G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.
Customer Service That Rocks
Make sure you’re not all talk when it comes to communication and follow-up with consumers.
September 17, 2014
The economy has rattled American consumers, according to Gallup’s June 2014 “State of the American Consumer Report,” making them more cautious and demanding of the businesses to which they’re giving their hard-earned money. Some companies have failed to adjust to consumers’ newer, higher expectations, says Gallup. They’ve gone out of business or they’re hanging on only because they’ve slashed prices or acquired competitors.
There’s a better way. Gallup’s research shows the most successful companies have met consumers’ heightened expectations by providing exceptional service. What are the key service elements consumers seek from you and your brokerage? For starters, easy accessibility to agents, overall competence, transparency regarding transaction details, and proper follow-through. Fulfilling these expectations creates what Gallup calls fully engaged customers—brand ambassadors and true believers who will stay loyal to your company and recommend you to their friends and family.
Smart real estate brokers, whether they run large operations or small ones, realize there are no shortcuts to providing top-notch customer service. They know that consumers won’t settle for anything less. Here’s how they’ve been implementing systems and practices to ensure consumers become raving fans.
Technology Plus a Personal Touch
Eighty percent of NAR member brokers have one office with just a couple of licensees, according to NAR’s 2013 Profile of Real Estate Firms. Brokers at such smaller firms use a combination of high tech and high touch to satisfy customers.
Broker Tries New Tack
One broker is working to improve his company’s service levels in an unusual way. Mark A. McLaughlin, chief executive officer of Pacific Union International in San Francisco, is training the company’s nearly 100 full- and part-time office staffers to provide outstanding service to the company’s salespeople—some 600 among more than 30 offices. McLaughlin believes that will translate into higher-quality service offered by salespeople to consumers. The company is nearly a year into a three-year customer service program designed by Holly Stiel of Thank You Very Much Inc. in Gualala, Calif.
McLaughlin draws on the hotel industry for inspiration. Think of a nice hotel brand, where, if you ask where the ladies’ room is, the employee will happily reply, “Third floor!” Then think of the brand a level above that. In response to the same question, that hotel’s employee will actually walk you to the ladies’ room. It’s the mind-set of the employees at the second brand that McLaughlin’s striving to instill at his company.
Imagine a salesperson comes to an administrative staffer at 4 p.m. for help with a listing presentation scheduled for 5:30 p.m. The staffer can tear his hair out and cry, “I have four projects ahead of you. There’s no way I can help!” Or he can pause and say, “Let me grab my team members to see who can help.” McLaughlin believes better-trained staff will be better equipped to deal with such challenges instead of reflecting a “Your emergency isn’t my problem” attitude.
How does that relate to training? From that scenario, McLaughlin explains, you might learn one staffer doesn’t have the skills to help the salesperson complete a CMA. So you cue up tech training to teach that staffer how to knock out a CMA in 20 minutes. The company is offering five categories of training. They range from the technical—such as how to create a CMA—to the interpersonal, such as how to handle a salesperson who shows up angry.
This experiment isn’t inexpensive. The company will spend more than $100,000 this year just to train the administrative staff. But McLaughlin believes it’s money well spent. “We don’t think we can move the needle on consumer satisfaction until we move it with our internal clients—our salespeople.”
One broker who’s focusing on technology is Erica Ramus, CRS, MRE. She has spent about $20,000 since 2013 for online marketing and tracking systems to formalize her company’s service.
“I want to make sure all clients and customers are served in a consistent manner,” explains the president of Ramus Realty Group in Pottsville, Pa. “When I started my company seven years ago, I knew every client who walked in the door. Now we have five salespeople plus me. Buyers are coming and going, and I don’t recognize them. Because my name’s on the door, they think I should know who they are. And I should.”
Ramus purchased e-forms and e-signature software programs and requires salespeople to use them so no step in any transaction is left undone or undocumented. The company’s CRM program funnels all leads into the company and then allows Ramus to see which salesperson got which lead and how that salesperson responded. “Every time my salespeople e-mail someone, I can see what they’re talking about,” she says. “We also get all clients’ e-mail addresses so new clients will get our e-newsletter and all clients will get e-mails from me saying things like, ‘I see you had an appointment with Wanda. How did it go?’ That’s so I know what’s going on and people know I’m around.”
Deborah Bacarella, GRI, broker-owner of Elite Florida Real Estate in Boca Raton, Fla., who has three salespeople, does lead intake and distribution by hand. “Because I’m running a small company, I can prescreen the leads and give them to salespeople to handle,” she says of the roughly 10 leads she screens daily.
More important, says Bacarella, is her personal touch. Bacarella makes sure she’s visible so clients know they can contact her anytime. “Over the years, I’ve tried client surveys,” she explains. “But the best tool is having my cell phone number on everything. Anyone can reach out to me and get through. I even get calls from other companies’ salespeople asking for directions because they can’t reach their own broker. Some companies have gotten so big you never even know who the broker is or the right person to contact. There needs to be a face, a contact person, for each company location.”
Whatever the Complaint, Deal With It Fast
Another critical step in building a happy and loyal customer base is ensuring you have an effective method in place for handling complaints. Every company is bound to face criticism; the job of the broker is to take all problems seriously.
Large brokerages like the 850-salesperson Prudential California Realty in San Ramon, Calif., benefit from having a clearly established system for dealing with complaints. “When someone’s upset in a transactional experience, they tend to be really upset, and quite often, it’s not logical,” says Alan Scearce, the company’s chief operating officer. “We immediately get the branch manager to engage with that client. Our goal is to respond as fast as we can and to acknowledge the issue at the very least. The most important thing is for clients to know they’ve been heard.”
Often, fixing a problem requires money. Buyers insist a refrigerator be replaced because it failed within days of their closing. Or maybe the air conditioner conked out. Many brokers expect their salespeople to do what it takes to resolve those types of grievances expeditiously, whether it means dipping into their own pocket or convincing sellers it’s their responsibility to pay up. Scearce faced two similar complaints recently. Both involved a property not attached to the public sewer system, a fact the sellers failed to disclose before closing. When the buyers learned of the situation later, in both cases, they demanded reimbursement for the cost of connecting their home to the public sewer system. In one instance, the salesperson helped the seller pay for the fix. In the other, the salesperson notified the seller, who covered the cost.
Matt Deasy, general manager at Windermere Real Estate East in Bellevue, Wash., says at his company it’s always the salesperson’s responsibility to resolve disputes to the consumer’s satisfaction. If a buyer’s angry because an appliance doesn’t work properly, the salesperson should pony up for repairs. “Those things are going to happen every week or month when you have 350 salespeople,” “Our salespeople are the first line of defense, and they make the situation right directly out of their commission. Peer pressure and role modeling in customer service can’t be underestimated.”
Track It Consistently
Whatever tools you deploy to make clients happy, you must track your efforts so you know whether they’re working. Deasy’s company has a staffer send a survey to all clients who have provided their e-mail addresses (about 60 percent), and an outside company, QuestionPro, tallies the results for less than $500 annually. According to the 2013 results, 97.5 percent would use their salesperson again, and 97.3 percent would recommend the salesperson to a friend or family member.
Other brokers have contracted with the independent surveying firm Quality Service Certification. “We just finished our first year,” says Dan Parmer, president and CEO of Harry Norman, REALTORS®, in Atlanta. “Our score is 4.83 out of 5. In 98 percent of our transactions, consumers are reporting our service was favorable or very favorable.”
Through the QSC program, every buyer and seller Parmer’s company represents—it did 7,500 transaction sides in 2013—gets a survey with about 15 questions. The response rate has been about 30 percent, which Parmer hopes to improve. The cost is roughly from $12,000 to $14,000, and Parmer believes it’s worth it. With so many websites allowing consumers to review service providers, he’s been concerned he’ll lose control of his company’s reputation. “I wanted data from an outside service, and I wanted it to be credible,” he says. “Now we have that data and a good story to tell.”
Parmer plans to tell that story by reporting the results on his company’s website. He’s also using the data to coach salespeople. “This gives me tools to determine which salespeople need help,” he says. “When you get several responses that lean in the same direction, you have the opportunity to have real credibility with salespeople. I’m not going to fire salespeople because their marks aren’t good. I’m going to help them get their numbers where they should be.”
Prudential California Realty has also adopted QSC. “Anything less than a satisfactory response warrants a one-on-one conversation with a salesperson,” Scearce explains.
At its annual awards event, the company publicly recognizes salespeople who’ve reached a certain volume of transactions and maintained a high level of customer service based on customer surveys and feedback from management and other salespeople. “We want to acknowledge salespeople who did the business the best way—by taking care of the consumer,” says Scearce. “You have to acknowledge the behavior you want in your company.”