It’s the Customer, Stupid

In the quest for new business, it pays to remember the value of offering exceptional service.

September 1, 2011

If you want to increase your office’s sales figures, the obvious solution is to prospect harder for new business. But, that’s the wrong approach, some industry pros say. It’s better to give outstanding service to the clients you have. Word will spread, and business will come to you.

For many real estate practitioners, creating a customer service mentality is an enormous shift, says Jennifer Allan-Hagedorn, a Pensacola Beach, Fla.–based speaker, trainer, and author of the “Selling With Soul” books and training series and a former top producer.

“Most of our training is geared toward traditional sales strategies,” she says. “Everything is focused on finding someone who is going to sell or buy in the next 30, 60, or 90 days. Customer service is an afterthought when the prospecting is done.”

Allan-Hagedorn defines customer service as getting up every morning, looking at your client list, and asking: What can I do today to make that deal close? “If you take great care of your current clients, they’ll take great care of you for years to come,” she says.

Across the country, broker-owners have developed a variety of successful customer advocacy programs and procedures for their offices. Some methodically follow checklists, timelines, and spreadsheets. Others create individual care plans for each client. Still others have expanded their service offerings and expertise. They embrace technology, but it doesn’t replace the personal touch.

Personalized Service

Platinum Properties International in Coral Gables, Fla., promises clients “concierge service to complement your South Florida lifestyle.” To that end, Vice President and Co-Broker-Owner Melissa Rubin, ABR, has gotten art appraisals, driven newly relocated buyers to get drivers’ licenses and open bank accounts, helped a client’s daughter get an internship, and found a new home for an orphaned dog.

“Customer service means understanding your ­client’s lifestyle,” she says. “It’s not about real estate. It’s about impacting their lives.”

Rubin structures her days with customer service tasks first. She trains her associates to do the same and encourages them to hire assistants, even part-time, to handle some of the paperwork. Her mantra is “call the client before the client calls you.”

“If they do call, never say, ‘I’m sorry; I’ve been busy,’” she says. “Everyone is busy. We try to make everyone feel they are our only customer.”

Exceed Expectations

It’s not enough to meet client expectations—you have to exceed them, says Hollace McKinley, CRS, GRI, broker-owner of Exit Realty 1st Choice in Smyrna, Tenn. His multipronged customer service program combines high tech and high touch. As an example, to ward off sellers’ common complaint—whether real or imagined—that they never hear from their broker, his clients get feedback at three regular times: weekly automated feedback on phone calls and Web site hits; real-time automated feedback whenever the house is shown; and personal calls at least monthly. Each listing is given a dedicated toll-free telephone number and URL.

“Most buyers and sellers today are very Internet-savvy,” he says. “They want to know we’re taking full advantage to market their home.”

At Exit Realty Associates in Lorton, Va., customer service is a mind-set rather than a formula. It’s personalized, and it applies to everyone they work with, say co-broker-owners Gloria Jackson, ABR, and Jacquelyn Nunez.

“Our objective is to make them all feel as if they are our only client, agent, or vendor,” says Jackson. “The idea is you’re helping somebody solve their problem. Since we’re all unique, that problem is unique.”

“You can train someone to pick up a telephone and answer a question, but that’s not customer service,” said Nunez. “That’s just completing a task. Problem-solving is finding out what’s going on behind the question in the first place. There’s always something, and it’s probably very personal to them.”

One longtime client is now a widow who first downsized to a townhouse from her large family home. Last year she was ready for a condominium. Nunez asked what she wanted, and it was a lot. Only one building in the area had all the desired amenities and services, and it was out of her price range. They looked and talked, and Nunez asked the client what she could give up. Turns out, she didn’t care if she had a view. Because of that concession, she was able to buy (at the first building). She’s extremely happy and has given the duo several referrals.

“Unless we continue to interview clients throughout the transaction, we are not aware of the changes in their thinking,” says Jackson.

Service as Corporate Culture

Commitment to customer service is built into the national corporate culture of Real Living Real ­Estate. Nine years ago the Oak Brook, Ill.–based franchisor (then known as GMAC Real Estate) rolled out Premier Service, a proprietary process ­designed to create consistent, measurable, and mar­ketable experiences for buyers and sellers. It in­cludes such components as written expectations and service standards at the beginning of a relationship and an independently conducted survey at the conclusion of a transaction. The company provides training, presentation and marketing materials, and national recognition awards to individuals and offices with the highest ratings each year. About 60 percent of Real Living’s 450 brokerages have ­adopted the process.

“The program is about holding ourselves accountable to customer service standards,” says Jeff Gutowsky, Real Living’s vice president of marketing. “If you’re not getting feedback from your client, there’s no way you can improve. Only clients who are highly satisfied go out of their way to make referrals.”

One Premier Service adopter is Kathy Coon, CRB, CRS, who owns Real Living Great Lakes brokerages in Rochester Hills, West Bloomfield, and Clarkston, Mich. In her view, a primary benefit to having a companywide process is that all sales associates are trained to follow it. Buyers and sellers can come to any participating Real Living company and receive the same or similar type of service. Closer to home, she uses the completed surveys as training tools and advertises the brokerage’s consistently high ratings.

“It’s always been my philosophy that we are a service industry,” she says. “We aren’t salespersons per se. We aren’t creating or manufacturing items—we’re all trying to sell the same houses. The way we stand out is by performing exceptionally.”

Be Different

In 2005 Basel Tarabein, GRI, of Rolling Meadows, Ill., was tired of competing against the same salespeople using the same strategies for the same houses, and hoping he would be chosen. He wanted to stand out, so he expanded his RE/MAX At Home operation. He built a 26,000-square-foot real estate mall that houses his office as well as a home design and construction services showroom, mortgage broker, attorney, and title and property management companies.

“It’s one-stop shopping, everything that has to do with real estate under one roof so the customer doesn’t have to go to so many places,” he says.

Tarabein’s clients are not obligated to use any of the related services, but about 85 percent hire at least one, he says.

“The way we sell real estate today is 100 percent different than we did in 2005 and prior,” he says. “We are fighting for a smaller number of transactions. To win the battle, we have to reinvent ourselves and create other services that add value to the consumer.”

Rubin also changed competitive gears to follow a changing market. A decade ago, 90 percent of her business was in new construction. When the bubble burst, Rubin responded by earning a credential as a distressed property expert to enhance her expertise in foreclosures and short sales. About 65 percent of the sales in the Miami area are distressed properties or bank-owned, she says.

Use Technology Wisely

Technology is both boon and bane to customer service practices. On the one hand, it organizes information, speeds communication, and opens multimedia possibilities. On the other, Internet search engines are quick to reveal market data that was once privileged.

“Technology has provided lots more ways to communicate with clients, and that’s a good thing,” says Allan-Hagedorn. “But it’s also taken away from what we historically called our value—our information. They don’t have to get it from us anymore. We need to come up with new value, or we’ll go the way of the travel agent.”

Another challenge is the vastness of technological capabilities and constant advances. It’s easy for sales practitioners to become overwhelmed. Rubin suggests choosing three electronic media and being consistent and effective with those. Her choices are YouTube for posting videos of her listings and blogging and e-mail newsletters for keeping clients abreast of relevant topics.

“The new generation right now is not so much a phone-call generation,” says Tarabein, a big technology fan. “It uses Facebook and Twitter. Some people don’t want to talk to me. They just text me. Or I call them, and they text me back.”

But for one buyer, who does not have e-mail, Tarabein hand-delivers new listings to her home each morning.

“We have to be flexible,” he says. “We have to speak everyone’s language.”