How to Conduct Customer-Friendly Eligibility Interviews
Qualifying households for tax credit housing is a complex, multilayered procedure. For site managers, the initial eligibility interview often proves to be the most challenging part of the process—and it causes a great deal of anxiety for applicants, as well. Being asked to provide a lot of personal information to a stranger makes many people apprehensive, and creates emotional barriers for site staff.
It takes skill and patience to integrate the tax credit program into an applicant-friendly interview, but there is a way to bring balance to the process, says Cindy Clare, president of Kettler Management. “While applicants have to meet certain guidelines, always keep in mind that they are your customers. Your goal is to provide them with a home,” she says. “It's necessary to give them the basic information about the affordable rent program, but if you start getting too mired in the details, they'll get confused, and you'll lose them.”
Clare trains her staff to integrate income and asset questions with a marketing pitch so that applicants don't feel as though they're being drilled. The goal is to “gather the information you need, but also give information to your prospect about why they want to live at your site,” she says.
Four Tips to Ensure a User-Friendly Process
The following tips will help you to ensure that the interview process makes efficient use of staff time, and is more user-friendly from the applicants' point of view.
Tip #1: Establish Rapport
Maintaining an atmosphere of friendliness and professionalism is key, says Cheryl McMillon, property manager, Rampart Apartments. People are generally more comfortable talking with someone who appears pleasant, organized, and nonthreatening.
Establishing a rapport at the start of the interview helps to put applicants at ease and will make them feel more comfortable discussing sensitive information. Clare suggests easing applicants into the interview by asking a few questions about their needs, such as what type of unit they're looking for, what size unit they need, and what types of amenities are important to them. “Get their name and talk about the features of the community, such as transportation, location, shopping—all of those things.”
Look for behavioral signals that rapport has been established, such as the person leaning forward, nodding in agreement, with uncrossed arms and a relaxed posture.
However, spending too much time upfront marketing the site and building rapport can end in wasted staff time and a disappointed applicant if the person is overqualified. “If you don't get around to the qualifications in a fairly quick manner, you get the person excited about living there—and then find that he doesn't qualify,” Clare says.
Clare suggests blending qualification questions into the interview in a way that makes the conversation flow smoothly. For instance, based on the needs that the applicant has revealed, instead of diving immediately into “What's your income?” try a gentle approach with a transitional phrase like: “Residents in our community need to meet minimum and maximum income guidelines.”
“Then you can ask how many people will be living in the unit, and move into the dollars-and-cents information,” Clare says.
Tip #2: Maintain the Relationship
In addition to giving out information about the site and eligibility requirements, remember that the interview is a two-way conversation. Active listening techniques will help you to maintain rapport with applicants, clarify what has been said, and obtain more detailed information.
Active listening involves using verbal and visual cues to let applicants know that you're listening and to encourage them to keep talking. Verbal cues include words and phrases such as: “Yes,” “I see,” “I understand,” “Of course,” and “I know what you mean.” Visual cues include making constant eye contact and nodding.
“Listen for any confusion,” Clare says. “Make sure that the prospective resident clearly understands the requirements and ask clarifying questions as necessary.”
Examples of clarifying questions and remarks include:
Can you tell me more about that?
We may need to check this out further.
Let me make sure that I understand you.
Do I have it right?
I think I understand why you would be confused.
Mirroring the applicant's conversational style will also aid in maintaining rapport and keeping the conversation moving along. Always avoid jargon and fancy vocabulary, and try to match the applicant's rate of speaking. For instance, if she speaks slowly, then reduce your pace to match hers.
Tip #3: Review Information with Applicants
Be sure to include several checkpoints within the interview process to pause and check with applicants for their questions or concerns before proceeding.
McMillon says that it's also important to conduct a final review of each application to ensure that applicants are not disqualified because of an incomplete document. She goes over each application page by page with the applicant, and highlights missing information and areas that need further clarification.
Tip #4: Explain Next Steps and Deadlines
Before wrapping up the interview, make sure that all of the applicant's questions have been answered and explain what will happen next.
Give applicants a reasonable time expectation, Clare says. “It's not a quick process, as with a conventional community where managers can run a credit check online and be done. We have to do the third-party verifications and make sure that they've met all of the compliance requirements, which takes a little longer.”
Cindy Clare, CPM: President, Kettler Management; (703) 226-6010; firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheryl McMillon: Property Manager, Rampart Apts.; (409) 963-2185; email@example.com
Online Screening Tools Save Time
Tax credit managers can save time and resources by providing eligibility information on the property's Web site.
Kettler Management oversees tax credit units in over 26 communities in the Washington Metropolitan area. Kettler's Web site (http://www.kettler.com) hosts an online leasing tool provided by VaultWare to allow prospects to check unit availability, prequalify, and reserve a unit online.
The Web site offers a detailed description of the affordable apartments program and eligibility requirements, along with the types of information applicants will be asked to supply, an explanation of maximum allowable income, what is counted, and the recertification process. Prospects can view details on available units, such as number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, prices, and availability dates. When the link is accessed, a pop-up box reveals tax credit information, such the maximum annual family income based on the number of people in the household. A second tab in the box brings up additional requirements and more information about income qualification.
The online prequalification has been very successful, says President Cindy Clare. “People can do it in the privacy of their own homes and have a better understanding of whether they will qualify. It also gives them a better understanding of the process.”
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