With more than 1,000 Inman posts, Bernice Ross is a long-time contributor whose weekly column on real estate trends, luxury, marketing and other best practices publishes every Monday.
Most real estate agents would agree that many, if not all, real estate transactions have the potential to turn into a nightmare. Imagine an improperly recorded lien pops up on the title report; a major catastrophe — a fire, flood, earthquake or hurricane — strikes; or another party involved in the transaction makes an honest mistake.
No matter how hard agents might attempt to dodge these and other issues, Murphy’s law sometimes wins. And although these roadblocks are not the agent’s fault, it’s still the agent’s responsibility to make sure the transaction closes, regardless of what precipitated the problem.
I was reminded of this during the Viking Sun cruise my husband and I took from Bergen, Norway, to Barcelona, Spain, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. Viking is currently rated as the No. 1 ocean cruise line in the world, and its handling of some exceedingly difficult customer service issues during this cruise was a master class on how to navigate tough issues that weren’t of its making. I’ll explain below.
1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
When we boarded the ship, rumors were buzzing about the horrific weather the passengers arriving in Bergen had experienced. The culprit — the remnants of Hurricane Michael.
As we sailed out Sunday night, Michael was kicking up 15-foot to 18-foot waves coupled with sustained winds of 25-30 knots with gusts up to 40-50 knots. Even with the ship’s state-of-the-art stabilizers, the rocking was so severe that a substantial number of people were horribly sea sick.
What we didn’t know was that there was another four days of gale conditions and high winds ahead as Michael interacted with Hurricane Leslie, the first hurricane to hit Portugal in 500 years. Not only were we rocking up and down, but side to side so badly that even the crew was bumping into the walls.
2. Avoid harrowing situations, and heed the warnings
This should be customer service lesson No. 1. Throughout the trip, Viking warned passengers of the risks of being at sea in severe weather. When the captain said, “Take your Meclizine and keep one hand on the handrails,” I paid attention.
In contrast, we were traveling with two other couples who are cruise fanatics — the weather wasn’t an issue. They also knew exactly where they wanted to be on the ship — at the suite nearest the bow adjacent to the Explorer’s Lounge, on the top deck.
While joining our friends up top seemed like a good idea, I recalled the sage advice of our travel agent who booked our honeymoon cruise 20 years ago. To avoid the noise from the engines and propellers at the stern and the more extreme motion at the bow, book a cabin midship, on a middle deck.
By heeding both pieces of advice, I didn’t get sick and slept well.
Our friends didn’t fare so well. Not only were they situated where the motion was the greatest, so was the noise from the ship crashing through the waves. Bottom line, one of them spent all night throwing up, no one slept, and all four were in bad shape the next day.
There are several takeaways for your business here. When you find yourself in a harrowing situation, seek expert advice from those who may have survived the type of event that you’re facing.
Second, examine tradeoffs carefully. What matters most to you and your clients? In the case of which cabin was best for me, it wasn’t the biggest or the nicest—it was the one where I was least likely to be seasick. Make your decisions about how to proceed based on your client’s top priorities.
3. When someone throws a monkey wrench into your deal, handle it
Normally, passport control screens incoming passengers on the dock. At Portsmouth, officials insisted on boarding the ship, having everyone line up all at once to get their passports stamped, regardless of whether they were leaving the ship or when their excursions were scheduled.
The result was utter chaos as 900 passengers jammed the hallways for waits of an hour wait or more. After being at sea with the bad weather and quite few people still feeling ill, you can imagine how intense it was.
What impressed me was how Viking handled this dreadful scenario. The crew came up with a workaround to get all the excursions off on time. They also took full responsibility for the mess, even though it wasn’t their fault.
We take full responsibility for what happened and apologize for the unacceptable events that took place this morning. We have already put a contingency plan into place so if this situation ever happens again, we will be prepared to avoid the type of unacceptable situation you encountered this morning. Again, we apologize and take full responsibility for what happened.
4. Forget the explanation, just own it
A simple approach to working around problems is to avoid explaining or rationalizing the reasons something went wrong; instead ask, “What can I do to fix this situation?”
This simple question moves past the problem and onto seeking solutions.
5. Be proactive when you spot a problem
When we were in Amsterdam, our tour guide was intent on arriving exactly on time for the river cruise part of our excursion. Many of the people on this excursion were in their 70s. The guide marched us 2.5 hours with no bathroom breaks. The one woman who stopped to find a bathroom was left behind.
On the excursion evaluation for the day, one of the passengers noted what had happened, but left the evaluation in her cabin. The steward picked it up and delivered it to customer service. Viking immediately called the passenger, met with her in person shortly thereafter and took immediate steps to discover what had happened and how to rectify the situation.
6. Seek feedback, and act on it quickly
Conducting a post-closing survey on every transaction is a must. When there is a problem, address it immediately. Again, avoid justifying, rationalizing or trying to explain your behavior. Instead, thank the person for his or her honest feedback, take steps to rectify the current situation, and do your best to avoid having it happen again.
7. Know that people will still make dumb mistakes, even if you do everything right
Viking warned us almost daily about pickpockets. Even so, I spoke to an older man who left his wallet in his pocket. He even knew he was being targeted, but he still didn’t move his wallet, and the pickpockets got it.
As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The same is true in real estate.
8. Clean up the mess without chastising
If you criticize your clients for making dumb mistakes, chances are you’re not going to get any future business from them. If they need help getting out of a tough situation of their own doing, assist them if possible. In no case, however, should you criticize them. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
When it comes to customer service, be proactive about warning your clients about the risks and pitfalls, do your best to clean up messes as they occur, seek feedback, and take action on it quickly if needed.
Bernice Ross, President and CEO of BrokerageUP (brokerageup.com) and RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles. Learn about her broker/manager training programs designed for women, by women, at BrokerageUp.com and her new agent sales training at RealEstateCoach.com/newagent.