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Eight Things Keeping Your Company Out of First Place

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Picture this: You’re relaxing on your couch and watching your favorite crime drama after a long day at work. You’ve halfway tuned out during a commercial break when something catches your attention. “Come see what we have to offer. We’re proud to be second in area sales and customer satisfaction since 1992!” an announcer enthuses while a giant yellow No. 2 flashes on the screen.

Sure, it sounds absurd. But according to Joseph Callaway, author of the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle, while most of us pay lip service to our desire to be our customers’ first choice, our actions may say otherwise.

“Any time you don’t make the client your top priority, you’re tacitly agreeing not to be their top priority,” says Callaway, who, wrote Clients First along with his wife, JoAnn.

“You cannot truly be number one until your clients are. Being number one really is a two-way street, and it’s not an easy street. You can’t coast your way to number one—and when you settle for doing so, you soon fall to number two or even lower.”

Callaway knows all about the high price of being number one. He and his wife built their thriving business in a tough industry that’s had more than its share of challenges. To date, they’ve sold over a billion dollars’ worth of homes and have been the market leader in their area for years. Their book describes their late-in-life entry into real estate, how they had their “Clients First” revelation, how it changed their professional and personal lives, and how readers can put it into practice for themselves.

“Living and working this way is rewarding, but it’s also tough,” he admits. “Putting your customers’ interests ahead of your own—every time—can seem counterintuitive, risky, and even frightening. That’s why so many businesses fail to be as competitive as they’d like: Even if they don’t realize it, they’ve chosen to operate in a way that makes it impossible for them to come in first from a customer’s perspective.”

Here, Callaway shares eight signs that your business is aiming lower than you may have thought, as well as advice on how to finally start hitting the bull’s-eye:

1. Your number one business goal is to make money. Ummm…isn’t that the point of running a company? you might be asking. Well, it’s a point, says Callaway, but it’s not the point. You see, a too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes your attention off of the people who are going to enable you to raise it: your customers. Your clients can always tell when they’re not your first priority. (If you’re skeptical, just consider the backlash that often occurs when small businesses are bought out and transformed by larger, more impersonal corporations.)

“The difference between paying attention to customer service so that your clients will give you more business and doing so because serving the customer is your first priority may feel slight, but it’s significant,” Callaway promises. “Yes, taking your focus away from the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. But you’ll soon find that when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life. And it almost always has a miracle effect on your growth and success.”

2. You let the little things slide. So…what’s the problem? Rushing through paperwork so you can get home early, failing to spellcheck an email or two, and running late to a meeting probably won’t matter that much six months from now. It’s the “big” things like growing your company, expanding your client base, hiring more employees, and making a profit that are most important, right? Not necessarily, says Callaway.

“So often in life, it’s the small details that differentiate ‘good’ from ‘great,’” he points out. “So be careful not to become so fixated on the forest that you fail to see the trees.”

3. You habitually let certain clients go to voicemail. It’s happened to everyone: When you see that name flash on your phone’s caller ID, you slowly pull your hand back from the receiver and let the ringing continue. You just don’t want to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or the belligerence just now. Yes, we all have “problem” clients. But to avoid them or just go through the motions for them is a mistake. They will notice and remember your behavior. (And be honest: Would you want to give your business to someone who might write you off when the going got tough?)

4. You find yourself telling white lies. It’s true that telling clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting, or omitting, might make life easier temporarily. It’s also true that we can often justify such behavior to ourselves (She’ll never know, and it’ll save me hours of work, for example). But Callaway says these “little” lies are just as bad as the whoppers. There is always a chance that customers will see through you and call you on the carpet. And even if they don’t, a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth is indicative of a broader attitude that relegates clients to second or third priority. (In return, that’s usually how they’ll rate you.)

“Honesty can be tough in the moment, but a reputation for trustworthiness (or untrustworthiness!) can stick with you for life,” says Callaway. “Live by a policy of never holding back or sugarcoating and you’ll gain customer loyalty that money can’t buy. Plus, when you have only the truth, you wave goodbye to moral dilemmas and sleepless nights. You don’t have to worry about getting the story straight or remembering what you have and haven’t shared. You know you’re doing the right thing.”

5. You spend more time trying to get off the phone than really hearing what the customer has to say. Chances are, you roll out the red carpet in order to get prospective clients on board. And you’re probably willing to bear with the whims, questions, and requests of fairly new customers whose business isn’t yet cemented. But what about older, more established clients? Do you take the same amount of time and care with them, or do you assume they’ll stick with you out of habit and convenience?

“If you wouldn’t hang up the phone at the first opportunity with a client you signed last week, don’t do it with one you signed ten years ago,” advises Callaway. “Companies that become number one don’t do so because they win customers over once, but because they do it every day. A good experience last month usually won’t keep a customer coming back this month if he or she believes that your level of service has slipped.”

6. You don’t know your client’s daughter’s name or what he likes to do on the weekends. In your eyes you’re being professional when every question in your meeting is about the client’s financial preferences, for example, and not his family, pastimes, and interests. But in his eyes, you’re cold and impersonal. Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm’s length, you can’t give your clients 100 percent…and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.

“Do you see your clients as sources of income, or do you see them as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks, and stories?” Callaway asks. “People want to do business with individuals they like—and they like people who like them! Make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs or businesses. You’ll find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and dreams. Once you get familiar with and invested in these things, you’ll work that much harder on each client’s behalf, and you’ll earn their loyalty in the process.”

7. You feel your main obligation to employees is writing their paycheck. While (of course) you don’t treat employees like dirt, you may feel that you don’t owe them any special favors, either. After all, you’re paying them—isn’t that enough? Well, no, says Callaway. The way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even (sometimes) rude?

“Your job is to serve others, period,” Callaway says. “You can’t do that by making distinctions between the people who work for you and the people to whom you provide a good or service. Realize that you set the tone for your company’s ‘personality,’ and that you’re creating a tribe of people who will beat the drum for your message. Try to see your employees through a client’s eyes and be honest: Would they win first or second place in a customer service competition? If you don’t like the answer, try adjusting your own attitude first.”

8. You’re not above badmouthing the competition. Some leaders don’t hesitate to casually say things like, “Sure, Outlet X is cheap, but the quality of their merchandise leaves a lot to be desired,” or, “I’d think twice before I took my business to Firm Y—didn’t you hear they had to lay off half of their staff last year?” But Callaway suggests you look at what happens in the political arena: When you sling mud at your opponent, some of it is likely to get on you, too. Besides, wouldn’t you rather rise to the number one spot solely on your organization’s merit, not because you took cheap(ish) shots?

“In fact, you can—and should—strive to win the approval, goodwill, and admiration of your competitors,” shares Callaway. “If possible, get to know their leaders and employees and help them when you can. You don’t have to give away trade secrets, but you can offer advice, for example, or refer a customer whose needs are better matched to what another business has to offer.

“Don’t do these things manipulatively but in the spirit of giving,” he clarifies. “Your efforts will come back to you with interest. Have faith that there is enough business to go around.”

To learn more, visit www.clientsfirstbook.com.

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