Practical Empathy and Real Estate Customer Service
The work of a real estate agent is client service put to its ultimate test. Agents rely on a balance of intuition, listening, and leadership to guide a client through one of the largest – if not the largest — purchase of their life. The best real estate agents are looking for any competitive advantage they can find. So, we’re going to take a deep dive into an important tactic in real estate competitiveness — practical empathy.
Before we delve into things like empathy versus sympathy, practical empathy, and emotional intelligence, we want to address something we know is true. Real estate agents are busy and don’t have time to waste on techniques that aren't going to truly help them. We believe engaging in practical empathy with your clients will make an impact on your success — however, it will take purposeful action.
So, let’s get out of the philosophical weeds and talk about how practical empathy can help provide the best real estate customer service possible.
What is practical empathy?
Empathy is really practiced projection. It’s putting yourself in someone else's shoes when making decisions. Practical empathy is, in many ways, what it sounds like. It's using what we know about empathy in a constructive way. Easy enough?
If you think of emotional intelligence as a car, then empathy is the fuel — you need it to make the system work. Now, think of practical empathy as the gas pedal. You need the car and the fuel, but actually driving the car is the goal. If there’s no way to use the fuel, what’s the point?
Thinking about empathy is important, but it’s not going to help you deliver exceptional client service if it’s not put to use. Not sure where or how to get started? Let’s dive a bit deeper into client experience and see how practical empathy applies to your business.
What exactly does practical empathy entail?
Practical empathy is not only identifying what a client is feeling and then responding to it, it'sunderstanding how a client is feeling and then addressing the source of that feeling.
Say a client is upset when an offer they made for a home is passed on. Condolences and encouragement are important, but perhaps they’re really bothered because they had put all of their hopes into that one property. In this case, practical empathy skills are necessary to identify that an inexperienced home buyer may not remain realistic on their odds when making an offer. After recognizing these emotions, you can focus on setting realistic expectations to change their mindset, instead of needing to apologize for it later. Although, sometimes you may need to do both.
Real estate agents should have a well-developed plan for how to interact with clients, just as they should have a well-developed plan for how to grow their business. There are different approaches for different types of clients and it’s vital to plan ahead for every situation. As with any business, some clients will be easier to please than others, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a game plan of how to interact and work with all types of clients.
Providing exceptional customer service for any industry is never an exact science, nor a one-time solution. It’s a fluid experiment that’s subject to trial and error. In other words, it’s more of an art than a science.
Putting empathy into action
Here’s our first mantra: Practical empathy is not about agreement, it’s about action. Write that down on a sticky note, put it on the watercooler or carry it around in your wallet. Whatever you do, remember it. When engaging in practical empathy, your first step should be listening to your client and determining where they need help.
Often, identifying the job the client is hiring you for is less obvious than it may seem — even when that job is finding someone a new home. There are many types of house hunters, which is why your approach should be tailored to each client. Once you identify a client's needs you can work on addressing them.
Let’s say a real estate agent is working for a first-time homebuyer and has put together a plan of action to help their client find the perfect starter home. The client may not need to be convinced that the agent’s plan is in their best interest. If that’s the case, that’s great! But if the client seems nervous or unsure, identifying where these first-time jitters are stemming from is a great first step in practical empathy.
Maybe Homebuyer Joe is worried about closing costs or wants to factor money for renovations into his budget. If the agent is aware of this, they're then able to not only reassure their client but also tweak the potential homes that they show. Not every client will be able to identify their concerns with a home immediately.
A good model for assessing your success in these situations is the alignment of expectations. You know the real estate process like the back of your hand and have the business intelligence to determine what your client knows and expects. Getting a client’s expectations to line up with your business plan for their success is key for this style of thought leadership — though it may require some explanation and guidance. If a client knows what to expect from the process there are fewer opportunities for surprises or miscommunications.
Here’s how Indi Young, author of Practical Empathy - For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work, thinks of this mindset as a tool.
"The empathetic mindset can be approached as a structured discipline, which makes it a tool for anyone wanting to advance [their] career. It will enhance your strategic thinking, your creative process, and it will transform your ability to work together with others.”
Why is this innovative when applied to real estate customer service?
It’s true, you can get by in your business (and probably even experience some growth) while not applying practical empathy, but we don’t recommend it. Emotional intelligence is a huge part of being successful in your profession.
This type of thinking is outside of the realm of traditional customer service because it goes beyond thinking within real estate to solve a real estate problem. The real estate industry has seen the tide of evolving customer service over the past decade. As more of the real estate process shifts to digital, the human elements of every interaction become more important. While this type of thinking is a lot to ask of real estate agents, we know it’s something essential for client trust.
Put bluntly, the best real estate agents use practical empathy, whether they know it or not. Everything you’ve heard about customer service, cliches or not, (the golden rule, the customer is always right, etc.) is true. Practical empathy is simply taking these concepts and going a step further.
Here’s Indi Young again on how practical empathy adds value to your interactions.
“The empathetic mindset is not a method with a list of steps you can refer to as needed. It’s not about following a procedure and taking notes. It’s about understanding another human being, mind-to-mind, without any accessories. It’s about thinking of other people first before making decisions. Practice will bring you confidence so that you can develop a strong empathetic mindset."
To some extent, all real estate agents use practical empathy every day — especially the most successful ones. But now more than ever, people are seeing the value of practical empathy as a customer service tool.
Don’t forget your teammates
Emotional intelligence is something that comes naturally to some, but it can also be learned. If you're looking to put your practical empathy skills to the test, go no further than the watercooler! Your co-workers deserve the same attention your clients receive.
We don’t need to be told that our peers’ thinking is important, as much as we need to be reminded of it. Practicing empathy in the workplace opens the door for free and honest conversation.
Here's one practical tip that can start you on the path. Try adopting opposing arguments as if they were your own, before responding to them. Let’s say you’re having a disagreement with a co-worker about how to approach a problem. Try adopting their argument and go through their thought process to find specifically where you disagree. That way, when you respond with criticism you can be sure you’re criticising their argument logically, without getting distracted by the any of the emotions behind the disagreement.
Practical empathy is good for your business — and your mind
The components of practical empathy we’ve written about here don’t have to be implemented all at once. Simply being aware of practical empathy when listening to your clients will have a noticeable impact on what information you pick up on and therefore how beneficial an agent you are.
At the end of the day, real estate agents will go with the method that works best for them. Practical empathy is an important asset because it makes real estate customer service more successful by refining client relationships, instead of redefining them. It’s not a new way of thinking, but a mindful way to approach the conversations that matter. Plus, it’s also a great indicator if you’re running a business that’s emotionally healthy.