Handling Your Tough Customers

April 1, 2003

Just between us, every now and then, don’t you get a customer who’s so frustrating you want to cut up your license and enroll in truck driving school? Put away the scissors, and learn how to deal with six of the most vexing customers.


Perhaps most difficult is the know-it-all, an adversarial and at times obnoxious customer who resists your ideas and tells you how to do your job.

To deal with know-it-alls, you must reach deep down inside yourself for that last little bit of patience, says Elaine Boggs, ABR®, an associate broker with Century 21 Action Realty in Hinesville, Ga. “Don’t get into a sparring match. Listen carefully and use your knowledge of the market and your professional background to gain the person’s confidence.”

Boggs suggests using your listing presentation, your Web site, and even the plaques on your office walls to support your capabilities and your track record, so know-it-alls will be less likely to second-guess you. “Solid evidence of your experience will go a long way toward winning their confidence,” Boggs says.

Know-it-alls are often insecure and need to tell the world they’re somebody special, says real estate sales trainer Walter Sanford. His advice is to listen carefully, agree when you can, and be prepared with alternate suggestions.

With know-it-alls, “you must be willing to walk away from a transaction,” says Sanford, of Sanford Systems, a Kankakee, Ill.–based resource for salespeople and their teams. “When you indicate your readiness to walk, you gain control.”

Ed Melka, CRS®, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., says, “You need to be a bit of a psychologist. If you know your stuff, stick to your guns and stay cool. The know-it-all will come around and may even turn into a great customer.”


This customer is nervous and anxious, fears for the worst, and calls you night and day to see how things are going.

“Always lend a sympathetic ear,” counsels broker Brenda DeArmond of Brenda DeArmond Realty LLC in Orlando, Fla. “You’re there to smooth out the bumps and to be your customers’ security blanket. After everything’s gone well, you’ll be the person they recommend to their friends and relatives.”

“Worrywarts are my favorite clients,” says salesperson David Matthys, ABR®, with RE/MAX Capital City in Austin, Texas. “They want you to take charge and direct the entire process, and as a salesperson, this is what I live for!”

Handling worrywarts, especially during a busy period, can be challenging, says Century 21’s Boggs, who carries as many as 45 listings at a time. “I’ve had some young people who are so scared they cry. Sometimes they call me at all hours,” she says.

Boggs reassures worrywarts by communicating early and often. “I send them copies of all ads and make sure they know how to use the Internet to see how I’m marketing their property,” she says. “Keeping customers informed is the best way to put their worries to rest.”


These customers can’t make up their minds about anything: what kind of house or neighborhood they’re looking for, what their price range is, or even whether they really want to buy or sell.

Sales trainer Sanford recommends prequalifying prospects with questions designed to learn their intentions. “Sellers must have good reasons for selling. They must be willing to price realistically and approve of your marketing methods. If they’re just testing the market, I refer them out,” he says.

But there are ways to work with undecideds. “They want suggestions. Tell them what you feel would be best for them, and ask if they agree,” says DeArmond. “If you approach them correctly, these customers can be very easy to deal with.”

RE/MAX’s Matthys showed one buyer 115 homes before the man found one to his liking. “But he came back to me a year later to buy another home, and this time he needed to see only three houses,” recalls Matthys. “So my patience paid off.”


These customers never let you know what’s on their mind. They won’t tell you their goals or timeline or whether they’d prefer a ranch, a two-story, or a castle with a moat around it.

Silent Sams may feel they’ll be taken advantage of if they lay all their cards on the table, says DeArmond. “It’s your job to assure them you’re on their side,” she says, noting you may need to meet with silent types several times to gain their trust. “Reiterate the agency disclosure agreement. Most of the time, you won’t have dual agency and you’ll be working only for them, so everything they tell you will be in strict confidence,” she says.

Matthys watches the quiet types carefully for telltale body language and changes of expression. “When their eyes light up, you’re onto something,” he says.

Boggs watches the length of time silent Sams spend looking at a property. “I also try to get them to narrow their choices to, say, their top five and, eventually, their top two. And I ask a lot of questions about things like room size, neighborhood, and back yard,” she says. “I explain that I need to know these things so that I can lessen the time it’ll take them to find a home. They like that.”


These customers are close cousins to the undecideds. They’re easily manipulated by family, friends, and even the checker at the grocery store who once knew someone who bought a home.

Whenever Matthys meets with puppets, he tries to include whoever is pulling the strings. That way, the ultimate decision maker can see that Matthys knows his stuff. “You’re more likely to make the sale and you may gain a future client.”

Listen to everyone involved in the decision, but make certain the real customers know you’re listening mainly to them, says Boggs. “If mom and dad are along, I give them courtesy glances, but I always keep my focus on my buyers.”

Melka adds, “If parents or relatives are providing funds for the purchase, they need to go through the buying process house by house. If they’re not helping with the purchase, remind your customers that they’re the ones who’ll be living in the house and making the payments.”


Weasels want you to break rules and do unethical things. They may ask you to back out of contracts, gloss over disclosures, and renege on promises to buyers.

Melka sums up the best approach when he says flatly, “I won’t work with such a person. My license, my reputation, and my integrity are more important than working with anyone who wants me to be dishonest. If a customer wants you to bend the rules, walk away.”

In the end, lead generation is the best way to limit your time with weasels and other trying types. “If you create a lot of leads, you can pick and choose your clients, and you won’t need to deal with a lot of difficult people,” says Sanford. “Life’s just too short for that.”

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