Satisfied Customers

Making service mission critical.

January 1, 2006

Too often lip service stands in for customer service. That’s a shame considering that the service your associates provide is what differentiates you from your competition.

Here, you’ll meet four brokers who’ve created strong customer service programs and trained their associates to get and stay on board.

We’re watching you

Tom Neubauer, ERA Neubauer Real Estate Inc., Panama City, Fla.

Salespeople perform better when they know someone’s watching and that someone cares enough to hold them accountable. Under our program, salespeople know customer service is important, that their manager’s watching, and that every customer will be able to give feedback. Our program is based on two rules: One, don’t make mistakes, and if you do, resolve them to the customer’s satisfaction. Two, exceed expectations.

Our company uses a customer survey system for both sales and property management. Before the transaction, salespeople tell customers the company will survey them after the transaction, and say, “We’re going to do everything we can to ensure the results come out positively. So if you see me not doing something, stop me and tell me then because I won’t have a chance to fix it later.” We’ve found that people will stop us on the spot and tell us things like, “Hey, you’re supposed to explain the contract to me.”

We mail the surveys along with a small gift, such as a $2–$3 calendar or appointment book, thanking consumers for participating. Then, we tally the results in-house. We have a budget of about $5,000 per year for the customer service program and related public relations expenses, which is more than adequate.

We give a copy of every completed survey to the salesperson and the manager. For surveys that are less than perfect, even those with a B, I go to the manager for input on what happened; then I go to the salesperson and ask what could’ve been done better. I also call the customers—most people are absolutely shocked when I do—and send them a gift certificate for a dinner to let them know we really care.

If salespeople have several subpar surveys, they come off of our internal referral system and aren’t given any leads that come into the company. We tell them, “We’ve got to have top-flight service, and if you don’t consistently provide that level of service on 75 percent of your business, we can’t provide you with referrals.”

It’s hard to tie our program to sales, because we don’t know what sales would’ve occurred without the program. We go after referral business more than any other, and based on the responses in our customer surveys, we know that customers are more than happy to mention our name to friends. Even customers who told us on their surveys that they weren’t happy have ended up sending us business.

Getting it right the first time

Bill Mangus, CRS®, SRES, Selstate Elite Realty Network, North Fort Myers, Fla.

We strive to have zero defects, a concept from my days with the Air Force at Strategic Air Command that I’ve adapted to create a customer satisfaction program. Of course, some people will call and complain, because you can’t please everybody. But we’re constantly trying to get it right the first time.

We survey customers at the end of each transaction or when a listing agreement expires. We ask whether they were treated politely and honestly and whether they’re happy with the service they received. Also, I pride myself on calling sellers at least once a week (we have only 16 salespeople), even if nothing happens, just to touch base and tell them we’re working really hard. After closing, I follow up and ask if I can help them with anything. If there’s a complaint, I take care of it. I’ve given away things like ball-game tickets to show that we care about our customers’ business.

We don’t receive any complaints that aren’t given the utmost attention. For instance, one buyer was unhappy about a five-year-old appliance that failed. He thought the inspector should’ve known the washer was leaky and made him aware of the problem—and the inspector probably should have. I called the seller and told him to pick out a new one, which I paid for. I got three referrals from that buyer, so the new appliance paid for itself.

We haven’t had what I’d consider a major complaint. The most common complaint from sellers is that the salesperson’s a “secret agent” who doesn’t come by or call. The seller ends up having to call the salesperson, and that’s not good.

To ensure we’re continuing to work toward zero defects, we hold two-hour training sessions each Tuesday in which we brainstorm ways to do things better. We tell salespeople what customers had to say and what we think we should be doing to make sure we’re giving the best service possible.

I believe in the “1 in 99” rule: When you make one person mad, that person will tell 99 people about the bad experience. So I track repeat and referral business [to make sure we’re not creating any mad customers]. I get a lot of repeat and referral business.

Nothing to lose

John Locke, Upscale Auction & Realty, Portland, Maine

We offer a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee on all of our agreements with buyers and sellers. If we’re not able to meet our clients’ expectations, we offer them an opportunity to cancel the listing or buyer’s agency agreement.

From the start, we set realistic and detailed expectations about what consumers can expect from our company. We ask sellers, “If we bring you this amount for this house, would you accept it?” Then we sit back and listen. The sellers might say, “I’d accept it if the house across the street came on the market and I could buy it.” We ask buyers, “If we find the house of your dreams at the price point you indicate, would you buy it?” We might hear, “Well, I’d probably wait until I have a third child.”

People say they’re serious about buying or selling, but when you probe them, the answers can reveal that they have contingencies they haven’t mentioned that must be met first. We work only with buyers and sellers who demonstrate their willingness to move forward if we deliver a buyer or a house.

Of the 30 to 40 homes we listed this year, we had only two sellers who wanted to cancel the agreement. One couple cancelled because they decided they’d waited too long to list their oceanfront seasonal property, and they wanted to relist it with us later. Another couple cancelled the agreement because they didn’t like the fact that the word auction was included in the name of our company and in connection with a traditional listing.

It never dawned on me that we shouldn’t have the word auction on our house sign. That was great feedback. So we added a “Home for Sale” rider on our listing signs. This will never be an issue again.

Because of the guarantee, we run substantially higher—85 percent—than other brokers on the ratio between listing presentations to listings signed. Sellers tell us, “You’re offering what everybody else is offering but with the 100 percent guarantee. What do I have to lose?”

Healthy competition

Cindy Brouillette, ABR®, CRS®, Cindy B!, REALTORS®, Ft. Wright, Ky.

We have customer service standards. For instance, we tell buyers to expect a return call within five to seven minutes. The first salesperson who responds to my phone message to all associates is given the lead. If I don’t receive a response within the time, I start dialing each buyer agent’s cell phone and give the lead to the first to answer. After hours, we expect salespeople to pick up voicemail messages until 9 p.m. This reinforces the message that it pays to be accessible, because the more accessible salespeople are, the more money they make.

We also require our listing agents to meet with each seller monthly to review the marketing of their listing and the seller’s satisfaction with the level of agent communication. I also call each buyer and seller several times throughout the process to thank them for the business and to monitor the quality of service and communication we’re providing.

We enable healthy competition among associates in the form of an annual “Loser Lunch.” We have a listing team and a buyer’s agent team. The team that has the greatest sales percentage increase over the previous year gets to have the losing team prepare and serve an elaborate meal. The winning team chooses the menu and is waited on; the losing team must plan, shop, prepare, serve, and clean up—and doesn’t share in the meal. This reinforces the idea that there’s a price to pay when you lose and that winning is a good thing.

We mail a customer satisfaction survey at the close of each transaction, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope. If we don’t receive a response within 30 days, we mail a second one. Then, if we still don’t receive a response, we send an e-mail so that people can complete the survey online.

It cost us $481 last year for postage and envelopes to mail the surveys, which is less than the cost of most ads and far more valuable since it provides us with important direction. We have about a 69 percent response rate.

When associates join the company, they think they’re great at customer service. Usually, the first couple of surveys don’t show that. Then they feel peer pressure.

The biggest struggle we’ve had is when salespeople receive poor marks for service but don’t believe the survey results reflect their true performance. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if the consumer’s perception of service is inaccurate. Perception is reality.

freelance writer

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.