Conversations under COVID: How to talk to clients during a crisis

by Meg White

When the coronavirus pandemic subsides, it may turn out that the most talkative agents are the ones who emerge with the most robust books of business. That’s the message we received after reaching out to Chicagoland brokers who are navigating the difficult waters of a market where most clients must remain at home, and many others are staring down an uncertain future.

Here are a few of the key ways that your fellow agents are using conversations to help clients and stay productive.

Handling the basics

Some clients who aren’t actively involved in a transaction may not even be aware that you’re working. A major talking point for Baird & Warner’s Nicholas Colagiovanni is the fact that real estate is indeed allowed to carry on during the stay-at-home provision of the current state of emergency. “I am making everyone, both sellers and buyers, aware that the governor deemed real estate services [an] essential business,” he said.

Many of the conversations that A. Jordan Rothschild, a broker with @properties in Lincoln Park, has had with clients center on contingency planning. “Clients’ professional and personal lives are changing rapidly. I’m focusing on listening to their needs and helping them evaluate if buying, selling or renting is their best option based on their external factors,” he said.

One of the main questions Leigh Marcus, also with @properties, is hearing from sellers is on the topic of who exactly is house hunting right now. They ask, “‘Is anyone really buying right now?’ And the answer is yes,” he said. Marcus estimated that while house hunting activity is down anywhere from 35% to 80% depending on the market, the buyers who are out there now are ready to move. “There are less non-serious people looking.”

That seriousness might be translating to more deals for some; Marcus noted that his business is up around 10% and that he and his team had sold two homes sight unseen as of Wednesday.

Tracy Anderson, a broker in Compass’ Hinsdale office, has noticed a similar trend with her buyer clients. “They are doing more legwork before requesting an actual showing. Since they have the time, and maybe need the distraction, they are driving by homes and ruling out ones that won’t work for them. They are spending more time viewing the photos and watching video footage to narrow down their search,” she said.

Explaining the new showing realities

It’s very important for agents to offer details on how real estate can continue as an industry while at the same time maintaining safety. “A large portion of my time in recent weeks has been spent learning the ever-developing protocols in our industry to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and then disseminating this information to clients,” Rothschild said. “Clients are still active in the marketplace, and it is imperative that we, as an essential industry, do all that we can to protect our community.”

Colagiovanni echoed that call. “We all must be careful and not reckless or irresponsible,” he said, noting that he’s careful to help clients not only understand best practices but also respect the fears that others might have about viewing or showing properties. “I am making both sides prepared by educating them on exceptions and mandates. It boils down to making parties comfortable by being respectful and aware,” he said.

Marcus has also started going into great detail when it comes to getting a listing ready for virtual open houses or showings. In addition to taking precautions like sanitizing hands, wearing masks and pulling foot covers on over shoes, he’s also asking sellers to prepare their homes so that buyers and agents can reduce the number of surfaces they must come into contact with.

Anderson has been doing the same. “We are making sure homes that are shown have all the lights on [and] closet doors open, so that the buyers and buyers’ agents minimize the need to touch anything in the home,” she said. “Sellers are looking for us to screen potential buyers, [so? and?] we want to ensure the buyers entering their home are pre-approved for a loan, are healthy and [that] only the decision makers are attending the showings.”

Being the source of the source

In order to have fruitful conversations with concerned clients, agents may want to reach out to other industry partners. In addition to holding a weekly Zoom call with other agents to share and brainstorm, and following up with past clients to act as a resource during the pandemic, Sheena Baker is staying in touch with other trusted resources.

The broker at CarMarc Realty Group has found being in near constant communication with local lenders has helped her to understand the changes that are happening with the mortgage industry right now. This both keeps her in tune with the financing side of real estate deals and also helps her address client questions about the process.

“I am asking questions such as what changed [in terms of] the minimum credit score, any guideline changes, and checking in daily to stay in the know when interest rates increase or decrease,” Baker said. “We have also brought a lender in on video conference and phone calls. If I have any clients that may not qualify with certain lenders, I am understanding which lenders I may need to refer those clients to, who may have a program that works for them.”

Taking time to talk

When most Chicagoans are stuck inside with limited contact with the outside world, one-on-one conversations are valued higher than ever in recent memory. Susan Maman, a broker with @properties in Winnetka, initially committed to calling 15 contacts a day to check in during these difficult times, but she’s had to scale that back to five because the conversations were running so long and becoming so involved. “If these people pick up the phone … they don’t want to hang up,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

Despite the emotional drain, Maman is happy to play a role in helping her clients and prospects remain calm and optimistic. “I’m just trying to keep them positive,” she said, noting that she’ll share her insights on the market with those who ask, but that many times, “we talk about things other than real estate.”

Anderson said her level of communication hasn’t changed much, but the form of outreach has shifted. “I always communicate with my clients based on their preferred methods of communication: texts, emails and phone calls,” she said. While “the vast majority of my clients preferred texts and emails” before, she said that during the shelter in place order, “people are enjoying speaking on the phone a lot more.”

Maman said now is a great time for agents to reconnect with people they haven’t spoken with in a while. Under normal circumstances, a random check-in call can sometimes feel forced, or provoke fear or embarrassment in brokers. “It’s such an easy tie-in right now,” Maman said, noting that there’s plenty to talk about, and brokers can simply ask if there’s anything they can do for their clients right now.

Maman sees such contacts as a way to brace for the inevitable impact that this work stoppage will cause. “This year is not going to be a banner year for the majority of us,” she said. “We can make up for the latter part of the year based on the work we’re doing now.”

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