Moments of Truth

Does your business have a true customer culture or just a complaints department? Julianna Forsyth shares the embarrassing moment when her wardrobe malfunction became a customer service case study.

We need to love complaints. The client who complains the most, and then you satisfy often, becomes the most loyal.

It horrifies me when I visit some real estate offices and I hear property managers and salespeople treating their clients with thinly disguised contempt.

There I was, standing on the dance floor in a flowing strappy dress with my left boob hanging out. I was at my friend’s wedding at a very well known five star hotel in Sydney and I had not realised the left strap had broken. I covered myself and rushed off the floor to be met by a young barman at the door who kindly gave me a safety pin. He suggested that I go to reception where a sewing kit would be waiting for me. Arriving at reception, I was quickly told to go to my room and that someone would be up there in two minutes to assist. A lovely mature woman arrived with sewing kit in hand and proceeded to sew my dress on me. As I started to leave to return to the dance she stopped me and said-Wait a few minutes, let’s re-do your face – by the time you get back to the dance they will have all forgotten your predicament. Well, they hadn’t!

I tell this story for a reason. Do you think that this five star hotel had a policy and procedures manual that, on page 225 stated When lady’s boob falls out of dress this is what you do… I don’t think so, but the staff just knew what to do!

What is customer service?
A quote by Jon Stayt says it all: Service is created and delivered at the same time. It cannot be stored for use on a future occasion. It can only exist the moment it is being delivered, and of course it disappears into thin air as soon as the delivery has been completed.

Customer service is all about looking for those moments! No longer is “selling the house” or “buying gifts” going to create a “wow” for your client. The only way we can create “raving fans” is to exceed the clients’ expectations. The only way we can exceed their expectations is by delivering something unexpected but most importantly valued.

I believe the delivery of customer service is all about looking for moments of truth and delivering the unexpected. No amount of smiling and saying “please” and “thank you” will lead to good service.

Customer service cannot be about departments, it must be about attitude – an attitude that I don’t believe can be taught. The ideal situation is for us is to employ service focused staff and have them backed by service focused systems. The systems that we create in our business must be systems to make the experience better for the client. I have always maintained that delivering a good customer experience is hard! The reason being is that service means something different from person to person. It changes from time to time, gender to gender, situation to situation. In today’s world our clients are much more technologically inclined – they check things out on the Internet and they know what to expect. The Internet is delivering vast knowledge and new choices to our clients, raising their expectations and handing them the controls.

Build a “customer culture
But how can you manage something that you can’t actually see? This is the question that you have to wrestle with. Answer the service issues correctly and your company is half way down the road to success. Answer the wrong way, and you’re stalled at the starting line.

We must start with developing a “customer culture” within our company. We can do this by:

  • Employing customer focused employees.
  • Ensuring we have customer service training courses built into our training program. It’s not all about sales!
  • Ensuring our awards programs include customer service awards based on strong criteria. Don’t just choose the “nice property manager”.
  • Implementing a service standard and making sure everyone abides by this. Consistency is the key, from the Receptionist to the Principal.
  • Continual research. Run focus groups and trial shop your own company! We must ask our clients what their needs and wants are and then they will tell us how to run a successful, profitable business. Remember our client’s needs are continually changing and we must keep up with them.

Most importantly this culture must be led and supported from the top.

My last 20 years in real estate has been all about the client and the service they receive. After speaking to literally thousands of clients, either in person or through focus groups, I believe that there are five areas that we must focus on:


  1. We must be continually researching what our clients want. It’s changing daily.
  2. Every opportunity we have to speak with our client we should be asking, How are we going? Is there anything you feel we could improve on? Stop wanting to hear how great you are and focus on what you may be doing wrong.
  3. We need to love complaints. The client who complains the most, and then you satisfy often, becomes the most loyal. Never debate about whether the client has perceived the facts correctly, just deal with the perception.
  4. We must survey all our clients and respond to any complaints. Our surveys should be written so we collect useful information that we can act on. Ask the difficult questions such as, What were the three most negative things that happened whilst working with us? and Name three things we should add to our service”. No more “Grade us between 0 and 5!
  5. Introduce an “issues sheet” into your office and give to every staff member. These sheets are completed by everyone from the Junior to the Principal and should include the Cleaner. Put everything on these sheets that could be classified as a concern from a client. Once a month someone collects these sheets and collates the information and I guarantee you will see a pattern developing. Act and fix! Complaint goes away.

Trust and empathy
People need to be able to trust us and trust is hard to gain. The best way for us, in our industry, is by showing empathy and knowledge. We must learn to mirror our clients and never mimic them. It horrifies me when I visit some real estate offices and I hear Property Managers and Salespeople treating their clients with thinly disguised contempt. Do you really think they don’t feel this? We must be consulting and not selling. We must be teaching our teams to listen, to ask questions, to determine personality traits and then how to work with them. We must be aware that some clients do want to work with a female or someone that has been in the business for more than 10 years. If that is their wish we need to have the culture in place where we hand these clients gracefully over to a more appropriate Salesperson or Property Manager.


The level of communication expected is often higher than we think. However, we must get into the habit of asking how our client would like to hear from us, how often and by whom. The communication wants are:

  1. To be told and retold information. The real estate jargon we deliver is often not understood and they will not tell us.
  2. To have information in a written format and not just verbal. Everyone wants to hear from us in different ways. Is it by e-mail, in person, by phone or by letter?
  3. To have more than one person in your office know their business. They are more than happy to speak with Personal Assistants, Receptionists, Junior Property Managers. People are very time poor and don’t expect to wait.
  4. To be told the truth the first time, no matter how hard you think they will take it.
  5. Immediate feedback. Send an e-mail and we expect a response close to immediate, especially when we have you on our MSN or Skype and KNOW that you are online. You need to put a system in place to take care of this.

Minimum level of service
One person in your office must be in control of what goes in and out of your office. Do you have a system in place to ensure that what goes out on your letter head, what gets photocopied and then spread to 1000 houses is all checked? You may be surprised at the spelling, grammar and real estate facts AND all this reflects on your company’s image.

Added value
A trend I saw many years ago and now is becoming more evident is that the client doesn’t want to shop around for the extra services that are associated with real estate. We must have relationships with a large variety of businesses and people such as finance institutions, conveyancing companies, removalists, cleaners, painters, decorators, builders, electricians.

Over to you…
I will leave you with this challenge. There are three types of companies.

  1. Companies that don’t believe in service – they are in the business to list, sell and manage houses. Retaining the customer is not the main purpose. They are often arrogant and aggressive but usually very successful (for a time).
  2. Companies that believe in service – they promote services systems but don’t deliver them.
  3. Companies that are customer focused and are known primarily for their customer service systems.

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Julianna Forsyth

Julianna Forsyth is Head of Client Services at Marsh Commerical UK and holds a proven record of designing, developing and rolling out quantifiable, visionary CX programmes.