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A Complaint Is an Opportunity

Whether your Realtor® association serves 400 or 14,000 members, part of its regular function is to field complaints from both members and their customers. If handled properly, those complaints become valuable customer service tools.

"While you're in the midst of a telephone call with an irate customer, it may be hard to view the complaint as a gift, but that's precisely what it is," says Keith Bailey, founder of the Sterling Consulting Group and coauthor of the book Customer Service for Dummies.

"For every complaint you hear, there are nine more that you don't. Complaints are how you find out what's working or not working," Bailey says.Being heard

The Memphis Area Association of Realtors® receives complaints from members and consumers through its Professional Standards Hotline. Professional standards advisors--association members who are also veterans of Grievance and Professional Standards committees--respond to about 30 calls per month.

"Advisers see how they can help based on the individual complaint," explains Carol Foote, professional standards coordinator. "For instance, if a buyer doesn't get a loan and complains that he can't get his earnest money back, we might point him to a document that explains why."

According to Foote, the hotline actually reduces the number of official complaints filed with the association and, she believes, presents a positive image of Realtors¨.
Two years ago, the Iowa City Area Association of Realtors¨ initiated a program where by volunteers from the association's membership act as ombudspersons to handle complaints from members about other members.

"We're a small community. Our members knew they'd be working with one another again down the road, so they were reluctant to come forward with their complaints," says Cheryl Nelson, association executive.

Ombudspersons are trained in mediation and learn how to resolve disputes.Nell Carmichael, executive administrator for the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors®, says that her association receives complaints primarily from consumers with "why" questions. For example, they might question marketing strategies and their MLS listings, or why an agent didn't put everything in writing or distribute copies of contracts to all parties.

Carmichael and Missy Whittington, the association's EVP, have professional standards certification. They handle about a dozen calls per week regarding ethical and consumer issues, referring other complaints to relevant departments, such as MLS, legislative, accounting, or education.

"Our objective is to explain the professional standards process, provide the proper information, and assist the complainant in understanding the options," Whittington says. "We listen patiently because many times customers just want someone to hear them out."The virtue of patience

Experts agree that patience is, indeed, a virtue. "Never treat callers as if they were interruptions," Bailey advises, explaining how quickly you can end up in a negative cycle: a negative call creates a negative image of the association so first-time callers begin anticipating poor service, and employees get stressed out, resulting in--you guessed it--more complaints.

Bailey offers these tips to diffuse negative attitudes:

  • Don't get defensive. A defensive attitude stops you from listening to the gold nugget buried in the complaint.
  • Don't talk over the customer; for example, don't say, "There's no point in telling me this, because we have a certain procedure." It takes more time to avoid listening than to listen.
  • Don't immediately tell customers they're wrong, even if they are. If you need to make it clear that a customer is mistaken or has been misled, say it later, when you've moved into problem-solving mode.
  • Don't take the customer's emotions personally. Although it may be hard not to internalize a customer's anger, keeping your own emotions at bay will help you respond more effectively to the complaint.

Robert Sadler, professional development director for the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors®, trained three staff members to assist him in fielding more than 100 complaints each week generated by their 14,000-member organization.

Sadler finds that the first question he asks callers--"Have you talked to your manager or the broker of the local office?"--is usually the most helpful. Often they haven't made that contact, even though most brokers will work diligently to resolve disputes, he says.
"We administer a process, that's it," Sadler says. "To the customer we say, "You're the one who has to decide how to pursue this, but we'll take you through the process.' We let them tell us their story, but we don't get involved." To that end, Sadler advises his staff never to give legal or other advice or to determine for callers whether they have a case.

Empathy is key

Empathy is an important strategy in dousing heated complaints, according to John Tschohl, founder of Service Quality Institute in Minneapolis and author of six books on customer service.

Tschohl summarizes five steps in dealing with complaints:

1. Listen carefully. Put yourself in the customer's place.

2. Ask clarifying questions.

3. Suggest alternatives.

4. Apologize without blaming.

5. Solve the problem quickly, or find someone who can.

Something to keep in mind as you field irate calls in the midst of your already hectic days: Every complaint is an opportunity to put your best foot forward.

How to Deal with Difficult People

Nothing's ever enough
If you encounter people who keep asking for more--more time, more budget, more recognition, more attention--set firm limits in writing. Say no if appropriate. Make them follow the usual procedures but treat them with respect and kindness--the way you do everyone else.

I don't have time for this
Impatient people are often afraid that time might run out before they get to explain what they want. They can pressure staff to make mistakes. Ask them to slow down and repeat themselves. Remind them that there's plenty of time to do whatever is needed.

I'm the victim here
Staff may want to sympathize with customers who portray themselves as victims. Those customers complain a lot and manipulate others into feeling sorry for them or taking on their responsibilities. Don't fall for their endless crises and apparent bad luck; hold them accountable. Help them see their responsibility for a problem they're having.

You'll fix this or else
Hostile customers tend to bully staff and be abusive and intimidating. They value high levels of self-confidence and aggressiveness and demean those who don't possess them. Stand up to them without fighting by assertively expressing your opinion ("In my opinion, I disagree with you.") but don't allow a fight to escalate.

Do you know who I am?
Arrogant people can be very defensive and critical of others, and they seem to be full of confidence even when they're completely wrong. Often this is a front for deeper feelings of insecurity. To service them, never criticize without first offering praise. Don't surprise them. Be warm and friendly even when they seem aloof. Help them feel connected to others, the group, the team, etc.

I won't change my mind
Stubborn people resist changes that threaten their sense of security. They become roadblocks to progress and even more difficult when they're pushed. Give stubborn people extra time to adjust to change. Give them options and choices, and be casual in your approach.

Adapted from The Institute for Management Excellence,

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