Agents: How to stop people forgetting to sign out keys

If you feel like you’ll never get your staff to toe the line, try these suggestions

“I just can’t get my staff to do things properly” has to be just about the biggest complaint I hear from estate agency owners and lettings managers as I travel the country.

For many, getting people to sign out keys every time is a constant battle. At the same time, most people realise that getting this right is the single most important way to prevent keys going missing.

Though it’s easy to say “I’ll never get my negs to do it right” and accept it as a “fact of life”, in reality, signing out keys is just a simple organisational habit that you can embed without a great deal of effort. Here are the top things successful agents do to ensure that keys are issued correctly every time.

Locking keys to the board is the wrong place to start!

Locking pegboard systemSome assume that the best way to ensure people always sign out keys is to lock them into the cabinet, and that nothing short of this will work. The good news is that there are many (much cheaper) things you can do first.

In fact, physically locking keys down can have its own problems, such as the impracticality of the space needed for a chunky board and the cost.  You not only have to pay for the board (the most popular brand costs £280 for just 25 keys on Amazon), but you also need the special key rings and pegs to make it work.

Even peg locking mechanisms are often worked around when the staff are in a hurry.

Whilst a physical locking system can and does make sense for some, I only suggest coming back to it once you’ve tried all the other things below.

Stop ‘locking’ and start with ‘looking’ for the key

You probably know the many obvious security reasons for not writing your property addresses on keys, did you know that this (still alarmingly common) practice could also make your staff less likely to sign them out?

If it’s too easy identify that they’ve got the right key, people will get into a bad habit of grabbing it and running, certain in the knowledge that they have the right one.  Though it might save them a few seconds of time, it will leave you both out of compliance and exposed to all the risks of losing keys.  If they have to do a little work to find the key, but it’s then super easy to sign it out whilst they’re at it, then why wouldn’t they?

By contrast, if they have to look up the key in one place, only to need to go somewhere else to actually sign it out, then that all-important second step will almost always be skipped.

If you’re still using a paper list to find keys, keeping the list right next to your sign-out log is a must (but please remember to keep this list secure and lock it away at night!).

If your CRM offers you a basic sign-out log, then you might be able to use that. However…

Beware of too many clicks (or keep a pen handy)

Taking the path of least resistance is not just human nature, it’s a fundamental law of nature in general (think rivers, electricity, even evolution).  Anything that slows people down, even a little, is less likely to get done.  It’s absolutely critical that the process of finding a key, signing it out and getting out the door for that viewing can be accomplished with the absolute minimum of effort.

If you have an electronic tool for key tracking (e.g. the CRM system we talked about earlier) make sure that it is as rapid as humanly possible to get from knowing which key you need, to getting it signed out.  This can be measured in the number of clicks or key strokes to get the job done.  More than 3 of either and it’s time to find a faster option!

If you’re stuck with pen and paper, there are still ways to cut down the friction.  Just keeping a working pen tied to your logbook can make a surprisingly big difference.  You might also think about the amount of information someone needs to fill in.  Name, date and signature are about all you can ask for, or the friction is too high (yes, you’ll be sacrificing other important and useful information, but that’s better than keys not being signed out at all!).

Visual cues trigger the right habits

We’re all driven by our habits, and all good habits start with a trigger.  Most of us don’t have to think to brush our teeth in the morning, we just do it out of habit.   We want to make it a habit for the team to always sign keys out, so we need to trigger them to do it (there are many books on this subject- my favourite is Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”).

If you’ve already changed the computer system, or re-positioned the key book, then those changes themselves might be enough to trigger people to a new way of doing things.  Often it’s a good idea to add a visual stimulus, here are some common examples:

  • If you have a key room, (or a back room where keys are stored) a prominent poster asking “Have you signed the keys out?” should trigger the right response in the short term
  • Changing the keys themselves can also be helpful, for example add a brightly coloured tag

Reward good behaviours…

Once you’ve done all the physical things to get the right behaviour in place, don’t forget to show your appreciation as things start to improve.  The way you do that will probably depend on each individual within your team.  Rewards can be monetary, or you could try out a service like PerkBox, but don’t forget good old fashioned praise and sugary treats!

…And follow up the mistakes

The final important way to get people to toe the line (once you’ve made it as easy as possible to do so) is that you quickly pick up on the occasions when the process isn’t being followed.  Nobody likes to be seen to be getting it wrong, so you must take advantage of this to keep the right process front of mind in the early days.

Having someone with authority to actively monitor how well the keys are being managed is crucial, and often overlooked.  If people think nobody is watching, they’ll be inclined to cut corners.  On the other hand, if they know it will be noticed when they don’t do things properly, they are far more likely to put in the extra effort to get it right.

If you see people not following the process well, then you can follow up with them either individually or collectively.

In some circumstances (particularly with sales staff) negative incentives have been shown to work quite well. These often take the form of fines for not being signed out.  Turning the process into a game can also work, providing a special bonus for those people who handle keys well, and “naming and shaming” the worst performers. Whether this is right for you will depend on your business culture.

“What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker

You might have been wondering about how you know when things are going right or wrong.  Getting hold of the right information quickly is probably the biggest reason to use a dedicated key management system, as it is built to provide the right information to you.  However, it isn’t impossible to do it using paper and spreadsheets (it just might take a bit longer).  Depending on your CRM system, you might also be able to print useful property reports out (though many are sadly lacking good features for this).

Here are some thoughts on what to track:

  • How many keys are being signed out each day – is that what you expect?
  • Do you have more viewings, inspections and other visits scheduled in a day than you have keys signed out in the log?
  • Check at the end of the day which keys are outstanding – is this what you expect?
  • Are there any keys who have been signed out for a really long time? Who is responsible for following them up?

How long does it take to get key management right?

Most people find that after implementing the above steps, the effect on the way people sign out keys is pretty instant. If you start monitoring how people take and return keys, you could find the problem solved in under 2 weeks.  The challenge is to keep it going.

It’s worth investing the time to check on keys every single day in the first few weeks.  Following that, once you’re confident everything is working well, you’ll find you don’t need to check as frequently (and the process of  checking is much easier).  It’s super important that someone in your company is responsible for checking on the process regularly – check out this article for more on why, who and how to get someone in charge of keys.

Need any help with getting keys right?  Why not get in touch?

We’re working on a few free tools to help you and we’d also be happy to put you in touch with customers who’ve been through the process already.

London buses – they all come at once

A typical busy lettings office may give out on average 10 keys a day. That is an average of 20 transactions as each key has to be issued and returned. This sounds easy, and it is; after all that’s only an average of three transactions an hour. But just like London buses averages are tricky things.

A bus is scheduled every 10 minutes, but in London you can wait for half an hour and 3 buses will turn up at once. People who need keys are just like that, they arrive together; they often want them at the start of the day, not one or two very hour. Unsurprisingly these are also busy times because other people need attention for phone calls, visits and meetings at the same time. This is when a good key system saves you time, precisely when you need it most.

The average of 10 keys a day can also give you a distorted picture, it makes life look easy over a day, when in truth most activity is concentrated into a few busy times. This can be further distorted when you consider what a daily average of 10 keys means; some days only 1 or 2 keys are issued, on others it can be more than 20, but the average will still be 10.

Our records for some customers demonstrate that 4 out of 10 (40%) of all key transactions happen between 9 am and 11 am; what’s more for these customers 7 out of 10 (70%) of key transactions happen before 1 pm, lunch time.

We created Keyzapp to help people with the promise of making the mundane process of issuing keys easy and enjoyable. This makes it possible for everyone to manage keys, particularly when they are busy and under pressure.