Take care of complaints promptly and properly to save and win business
An interesting consequence of writing this column is the number of times readers send me copies of complaints they have made to estate agents. They also e-mail me with the details of a problem they are having with an agent, and ask for my opinion. Naturally, I don't get involved in any of these. However, while the volume of deals is down, the amount of complaints I'm seeing is increasing. I put this down to the reversion to private ownership of property, following re-sales of insolvency portfolios.
The notable thing about these complaints is that they tend to be about the same issues, and agents make the same mistakes in dealing with them. So what are the pitfalls to avoid, and how can agents actually strengthen their relationships with clients, through better handling of complaints?
The classic problem that arises is when a sale has failed to materialise as expected and that first flush of enthusiasm and hope is evaporating. Complaints rarely arise when a property has sold for above the expected price, but it's a different story when the advertising budget has been spent and the viewings haven't resulted in any offers. The client was lavished with attention and positivity when the agent was trying to win their instructions, but once the property starts 'going stale', vendors sometimes feel their agent changes tune and begins 'managing their expectations' downwards. Some complainants say that they begin to question who their agent is acting for - them or the offeror!
The requirement for agents to advise their clients of the advised minimum value in writing has reduced this problem but agents should be aware that a client, who has paid their fee after a difficult sale, is not necessarily going around extolling their agent's virtues.
A common complaint arises over a lack of contact from an agent. This is down to human nature as it's far more pleasant to be ringing clients whose sales are going well, than those whose campaigns have gone flat. However, it's this latter category that needs the most attention. Once you feel the momentum going out of an instruction, pause and come up with some positive ideas to re-inject life into the sale and keep calling your client. This will maintain a much healthier relationship with your vendor, you'll be more likely to agree on a deal together, and they will appreciate your enthusiasm and the fact that you are not giving up.
When a client complains, be grateful, because they have given you a chance to rectify the problem, whereas most unhappy clients are going around damaging your reputation without you knowing about it. When a client (or prospective purchaser) does complain, make sure that you respond immediately. Almost every response I see to complaints starts off with "please accept my apologies for the delay in responding" - but gives no reason why there has been a delay. This is a huge mistake as every complainant is angry by the time they complain and they will get angrier every day that you leave them festering, making the problem harder to resolve.
Most businesses use the protective shield of e-mail when handling complaints. The only reason for that is that it's less hassle than talking to the complainant directly. That's lazy. Immediately on receiving a complaint, if at all possible, telephone them and, even better, arrange to meet them. You're already regaining ground quickly by taking the matter seriously.
Show maximum empathy for the complainant. If you have made a mistake, tell them you are sorry, and agree on what you are going to do to resolve the problem. Always double-check to make sure that your firm has followed through on whatever commitments you make. Murphy's Law tends to apply around complaints and if something is going to go wrong, it tends to happen to those jobs that are already in trouble.
Handling complaints quickly and with empathy will often see you turn an unhappy client into a happy one. They just need to feel that you care about them.
David O'Neill RIP
The estate agency business was saddened by the death of David O'Neill last week. A barrister and chartered surveyor, he had a distinguished career with Lisney and Hamilton Osborne King (Savills). David was a gentleman, highly respected by clients as a valuer and always ready to help out a fellow surveyor with friendly, expert advice. May he rest in peace.