by Joseph and JoAnn Callaway, authors of “Clients First“
You know the type: the client who just can’t be satisfied and who seems impossible to work with. This person may want to ask way more for his or her home than it’s worth, or expect to buy a mansion on a duplex budget… or both. Meanwhile, every meeting and showing is an ordeal featuring tears, hostility, accusations, and very selective listening. Something’s gotta give, and to make sure it’s not your sanity, you’ve been thinking of going to extremes: firing your client.
Hang on. Before you start agonizing over the easiest method to say, “This isn’t working out,” here’s what I have to say about tough clients.
The business world is full of corporate gurus who advise you to get rid of the ‘bottom 10 percent’ — of employees, stores, suppliers, and yes, even clients — because these lackluster organizations and people are only weighing you down. I disagree.
In over fourteen years, my wife and I have never gotten rid of a single client — even when we secretly wished we could — and we believe this no-fire strategy has contributed significantly to our ultimate success.
My wife and I built our business — Those Callaways — after a late-in-life entry into the world of real estate. Since then, we have lived through a bubble and survived a horrible economic downturn — and managed to prosper through both, while many of our fellow realtors never recovered. In fact, to date we’ve sold over a billion dollars’ worth of homes. And we credit their “Clients First” revelation (of which never, ever firing a client is part) as being the magic bullet.
Deciding to really put clients first, whether they were individuals or institutions, was a remarkable — and remarkably simple — discovery. This strategy has the power to change your life, to transform your business, and to bring about financial security. Even when clients make your life a lot more difficult than it theoretically should be, your job — your professional reason for being — is to serve them. If you cannot or will not do so, it’s the client’s job to fire you, not the other way around.
If you’d like to incorporate the Clients First method and no-fire mindset into your own business, read on for seven of our tips to help you get started:
Make the Clients First commitment.
Really putting clients first is a big commitment. And if you’re comfortable with your current way of doing business, level of success, and client relationships, that commitment is not for you. However, if you find yourself wanting more — more fulfillment, more professional growth, more experience, and yes, even more money — you may want to give Clients First a chance.
Of course, not firing your customers is only a small part of putting them first. You need to put your own needs second, base all of your interactions on transparency and honesty, and make it your priority to always do what’s best for the client. It won’t always be easy: Consciously putting your own best interests in second place goes against the grain of human nature! But you will find that a lot of the tough decisions — like whether or not to keep working on behalf of someone who makes you want to pull your hair out — will practically make themselves.
Realize that keeping clients is just plain practical.
Yes, the economy may be slowly pulling itself out of the dark, deep, and depressing hole known as The Great Recession, but business is still far from booming — and the real estate industry is no exception. To put it bluntly, you probably need all the clients and commissions you can get. And how you conduct business now, when the going is tough, can set you apart from the competition and give you a solid foundation in the future.
Thanks in large part to the current economic climate, you may be dealing with a larger volume of difficult clients than usual. Since it’s a buyer’s market, the sellers with whom you’re working may be tired, worried, and impatient. And even though they theoretically have the advantage, buyers may still be tight on money — and they certainly aren’t immune from the concerns that always plague homebuyers.
When you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated clients, you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards. And you may even become known in your area as the realtor who can handle the toughest clients — and receive referrals from other agencies!
Learn to like people.
If you’re in the real estate business, you probably already consider yourself to be somewhat of a people person. (Otherwise, you’d have chosen a career that didn’t require you to interact with the public all day!) But chances are you still need to learn to like people more. Think about it: Do you hold yourself emotionally aloof from your clients and complain about their foibles to your coworkers and family, even though you were all smiles during your meeting? Or do you always make a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes and to learn more about them as people, not just as potential sources of income?
To truly put your clients first, your number one goal should be to invite them within arm’s length and make each one less of a stranger. Ask about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs. Now I’ll admit — sometimes it’s not easy to like people. They can be difficult or have bad attitudes, and they can be a source of pain, ridicule, and embarrassment. But if you get out there and engage, you’ll find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and dreams.
And when you know that Mr. Jenkins is throwing a fit because he has to relocate for his new job in the next three months and is desperate to get out from under a big mortgage payment, you’ll be much less inclined to fire him. Instead, you’ll want to work that much harder on his behalf.
Expect out-of-control emotions.
It’s no secret that people are emotionally attached to their homes. Leaving a house filled with memories and trying to find a new one that fits a family’s budget, size requirements, and personal tastes is usually distressing, upsetting, and anxiety-provoking. In fact, people who approach the process dispassionately are definitely the exception to the rule. Clients may fall apart early or late in the process, but at some point most will go a little crazy.
If you don’t want to handle clients who display emotional extremes, you are in the wrong business. So instead of dreading emotional outbursts and using them as reasons to sever a business relationship, think of alleviating the client’s worries, insecurities, and fears as part of your job description. And remember, putting the client first means not reflecting their turmoil back to them. Resist the urge to snipe back or to let yourself be caught up in a feeding frenzy of worry and anxiety. Instead, let animosity and frustration end when they reach you. You and the client will be better off.
Look for opportunities to help and to grow your business. (They’re one and the same!)
Once you recognize that when they hire you, your clients are by definition in the midst of a stressful transition period, you can look for chances to help them. However, you’ll miss every one of those opportunities if you’re second-guessing your decision to work with any particular customer. After all, when your mind is dominated by thoughts like, If only I had seen the warning signs and realized sooner that this person has unreasonable expectations!, you’ll be suppressing the creativity — not to mention the willingness — required to figure out possible solutions and compromises.
Here’s the silver lining to gritting your teeth and persevering when you feel like throwing in the towel. When you truly succeed in helping a client — which could be alleviating anxiety in the short term, and selling or buying a house in the long term — you will have won a fan for life. Often, the most difficult clients are the ones who go on to tell the most people how wonderful you are, and what lengths you went to on their behalf.
Consider your “karma bank.”
My wife and I have never bought into the philosophy that advises “cherry-picking” clients. Instead, a central tenet of our Clients First method means serving every client, regardless of the return on their investment of time, energy, emotions, and money. And what is firing difficult clients but a method of cherry-picking after the fact?
We like to believe that there is a karma bank out there somewhere, and when times are particularly difficult or a client is a real pill, we remind ourselves that we’re making deposits in our karma bank. And guess what? While we’ve learned not to have firm expectations when it comes to karma, our efforts and goodwill usually come back to us multiple times over.
Let’s say you have a client named Frieda who demands a ton of your time and energy. She’s high-strung and weepy and can’t make up her mind, and the commission may not even cover expenses. Still, you stay patient and do your absolute best to help her. A few years later, you get a call from the president of a corporation that relocates a lot of high-level employees to your town and he wants you to be his realtor of record. Turns out Frieda is his aunt — and he is calling you because she told him how kind and helpful you were with her at a really tough time in her life. That’s karma. It’s real, and it can change your life.
When all else fails, look for the lesson.
Very occasionally, you’ll encounter a client who isn’t acting out because he is simply worried or stressed or preoccupied — he’s just a downright nasty person. We call these folks “the evil people” and say there’s usually no way to avoid them or to foresee their hurtful actions. (And if you try to do so, you’ll lose many clients who would have turned out to be wonderful.) Fortunately, if you’ve decided to put clients first, you’re already on the doing-the-right-thing path and won’t need to blame yourself for a client’s bad behavior.
Out of more than 5,000 clients, we could probably number our ‘evil people’ on two hands, but they were certainly memorable. When you find yourself with an irredeemably awful client of your own, just keep working hard, telling the truth, and seeking the client’s best interest. And in the process, look for a lesson that might help you in the future. Overall, the most important thing you can learn from dealing with evil people is the art of letting it go. Don’t stand on principle. Don’t anguish. Don’t blame yourself. Just let it go. To do otherwise — to continually engage with a toxic person — is to let him or her win… often at the expense of your peace of mind and sanity.
Committing ourselves to our clients’ best interests was one of the best decisions JoAnn and I ever made. Because we stayed the course and didn’t fire any clients, our phones kept ringing and our open houses were attended, even through the darkest days. Our clients took care of us just as we had taken care of them. Trust me, everyone wins when you strive to serve instead of expending your energy on figuring out which clients ‘work’ for you.
Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of “Clients First: The Two Word Miracle” and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways.