In real estate, the modern definition of customer service means getting in the trenches with clients. Think you provide your clients with superb customer service? Dale Taylor, a broker with RE/MAX All Properties in New Lenox, literally cleaned up feces for a client.
The tenant to whom the client had been renting had, without the client’s knowledge, been breeding dogs in the basement of the property – without disposing of their fecal matter. Hoping to list the home for sale, the client invited Taylor to the property – then burst into tears upon discovering the condition of the basement. Taylor leapt to her rescue without a moment’s hesitation.
“Sometimes, in order to provide excellent customer service, you have to get dirty,” Taylor says. “That particular client, who incidentally was a repeat client and had referred her children to me, needed someone to take care of business right then and there. If that stench had stayed in that house a day longer, the home would not have been sellable.”
Taylor’s story illustrates why agents who use stale customer service tactics and who aren’t willing to do absolutely anything may very well find themselves falling behind the pack, with a dwindling client list and notably fewer referrals. These days, successful agents utilize everything from blogs to old-fashioned elbow grease to keep former clients returning and generating referrals.
Cleaning a filthy basement was not the only time Taylor did literal dirty work on behalf of a client. One of his buyers decided to put an offer in on the home of a cat hoarder. The seller had kept, according to Taylor, a minimum of 100 cats in the house, and it seemed that none of those cats had used the litter box. Consequently, the entire home stank of urine. The stench was so potent, one cleaning service estimated that it would take seven treatments to eliminate the smell. Despite the obvious challenges involved, Taylor met the seller’s agent at the home.
“I could have faxed the offer, but it was important to me that I acted in the best interest of the client, so I just made sure I went to the house with an empty stomach,” he says.
Conlon Broker Deborah Hess called in a favor from her own resources on behalf of a beleaguered couple who found themselves in a tight space.
Hess and her buyer clients were a week away from closing on a short sale transaction. They had been approved for the sale, and Hess’ clients were gearing up to take possession of the home at closing because it needed work and they were getting married in a month. Days before closing, the listing agent called and told Hess their seller had not understood they were required to give up possession of the home at closing. They also claimed that they had been unable to secure a moving company.
“I recruited a mover who I had previously used on the phone and worked out a deal that included packing services,” Hess says. “In the end, the seller did not need the mover, but the strategy forced them to give up their final excuse for remaining in the home after closing. Consequently, they moved out at closing and my client was able to get in there. Had it been necessary, I knew my movers would move the seller out in the space of a day.”
Why are the blood, sweat and tears for clients worth it? According to the 2011 National Association of Realtors Home Buyer and Seller Survey, it makes a significant difference in the level of success an agent can achieve; survey respondents cited referrals as a major source for agent selection, with 61 percent of sellers revealing that they chose their agent based on a referral, or that they used the same agent they had used previously. In fact, 85 percent of sellers responded that they are likely to use the same agent again or recommend that agent to others.
This trend translates to buyers, as this category of client most commonly chooses an agent based on a referral from a friend, neighbor or relative. Among the reasons for choosing an agent, the 2010 National Association of Realtors Home Buyer and Seller Survey says that 35 percent of respondents considered reputation and 23 percent valued trustworthiness.
Taylor is well aware of the crucial role customer service plays in building a prosperous real estate business. For years he has considered “I Will Fight” by Gladys Knight & the Pips his theme song and mantra for customer service. He uses the song as a source of inspiration to this day.
“Agents need to fight for their clients,” Taylor says. “I regard real estate as a sowing and reaping industry; when you sow good customer service, treat your clients well and honor them, it can’t help but come back. It comes back in the form of repeat business and referrals. I have worked with multiple generations of family, and that is the most touching aspect of the business to me. You earn trust by prioritizing customer service.”
Where should agents begin in terms of delivering exemplary customer service? According to Hess, agents must get to know their clients.
“The most important strategy is to first establish what is most important to your client,” she says. “There is no lack of ideas out there, but you cannot use the same strategies for every client. Certain basic processes should be followed in every situation for the sake of organization and being prepared, but that is it.”
Maria Del Boccio, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Northwest, has a few top customer service tips she follows. Once the learning process begins, action must follow, for both current and former clients.
“After getting to know your client, the next step is to follow through with the needs and desires your clients shared, tailoring the moves you make according to what you learned,” she says. “It is also important to follow through and stay in touch with your current and former clients. Be consistent with your clients, providing the same level of service to all; do not favor one client over another. Finally, do not allow technology to overrule how you connect with your clients. Make each client feel important with the personal touch approach.”
Hess stresses that being prepared is crucial to an agent’s ability to deliver great customer service. To this end, she sends a pre-listing package to sellers that outlines not only what she will be doing in her role as their listing agent, but also includes a list of questions regarding the seller’s concerns – advertising, security of the property during showings, safety, etc.
She has also adopted several unique strategies that she executes over the process of working with her clients.
“I send my buyers a tour schedule the day before we look at the properties. I prefer to ride in the car with my clients during tours, and I pick them up,” she says. “I feel that communicating with the client in the car after each showing strengthens the bond and helps to develop my understanding of what the client is seeking in a home. I have gone to the airport to pick up my out-of-town buyers as well.”
For sellers, Hess invests heavily in staging efforts. She offers in-depth staging consulting at the beginning of the process. Following the staging meeting, she makes a list of items she feels the client needs to add, then takes photographs of said items at various stores, sharing the photographs with the client.
“Recently, I worked with a pregnant client who also had a two-year-old at home, so staging efforts were difficult for her,” Hess says. “I recruited my daughter to babysit the toddler so that mom could be free to complete the staging project. We ended up selling the home in what is considered a short period of time for this market.”
Hess felt it was important to offer her client any resource she had at her disposal, even her own family member, because, she believes, good customer service is essential to running any business, and a real estate practice has to be run like a business.
“In my case, this is a full-time job and it is my business, so everything that I do is geared towards improving not only the sales, but also going above and beyond with clients to ensure the client feels good about the entire experience,” she says. “It is not enough to merely get the job done, it is important to get the job done well.”
Benefiting Clients with Blogs
Del Boccio recently started co-authoring a blog with another Coldwell Banker agent, Diane Marchetti, to keep up their customer service tactics digitally. The blog, “Arlington Heights No It Alls” – “no” instead of “know” chosen only because they felt “know” made the URL too long – addresses readers with a breezy yet informative tone, with the aim of sharing their expertise on the market.
The “My Neighbor Sold For What?” feature on the blog provides a weekly list of homes sold in Arlington Heights, as well as sales prices. Visitors can also search an updated list of all foreclosed properties for sale; view a list of all homes for sale in certain Chicagoland areas; search for services like babysitting; post events like garage sales; and take advantage of discounts from local businesses. “Get to Know Maria & Diane” lends a personal touch, featuring bios and credentials of each agent.
The blog was actually born from a mailer: about six months ago, Del Boccio and Marchetti started a bi-monthly mailer to support local businesses, which included coupons for a variety of them. It received a tremendous response, with people actually requesting to be placed on the mailing list. Del Boccio says they wanted to leverage this response and interest as well as keep up the communication with residents. They came up with this blog as a way to communicate with clients and prospective clients as well as share their expertise for all things local real estate.
“We wanted people to have real insight on what the world of real estate is like,” Del Boccio says. “I also wanted to update the local residents with recent sales. This shows them that yes, homes are selling and they are selling quickly!”
She made the decision to have a co-author because, as a follower of blogs herself, she finds them to be a valuable resource, and she felt that two experts on the real estate market sharing with clients and prospective clients would be more beneficial than just her own viewpoints. But Del Boccio stresses that certain modes of communication should take on a limited role.
“Resources like blogs and Facebook pages should not be mistaken for an avenue of communication. Rather, they provide a method where agents can remain in the forefront of clients’ minds and allow them to get to know you on a personal level,” she says. “Every individual appreciates a different form of communication, and with this idea in mind, I want to make sure that I am offering as many communication options as I can. I tailor each avenue of customer service according to what each client needs. However, we live in a society of instant gratification. There are times when clients want an answer immediately but are unable to speak with you via phone. This where tools like email and text messages come into play.”
In order to maintain a personal connection with clients, Del Boccio still relies heavily on referral strategies like her “Thanks A Latte” campaign, where she sends a $5 Starbucks gift card to the client who gave her the referral. She also sends birthday cards, and to assure buyers that she is always listening to them, Del Boccio will inquire about the first project they plan to complete in their new home, then make a gesture to demonstrate that she remembered the milestone. For example, she had buyers who commented on the excess of leaves in their yard, so Del Boccio bought them his-and-her rakes and a package of yard bags. She also dropped off a roller and brushes at the home of a buyer who had paint projects to complete. And sometimes she will ask for buyers’ favorite pizza places before getting to the househunting, then has pizza from that place delivered to their new home to provide them with an easy dinner.
Hess uses text messages as a means of communicating with clients – but only when the client requests it. “Right now, I have a couple of clients who want me to send them text messages after each showing, with my take on how the showing went,” she says. “I also have older clients who would not even know what to do if I sent them a text message. It boils down to being in tune with each client’s needs; otherwise, it is impossible to service them.”
Questionnaires are a good place to start to get to know clients. Part of Hess’ buyer’s presentation is a “lifestyle needs assessment,” which includes questions about the client’s preferred methods of communication. She presents a similar document to sellers, too.
“One of my clients worked at a high profile public relations agency, so marketing was of the utmost importance to her,” Hess says. “Consequently, she was willing – in fact, she insisted on it – to invest in a video that highlighted appealing aspects of the neighborhood.”
Hess believes that, as long as it is not used as a crutch, technology offers agents and clients many advantages in helping agents service their clients well. She utilizes online resources in two different ways. For buyers, she runs MLS searches twice a day, and for sellers, Hess takes advantage of Zillow and Trulia features that reveal statistics, including how many visitors clicked on a listing and how many of those users explored a listing further via the search engine. From here, she can improve listings that aren’t getting clicks and make other modifications to help market those listings.
Exceeding Great Expectations
Once the agent is familiar with the client’s preferences, it is imperative that the agent do everything in his or her power to make those preferences a reality. It is essential to their business, really, and it sometimes involves going the extra mile, no matter how outlandish the request.
In recent years, Hess has utilized strategies she learned from reading “Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service,” a book that details top-notch customer service in different scenarios, ranging from department stores to gas stations. In each scenario in the book, the merchants offer superb customer service.
“‘Raving Fans’ makes the point that great customer service is about creating the feeling – not just conducting the transaction,” Hess says. “Making it clear that you care about a client’s experience makes quite an impact. As Realtors, we can start to create the experience from the first moment we meet a client. The book guides offers readers tips for creating raving fans of your services/business. I would highly recommend it to anyone in a service business.”
Taylor believes strongly that standout customer service does not come to a halt once the purchase or sales decision has been made.
“I try to attend every single closing as a source of support,” Taylor says. “My referrals come from taking measures like this – basically showing the client that I value their goals and that I am there to guide them down the right path, through each phase of the process, and to deal as a team with any challenges that may come along, then work together to figure out solutions.”
Ultimately, the most important resource an agent can utilize for the level of customer service that will win “raving fans” is hard work and dedication. There is no substitute for it, Del Boccio stresses.
“There was an event scheduled at one of my properties, and the night before, I was on my hands and knees at midnight cleaning their hardwood floors to make sure they shone for the event the next morning. Most people don’t realize how hard we work as agents for our clients,” she says.
Del Boccio, Hess and Taylor are happy to put in the blood, sweat and tears. All three agents were adamant that there is virtually no length they would not go to in order to best service a client.
“I think that if I was unwilling to serve clients with complete dedication, I would have failed in real estate long ago, Del Boccio says. “Whether it is to be that shoulder to lean on or that voice to calm them in the midst of the storm, it is important to be there as their support system morning, noon or night.”