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Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

Sitting in a near-sterile environment with that hospital smell of disinfectant and something you can’t quite identify sending the telling signals that you’re in a medical office. This one happens to be a “diagnostic imaging center” — the fancy and expensive version of an X-ray lab (for the record, the wife’s visit is just a routine check, all is well). 

We have been sitting here since 7:15 a.m. For an 8:30 a.m. appointment. No reason has been provided for why we are required to arrive 75 minutes prior to the appointment — before the office is even open — but here we are being good little customers. Because if you think about it, customer is exactly the role we are currently playing.

Sure, this isn’t your typical customer-business relationship. But we are buying a “product,” an upper GI in this case. Yes, Francy is currently in the back, choking down a liter or so of barium. I’m sure it’s the kind with the fresh minty taste. The imaging center is providing a service, for which we are paying quite handsomely. That makes this a client-to-business relationship. 

And here I sit, completely clueless as to what’s going on, no idea why things are happening or what’s next. And I’m paying a boat-load of money for this experience.  

Needless to say, I’m not a happy camper right now. 

Being a life-long fan of superior customer service, it pains me to experience the dark side. I’d much rather write of customer service success stories — they tend to put me in a far happier place.

As this experience unfolds before me though, I think it provides a learning opportunity. Other than sitting here in uncomfortable seats, flipping through six-month-old magazines and clinical trial notices while I stare into my phone, what else is there to do but cogitate and turn this lesson being served me into a reasonably useful column for Inman readers?

Customer service is, after all, what separates the exceptional from the good. I don’t care if you are selling popcorn, diagnostic images or real estate: How you treat your clients is important, and in my opinion, becoming more important with every passing day. 

So let’s breakdown what is going right and wrong with my current (and apparently continuing) customer journey of the day.

Frustration

Yes, fighting Seattle traffic to get downtown at 7:15 a.m. sucks. It’s just not a good way to start the day. It means leaving home at 6:15 a.m., and having to drive because public transportation doesn’t run early enough to get there in time. Why we have to arrive 75 minutes early wasn’t explained, it was more of an order. 

The frustration builds when you arrive at the reception desk at 7:13 a.m., only to find no one there. 

Because, you know, they aren’t even open yet. 

So we sit and wait. 

Yelling into emptiness behind the desk, someone eventually pops their head out with a, “Here to check in?” 

Nope, just figured we’d hang out in a medical office at 7:30 a.m., you know, for fun. Got any barium?

We check in. Francy can’t have coffee before this test, so she’s ready to hurt people. I don’t think it’s right to have coffee when she can’t. Yes, we’re decaffeinated and cranky. None of that really matters as the unwelcoming office has no coffee available anyway.

For the next 30 minutes, nothing happens. There is literally no one in the office except us and the receptionist. We sit there. She makes appointment reminders. “Remember, you have to be here 75 minutes before your appointment,” she repeats every time. Sometimes that follows with, “I don’t know, it’s office policy.” 

Forty-five minutes later, nothing. Francy asks politely what’s going on, and she gets the, “I don’t know, I’ll check.”

As the first hour ticks by, we are still alone with the receptionist. Still no clue as to why we’re just sitting here, why we had to be here so early. One person comes in and goes back in under three minutes. The office finally appears to actually be open. 

Just moments before the scheduled appointment time, Francy finally gets called back. “This will only take 10 minutes” was the last I heard as the doors shut behind them.

That was almost 50 minutes ago …

It’s frustrating. Frustrated is not how you want your clients to feel. Other than raging anger, frustrated is probably the last way you want customers and clients to feel. Unchecked frustration often leads to anger anyway — it’s the spinning circle of customer service hell, and it’s just not a good situation.

“Uhm, any idea why my wife’s 10-minute exam is taking almost an hour?”

“I don’t know, I’ll check.”

What could have helped reduce our frustration? 

Communication

Talk to me. Keep me informed. Help me understand. Guide me. Show a little empathy.

All of those matter, and fundamentally, all boil down to communication. Our frustration this morning peaked because no one had a clue, not one question was answered. We felt ignored. There was zero empathy. 

Granted, we don’t have a lot of choices in diagnostic imaging services. But there were times I would have walked out if I could. I suspect the management of the imaging office is fully aware that customers are trapped. That doesn’t excuse poor service, it just helps explain why lousy service isn’t hurting them.

You, oh real estate professional, do not have that luxury. People do have choices in real estate agents and services. Customer service matters, and it matters a great deal to your business. In today’s on-demand instant-access economy, it matters even more. 

Almost every day, you help someone buy or sell a home. It’s important to remember that the things you know, stuff that’s obvious and second nature to you, could be the deep-dark unknown to your clients. It’s scary out there for your clients. Scary, and frustrating. You must openly communicate everything to your clients.

Find out their preferred method or platform for communications, and use that. Tell them upfront you will probably over-communicate, and they are free to tell you to back off. Trust me, no one is going to complain about too much communication, and I’ll bet a lot of money you’ll never get a request to back off keeping people informed. 

Follow up

Several months ago, I wrote about the two hardest things to say to clients. Our receptionist today had no problem whatsoever with one of those phrases: “I don’t know.” 

The problem is, she failed miserably at the most important part of using this difficult, but very powerful phrase: she didn’t follow up.

She started off right, and I’m sure with good intentions. “I don’t know, I’ll check.”

If you say, “I’ll check,” then it is paramount that you actually check. Letting the person know you’ve checked helps too. Follow up! Without the follow-up, your words mean nothing.

Your word, your reputation, is everything. It’s OK not to know something. It’s inexcusable to tell someone. “I’ll check,” then fail to do so.  

Nice gesture

Ultimately Francy got her upper GI. The barium was not fresh and minty, the customer service sucked, but the place comped our parking and gave us a $5 Starbucks card. Those were nice gestures, and helped wash the bad taste of service (and barium) out of our mouths. I filled out a, “How did we do?” card, checking “no” on several boxes.

I fully expect the follow-up to be about the same as the receptionists’ — that being non-existent. Same for the tweet into the void.

But I did learn some lessons, or at least got some reinforcement of the importance of customer service.

Communicate and follow up. Show a little empathy. Treat your customers how you’d want to be treated. Do that, and they’ll walk away singing your praises. That’s way better than having them walk away with the feeling that swallowing barium was the best part of their experience.  

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.

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