Buyers and Sellers Speak Their Mind

Your customers are talking. Are you listening?

May 1, 2010

When Brad Todd and his wife were moving to Indianapolis from California last year, they fell in love with a unique log home in one of Indy’s outer suburbs, but there was a sticking point: The seller had already entered into a contract with someone else. The contract gave that buyer right of first refusal should anyone else be interested. 

When the Todds made their offer, the other buyer exercised his right.

End of story? No way.

The Todds were able to buy their dream house. For that, they credit their agent, Diane Brooks, CRS®, GRI, of F.C. Tucker, who kept the house on her radar and sprung into action when she found out the first buyer couldn’t secure financing.

"We thought we’d lost it and started looking at other houses, but she kept checking up on the house even without us asking her to," says Todd, whose relocation to Indianapolis was for business. "When the first buyer backed out of the deal, we were able to get reengaged immediately. This was just one of the ways she went above and beyond the call of duty to help us. She’s just very good at what she does."

Todd was lucky enough to have received a recommendation from his wife’s parents, who had previously worked with Brooks. 

But how do buyers and sellers typically choose their agent—and how does the experience pan out for them?

In the past, REALTOR® Magazine has sought consumer input by asking REALTORS® to refer past clients. This year we sought a broader range of opinions, asking consumers who completed the 2009 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers whether they’d be willing to talk in some depth about their transaction experience. From those discussions, it’s clear that the Todds’ experience is hardly unique. 

Consumers across the country say their agent earned their heartfelt gratitude by taming what they feared would be a confusing, frustrating, and even risky process. But the opposite is also true, with some consumers questioning whether their agent had their interests at heart.

"We had to stay on our agent or he wouldn’t follow up," says a recent seller in a large Midwestern city, who asked that his name and city be withheld. "In some ways he was apathetic and lazy. His answer to everything was, ‘Drop the price, drop the price,’ even though we had already told him our bottom line. After the house sold, we never heard from him again until he called to check on us about six months later, and that was only because he listed the house next to us, and he wanted to cover his tracks in case they talked to us. It was so transparent."

By their compliments and their complaints, these consumers are shining a spotlight on three behaviors that underwrite a good relationship between real estate agents and their clients: listening, educating, and trust building.

Listening

As much as anything, consumers want to feel heard. When they don’t, it can quickly erode the relationship.

"We told our real estate agent several times our bottom line on our house," says the Midwestern seller. "We couldn’t go any lower, but he pressured, pressured, and pressured, and he only stopped pressuring when I said, ‘OK, I’ve got an idea: The next time you want us to drop the price on our house, why don’t you drop your commission price?’ After that, he shut up and never asked me that again."

Listening is probably the most important factor in whether a person does business with you and stays with you, says Bernice Ross, CEO of Realestatecoach.com, a national sales training company based in Austin, Texas. "[In some cases] we’ve trained real estate agents to present information without having a dialogue, [but success with clients] is about being in a conversation with them."

"We really felt our agent listened to us and tried to understand what we wanted," says Marlena Bradshaw, who bought a vacant foreclosed house in Ingalls, Ind., last year. Over a three-month period, Bradshaw’s agent was in daily contact, something she says she greatly appreciated. "She would stop by our house, call once or twice a day, and e-mail us, too. She was always trying to understand what we wanted."

Listening isn’t a passive activity in which you sit back and take in what your client is saying, Ross says. Active listening requires probing, asking a variety of questions in a variety of ways to ensure you’re helping sellers and buyers achieve their goals. 

"You want to ask them, ‘What do you do for fun when you’re at home? Which rooms do you use most often? What do you do at end of the day—do you watch TV, engage in a hobby, or cook?’" Ross says. "[Understanding their needs] is more than just asking how many bedrooms and baths they want and where they want to live; it’s really about digging into their lifestyle."

For Jeffrey Fuller, who was recovering in the hospital from an accident at the same time he was trying to buy a home in Northern Virginia last year, it was imperative to have an agent who had more than a superficial understanding of his needs. His convalescence made it impossible for him to get out and see things for himself, so the agent stepped out of his comfort zone on Fuller’s behalf. 

"He went out of his way to find a place close to transit and buses in an area he wasn’t as familiar with; he went out of his way to understand the area," he says. "He narrowed all the choices down and brought them to me."

Particularly for out-of-area buyers who rely on your market knowledge, making a concerted effort to understand what they want—instead of trying to fit them into your own listings, for example—can separate a good experience from a bad one.

One recent buyer said she and her husband found an agent who listened carefully but only after talking with several others who seemed mostly interested in showcasing their knowledge. 

"One even yelled at us," says the buyer, who bought a home in Alexandria, Va., last year. "She scolded us like children. Now, [my husband and I] are in our fifties, and this woman is talking to us like we’re children."

Educating

Because Bradshaw and her husband were buying a foreclosed home, they were hungry for information, she says. So being treated like a child wasn’t her greatest concern. In fact, she kind of liked it. 

She "walked us through everything like we were in kindergarten, which is what we needed," she says.

The difference between her experience and that of the Virginia buyer demonstrates the fine line that exists between using your experience to tell your customers what to do and using it to educate them and lay out options.

Todd, the Indianapolis buyer, says his agent excelled as an educator because she gave them enough objective information to make them feel they could make informed decisions, even though they were halfway across the country during the transaction period.

"She never explained anything from just one side but gave us the good and the bad from both perspectives," says Todd. "We needed that."

It comes down to giving clients autonomy, Ross says. "[Clients] want to be able to make their own decisions. They don’t want to be told what to do, so the big thing agents need to be doing is educating rather than talking at their clients."

That doesn’t mean clients want to be left entirely to their own devices.

When Joanna O’Donovan accompanied a friend to an apartment showing, she knew that she and her husband would be buying a house, so she took the rental agent’s business card. A few months later, she called the agent and established a relationship that eventually led to a purchase in Cliffside Park, N.J.

During most of the transaction, O’Donovan was pleased with the level of communication she received. But once the seller’s attorney stepped in to review the contract, the information flow she’d relied on suddenly dried up. O’Donovan’s agent did nothing wrong, per se, but she still felt left out in the cold.

"He was harder to get a hold of and had less information to give us," she says. "The going back and forth and never knowing if the deal was going to fall through was the most stressful part. We had lost a house a few months prior . . . during the attorney review, and now the same thing was almost happening again. I don’t think we would have been able to handle [losing out on the purchase] a second time."

Certainly, knowing just how much detail to give buyers and sellers is a bit of an art. But it can get really dicey when your customers don’t like or agree with what you’re telling them.

Back to that unhappy Midwestern seller: Despite misgivings about his agent’s aggressive stance on price, the seller worked with the same agent on his move-up purchase. There too, he was less than thrilled with the service he received. His agent pressed him to get a home inspection, he says, something he felt qualified to do on his own.

"To me it was like, our agent had his people and he was going to use them," he says. "I said, ‘I just don’t think it’s worth it,’ and he said, ‘You have to do this, you have to do this,’ and the things that I wanted inspected were the things the inspector said were fine and later failed. Looking back at my first house, I didn’t get an inspection and I was perfectly fine with that; the second one, the guy talked me into it. Once I agreed and was going around with the inspector, I said I was concerned the basement was leaking water and showed him, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t see any active leaking along this wall. This actually looks like it’s really been taken care of.’ Then, after we moved in, we realized the driveway was pitched toward the house, and after the first time it rained, the basement was full of water. I’ve done a few quick fixes to stop it, but the only true fix is to have it repitched, and that’s a $10,000 job."

The agent would have had a better outcome if he’d done three things differently: presented facts about why he felt a home inspection was important, made it clear that the buyer had a choice of inspectors, and allowed the buyer to make the decision about whether to proceed with the inspection.

If the buyer chose not to have the inspection, the agent could have protected himself with a signed disclosure showing that he’d recommended the inspection but that the buyer had declined to do it.

Earning Trust

By giving the impression that he was intent on using "his people," the Midwestern agent failed to earn his buyer’s trust. Getting to the point where your clients trust you is an outgrowth of how well they feel you’ve listened to them and laid out the options for them.

But it’s also about living up to your promises, says Ross.

"Trust is something that happens when the person watches you and observes how you do things, so it’s kind of like walking your talk," she says.

The trust factor between Marie Naidas and her agent was so strong that she bought her place sight unseen. Naidas, who moved from California to Herndon, Va., last year, says she never doubted her agent’s commitment to her welfare.

"We were 100 percent certain our agent knew exactly what we wanted, so three days after we left [Virginia, from a househunting trip], he called us in California to tell us he had found a match," says Naidas. "We told him to buy it—we didn’t need to see it. He knew the neighborhood and the layout of the units. We knew he would ensure the unit was in a good location and trusted he had our best interests at heart."

Like Brad Todd, Naidas found her agent, E. John Joyeusaz ("John Joy") of The Buyer Brokerage in McLean, Va., through a recommendation.

"He came highly recommended by one of my customers out in California," she says. "This was a customer I knew well and greatly respected. My customer positively raved about John. I couldn’t wait for him to give me John's contact information, so I Googled him and contacted him myself."

Naidas calls Joyeusaz her hero.

"We feel privileged to have worked with him," she says. "He could not have been more wonderful, proactive, efficient, and knowledgeable. He was patient, educating us through the entire process. He seemed to know everyone or became their best friend within the first five minutes of conversation. I’ve never met anyone with his charisma and energy. We could not have done it without him."

Earning that kind of endorsement starts with being the most knowledgeable real estate professional you can be. From there, remember to actively listen, educate your customers in a way that gives them control, and act on the trust they give you.


Additional reporting by Patricia Fancher.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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