“Every company should continually assess how they operate, how they can improve, where they want to be, and develop strategies to get them there.”
-Lulu Rodriguez-King Director of Strategy and Operations SFMC, Inc.
Lulu Rodriguez-King is Director of Strategy and Operations for SFMC, who has contributed to the company’s 25% growth in less than a year’s time. She has a degree in Management from George Mason University and is currently working on an MBA in Project Management.
SFMC is an 18-year-old community association management firm, with 37 employees in Manassas Virginia. The 180 communitites SFMC manages span the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia region. SFMC uses TOPS Professional Community Association Management Software and the TOPS GO! Mobile Management App to support their operations. Blog: http://sfmcnews.com
A New Role to Manage Growth
After going through a period of rapid expansion, owners George Ellis and Kathy Simonovich of SFMC, Inc. created a new position to ensure that their company’s growth would be managed well. They asked longtime employee Lulu Rodriguez-King to be SFMC’s first Director of Strategy and Operations.
“We recognized that we needed to strategize and put processes in place so that we could continue to grow in a way that benefited our company and our clients,” said Lulu. “My job is to look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and then figure out if there are ways we can improve how we operate.”
In addition to improving operations, Lulu interviews vendors, attends industry events and does some hiring and business development. “One of the first things I did when I came here was to revamp our proposals,” explained Lulu. “In fact that’s an ongoing process.”
Lulu sees continuous process improvement and enhancing customer service as her primary responsibilities.
Improving Customer Service
Early on, Lulu thought about how SFMC was providing customer service to their communities, things as simple as how they answered the phone.
“We changed our greeting to really convey our desire to serve and meet their needs,” explained Lulu. “Any homeowner could become a board member at any time, so relationships with the individual homeowners became as important to us as with the board.”
Lulu found that SFMC had great tools but was not using them to the extent that they could. “TOPS is part of almost everything we do,” she explained. “I spent the first four or five months assessing the software and our capabilities. We determined that the internal problems we encountered were not the software but our understanding of how to use it.”
Recognizing an opportunity, Lulu prepared to attend a TOPS CAMfire user event to help her understand exactly what TOPS could do. “Before I went we had a series of meetings so I could learn about the perceived issues. Then, with the understanding that I gained from attending the conference, I could go out and say, I know that we are able to resolve this issue because the capability is there.”
After CAMfire, SFMC worked closely with TOPS and had them come out for some on-site training, primarily for accounting, but also for CC&Rs. “In the end—WOW! We concluded that we had the ability to do all of the things we needed to,” she said.
Automating CC&R Processes
SFMC implemented TOPS GO! to speed the processing of violations. “Having attended the conference and the training, the way that we were processing violations and architectural applications seemed archaic when we have the tools within TOPS to automate every single thing.”
Now the processing of violation and architectural letters is more efficient and effective. “We’re not having to go to spreadsheets in different places,” Lulu said. “For me, the impact is better utilizing our staff time.”
“For instance, by using TOPS GO! for a community of 400+ homes we literally saved four to five hours of one person’s day processing violation letters. It affects all of our managers but primarily our three admins and a covenant administrator.”
Lulu also wanted to streamline accounts payable processes. She met the Strongroom™ representative [Strongroom provides TOPS integrated payables approval routing and lockbox] at the CAMfire Conference and arranged for the service. The results were stunning.
“Before, we had carts of invoices that would be shuffled around to managers and they were physically pulling out the bills and putting them back in and then pushing the cart to the AP/AR rep,” she explained.
“Our AP/AR staff were spending 65% of their day processing invoices; with the transition to automation we were able to cut that down to just 17% of their day. That’s a 50% reduction!”
The majority of calls SFMC receives are from residents about a violation or a question about their account. Because SFMC’s AP and AR staff were so bogged down with invoices, these telephone calls would often go to voicemail, increasing homeowner frustration.
“When people call in to talk about a late notice or have a question about their balance, they don’t like to leave messages. If a call goes to voicemail they’ll call back immediately. By freeing up the admins’ time they’re able to help them on the first call.”
Connecting on Social Media
SFMC uses Social Media to connect with homeowners and to provide useful information. Managers take pictures from events in their communities and tag homeowners and board members to draw them in to social media.
“What we’ve found is when we do those things we get really positive feedback from the community itself. They feel like we’re in touch with what they’re doing.” TOPS is the industry leading Community Management software solution, in use by thousands of organizations to manage millions of homes. TOPS is a complete accounting and property management system that brings all facets of community management together in one, integrated system.
With focused effort, Lulu has worked to consistently improve and streamline operations at SFMC, but there have been some challenges. She relates what she learned about managing change:
“At first it was a learning period. Initially everyone probably thought, ‘What is she doing? And is she going to be changing what I’m doing now?’”
“People can be averse to change, even if it’s a small change,” she said. “Change can be an obstacle only if it gets in the way of our ultimate goal.“
“It’s also important to give clear, thorough training and to allow time for a transition. When things are sprung on people there will be a lot of pushback. If you communicate in advance the direction you’re heading, there may still be some apprehension but it will be better received.”
“We go through a trial period making sure that everybody on the accounting side and executive side know exactly how a change will function before everyone else. That way if questions come up we’ll have people in house who will know how to resolve them quickly.”
“Taking stock, she related, “I have found of the things we implemented and plan to implement, almost everyone is on board.”
Working with Owners
Both of SFMC’s owners manage clients, go to board meetings and spend time out in the field. “That doesn’t give them a lot of opportunity to sit back and look at how the company is doing overall,” Lulu said. “This position gives them that view and the help they need to develop strategy internally.”
“Sometimes it’s beneficial to have an impartial eye. Part of my job is figuring out how to make us a better company. In a situation where the ownership is intimately involved in providing core services, it can be difficult to do overall assessments at that level of closeness.”
“That’s where it makes sense to bring someone in that can provide an overall assessment and view of company operations.”
Working closely with accounting, admin and managers, Lulu often acts as an ambassador to provide an additional layer of assessment and potential resolution. “I can convey that to the owners in a way that is beneficial for everyone,” she said.
“I think that no matter what, regardless of the industry, every company should continually assess how they operate, how they can improve, where they want to be, and develop strategies to get them there. If you’re not taking a look at what you’re doing and what you can potentially improve on and how you can grow the company, then you’ll remain stagnant or worse, decline.”
A Blueprint for Success
Lulu’s efforts as Director of Strategy and Operations have yielded a 25% growth for SFMC. She enthusiastically encourages other companies to create a similar position.
She concluded, “It would be extremely beneficial to have someone who knows what you do to provide recommendations on how you’re doing, develop strategy and work with leadership.
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