in terms of meetings. Some are monthly while others are bi-monthly or quarterly. The more elongated the periodicity, the more difficult it is to get things done because people forget agenda items. Also, these meetings typically take several hours, so it’s essential not to bore anyone.
Many of the board members don't read the “board package” before they come to the meeting, which is all the more reason you should go in with an elevator pitch and a one-page proposal. Most board members are unable or unwilling to invest several hours preparing for each board meeting, even though the agenda could be covered more efficiently if they did! And of course, their lack of technical expertise can be a parking brake on progress. Some of these people may only be comfortable doing business with family and friends because they don't want to do the due diligence needed to get comfortable with new vendors; it’s simply easier to fall back on prior relationships. Other board members may be retired, with a background in a business that is far afield from running a condo complex. For all these reasons, you really need to communicate in language that even a layperson can appreciate and understand.
Third, if you can get an insider’s view of what the relationships between the board members are, you’ll have a better chance of facilitating the decision-making process. I’d recommend going to events where the board members would have a reason to see you and begin building trust. Find out what their concerns and pain points are, which should help you soft-circle agreement on how you and your offerings could bring value to their property.
Of course, you can’t approach the board without coordinating with the property managers and maintenance team as well. Most sales people think the property managers pull the strings; however, it has been my experience that they are under contract as long as they don’t screw up. A balance has to be struck between the condo owners, board members and maintenance company. Some have very symbiotic relationships while others find it challenging to work together.
Regardless, you need to know where they stand with one another. You might want to pitch to property managers who are fondly regarded by their condo board clients so you and the manager can approach the each of the boards together. In some cases, the property manager may be on thin ice with the condo board, which may give them an incentive to present proposals for expense-reducing initiatives. On the other hand, if the board thinks their property manager is truly the village idiot, your proposal may be tarred with the same brush. It would be best to choose another approach to open discussions with the board.
The same could be said for onsite maintenance or the mechanical engineers who are on staff. I’d advise that you do your homework, because you need to know whether the onsite maintenance folks are savvy enough to understand (and ideally endorse) what you’re hoping to propose. If they don't, you need to make it clear that their lack of expertise won’t stand in the way of a quality installation; that onsite training is available; or, that your offerings are self-sustaining.
Every time you deal with a condo board the variables are different. That said you need to engage and satisfy all stakeholders: the condo board, the property manager, the onsite maintenance team and of course, the condo owners and renters themselves. Understand how each person sees his or her role and how they view the other parties' roles. If you learn to balance their needs, you’ll avoid a frustrating experience.