How to avoid losing keys in the busy period: A guide for short stay and holiday rental companies

It’s mid-July and that means the busy summer season is already underway for folks in the Northern Hemisphere. Keys will be going in and out of the office with ever increasing frequency, and staying on top of them can be hard work! As we all know, a key in the wrong place can cause no end of woe for you and your team. It usually leads to bad guest experiences, delays in servicing, frustrated staff and angry landlords.

Working with short stay companies around the world, I often get asked about “best practice”. I thought I’d write a quick guide, based on what we’ve seen and the experience of our clients- I hope it’s helpful!

1. Make sure you have enough copies

When you’ve got keys going in and out to staff, contractors and guests, have enough sets available all the times. It will really make life easier! It may be that another person needs access to a property before the last person has returned the keys. Most short stay and holiday rental companies we work with keep at least 4 sets of keys – 2 for guests, 1 for cleaning and maintenance and one for management.

Having two sets of guest keys can reduce the number of times you’re asked to provide a spare when guests lose them or lock themselves out. It also buys you time to get other sets ready or re-cut. A side effect can be that the guests feel more loved!

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another “emergency” set that can be used as a template for getting keys re-cut (see below).

2. Separate your guest sets and management sets

Not every set of keys we hold is the same. We often need keys to access parts of a property that guests should not access, such as utilities cupboards and water meters. Over the course of a busy season, some guests will inevitably lose keys, so it’s important to keep those sets down to as few as possible. This will reduce cost and hassle of getting keys re-cut or locks changed.

The other reason for separating the sets is because the way you handle guest keys is often very different to the way you manage keys for staff, cleaning and maintenance. Having a different set for different purposes often makes sense. It helps everyone if you can make the sets visibly different, so people looking at them can instantly see what type of set they are. The most common way to do this is either using a different coloured tag or a different label. Some people do both!

If the key rings you are giving out contain high-value items that are likely to go missing (e.g. parking fobs, or high security keys) you might also consider adding tamper-proof keyrings to certain sets. Tamper Proof Keyrings can become very expensive, so this might only be worth doing for the high-risk sets.

3. Ensure strict accountability for everyone who takes keys

This is the big one – and it’s also the hardest. Without strong accountability, it’s almost impossible to stay on top of your keys.

What do we mean by accountability? It means that any person who takes keys knows, understands and accepts what it means to have keys in their possession. You need to have rules and processes that everyone understands and follows. There must be also be significant consequences for not following the right process.

The main thing to ensure is that anyone taking keys is responsible for ensuring that they are returned in the same condition they were taken, within the time frame you set.

If a person does not follow your process correctly or loses a set of keys in their possession, then there are consequences. Usually that means being liable to pay the replacement costs (including the relevant administration costs) if keys are lost, but it can also mean missing KPIs for staff and contractors, and even remuneration if keys come back late.

How you manage accountability will likely differ between staff, contractors and guests. For guests it will probably form part of your Terms and Conditions, and most people will expect to pay a charge for lost keys. For staff and contractors it’s important to have a key management policy in place, which may for part of their general contract, which outlines their responsibility.

The golden rule for accountability should be that whoever the key log says has the keys is the person responsible for them. This brings us neatly to the next point….

4. Track everything

If making sure everyone knows their responsibilities when they take keys is the most important thing, then the only way to enforce that accountability is through effective tracking. It is critical that you can reliably track who has a key at any given point. With reliable tracking, you will always know who is responsible. Having observed our clients over many years, there is an astonishing improvement in the way people look after keys, as soon as they know they are being tracked and monitored.

Tracking keys effectively is easier said than done. Below are the main things you’ll need to track:

Key Issue / Signing keys out

The big danger is that if people take a key without signing it out, it’s impossible to track. You need to make sure that the right person is accountable for a key when it is taken. Here are a couple of ways you can do that:

1. Ensure that keys are only issued by dedicated staff.

These are people whose job it is to hand over keys and ensure things are accurately recorded. These people are incentivised to do things properly, since if something goes wrong and a key is missing, then they are ultimately accountable. What’s important here is that only these trusted individuals have access to the key cabinet and the list/database of which key goes with which property (never, ever, write the property address on the key tag)

2. Use a software system or key database to audit who looks up keys.

This is the most flexible approach. If people have to rely on a database to find the key they are looking for, then a sophisticated system such as Keyzapp will be able to tell you the last person who looked for a key, even if they fail to sign it out properly. If people are using the same system to look up keys and sign them out, then in practice this rarely happens, since it’s so easy to sign it out at the same time as you look it up. Any mistakes that are made become very easy to pick up and correct.

3. Physically lock keys in place until they can be signed out.

There are a number of hardware options on the market that prevent people taking keys unless they are fully signed out, ranging from mechanical “peg boards” to highly sophisticated cabinets that use fingerprint or facial recognition. These options can be used together with software systems if you want the best of both worlds. The only thing to bear in mind is that even basic mechanical systems can be quite expensive to buy and maintain. They also take up quite a bit of physical space, which many people don’t have.

Key return / Signing keys in

Once you’ve got people accountable when keys go out of the office- it’s in their own best interests to sign them in properly. All you need to do is enforce a rule that says “If the key is not signed in, then whoever is in the log as having taken it is the person responsible. No arguments.”

Old fashioned pen and paper can still work here, provided you regularly check the keys still signed out. In our experience it’s much better to have a system that makes it clear when keys are not back after a period of time, as this helps prevent key loss and eliminates the need to comb through pages and pages of logs when something goes wrong.

Tracking key handovers

This one is particularly relevant to the Short Stay sector, where keys often pass between people outside of the office. If this regularly happens in your business then you need a good way to audit when keys change hands- if not, the person who takes the keys from the office ends up unfairly “on the hook” (pardon the pun) for keys that go missing. You want to avoid those awkward “he-said, she-said” arguments, which are bad for morale, and lead people to lose faith in the system.

Tracking key handovers outside of the office has traditionally been one of the most difficult things to do. You really have 3 options:

1. Enforce a rule to report every key handover back to base.

Ideally, whenever people exchange keys outside of the office, they must inform the office who can update the records, and send a confirmation to each party that the responsibility for the keys has changed hands. This is quite time consuming for all concerned, and if not done properly can lead to errors or disputes. Many fast-paced companies find it impractical, but it can work on a small scale especially if key exchanges are rare.

2. Simply don’t allow key handovers between people.

This is probably the best option if you don’t have a system that supports it. It will probably mean keeping and tracking more sets of keys for each property, but this is a price worth paying for better accountability.

3. Use an app or system that supports transfer of keys between people.

Here you can make use of mobile devices to electronically record key handovers quickly and easily. We’re not aware of anything other than Keyzapp that makes the process this easy.

5. Put someone in charge

Putting someone in charge of your key process is the critical factor to ensuring that all keys are accounted for. Even if you allow people to take keys for themselves, you still need someone to oversee the process and regularly check it’s working properly. The person best suited for this role is a senior detail-orientated person, who isn’t the office manager. In our experience, the boss isn’t well suited to this role, because they are usually too busy. Equally don’t give the job to the most

junior member of the team, as they don’t have the authority to hold people to account, and may not fully understand your key system. I wrote an article on this last year for letting agents that it might be worth a look at.

6. Review Status Regularly

Whichever system you choose to track and manage your keys, you still need to check how things are going. Once people know that the key log is regularly reviewed, I guarantee you’ll see an immediate improvement in behaviour. The review should usually be done by the person in charge of the key process, reporting to the office manager. We recommend that you review the log at least once a week, but you may like to do it more often, especially in the early days. With the right tools and process it’s a very quick check. There are 4 main things to review:

1. What keys are overdue?

Any electronic system that allows you to record key sign-outs should also allow you to track a due back date, making this information easy to find. If keys are overdue, then you should chase them up as soon as possible. Overdue keys that aren’t returned quickly tend to go missing. If you’ve followed the advice above, at least you’ll know who is responsible should the worst happen.

2. Which are my at-risk properties?

These are properties where you have no current keys in the office. If you have an emergency and all keys are signed out, then you may be in a difficult situation. See if you can get at least one set back, even if not yet overdue.

3. Does the number of key sign-outs look right?

This helps you be sure that your keys are being signed-out properly. If properties are cleaned on every checkout, does the number of sign-outs from cleaners correlate to the number of checkouts you’ve had this week? If not, dig a little deeper and see who in your team needs more training.

4. Spot check the cabinet.

Pick a couple of random key hooks to go and check. Use your records to work out how many sets of keys you should have right now for a few properties. It’s good to pick a couple at random and some where you know there has been recent activity. This helps you see if people have been following the process properly. If you’ve just added a lot of keys or you’ve changed your process, you should do this more frequently.

7. What to do when guests lose keys

You’ll almost certainly have a process in place for guests losing their keys, but here are a few pointers.

If you charge guests a fee for key/lock replacement, factor in the admin time as well as the direct costs. Getting a locksmith out or sending a member of the team to get new keys cut can be very time consuming and the invoices/receipts can generate a lot of admin. Make sure you communicate clearly any charges that you have to your guests.

A guest losing keys can often give you two problems. Firstly you need to give guests access to the property again by giving them a spare set of keys. Secondly, you may also need to get new keys cut. Ensure you have enough spares so you can do both these things in parallel. We’ve already covered how having two sets of guest keys can make this easier.

Did this help? Any questions?

Well done for making it to the end of what turned out to be quite a long post. I hope you found it useful. Do you have any questions? Have I missed something that’s important to you? Please get in touch by leaving a comment below. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Make sure you have enough keys to cover all the coming and going and still have one spare in the office for emergencies
  2. Separate your guest sets and management sets, and make it obvious which is which
  3. Make sure everyone knows the rules with keys and the consequences of not following them
  4. Keep a detailed key log
  5. Put someone in charge and review the log regularly for issues

Public Sector Organizations: Keyzapp is now available on G Cloud

We’re delighted to announce that Keyzapp has been approved for purchase by UK Public Sector organisations using the Government’s Digital Marketplace, or G Cloud.  If you work in the public sector and need  a low cost solution for tracking keys and other small assets, you can now purchase Keyzapp more quickly and easily than ever before at a standard low rate, using a pre-agreed contract framework.  This should make your procurement team very happy.

We’re delighted to have been accepted into the marketplace, and hope that this puts Keyzapp within reach of more of our country’s institutions, such as schools. local authorities, healthcare providers and their contractors.

You can find us on the digital marketplace here

If you have any questions about Keyzapp and how to purchase through G Cloud please get in touch!

Managing Keys: Is this your Worst Nightmare?

Imagine the scenario. Your client arrives to collect their keys. You go to the cabinet, and they aren’t there. Who has them? Where are they? Who had them last? At best you look disorganised – at worst you look unprofessional and a risk to your client’s security.

How did this happen?! The answer is quite surprising. Most letting agents don’t consider the release and return of keys as a ‘process’ which needs attention.  And… if that process isn’t cared for, it is easy for it to go wrong. However, if it is properly managed, it not only stops you looking like a risk, but also saves the team time and can even impress your clients.

So do YOU have a key management process?

Basically, if you hold keys that you issue to different people throughout the day or week, then yes, you do.  But have you ever given any thought to what that process really is? Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of people haven’t.

Whether you’re a letting agent, accommodation manager, facilities manager or receptionist, it can really help to have a clear process for looking after your keys and help make sure that things are done consistently and efficiently.

In this blog, I’ll explain what Key Management is, why it’s important and outline some of the things you might want to think about when designing yours.  Don’t worry- it won’t take long to put right!!

What is key management?

Key management is the active process (or, really a set of processes) that businesses use to keep track of their physical keys.

These keys may be owned by the business itself (for example, they may unlock storerooms, lockers, offices, meeting rooms or classrooms) or they might be keys you hold so that you can grant access to the property of others (e.g. in a real estate agency, property management or service companies such as cleaning and security).

Although the way you manage key will probably be unique to your company, the 4 basic processes that you’ll need to take care of are more-or-less the same for everyone. These processes are

  1. Taking charge and tagging of keys.
  2. Issuing and returning keys.
  3. Monitoring key use
  4. Archiving

Let’s have a look at these in a bit more detail.

1.Taking charge

When you receive a set of keys for the first time, you usually need a process for capturing the details of that key and making sure that you can find it when you next need it.

If you’re a building manager or concierge, you may only need to do this once while setting up your process as the keys that you manage will rarely change.

If you’re growing a property portfolio of rentals, lettings, or serviced accommodation, then you will likely be taking charge of new keys all the time. The way you do this process might be different, but the things you do will likely be very similar.

  1. Record what the key is for, property address, room number or car registration.
  2. Give the key a reference number. It’s almost always a very bad idea to write what the key is for directly on the keys, so you’ll need to give a reference number or some other identifier so you can find it again.
  3. Give it a storage location. This may or may not be included in the reference number that you just gave it.
  4. Record the key ring details. What specific keys are on the key ring? Are there any other things like electronic fobs associated? Are there any other aspects of the key that should be recorded? State how it should be used.

2. Issuing and Returning

Once you have charge of a key, you’re likely to occasionally give it out to different people and you’ll need a process for tracking who you’ve given it to.

This is typically done with pen and paper (not something I’d recommend in the 21st century) or an electronic system of some kind.  When capturing who has taken a key, we recommend you always do the following:

  1. Record the key reference
  2. Record who is taking the key (and is now responsible for it)
  3. Record when it’s due back

You may want to capture a signature or provide some sort of receipt for keys given out. Many people find this is less necessary if you have a good electronic audit system in place.

When returning keys, you’ll need to track those keys back in and state where they’ve been stored.

3. Monitoring

Monitoring is critically important. This is the process that is most often overlooked and where things usually start to go wrong.

It’s rarely enough to simply have a process for issuing and returning keys – it’s the active monitoring of which keys are out which are due back that prevents the hassle of chasing around for a key at the last minute.

Even the best of us forget things every now and again and when we’re busy, it’s very easy to forget that we’ve still got the key.

The most common cause of key-loss is when someone forgets to sign them back in and the problem isn’t noticed immediately.  It might be weeks before the key is needed again and the problem is uncovered, by which time it’s often too late.

It’s therefore crucial that you have a regular process to check which keys are still out and which should be back by now, making sure you chase any late keys home before they have time to become lost.

You’ll need regular activities to:

  1. Check key status
  2. Chase overdue keys

4. Archiving

At some stage you may stop managing a set of keys. Perhaps you’ve stopped working with the property that the keys are protecting, or for some reason you’ve changed over a lock.

It’s crucial ensure you take action at this stage and that you record what you’ve done. Having keys you no longer need lying around only adds clutter and increases the chances of future mistakes and security risks.

The process here will probably vary depending on your industry.  Do you need to return the keys to the owner or dispose of them securely? What records do you need to keep? Does anyone else need to be informed?

What does your Key Management process look like?

Hopefully you agree that having a fully thought-out process is not an option, but is 100% necessary to keep your keys safe and prevent wasted time in the office. If you don’t have one, why not get get it in place right now?  If you’ve got a process- have you got all the bases covered?

Is your process written down?

Putting your process in writing is really important.  In many industries, it’s now a necessity, where legislation and codes of conduct require evidence that you are working in a compliant manner (for example the Letting Industry in Scotland).

Writing your process out also helps you to clarify the areas that may not be working efficiently.  What I often see is that most people give most attention to the first two processes (Tagging, Issuing and Returning) but the crucial monitoring and archiving are often less well defined.

Would you like some help with documenting your process?  We’re working on some templates to help.  Why not register your interest here? Or get in touch to discuss further.

Letting Agents: Avoid this Big Mistake with your Keys!

So, what’s this big key mistake that many people are making?

Have you ever had that embarrassing situation when you can’t find a property key with a client standing right next to you? It usually isn’t your fault – ‘someone else’ had it last (but no one knows who or when)! It’s an agent’s nightmare. Continue reading “Letting Agents: Avoid this Big Mistake with your Keys!”

Combating the August Myth: It’s ANYTHING BUT a quiet month

August is a time for holiday and relaxing, right?  Then why is it that everyone I speak to at the moment is stressed?  There’s a “received wisdom” out there that businesses in the Northern Hemisphere generally shut down over August, and it simply isn’t true in a lot of cases.  The problem with received wisdom like this is that it can often mean that we subconsciously relax, and drift into August, only to find it’s a super busy month.

Here are some thoughts on what makes August a unique month in the business calendar, and what that means for the way we approach the summer. Continue reading “Combating the August Myth: It’s ANYTHING BUT a quiet month”

Free Tickets to ARLA Exhibition 2016 – Excel London

If you’re looking improve an aspect of your lettings or property management business, the new-look ARLA Exhibition on 12th April in London’s Excel Centre is a must-attend event.  This year, for the first time, the exhibition is free and open to all, with over 75 exhibitors covering all aspects of the property industry.
Check out the list of exhibitors here >>>

The exhibition accompanies the annual conference of the largest industry body, the Association of Residential Letting Agents. Since you don’t need to be a member of ARLA to attend, you can benefit by networking with your peers and seeing what others are up to in the Private Rental Sector. Continue reading “Free Tickets to ARLA Exhibition 2016 – Excel London”

Centralise Key Management

Overview

Whether you are already managing a large number of offices or beginning the process of expansion, Keyzapp can help remove a significant co-ordination challenge.

Keyzapp’s solution

As all growing businesses know, successful expansion brings with it its own set of challenges. In the lettings and property management industry, a bigger portfolio means more keys to take care of – often spread across multiple offices and teams. As lettings and management companies typically grow out from a central location, branches are often only a few miles apart, and landlords and tenants expect to be able to deal equally with one branch as they do another. With the management of keys spread across multiple locations, there’s plenty of potential for things to fall through the gaps if no rigorous system is in place.

Keyzapp enables you and your staff to manage keys across multiple offices and offsite locations with complete ease.

Simply logging on to Keyzapp allows you to view the location of all your keys. Whether you need to identify whether a key is in the office or confirm that it has been issued to contractor, checking online takes seconds and saves calls between offices and rummaging through desks and cupboards.

Centralising your key management system also enables you to avoid issues that occur as multi-office operations become out of sync with each other. A common complaint from our customers is that contractors turning up at an office only to find there is no key available for them, resulting in a callout fee. Using Keyzapp, your staff can ensure that a key is in stock before an appointment is made.

Our customers always emphasise the importance of knowing exactly what’s going on with their properties, and recognise the benefit of being able to track this quickly by viewing a key history. Since keys can be issued from a number of different locations, paper-based systems and spreadsheets start to fall down as accurate records of key history, and it becomes difficult and time-consuming to pull together all the activities that happened on a property. Because Keyzapp works seamlessly across multiple offices, all key issuing and returning records are stored securely in a central location. A single click will tell you everything you need to know about where, when and who had a property’s keys. Our customers report that this saves a lot of time in investigations and it is used frequently to double check contractor invoices.

Setting up IT systems across multiple offices can be hard work, but with Keyzapp all you need is an internet connection and you can have multiple offices up and running in minutes!