A Service Profession, or why I haven't blogged much lately.

no-one-homeThe concept of customer service is predicated on having a defined customer.

During the course of the typical real estate transaction there are many third-parties on whom we rely, each paid for services rendered. These include escrow and title companies, appraisers, inspectors, and even the homeowners’ associations our client’s pay to produce documents including the neighborhood regulations, financial statements and past board minutes. The conversation I had yesterday got me thinking again about the whole “customer service” thing.

Generally, escrow and title companies, and even inspectors, tend to take customer service very seriously. Mostly that is because their businesses are competitive, and they recognize that the customer has choices. Mess up, and the clients will use another company next time. And in each of these cases, it is pretty clear who the customer is – it is the home buyer or seller. My conversation was with an appraiser.

“I am calling on behalf of (insert name of lender which sounds a lot like Fells Wargo) to schedule an appraisal for (insert property address).  What is the purchase price?” she asked. Actually, it was more of a bark.

Forgetting for a moment that I have never fully understood why an appraiser charged with providing an independent third-party opinion of value wants to know before all else what the price is, it was the service part that got me.

“How many bedrooms does it have? What’s the square footage? Baths? Lot size?” she continued, clearly not having taken the time to read the MLS listing sheet. And, at the conclusion of our little game of twenty questions, she instructed, “Please hold.”

And I held — for exactly seven minutes and forty seconds as I enjoyed the musically stylings of Barry Manilow, put on hold by someone who had called me. The problem was that I needed her. I needed the appraisal to happen because my client had a contract with specific time frames for performance, this being one of the action items.

She eventually returned to tell me when the appointment would be, a date five days out. When I begged for a sooner appointment to accommodate a looming contingency removal deadline, Barry Manilow returned.

Now, perhaps there is an appraiser out there who can correct me, but the big issue here is that the appraisers don’t really have a clearly defined client anymore. One could argue that they work for the lender, but they don’t really. Today, because of all of the questionable shenanigans of the boom years, lenders cannot assign an appraiser. Rather, the appraiser is selected through a random lottery system. The intent is to avoid conflict of interest. The result is often a home valuation prepared by someone unfamiliar with the area and who truly answers to no one.

The cost of service.

Agents, on the other hand, shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out who they work for, but I see more than a few who seem to be a little fuzzy on this point.

To anyone who accidentally stumbles across our little blog this morning, please avert your eyes from the date stamp on our last post. A week between posts in Blog Land is like a Bush Administration. It feels like a really long time.

It’s the age-old irony, of course – kind of like shopping. When we are slow, I lack the resources but have the time. And when things pick up, I have time for nothing but work. Where blogging is concerned, my best material comes from the daily hilarity that is real estate. So, I find myself with so much good material yearning to be set free these days yet painfully short on discretionary hours to collect my thoughts.

This is not healthy, I know. Everyone needs an outlet, a break from the routine. Some people go to Hawaii while others tend to their gardens.  I write about appraisers. The smart money will say that I need to make time for the other stuff, lest the scales tip too far to the side of warped. The problem is that the smart money probably enjoys defined work hours and prescribed days off. “But the grocery store is open 24 hours!” you say. True, but the employees take turns. Not so where the agent is concerned.

Oh, sure, I’ve heard the speeches about setting boundaries, and there will be more agents who violently disagree with what I am about to say than are inclined to give me the fist bump. It’s just that boundaries are difficult in our line of work. And so often, boundaries come at the expense of the very people who hired us to provide a service.

Real estate is a service profession. Of course, your agent is not an indentured servant, and so much of their value is in the knowledge, experience, systems and expertise that they bring to the equation. In the end, however, it is ONLY about the service. (Yes, I screamed).  Without that, and I don’t care how proficient your agent is at marketing or negotiating or filling in the blanks in the purchase agreement, you are being short-changed. Whether your home with the yard sign is a $200,000 condo or a $2,000,000 mansion, people will want to see it when they want to see it. Brochures will need to be reordered and stocked when they have all been taken, whenever that may be. Your offers will be submitted early in the morning, during dinner and late at night. And you will want to know when that happens.

Counter offers have expirations, and your buyer’s contingencies will need to be removed when the contract says they need to be removed; if that happens to coincide with my long-planned trip to Barbados, so be it.

If you are looking for a home, the MLS waits for no one. Scream “buyer’s market,” but some price segments are very competitive today, and many of these homes will not wait for me to finish my novel before slipping into pending status with multiple offers.  Once in contract, that contingency period hourglass is turned on its head. The sands will continue their freefall descent despite my best intentions to carve out a little “me” time.

Every time I call an agent only to be met with the chipper voicemail about hours of operation, I bristle. “If this call is received after 6:00, it will be returned the next business day” or “I will be returning all calls between 2:00 and 2:37” just smacks of arrogance. That is not the way our business works, but mostly that is not how service should be delivered. This week, we have two listings which require the buyer’s agent to confirm an appointment with the listing agents (us) prior to showing. Consequently, I must answer my phone all day, every day. To do anything else is a slap in the face of the clients who have trusted us to act on their behalf.

How much can you demand?

Purchasing or selling a home is a very big deal – maybe not to your agent who does this a dozen times a month, but certainly to you. You are not buying a pair of shoes. It is a highly-charged, sometimes arduous, always emotional process. And it involves a bunch of money. This is not to say that if you see your agent at the check-out line (likely with a cart full of Tylenol and cheap Chardonnay), you should cry “foul.” Even agents have to sustain life. But, you should expect your agent to demonstrate “diligent exercise of reasonable skill and care” in the performance of their duties. That is straight from the Disclosure Regarding Real Estate Agency Relationships contract which both you and your agent sign. The word “care” is the operative, and while it is a term subject to various interpretations, I don’t really think you care that I needed a day off to catch up on my blogging, especially if I am sitting on an offer on your home.

So how much can you demand? Within reason, of course, a lot. A midnight phone call should not be expected to be met with a cheerful live voice. Agents, like real people, must occasionally sleep, do the laundry and see the doctor. Sometimes they even see their children. But excellence, responsiveness and absolute dedication – service – should be expected from your agent. Your business is a privilege. It is not a divine right. It is not even an honor one minute and a nuisance the next when the weather suggests it is would be a good day to hit the beach. We are in a service profession. If we can’t offer at least that, we should find something else to occupy our time.

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