By Erica Christoffer, Contributing Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
So much of the real estate business is about building relationships. But how do you achieve the kind of relationship with your clients where they would never think of choosing anyone else? Professional speaker and author Shep Hyken talks about his new book, The Cult of the Customer (read our review), about ways to attain client loyalty and how to create a business culture people love.
At the beginning of the book, you explain the use of the word cult and defend its meaning. Why would you want a cult of clients, and how can that cult improve your business?
HYKEN: The average home owner moves roughly every seven years. The idea is they’re going to come back and buy another home down the road. They are also going to have friends who are going to move. You’ve got to do such a great job that they won’t think of anyone else when it comes time for their next move. And when they hear of other people moving, they will refer them to you. That’s the whole concept of evangelism.
Most people think of the word cult as something that ties into a fanatical or religious group. Really, the word cult is playing off the word culture. A company with a culture of taking care of customers, while at the same time taking care of their employees internally, will have a cult of customers.
I wrote about a real estate professional from St. Louis named Marilyn Singleton in my previous book, Moments of Magic. She has since passed away, but she was unbelievable. There I was, a guy who owned a house back in 1990 in St. Louis, and Southwestern Bell had just moved its headquarters to Texas so there were a lot of people in the middle- to upper-class neighborhoods leaving the city. Therefore, a huge supply of homes came about and it was a bad time to want to sell a house.
I had gone through a couple of agents who I signed contracts with for six months each. Well, after a year the house hadn’t sold, and I decided it was time for some fresh blood.
I had heard about Marilyn; she was very direct about what needed to be done. She was the first agent I worked with who said my price was fine, it was what I needed to do to the house to get it sold. She hired all the contractors for me, we put on fresh paint, we rented furniture — she did all the things that needed to be done. She was a doer. And her network was amazing, she took care of everything. She sold that home in about six weeks when others couldn’t sell it in a year.
Well, I wrote a letter to Marilyn’s boss commending her work. I had no idea he was going to do this, but he took out a full-page ad and reprinted the letter in the business section of the newspaper. I was an evangelist; I couldn’t wait to get her more business. That’s what we want our clients to become.
Many real estate professionals are solo entrepreneurs, “a force of one” as you call them. What are some of the main lessons they could learn from The Cult of the Customer?
HYKEN: Being “a force of one” is easier than being in “a force of many.” You don’t have to worry about other employees or about whether the company is hiring the right people for the right jobs. If you are a solo entrepreneur, I believe you have a better opportunity for impact than a larger company because you don’t have the potential for inconsistent attitudes between people or inconsistent training.
If you learn a new lesson from this book or some technique at the next convention or conference, you can implement it immediately. People who work for themselves have the potential to deliver a very high level of service.
You talk about the importance of “touch points” in your book. Do you have any suggestions on how those in the real estate profession can make the most of their client interactions?
HYKEN: Touch points, which are every time you have an interaction with a client, need to be managed for positive results. To be in the “cult of amazement,” which is that higher-end customer service, touch points have to be better than average.
I would encourage everyone to sit down and write out what all of their touch points are. There’s an exercise in chapter 17 in the book and on the Web site www.cultofthecustomer.com with forms you can fill out to assist you with this.
For example, if you’re going to pick up a client in your car, the car should be clean, the air conditioning and heat should work, you should know where the property is — that’s an obvious touch point. You want to create confidence.
In the book, there are several correlations between employee satisfactions and the level of customer service. What are some things a broker could start doing today to improve the workplace for their real estate associates?
HYKEN: It doesn’t matter what type of business it is, whether it’s a broker or another type of management, they need to model the behavior property. The client lives in a parallel world to the employee. What’s happening on the inside of an organization is happening on the outside.
Management can’t take someone in the backroom and verbally beat them up, then tell them to go out and be nice to their clients. I call it the employee golden rule: Do unto your employees or your associates as you want done unto your clients.
If you’re doing any hiring, you have to hire for the culture above everything else. Obviously in real estate they have to come licensed, but that shouldn’t get them in the door. Hire the attitude, train the skill. And make sure you train well, not only for the job they are supposed to do, but also for the cultural side.
Train them on how to act and respond to clients. If they don’t buy into it, get them out as quickly as possible.
Finally, you have to recognize the good job people are doing. It can be public recognition or it can be private. Pat people on the back. Make sure they feel fulfilled in the job they are doing.
What is your favorite tip?
HYKEN: It’s a concept called “starting over.” This is not in the book. It came as a result of me giving the book to a guy I love, Vince Bommarito, owner of Tony’s Restaurant in St. Louis. Vince said they get a lot of accolades from their guests about the service or how great the food is. He likes to share those with the staff.
Every day before opening they have a meeting to talk about the day before, how they can improve, the daily specials, and Vince shares the accolades. Then he says, “In five minutes those doors open and we start over.”
Every time you have the opportunity to do business with someone, even if it’s a repeat client, you’re starting over. Client loyalty isn’t about a lifetime; it’s about the next time, every time.
What can real estate professionals do to maintain relationships with their clients after the sale is over?
HYKEN: You should never look at a client as a one-time transaction. You should look at it as the beginning of a relationship. Once you’ve completed the transaction, you think of a closing gift as the culmination of it. A closing gift is just one step along the way.
There’s a man I once wrote about named Irv Roselman who was an insurance salesman. Irv would send birthday cards to his contacts every year. I knew someone who received a birthday card from Irv for 40 years.
In Irv’s mind, the relationship trumped everything else. That’s what we need to focus on — the relationship. If all you do is send out postcards that say “think of me when your neighbors are moving,” that’s too much business and not enough relationship.
What kind of research did you do for The Cult of the Customer?
HYKEN: So much of it comes from me observing. I read about one to two business books per month and I also subscribe to Google Alerts, where you enter key words and Google sifts through articles and sends those that are matching to your e-mail. I learned about Zappos.com, an example I wrote about in the book, through articles I was reading on the Internet. They are one of my favorite companies in the world now.
What did you do before you were a professional speaker and author?
HYKEN: When I was a kid, I ran a successful little birthday party business. Families would hire me to do their birthday parties. Here I was, 12 or 13 years old, and I’d give them a contract. A week before the party I would call them up to touch base. I would show up to the party early and leave late.
I’d send thank you notes, follow up with phone calls, and find out when their next birthday party was going to be for one of their other kids. I later learned there was a term for what I was doing, and that was customer service.
I grew up in St. Louis, attended the University of Missouri, I also worked for my family’s gas station business. After I graduated I saw a couple speakers, Zig Ziglar and Tom Hopkins, and I said, “Wow, those guys make you feel like you can do anything.”
Then I thought, “I betcha you can do anything — even what they were doing!” Soon after that I decided to write my first speech.
What motivated you to write this book?
HYKEN: Wiley, the publisher (John Wiley & Sons), contacted me out of the blue and said, “Your name keeps popping up and we’re wondering if you’re getting ready to do another project.” I said, “OK.”
I had written about a hundred articles and I was starting to compile them and move them around. We started brainstorming titles and we came up with The Cult of the Customer.
When speakers write a book, they often take a speech and transcribe it. That’s what I did for my first book (Moments of Magic) and it was very successful. Well, this was a little different. This came from content I had written and more content that I developed.