Service, Please

How good is your customer service? If it’s not exceeding consumer expectations, it’s not good enough, say top practitioners. Here’s how to make your service top-notch.

March 1, 2005

What does it take to win customers for life? Superior service that exceeds client expectations, of course. Beyond cellophane-wrapped cookie baskets and thank-you cards, how do real estate professionals make a lasting impression?

Larry D. Romito, founder and CEO of Quality Service Certification Inc., a San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based firm that specializes in customer service training and certification, says educating clients and consumers is paramount.

Set Realistic Expectations

Romito says salespeople who take time to educate consumers about all aspects of the real estate transaction often can prevent some of the common problems associated with unrealistic expectations and trust. Romito says dissatisfaction with pricing and terms is a reflection of the consumer not clearly understanding the market.

“We’re walking people through a fairly complicated process,” Romito says. “But if we just rely upon our verbal skills and their listening skills, at some point people get an overload and stop listening. So it becomes incumbent upon us to make clear the things for which we are responsible and the things for which we are not.”

Romito recommends putting everything in writing. Have both parties read and sign every document—from information about current market conditions, pricing options, and terms of the sale to marketing plans, service platforms, and the role of the real estate professional throughout the transaction.

Measure Service Standards

Consumer education is important, but a growing segment of real estate companies are looking for ways to measure customer service within the ranks.

But you don’t need to be a real estate giant to measure service. Brokers and salespeople can design their own surveys with specific questions tailored to how the transaction was handled and how the company could improve.

St. Petersburg-based Florida Lifestyles Realty issues a comprehensive client questionnaire when the home has been on the market for 30 days and sends another survey 30 days after closing.

Rob Elkins Jr., CRS®, GRI, broker and co-owner for the firm, reviews all the surveys during weekly office meetings. Elkins says dissatisfied customers get a prompt, personal call from him or co-owner Richard Waugh, CRS®, GRI.

In addition to in-house surveys, Elkins uses a customer service team to maintain consistent service standards. The team, which started in 2001, includes a listing manager, a closing coordinator, a Webmaster, a client-care manager, and a “director of first impressions.”

The director of first impressions handles all incoming calls and Internet leads, makes sure callers go to the right department, reports call origination (newspaper ads, the Internet, or magazines, for instance), and tracks inquiries to make sure questions are answered in a timely manner.

Elkins’ client-care manager delivers paperwork to sellers, waters plants, checks and collects mail, and arranges for service people to access vacant properties for absentee owners.

Since forming the team, Elkins, who has eight licensed salespeople and closed about $25 million in sales last year, says annual closings have jumped from 110 to 160.

For Elkins, being accountable at all levels is critical. “If as a broker, we don’t make our salespeople accountable for their actions … they will put themselves out of the business—not to mention the damage they can do to how the public views our profession,” he says.

Face Challenges Head On

Skip Schmid says even damage control can be an opportunity to showcase your customer service skills. When Schmid, a sales associate with East Lansing, Mich.-based Tomie Raines Inc., made a contract error during the second transaction of her career, the client asked her what she was going to do to fix it.

“I said, ‘Scott, there’s only one thing to do; let me get my checkbook,’” recalls Schmid, who started in the business in 1984.

Today, Schmid believes it was the best $800 she ever invested. “That client still sends me referrals,” she says.

Elkins supports the approach. If the roof starts leaking two months after closing, be sympathetic and recommend a good roofer, he says. To ignore the call will only make the matter worst.

Promptly correcting a mistake is one thing, but providing good service with difficult clients can be tricky. Still, Romito says, you don’t have to do business with everybody. “You can refer that person to someone with whom they resonate better,” he adds.

Maya Pavane, ABR®, GRI, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty Boise in Idaho, agrees. “It’s up to us to ensure the best service and transaction that our client can receive, even if it’s not from us,” she says.

Despite transactional snags and ill-fated parings, there is always something you can do to salvage the situation, says MaryKay Shumway, a broker-associate with Properties of Door County LLC in Sister Bay, Wis. “If a client can truly see that you’re doing everything within your power—ethically and with integrity—to help smooth the transaction, you can still walk away from something that goes sour with a sense of peace,” she says.

Increase Quality Communications

Unfortunately, many consumers walk away with a sense of finality. Romito’s research indicates only one in four buyers—and less than one in four sellers—is contacted by their real estate professional for post-closing services and follow-up.

Dee Rosenberg, ABR®, CRS®, says the smallest detail can have big impact on how the buyer or seller feels about the sale and the service. So Rosenberg, an associate-broker with RE/MAX Realty Group in Gaithersburg, Md., uses technology to improve her service standards. She keeps in close contact with her customers via e-mail and the Internet throughout the sale and uses a document management and scanning program that allows her to store or easily e-mail lost or misplaced files to buyers and sellers anytime.

In addition to staying in touch during the transaction, Rosenberg calls each client a few days after closing. She follows that initial call with another call about one month later. But she doesn’t always talk shop. “It shows that you’re interested in them as people,” she says, “not just as clients.”

Go the Extra Mile

Rosenberg isn’t the only sales associate paying attention to detail. Boise-based Pavane organizes house-warming parties for her clients. She lets the client invite up to 50 guests, secures invitations from VistaPrint, and plans the menu with the client.

On the day of the party, Pavane and her team arm themselves with “I’m the REALTOR®” aprons; balloons; candy bars that say, “Thanks a Million”; and gift bags featuring coffee mugs, pens, and lottery tickets. They decorate the house, provide tours of the home, serve drinks, replenish snacks, and clean up. “It’s great for the homeowner,” Pavane says. “I get great face-to-face contacts, and the networking also is a plus.”

Barbara Dennis, a sales associate for Liberty Realty Inc. in Las Vegas, says accountability doesn’t stop at the state line. When clients move from state to state, Dennis contacts several real estate practitioners in the new locale on the client’s behalf. “It keeps the other out-of-state salesperson more accountable because they know you will contact them throughout the sale,” she explains.

Shumway, meanwhile, doesn’t limit her service to buyers and sellers. No matter what the company name on the “For Sale” sign, she stops to pick up signs that have fallen over. Shumway says the action adds to an overall a sense of goodwill. “And anything I can do to help the industry is a part of my job,” she adds, “and that’s true service.”

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