RLC Residences' Chad Sotelo on How an Excellent Customer Experience Drives Success

Robinsons Land's vertical residential division is solidly built on its customer-centric culture

Whether it’s due to his leadership and marketing skills, a matter of good timing and luck, or perhaps a combination of these factors, RLC Residences has been setting sales records and filling up its trophy case ever since John Richard “Chad” Sotelo joined the vertical residential division of Robinsons Land Corporation just a little over two years ago.

Eager to learn more about the drivers behind RLC Residences’ recent success, we’ve scheduled a chat with Chad, the company’s Senior Vice President and Business Unit General Manager, at his office in Cyber Alpha, Ortigas.

Casually attired in a short-sleeved polo shirt and slacks, Chad enters the meeting room with a smile. In one hand, a giant paper cup of coffee, and in the other, a list of initial questions that we sent earlier. “These are a lot,” he laughs, before discreetly checking the time. He has a meeting with RLC President and CEO Frederick D. Go right after this, he politely reminds us. We don’t want him to be late, of course, so our interview begins. 

Know the Business, Know the Customer

Chad probably wouldn’t be chatting with us today if his father had his way. In an alternate universe, Chad might be working now as an investment banker. His educational background – his major at De La Salle University was Management of Financial Institutions – certainly pointed in that direction, but Chad’s heart simply wasn’t into banking.

“I remember one of my professors telling the class, ‘You'll all end up either in a bank or in a treasury department somewhere.’ So, I raised my hand and said, not me!” True to his word, Chad started his career doing something else.

For his first two jobs, he was a business analyst for two international consulting firms, before realizing that his true passion lay in sales, marketing, and business development. From 2006 onwards, he began carving out a career in marketing, from personal care products (Procter & Gamble) and cosmetics (L’Oreal), to electronics (Samsung) and consumer appliances (Electrolux); now, he's into real estate.

Adapting to these seemingly dissimilar industries wasn’t that difficult, confesses Chad. “It was relatively easy transitioning from each of these companies, because they’re all about consumer goods in one way, shape, or form,” he says.

The one exception was the move to RLC Residences, which was both challenging and fun. “Shifting to real estate was a bigger challenge because this is the first time that I'm in a direct selling business. That’s something [RLC President and CEO] Frederick Go always reminds me. We don't sell through stores. We don't work with retailers. We have an almost 2,000-strong sales force, and we sell directly to our buyers.”

To ease the transition into his new role, Chad recalled what worked for him in the past: “I always fall back on ‘Know the customer’ and ‘Know the business.’”

Hoping to gain insights on RLC’s customers and what their needs or wants were, Chad says he met more than 300 of them over the last two years or so. When scrolling on the company’s Facebook page, he’d often message the people who were leaving comments.

In terms of learning about the business, Chad is all praises for the team that onboarded him as quickly as possible, even if most of it was done online for around two months, due to the lockdown caused by the Delta variant. Chad’s immediate goal was how to steer the residential division to perform better. “If you erase the pandemic, 2019 was the best year ever. I joined a division that had 30 years of real estate experience. You have people who are experts at what they do. So, I had to find out what drives the business and figure out how to harness the talents of a great organization to get them to be even greater.”

In Chad’s view, this company culture reflects the Entrepreneurial Mindset, one of the three core values of the Gokongwei Group, with the other two being Integrity and Stewardship. 'The Entrepreneurial Mindset really resonates with me because as a conglomerate, it can be very easy to move slowly, it’s easy to rest on your laurels, but the Group does not.' 

The “fun” part of his job was discovering how agile the organization is. “I was happily surprised when I joined to learn how, for example, in the morning we might have discussions, they'd ask me to make a decision on something, I’d decide, then, lo and behold, things got done just like that. Ang bilis! That was really impressive.” 

In Chad’s view, this company culture reflects the Entrepreneurial Mindset, one of the three core values of the Gokongwei Group, with the other two being Integrity and Stewardship. “The Entrepreneurial Mindset really resonates with me because as a conglomerate, it can be very easy to move slowly, it’s easy to rest on your laurels, but the Group does not. At RLC Residences, we have a team that focuses on how we can create better value for the customer, and I really see the value of entrepreneurship in action. People come up with ideas, they come up with ways to execute. I love that I didn’t need to convince people that good is better than perfect, they can learn how to perfect as they go on. A lot of times people try to be perfect, but they end up executing late.”

Creating Lasting Value

As RLC Residences Senior Vice President and Business Unit General Manager, Chad is tasked with ensuring the division has a healthy bottom line while at the same time delivering a great customer experience for its clients, overseeing process improvements, digitalization, building the brand, and growing the organization. One critical aspect of the job is providing strategic and tactical direction to the team, getting everyone onboard with the company vision. “We are not just building condominiums, we’re essentially fulfilling the Filipino dream of having a home,” says Chad. Because owning a home is one of the most important life decisions a customer can make, he makes sure his team fully understands that RLC Residences’ products have to offer the best value in the market.

In that aspect, Chad has the utmost confidence in his division. “At the root of it all, the products that we have are quite good,” says Chad when asked about the factors that led to RLC Residences’ recent spate of success. “Our ‘product’ – and by that I mean just the condominium units – they are really good, and therefore, I didn’t have the problem of having to fix the product when I came in. But one of the biggest drivers of our success at Resi [internal shorthand for the brand] is that we’ve actually changed what we define as the ‘product’.”

Chad with some members of RLC Residences leadership team: (from left) Allen Miranda, VP and Head of Sales; Stephanie Anne Go, AVP and Head of Business Design and Development; Karen Cesario, Senior Director, Marketing Head and Chief Integration Officer; Ma. Czarina Theresa Lugue, Senior Director and Head of Business Development; and Dan Carlo Torres, Marketing Director and Head of Brand Management. IMAGE RLC Residences

Seeing my somewhat confused look, Chad quickly offers more details. “When we sat down as a group in 2021 and we were revising our OGSM, I made the pitch to the leadership team saying we need to change what we mean by product. If we just keep it as ‘beautiful, well-designed condominiums’, sure, they'll be great, but we're missing out on the entire customer experience. That had to be part of the whole deal.”

The next question was, how can RLC Residences make the experience better? That’s when Chad’s team identified what they call the “Three Moments of Truth” – the critical moments that not only win over the customer but keep them happy as homeowners down the line.

Always putting the customer first is one of the things that separates RLC Residences from other developers. ‘We’re serious about being customer-centric and we define it as putting the customer in the driver’s seat,’ says Chad. 

The first moment of truth arrives when the customer considers buying a condominium unit. “The things that influence your decision will be, what does the showroom look like? How does our sales team handle themselves? How are the products? Are the products of great value? Do they give you the features that you want? Are the locations right?” 

 The second moment of truth occurs during the five- or seven-year period when the customer pays their monthly amortization, right until the turnover of the finished unit. “Every time you make a payment, you have a decision to make. ‘Do I continue paying? Or do I cancel?’ If you cancel, you’ll lose what you’ve invested to a certain degree, but it might seem justified if you’ve had a horrible experience in paying. We need to make sure that the amortization period is as painless as possible for you, up until we show you the unit and turn it over to you.”

The third moment of truth is when someone becomes a homeowner, when they move into the condo unit, or lease it out to someone. It is now the duty of RLC Residences’ Property Management team to ensure that all homeowners’ concerns are taken care of and attended to.

“I pay particular attention to these three moments, and I am very focused on all the things that are attached to them, because that's how we bring our purpose to life, which is welcoming happy homeowners, building beautiful, well-designed condos, and crafting delightful customer moments.”

Social Listening

Always putting the customer first is one of the things that separates RLC Residences from other developers. “We’re serious about being customer-centric and we define it as putting the customer in the driver's seat. We're willing to let go of our egos to listen.”

One of the company’s most successful financial amortization plans was developed precisely out of this exercise. According to Chad, the company’s customers in Cebu suggested a payment scheme that deviated from the industry standard. Instead of paying the usual low and affordable fixed amount each month for the first few years, followed by much higher monthly payments in the latter years, they suggested a staggered scheme wherein the amount to be paid every year went up by around 5% to 10%. “It’s because usually in the later years of amortization, that’s when customers usually take out a loan. And what they’ll be paying for the monthly interest, it won’t come as a shock to them anymore. They’ll already be used to paying higher amounts.”

Making concessions to the Cebu market, RLC Residences tried it out, and it worked. It was then introduced on a national scale, where it has become equally popular among other customers. “It’s helped a lot of our buyers attain financial education,” shares Chad.    

Seeking Sustainability

With Resi’s remarkable growth over the last few years, I pose the question if it’s sustainable in the long term. Chad leans back in his chair and laughs. “That’s a question I always get! But, knock on wood, barring another pandemic or World War, I think our business growth will be sustainable as long as we have inventory to sell.”

He backs this up by first pointing to government statistics on the national housing backlog, which stands at around 6 million units. “The need for housing is very real,” he argues.

Chad’s second argument for continued growth is RLC’s recent foray into the premium/luxury segment. “The growth of real estate, of condos especially, is being driven by the premium segment. With our launches of Le Pont (in Bridgetowne), Mantawi Residences (Cebu), and our experience in partnering with Westin, we are doing really well. That segment is growing. Traditionally, when there’s an economic crisis, the premium/luxury segment bucks the trend.”

By paying close attention to the Three Moments of Truth, Chad says RLC Residences is able to bring its purpose to life, ‘which is welcoming happy homeowners, building beautiful, well-designed condos, and crafting delightful customer moments.’

The third reason boils down to RLC’s financial prudence. “We’re very prudent on when we decide to launch our projects, which I pin down to the great guidance we’re getting from our president and CEO. He guides us on when to launch, what trends to look at, he provides perspective on the whole industry that I don’t usually see in running just the vertical division. With all of these things, the growth is sustainable. I don't think 2024 would be significantly different from our growth perspective versus this year, and we're growing really well this year.”

Focusing on the environmental side of sustainability, Chad says that RLC is firmly committed to building a better future. “Sustainability has become a real ‘ask’ in the business, and it’s not just the younger crowd that’s asking for it. Whether it's Gen Y, Gen X, the Boomer Generation, we’re always asked about our sustainability features. So, we’re very serious about it.” 

RLC Residences has already committed to having all its residential buildings EDGE-certified, starting with Le Pont, which was launched in January this year. Standing for Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies, EDGE is the green building certification of the International Finance Corporation. It helps real estate developers implement strategies to reduce energy and water use in their buildings, as well as their embodied energy in materials, a measurement of all the energy used to manufacture the materials that make up a building.

Among the sustainability features already incorporated in RLC Residences’ designs include rain-catching facilities, garbage segregation, water and electricity saving fixtures, glazed windows that efficiently keep heat out, and the like. It is also looking into the prospect of increasing the parking slots for bicycles, part of an effort to get to what Chad calls “sustainable mobility.”

The next big step, which the company is still researching, is whether it can achieve net zero for each of its buildings. “When we look at the United States and Europe, most, if not all of the net zero buildings are only in the luxury space. We’re looking into how we can build net zero buildings, but still make them affordable to the mass and mid-market, which is where our core business is,” says Chad.

Asked about upcoming trends in the industry he’s interested in, Chad confesses, “I’m a geek, so I’m personally excited about the smart home trend.”

Going beyond controlling your A/C or other appliances with your phone, Chad has a team working on making RLC Residences’ condos truly smart. “We’ve started with the basics. Smart locks, smart sockets, and controllable lights. But that's just for convenience. What about safety and security? What about health and wellness? What about smart home features that are outside your unit, but are within the building. For example, reserving a function room, an amenity room, looking at energy consumption, we’re looking at all of those things.”

Though he turns outward for inspiration – the constantly evolving capabilities of Amazon’s Alexa – for example, Chad says that what’s happening in more developed countries might not always work in the Philippines, given the very different circumstances and local context. “We're a tropical country, we have lots of storms, our traffic is really bad, so it will be very interesting for me to see how smart homes will develop in the next couple of years, and how we can apply it here.”

Getting His Geek On

Sharing more details on his self-confessed “geek” status, Chad says that when he’s not working, you’ll probably find him immersed in computer games at home. “I’ve got a gaming laptop, a 43-inch monitor, and headphones, so I don’t wake up my wife,” he chuckles. He’s currently enjoying Baldur's Gate 3, Armored Core 6, and Diablo 4, but he usually plays for just 30 minutes at a time to tune out work.  His wife Gail, a sommelier by trade, also plays computer games, but mostly on her Nintendo Switch. “She plays stuff like Animal Crossing. I think gaming is what keeps us sane, especially back during the pandemic,” jokes Chad.

When there’s extra time, Chad reads. “A lot of the stuff that I read is not connected to work at all. I’m really into sci-fi fantasy: Warhammer 40,000, I’ve re-read so many times the Wheel of Time series, all 13 books, and Dune is a personal favorite of mine.”

Sustainability has become a real ‘ask’ in the business, and it’s not just the younger crowd that’s asking for it. Whether it’s Gen Y, Gen X, the Boomer Generation, we’re always asked about our sustainability features. So, we’re very serious about it.

Together, Chad and Gail like to travel, and they just recently came back from Japan. Asked if anything there inspired him for work, he says yes, but mostly from a retail perspective. He describes experiences like visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, learning everywhere he went how people were always looking for fresh food, and visiting convenience stores and being amazed at the excellent, delicious, and fresh meals being sold for only a few hundred yen.

Naturally, a light bulb went off in his head. “The question I have to the team now is how do we then create opportunities for residents to get fresh food? And how do we create that infrastructure? That's what I've been thinking about lately.”

Winding down, we ask Chad about the best career advice that he’s ever been given. Although he didn’t heed his father’s wishes to become an investment banker, Chad did learn a thing or two from him. “My dad always said, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ which I have taken to learn is keeping your eyes on the prize, making sure that you and the team are focused on that and don't let the little things bother you. The second thing he taught me is, there is no substitute for good, honest hard work. 

“Sure, there's this concept of working smarter, not harder. Yup, I get all of that, but there are no shortcuts. When you work hard to get something and you really commit yourself to the right thinking, the right resources, nine out of 10 times, you'll get your goal. I've taken those two principles to heart my entire career. So far, they have not failed.” -- Pierre A. Calasanz

To learn more about RLC Residences, visit rlcresidences.com