Don’t Let the Age Gap Damage Your Business Relationships

Frustrated by generational differences with your clients? Here are 6 challenges where practitioners skillfully bridged the divide.

Providing attentive customer service is the mark of a high-quality real estate pro, but what that means to a specific prospect or client varies, often depending on the generation that someone hails from. When the age gap between real estate practitioners and their clients is a couple of decades or more, forging a productive connection sometimes can be challenging. What’s more, missteps in communication and expectations can lead to battered feelings, conflict, and even lost sales. With four adult generations engaging in the marketplace at the same time, chances are good you’ll be interacting with clients other than your peer group.

According to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2017 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends Report, the breakdown of last year’s buyers was millennials, 34 percent; Generation X, 28 percent; baby boomers, 30 percent; and the silent generation, 8 percent. Each generation tends to be instilled with its own sensibilities and priorities, based on life experience and social influences. They often differ in expectations of service, preferred modes of communication, technology and social media adoption, and mental and physical hardiness—all of which can affect how and if a transaction comes to fruition.

Of course, not all preferences and personality traits can be ascribed to age, but it’s useful to keep in mind how generational issues might play a role in your business dealings and how to address potential pain points. Here are insights from real estate practitioners around the country who’ve successfully tackled those tests.

Challenge 1: No common ground 

Marianne Bornhoft, 49, spent a frustrating day showing homes to an introverted 28-year-old man, a recent widower who was also raising kids on his own. The client was relocating from Portland, Ore., to Spokane, Wash. The conversation dragged on hour after hour, but nothing clicked. They had no shared interests.

The last home they toured was so outrageously decorated, Bornhoft sneaked away to take a few pictures to send via Snapchat to amuse her daughter. The buyer caught her. Bornhoft feared he would be perturbed by her irreverence. Instead, he was delighted she was versed in the smartphone app. He suddenly became her huge fan.

“That was his ‘aha’ moment,” says Bornhoft, a sales associate with Windermere Real Estate Manito in Spokane, Wash. “He realized I could engage on his level. I would not have kept him as a client if I hadn’t been snapping.”

For the duration of their relationship, they communicated via pictures rather than words. She sent him photos and videos of homes and features he might like. Just to make him laugh, she also sent some she knew he wouldn’t. Eventually, he found a home he liked.

“You have to meet clients where they are at, no matter where they are comfortable,” she says. “If they are a millennial and into technology, you have to be there. If they are a senior, and you have to talk more slowly, do it. That’s how you create long-lasting relationships for your life and your business.”

Challenge 2: Don’t distress the client 

Before she launched her real estate career, Joleen Rose, 60, had been a hospital respiratory therapist for 26 years. The skills and knowledge she gained at that job carried over into one recent transaction. The client was a 92-year-old woman who was moving to Arizona to live with a son. The seller was charming and lucid in the morning but confused, irritated, and borderline hostile by late afternoon. Rose recognized the personality change as “sundowning,” an early sign of dementia.

“If people aren’t cognizant of these types of issues, they think their clients are nuts,” says Rose, sales associate with ERA Key Realty Services in Millis, Mass. “They’re not. They just need a different kind of attention.”

Rose’s solution was to schedule her visits early in the day. She also made the selling process as stress-free as she could. Because, like many older people, the client did not want her furniture rearranged or possessions handled, Rose skipped the staging. She marketed the home as-is, knowing that this would be the most comfortable arrangement for her client. Because the thought of buyers and agents coming and going through her home made her client uneasy, Rose eschewed a lockbox and scheduled showings only when she could be present with her client. She occupied the seller with tea, cookies, and conversation to keep her calm while strangers toured the home. “We don’t want to create disturbances to their comfort zone,” Rose says. “It’s the last part of their being in control.”

Challenge 3: You’re too young 

Sarah Taylor, 33, grew up in the popular retirement town of Port St. Lucie, Fla., where she was surrounded by older people. When she started selling real estate nine years ago, she thought specializing in 55-plus communities was a natural fit. But not everyone did. “I know I lost business because people thought I was too young,” says Taylor, GRI, broker-associate with RE/MAX Masterpiece Realty in Port St. Lucie.

During those first years, she used the internet to play up her strengths and attract a following. She built a website focusing on a popular nearby active-adult community, with links to properties for sale along with her contact information. Her profiles on LinkedIn,®, and other digital platforms played up her previous experience working for a mortgage lender and her familiarity with the area.

To overcome people’s skepticism about her youth, she’d “overprepare and overresearch” properties that were coming onto the market. Before showing a home she’d never seen before, Taylor called the listing agent to get lots of details about the property and its setting, so she could add those to her repartee. “What I lacked in years of experience, I made up for by being a native in my hometown. I responded to my clients with whatever they needed when they needed it,” she says. “That’s been my work ethic from the beginning.”

Gradually, the calls came in. Sticking to her chosen niche, Taylor mostly -handles resales and the new--construction community of AV Homes’ Vitalia at Tradition. No one questions her age anymore. “Use what you know as a credibility factor,” she advises industry newbies. “Think long-term and build your personal brand from the very beginning.”

Challenge 5: Tech-savvy or not? 

Technology know-how might appear to be a great differentiator between generations, with the young ones way ahead of everyone else, but it’s a growing skill across the board. About half of all adults were online in early 2000, which is when Pew Research Center began tracking Americans’ internet usage. Today, roughly nine out of 10 American adults are online, according to Pew’s 2016 data.

When broken down by age group, internet users comprise 99 percent of adults ages 18 to 29; 96 percent of those ages 30 to 49; 87 percent of those ages 50 to 65; and 64 percent of those ages 65 and over. Social media use among Americans has soared from 5 percent in 2005, when Pew first tracked the trend, to 69 percent today. Eighty-six percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are social media users. So are 80 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 64 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 34 percent of 65-year-olds and over.

“You can’t stereotype,” says Christian Klueg, 35, broker-owner at CMK & Associates Real Estate in Amsterdam, N.Y., and five more locations. “I’ve seen a few millennials say, ‘I gave up my cellphone and Facebook and moved to a rural area upstate,’ ” he says. “And I know plenty of grandparents who are on Facebook to keep up with their grandchildren.”

Klueg, who says he checks his email about every five minutes, learned the hard way that some people check theirs once a week. On a couple of occasions, he emailed offers to sellers with instructions to call him to discuss. When several hours went by with no response, Klueg called, only to learn the emails hadn’t been opened—and the annoyed sellers didn’t know to expect them. “I got into the habit of asking at the beginning, ‘How do you want me to communicate with you?’ ” he says. “Is it email? Texting? Do you want me to leave messages? Home phone or cell phone? Sometimes they want me to call their spouse. Sometimes they want everything through the mail. But you have to ask.”

Challenge 6: Selling a client on digital 

Sales associate Tim McMullin, 27, an enthusiastic proponent of digital marketing, embraces all the ways that the internet can boost real estate transactions. He takes pride in educating skeptical clients about its power. The key is showing, not telling, he says. “Show a virtual tour on your iPhone, rather than expecting someone to click on a YouTube link,” says McMullin, an agent with Coldwell Banker Previews International in San Francisco.

This spring, he was guiding a client in his 70s through selling one home and downsizing to a smaller one. When McMullin explained his marketing plan, which included social media and an email campaign, the client wanted direct mail and newspaper ads. “It was challenging to convince him that his house won’t sell if we stick solely to traditional marketing methods,” he says.

McMullin won the client over by making a return-on-investment comparison: If he sent 1,000 mailers or spent $500 on a newspaper ad, how many people could he guarantee looked at them? Impossible to tell. But if he posted the listing on various online platforms, he could readily see the number of views and shares, and for less money. “When I can say to somebody not even in the digital marketing world that 600 people viewed the website of a property today, and they clicked to see the photos, it’s captivating,” he says.

Challenge 4: Keeping up with the millennials 

Over the years, Konnie Warburton, 69, a sales associate with Sereno Group in Santa Cruz, Calif., has incorporated email, electronic signatures, and other technology into her work. Her younger clients have pushed her to do more. For example, many prefer to interact through instant messaging. Warburton was reluctant to thumb-type at first but soon came to see the benefits. “I now have a wonderful record of our communication that I never would have had with a phone call,” she says.

Last December, a couple of first-time buyers in their 30s pushed her even further. They wanted to join in on the property search. They also wanted real-time access to new listings that matched their criteria—and immediate responses from Warburton. She consulted with her company’s tech team about how to best accomplish the couple’s desires.

They recommended, a listing alert and home search platform, which she had never used. She learned quickly. Every time a property came on the market, Warburton and the couple, who had separate accounts, were notified. When either one looked at the listing, she got an email. Sometimes she suggested they visit the property. Other times, she went on her own, made a video on her smartphone, and sent it to them.

“At the end of the whole thing, [the client] said, ‘You’re the best. You honestly surprised me with the technology,’ ” she says. “We’re already talking about an investment plan over the years that will help them grow their financial well-being.”