It may not happen often, but most letting agents who’ve been around a bit will know the terrible, gut-wrenching feeling you get when you realise you’ve lost a key to a managed property. This mishap usually takes place at the worst time, when you’re under pressure to fix an issue, attend a viewing, or have the landlord standing in front of you.

Losing keys is very serious—it can damage your relationship with clients and hammer your reputation online, as a simple Google search will show. But it need not be a catastrophe if handled correctly. It goes without saying that you should do everything possible to stop keys from going missing (we’ll come to that part later), but if it happens, it’s what you do immediately after that makes the difference.

How do you label your keys?

There are letting agents who still write property addresses on their keys. If your company does this, and you lose a key, there really is only one thing to do—organise a lock change immediately! Once the locksmith has completed their job, do consider changing your approach. Writing addresses on keys is extremely risky, and you have a duty of care to landlords and occupiers for their safety and security.

Thankfully, more and more people use some sort of coding system on their keys, which means that the lost key does not put the property immediately at risk. This buys you some time to address the situation.

Stay calm, be transparent and look again

Take a deep breath—it’s when we’re under pressure that we make decisions we later regret. A quick scan of popular landlord forums will reveal agents getting caught out as they delay telling landlords or are seen to conceal the issue. Be careful about how you react to the issue immediately; failing to be transparent with your customers is the fastest way to erode trust.

Equally, are you sure that the key is lost? It might be too early to assume it’s gone for good. Having spent years working in the field of key management, most agents I’ve worked with would agree that misplaced keys do turn up eventually – it just takes a lot of effort to find them. You might be surprised how often a thorough search will turn up the results. Can you identify the last people to visit the property? Have colleagues taken keys without telling anyone?

If your key system relies on pen and paper, or you don’t have total faith that your CRM or spreadsheets have been filled out, this job is bound to be much harder. Whilst you search, make a note of the practices the team could adopt to prevent the problem from happening again.

Put a time limit on this exercise – perhaps a day. If you can’t find the keys at that time, you’ll need to assume the key is lost.

Treat the incident with utmost concern, and show it

If your landlord is standing in front of you when you can’t find the keys, calmly advise them that something unexpected has happened and that you are very sorry. Reassure them that no unauthorised person can identify the keys and that you will urgently investigate. Many people will respond positively to this and even help find an alternative means of accessing the property.

I must emphasise, though—you must show that you take missing keys seriously. I’ve been in some agencies where I’ve witnessed first-hand how their team members handled misplaced keys. If members of staff look unconcerned or act like it’s a regular occurrence, your customer’s confidence will quickly evaporate into thin air.

Handle any immediate appointments quickly

Without the keys to hand, you can’t access the property. If there is an alternate way to gain entry, then now is the time to explore it. Contact other key holders (e.g. landlords or occupiers) and make arrangements. Sometimes, rescheduling your appointment is unavoidable. Though it’s tempting to make an excuse, you will ultimately gain respect by offering honesty, contrition, and reassurance.

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Should you re-cut keys or replace locks?

If your record-keeping habits are not thorough enough to help you locate the lost key, then, as the agent, you have little choice but to be accountable. The reasonable next step is to consider whether you should cut new copies of the spare keys you were given by the occupier or replace the lock entirely.

The most secure option is to replace the locks. This is the only choice if you believe there is a risk someone could use the lost key to gain unauthorised access to a property. However, changing locks is expensive when done properly and causes significant inconvenience to you, the landlord and occupiers alike. Therefore, it is always worth exploring the alternative—re-cutting keys.

If you’ve been up-front about the issue and can reassure clients that their property is safe, all parties may well agree that it’s best for everyone to get the keys re-cut. Some agents who have dealt with similar incidents have told me that if you offer to change locks and clearly explain the pros and cons, landlords often choose to simply re-cut new keys.

Prevention is better than cure

If you do have to break the bad news to clients about lost keys, the blow is always lessened if you can show that you have taken steps to prevent it from ever happening again. Following up with an email outlining your new, strengthened key management process can build trust. Key management issues are preventable, and all it takes is a robust process that keeps track of every single key. The difficulty comes in maintaining this to a level where you have complete confidence. It becomes ever more time-consuming as the volume of keys and the number of stakeholders increase.

Have a strategy for automating and tracking the stakeholders accountable for every key, not just as it leaves the office but also when it’s handed to external stakeholders, such as contractors and inventory clerks. Make sure those who you entrust with keys know your expectations and are reminded to return them promptly. Putting these standard practices in place will leave you in great shape to deal with any future issues with minimal effort, stress or conflict.

Turn crisis into opportunity

Though it may sound like a cliché, our relationships are often strengthened by the bumps in the road that we face. Losing your clients’ keys is always very serious, but if you can impress them by responding in a transparent, professional manner, you will likely gain deeper respect from them. As a business owner, I’ve found that where mistakes have been made, going the extra mile to put it right, even offering a small token of apology such as a gift of chocolate or flowers, goes a long way towards showing you care. Provided it never happens again, you can come out of it with a stronger customer relationship than ever.

Tim Hill

Tim Hill

Tim is Co-Founder and CEO at Keyzapp. With a background in process optimisation and technology, he’s spent years working hands-on with property managers on all things Key Management. He’s also a huge motor racing junkie and loves playing guitar.

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Tim Hill
By Tim Hill