Researchers have developed a five-step guide for managing business relationships during a crisis. Get ideas for how to apply them to your real estate operations.
child drawing heart with chalk on sidewalk

© yanadjan - AdobeStock

In a relationship-driven business like real estate, it may seem impossible to keep physical distance yet still feel emotionally connected. But practitioners are finding new ways to form bonds with their clients during the coronavirus pandemic and increase their customer pipelines.

To do that, take “HEART.”

Texas Tech University researchers, as well as professors Ted Waldron and James Wetherbe, developed the HEART framework to guide small businesses through their response to the crisis. The model, which reviews seven decades of business practice and scientific research, consists of the following steps:

  • Humanize your company
  • Educate about change
  • Assure stability
  • Revolutionize your offerings
  • Tackle the future

‘H’ is for Humanize

Leverage empathy by acknowledging the unique circumstances your past and current customers are facing during this time. Be careful about blending “caring” messages with a sales message, Waldron and Wetherbe note. Also, don’t be afraid to address the grimness of the current reality. If your business webpage or marketing doesn’t mention COVID-19 at all, you risk looking irrelevant, Chris Smith, co-founder of the digital marketing company Curaytor, told attendees during a recent® webinar.

Reach out to customers in a variety of ways, from sentimental to humorous gestures. Connie and Dan Carlson, founding partners of Ansley Atlanta in Marietta, Ga., launched a “Marietta Strong” blog at their website, promoting a “we are all in this together” message. A video at the site shows community hot spots and local businesses, along with a message of hope, resilience, and unity in the face of COVID-19.

Even seemingly small gestures can have a big impact. Brad Inman, founder of Inman News, recently shared how the makings for a dinner treat—chicken and leg of lamb—was unexpectedly left on his doorstep. “It was from my local real estate agent,” he said on a recent podcast. “No card, no expectation, and exactly what I needed. Never before have smart, caring agents proved their value more so than right now.”

Plastic pink flamingos in front yard

© Anthony Marguleas with Amalfi Estates

Fun and humorous ways of connecting may inspire the greatest following. Kristina McCann, broker-owner of Chroma Realty in the San Francisco area, started a ‘mingo’ movement that other real estate professionals in California have replicated. In the evening hours, pros stake out a flock of plastic pink flamingos in people’s yards with “happy birthday” messages for those missing out on special celebrations during the pandemic. The gesture is not about marketing their companies. “My intention was to just spread joy and happiness to people during this time,” says Anthony Marguleas, broker-owner of Amalfi Estates in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “We just wanted to put a smile on people’s faces.”

Likewise, Terry Wolak and his alter ego, “The Messy Chef,” are becoming an internet sensation. Wolak, a sales associate with Howard Hanna Real Estate in Penfield, N.Y., shows off his culinary talents in Facebook Live videos shot from his “quarantine kitchen.” His humorous cooking shows also occasionally feature a friend—keeping distance from one another, of course—such as one captured playing a guitar outside his kitchen window. “I think right now people yearn for the humor, the connection, the interaction,” Wolak told Spectrum News about his videos.

‘E’ is for Educate

Share with customers via social media, e-newsletters, and on your website how they can interact with you during the pandemic. Let them know the business changes you’ve made, too. As Chicago issued its stay-at-home orders in March, Erica Cuneen, CIPS, GREEN, broker-owner of Beyond Properties Realty Group, was quick to reach out to customers with weekly emails informing them of how real estate was adapting. The brokerage’s emails detailed in a simple format steps that were being taken among four customer categories: for sellers closing, buyers purchasing, active sellers, and active buyers.

Eric Rollo, CIPS, a sales associate with William Raveis Real Estate in Boston, launched a “COVID-19 Resource Hub,” a one-stop website where visitors can learn about health department updates as well as guides on how to access emergency aid. The site culls links on the latest number of coronavirus cases in the Boston area and the state of Massachusetts, homeowner mortgage assistance information, rental assistance and small business help, unemployment aid, and volunteer opportunities.

‘A’ is for Assurance

As the economic and personal toll of the virus mounts, customers may look to companies for assurance. Connie Carlson, associate broker for Ansley Atlanta in Marietta, Ga., posts weekly market snapshots on social media, which include the number of homes listed, under contract, and sold. “We do this to reassure that the market is still continuing on,” says Carlson, who recently listed seven new properties in one week. “Sellers still need to sell, and buyers still need to buy.”

Carlson also requires her clients to sign a COVID-19 release form prior to home showings, which she says puts them at ease. The form asks buyers to verify that they aren’t currently ill and to keep their hands in their pockets during tours. Sellers are asked to turn on all lights and open closet doors prior to any showing. “We want to limit how much people have to touch things in the properties,” Carlson says. “We have our clients sign these forms to feel more comfortable that everyone is doing their part to prevent the spread of germs from house to house.”

‘R’ is for Revolutionize

“Technique often lags behind technology,” Wetherbe says. “The pandemic has forced innovation in doing things differently.” Real estate professionals are using tech tools for showings, such as virtual tours and agent-led video walkthroughs. Carlson is doing a Matterport 3D tour for all her properties, enabling online house hunters to walk through a property virtually, assessing a home in all directions, and even peeking inside closet doors. She’s also holding virtual open houses on Sundays, where online visitors can tune in to livestreams of house tours.

Kara Keller, SFR, a broker at Baird & Warner in the Chicago area, is using a drone to show off her listings (video above). She teamed with Doola, a digital marketing company, to send a drone inside properties to capture video footage. Keller then narrates the drone-led video tours and promotes them on the MLS and her website as a way buyers can tour properties remotely.

‘T’ is for Tackle (the Future)

As your company innovates, look for ways to adopt new processes for the long haul. After all, “some of this technology being embraced could help real estate professionals ultimately sell even more houses in less time,” Wetherbe says. For example, relying on face-to-face showings before the pandemic may have been time-consuming. Now brokerages have developed new ways to virtually show homes and keep people from having to spend time traveling to a property.

Businesses should not be quick to abandon new processes once the pandemic is over, the researchers note. These new ways of doing business could prove to be a differentiator in the future. Companies that are quick to return to older business methods may ultimately fall behind. “I believe the companies that will stand out will be doing things a different way in the future, too,” Waldron says.

As businesses sort out the future, the researchers say that a customer-centric attitude and awareness of what people need right now is key. “Companies can emerge from this crisis with strengthened relationships with customers,” the researchers note in an article published in the Harvard Business Review. “Give consumers your HEART during this difficult time. It will cultivate long-lasting goodwill with past customers and help ensure they will stay with you in the future.”