Caring hurts. But it’s better than not.

Today, at one minute to closing time, I was passed a phone call that made me cry.

It’s simple enough. Someone had water damage in a flat they’re trying to sell – a flat their mother died in – and we’re the managing agents for the block. We were told on Tuesday that an overflow was going, who was responsible for fixing it? We explained, a colleague and I because both the Executor as owner and the estate agent phoned in, that the owner of the flat the overflow related to was responsible. If they could just check for us to confirm that it wasn’t their flat? Oh no, they lived too far away. Well, could the agent look? The agent didn’t know which flat it was and anyway, from the owner, surely it was our responsibility.

It being a block I am involved with, I phoned the Chairman of the Lessee-owned Freehold Company and he very kindly took a look. When he phoned back, he advised that there was evidence an overflow in that area had been leaking, but it did seem to have been fixed. I phoned the agents back to let them know and this was when I was told there was resultant water damage in the flat and who was going to fix this. We would need to look into it, I explained. Could they send us some photos as a first step, as the actual property manager (for whom I act as assistant-cum-secretary) is currently unwell? These, strangely, came from the owner even though he lives too far away to know which overflow was going. They also showed some small mould formation that could as easily be condensation as actual water ingress. He phoned shortly before 5pm to check they had arrived, wondering why he hadn’t had a response (there is an auto-response on emails coming into the office saying that it can take 5 days to respond, so we very rarely bother with additional acknowledgement unless one is clearly required. In this case, the damage looked minimal and, assuming the source of the damage to be the leaking overflow and not condensation, the source had been fixed – it wasn’t going to be getting any worse). I took his number and left a message for the property manager to phone him if he was back in the office tomorrow.

Wednesday morning, and the PM for the block was indeed back in. He accordingly phoned and confirmed he would look into it – and then we sent him home for not being well because he was clearly very ill (we suspect stress but fear glandular fever). As a result, I don’t know whether he has had a chance to take a look or not. The agent phoned and I said that I couldn’t tell him any more, but maybe tomorrow.

So this morning, the agent phones again and I explain, no the PM is still unwell so no, I don’t have an update. I can ask the lady who deals with insurance, but she’s in a meeting right now and I may not be able to catch her. I will let you know whether I do or not (knowing but not admitting that her part-time hours mean she may end up going home straight with the meeting finishing if it overran, knowing it was likely to overrun, knowing neither she nor I will be in tomorrow). I didn’t catch her. More urgent issues arose at another block we manage, so when I spoke to the PM when he phoned in, it slipped my mind to ask about this small patch of damp. I phoned the agent back to apologise that I didn’t have an update and that I wouldn’t be in tomorrow so it would now be Monday before I could get back to them.

At one minute to 5, the Boss’s daughter took a call. She passed it to me, telling me it was the owner. I nearly, so nearly, said I couldn’t take it, but that wouldn’t have been a very responsible or professional thing to do so instead, against every self-preservation instinct in my body and brain, I let her transfer him to me. He asked for an update. I explained I had spoken to his agent earlier and repeated what I had said. This was simply not good enough. He started getting an aggressive edge to his tone. I apologised but explained it couldn’t be helped, he would have to wait til Monday. He started twisting my words, making out that I’d said things I hadn’t. He started shouting. He wouldn’t let me speak. He accused the company of being useless. Implied we were money-grabbing. I find that difficult – somehow I am expected to keep calm, to keep civil when people are talking shit to me.

There’s a rule in our office: if someone swears at you, you hang up. No questions. You make sure you tell someone or write down why you hung up, but hang up you do. The Boss gets very unhappy if he hears we have let a customer swear at us. Most of us, of course, break this rule 99% of the time. We can put up with a lot.

I was very ready to hang up on this person.

This person did not swear.

He said we were useless, implied we over-charged. I have worked for other companies in the same industry and I took the job with this one even though it came with a lower salary and none of the perks of another position I was headhunted for because this company genuinely (even with the prejudices I’ve mentioned before) wants to do what’s right for its customers. This company has kept its fees down to try to help customers out. This company has stopped charging the additional fees it used to charge to help its customers out. I have issues with the attitudes towards minorities expressed within the office, but I cannot fault the company’s commitment to its customers. I wasn’t allowed to get angry back, so I started to shake. The upset got right through me, crawled under my flesh and into my fibres, crackled through my bones.

He insisted I make someone phone him first thing in the morning. He shouted his number at me in double-time. My hand was shaking so much I couldn’t have written it even if he’d spoken slowly. It took me 3 attempts to get the number.

It was well-gone closing time. The office is quieter in the afternoons, as a lot of the staff are part-time and finish between lunch and 3. The Boss and the other property managers were all out on various site visits or meetings. Despite this, I had all bar 2 members of staff who should have left at 5 stood around me, offering moral support. They could hear him shouting and see me shaking.

I wrote the number down and told him I would leave a message for someone to call him and hung up, cutting him off mid-sentence as he talked over me.

I wanted to burst into tears but there’s a weird culture of not showing tears in the office – even when it would make sense. If someone does get teary, everyone looks away.

I swallowed my tears.

I was shaking so hard my ring flew off.

The various staff told me that I should have hung up sooner, that I didn’t have to put up with people like that. They left.

The Boss’s secretary didn’t tell me I should have hung up sooner. She didn’t leave. She pulled my drawers out to rescue my ring. I was so upset I considered leaving without it. She let me get a glass of water and then asked me to write the person’s name and the property address down so she could take care of it for me in the morning. She understood (I know because I have seen her in the same state) that I couldn’t have hung up sooner.

This is not the first time someone has made me cry on the phone. It will not be the last. There are people who believe that I need to harden up, but I think they’re wrong.

I was very angry with the man who made me feel like this. I felt very hurt by him. I still feel hurt and a little angry, but it’s no longer directed.

The thing is, I know his mother hasn’t been dead for very long, so I know that he’s probably hurting inside. I know that trying to sell a property isn’t easy (even if you don’t live there or maybe especially when you live a way away) and I know it won’t be the only stress in his life.

I think he was being unrealistic in his expectation that it would all be resolved already and I think he was being unreasonable in taking it out on me, but I understand.

The sensitivity that makes me so hurt by this also means I can empathise with people in need – which means I am better able to fight their corner when necessary and better able to understand the importance of my job and so am better suited to it.

I see some of the hardened people and they don’t understand when someone is upset that there is water getting into their flat. They don’t make it a priority and the damage gets worse. Financially, this is bad as it results in a more expensive claim but more importantly it is bad for the customer.

I want to care for my customers. I will accept the bruising.

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