Keep Them Coming Back

Good Customer Service Is the Secret to Client Retention.

When it comes to providing customer service, the golden rule applies: “Try to put yourself in your customers' shoes and figure out how you would want to be treated,” says Edward Craine, CCIM, president of Smith-Craine Finance in San Francisco.

Yet that's easier said than done, as clients often have unique wants and needs. “We know what we're doing, and what the outcome should be -- why don't the clients understand?” Craine says.

While the answer may be different for every commercial real estate company, providing excellent customer service is essential in today's competitive marketplace. By employing a few simple strategies, brokers can offer high-quality customer service that keeps clients satisfied and coming back.

Smart Hiring and Training
Quality customer service must be “a top-to-bottom program throughout the organization,” says Jeff A. Williford, CCIM, CPM, president of Williford Property Group in Houston. A problem at many commercial real estate companies is that “employees don't see the buy-in throughout the culture of the company,” he says. This leads to varying levels of customer service among brokers. To avoid inconsistencies, Williford recommends meticulous hiring and training procedures.

“If you don't do proper hiring, you're going to fail,” he says. Williford targets service-oriented job applicants by conducting pre-employment testing and extensive screening during the interview process. Such testing includes company-specific questions that focus on customer response, as well as more general management testing tools such as Personalysis or the Birkman Method. Williford also calls applicants' references and asks about their customer service orientation and experience.

Once hired, employees receive manuals detailing the company's Five-Star Service Program, which explains how to provide top-notch personal service, and training sessions on implementing it. Training is an ongoing process, with all staff members -- from property managers to administrative assistants -- regularly meeting to discuss customer service concepts and applications. In addition, the company encourages staff to share books and tapes on the subject that they have found helpful, Williford says.

A leasing and management company with about 40 employees in five cities throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia, Williford Property Group also “puts forth the effort to make sure that all of our offices are providing the same look and feel from the service team,” Williford adds. “Much of this is provided through training and our property management guidelines, which include everything from how the phone is answered to what our engineers wear for a uniform.”

Find Your Niche
Benedict J. Frederick III, CCIM, on the other hand, doesn't need to train employees or reinforce a company image. He is president and sole employee of Frederick Realty in Baltimore, specializing in helping clients buy and sell apartment buildings and investment property.

Frederick believes it's helpful to develop “some unique knowledge: Find your niche and go deep into that niche and then you become an invaluable resource to people,” he says. For instance, he consults in lead-paint compliance to aid landlords unfamiliar with Maryland's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. When the law was written, he served on the board of the Baltimore Property Owners Association and gained an extensive background in the program's benefits, requirements, and enforcement.

Deborah E. Harry, CCIM, president of Deborah Harry & Associates in Elverson, Pa., also capitalizes on her niche. She specializes in the relatively new area of lease advisory services, helping companies organize lease information to have it accessible as a management tool. “We go in and take care of that project,” she says. “When we leave, all the information is organized; sometimes we train staff on [available] software. I've gone into projects where they know they need software but don't even know where to look. So I can help them evaluate different packages as well.”

Keeping in Touch
Smith-Craine Finance, a seven-employee full-service mortgage brokerage company, emphasizes communication as the main element in quality customer service. “In any service business, the biggest issue is for clients to feel like they've been well taken care of,” Craine says. “So the key part of that is just communicating.”

The company's processes “are oriented around many [telephone] calls,” Craine says. “We probably have about a dozen different times during a transaction when a call is made, saying ‘ Here's what we did; here's why we did it.'” For a transaction that spans 90 days, as many as 20 phone calls may be made, he says. To expedite communication, the company is starting to use e-mail updates as well.

When things go awry, communication is especially critical. “We always try to work on communicating the problem quickly, offering what solutions we think are available within the realm of possibility and asking clients what they'd like to see as an outcome,” Craine says.

“I take the point of view that if there's a miscommunication -- if someone doesn't understand something -- then we didn't explain it well enough,” he adds. “I think clients appreciate that. And that puts a high consequence on us; that makes us very careful about how we explain things.”

Creative problem solving is another key, according to Williford. “You can make a better customer relationship out of solving a problem from something that went wrong than you can by a day-to-day transaction,” he says. “It's how we respond when we're in difficult situations that sets us above [the competition]. So we really focus on trying to empower our employees to creatively solve problems. We're very strategic about it; when we have a problem, we come up with a plan to resolve it. But you can't always do that; often you have to put your employees in a situation where they can solve problems on the spot.”

Provide Something Extra
Customer service doesn't end with the closing of a deal. Taking an extra step helps clients remember you the next time they need a commercial real estate professional.

“My goal is always to leave [clients] with more than they expected,” Harry says. “It's not just that I do the job but that they really get value from what I do.” She follows up assignments by providing helpful information for clients, such as energy management strategies or personal property tax tips for retailers. “I believe in building relationships. It's for the long term, not for just one assignment,” she says.

At closings, Frederick gives clients guidebooks on landlord-tenant laws, lease forms, and various other information they'll need as landlords; he even assisted one client with a key organization system.

Spreading the News
After establishing a reputation for quality customer service, the next step is to advertise it. Perhaps the strongest form of marketing is word of mouth, according to many brokers. Future clients are more likely to believe something if “they know somebody's experienced it,” Williford says. “It's that story that other people are telling about us that's helped us grow.”

However, “a key ingredient that I've learned is you can't just expect people to refer you,” Craine adds. “So it's really important to tell people that you need them to help you out. ... A heartfelt, sincere request for getting [referrals] from your clients -- people are happy to do it.”

“Getting testimonials from clients was helpful,” Harry says. “When I asked people to write them for me, there was a trend: the writers felt that I made them look good to their clients.” Harry adds that she now asks for a letter of recommendation after every job. “I've found my clients are very supportive and happy to help me get other business.”

Even with a folder full of strong referrals, companies still must build brand identification so customers associate quality service with them. Frederick stresses the importance of a clear, recognizable image to create that instant identification. “When you're driving down the street, and you see a sign, you don't actually read the words, you see the image and you know instantly what it is,” he points out. “That's the value of having a consistent image and logo across all of your materials.”

When he started his company last year, Frederick hired a professional designer to create his logo. “When you have a professionally designed image, everything has to be consistent,” he says. “The Web site has the same logo and color scheme as the signs, the letterhead, the business cards, the forms, the pens.”

Along the same lines, Williford's company provides a template for marketing materials, so all prospective and active customers receive information in the same recognizable format and style. Harry designed her own glossy brochure for prospective clients and uses a package of marketing materials that includes testimonial letters and information about the range of services her company provides. She also mails a series of monthly postcards with inspirational themes. “What's interesting is that every time I send them I'll hear from two or three people who I haven't heard from for a long time,” she says. Her name and logo are on the front of the card, and people often keep them on walls or bulletin boards, she says.

Indeed, no mater how glowing a word-of-mouth recommendation is, it's still necessary to keep your name in front of past and future clients. Harry's postcards do this, as do the writing tablets printed with her name and logo that she recently distributed at a real estate seminar. Frederick also sends out postcards describing recent marketing or sales activity; he freely distributes pens and Post-its with his name and number as well.

Craine sends out a variety of materials to a diverse audience. He mails a newsletter two to four times a year, discussing general real estate trends, loan products, and other “nuts and bolts” information. For some clients in his database, he sends out more personalized financial management information, such as brochures on financing a college education or building a real estate portfolio. “That's a whole different twist that some people like a lot, because it's not about me talking about my story or my loan product; it's useful financial information,” he says. “People have an understanding that when you're just freely giving information, you're a person they want to stay in touch with.”

Many of Craine's clients enjoy his postcard stories -- anecdotes about specific client scenarios and how he assisted -- that he mails approximately six to eight times a year. “They're told in a folksy way and they tell people the benefit of my services,” he says. “People love them. They want to know when the next story is coming or if their loan is going to be one of my stories.”

Beyond Print
A Web presence also offers commercial real estate practitioners a myriad of creative, efficient, and economical ways to promote their businesses. But to be most effective, a Web site has to be useful to your customers, Frederick cautions.

For example, a Web site should include useful information on listings, such as a property's taxes, curb cuts, or neighborhood demographics. It also should have the practitioner's résumé and helpful links to community information and other industry sites.

Thus, a client can research background on properties and compare financial information on their own time. “So by the time they get to me, they already have some familiarity with [a property], and it's just a question of setting up an appointment to go look at it,” Frederick says.

Craine advocates including client stories and handwritten testimonials. This allows clients “to have an understanding about what our style is here and what our core values are in the business,” he says. “I've had people who come in and say, ‘ I saw your Web site, I went through it, I know exactly what I'm going to get, and that's why I'm here.'” He advises making a Web site “very personal, as in: ‘ Here's what I believe in, here's how I do my business, here's my expertise,'” he says.

Measuring Success
The service-oriented approach works, say these practitioners, judging from the response they get.

To stay on top of customer service skills, Williford incorporates measurements into his program, using follow-up phone calls, quarterly and annual quality assurance surveys, or direct face-to-face communication with clients.

Craine uses post-closing surveys to verify client satisfaction. For a while his company also worked with an independent agency that ranked small businesses by canvassing customers, and for three years running, Smith-Craine Finance received consistently high marks.

Sarah Hoban

Sarah Hoban is a business writer based in Chicago.


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