Staying in Touch with Past Clients without being a Pest

by Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX on September 27, 2011 · 14 comments

One of the toughest things to balance as an Austin Realtor is finding the right frequency and methods for staying in touch with our past clients. On the one hand, we have the National Association of Realtor (NAR) surveys of buyers and sellers showing that over 90% of real estate consumers never hear from their Realtor again after closing.

Wow! This, in an industry where repeat business and referrals are extremely important to succeeding, is amazing. Clearly most Realtors drop the ball on “after the sale” follow up.

At the other extreme are those Realtors who follow up too much. Consider the quote from this Inman article titled “Is your real estate client a friend?“:

“There are salespeople out there who have inserted themselves into my life with constant contact, and I don’t seem to be able to get rid of them. They put themselves into my online conversations and follow me everywhere. Once we get onto their mailing list we can never get off”.

As my teenage daughters would say, “Eww, creepy”. I know what the author means. I’ve met mortgage and insurance people at industry events such as “lunch and learns”, we exchange cards, and next thing you know I’m receiving regular automated email newsletters and junk mail, getting followed on Twitter and Friend Requested on Facebook and LinkedIn.

None of those “connections” makes me more likely to become a customer or referral source. And in these instances, I’m not even a client or past client.  That said, I do receive follow-ups and “just touching base” calls and annual birthday and/or holiday communications from various vendors, and I do value those follow-ups. But the weekly email newsletters from the mortgage gal I met just once at a Realtor lunch? Not valuable or useful in an way.

Sylvia and I don’t generally seek out clients online and try to “Friend” them or otherwise get connected. Many “Social Networking for Realtors” workshop classes encourage this as a lead building strategy and as a way to stay in touch and “connected”. No thanks. Feels too creepy. They should title those classes “how to be super annoying and bother people”.

The exception is for the clients who actually do become real off-line friends as a result of the real estate transaction, or for those who initiate the connection with us themselves.

So, for an Austin Realtor, what is the right mix and balance of staying in touch with past clients without bugging them or becoming a creepy Social Networking Stalker?

It depends. Let’s start with examining the reason for followup and why it’s important.

Remaining Top of Mind
This really is the one and only reason. People forget. Even highly satisfied past clients will forget who their Realtor was 5 or 10 years later when they need help again. Not all, but many. Even if they don’t completely forget, why should they reward with repeat business a real estate agent who has completely ignored them after the sale?

So, some sort of follow-up and “staying in touch” is absolutely required. It would be stupid not to. Therefore, we must.

By reminding past clients that we’re still around, still in business and still ready and able to help if needed, we make it easy for people to remember us and possibly use us again or refer friends or family.

I just spent the past month entering all mine and Sylvia’s past clients into a new contact database. The database allows us to track referrals and repeat business. I’ve always had a vague sense that about half our business comes from the internet, and the other half is repeat and/or referral business. But the new contact management system let’s me see the exact stats.

Crossland Real Estate Client Source Graph

From above, we can see that referrals are an extremely important source of new business for Crossland Real Estate. Each of these broad categories has sub-categories that I haven’t split out in our tracking yet. For example, most referrals are from past clients, but many are from other Realtors and non-client friends/family.

The “Internet” category includes internet searchers as well as long-time blog readers (who I suppose were initially web searchers). In the 1990s, when we were brand new, Direct Mail would have been the largest category, along with “Cold Calling”. As Realtors mature in the business and remain long-term, the percentage of Referral business should always be growing.

If Sylvia and I had completely ignored and never followed up with any past client, the graph above would look completely different and so would our productivity. The Referrals would be far less. Referrals are the most valuable type of new lead, as they usually come having already decided to do business with us.

So, how have we managed to create a solid referral base? Well, it’s not because we’re smart or have any secrets. Nor have we utilized technology or a brilliant follow-up plan with automated emails or “drip” campaigns. Mainly, Sylvia just tries to have some regular, genuine “touches” with past clients. Those “touches” (as we term any form of contact with a past client) are generally non-intrusive “hellos” or notes, gifts, birthday cards or other form of contact that serves as a friendly reminder that we’re still here and still thinking of you.

What we don’t do is what is considered to be most effective. That’s the phone call pretending to just say hi but with an eventual “who do you know that needs help buying or selling a home in the next 90 days” pitch. We’ve been to those seminars. That stuff actually works, believe it or not. And for the hard core, numbers-driven Realtor trying to rapidly increase production, it’s the most effective thing to do, whether it bugs people or not. You have to be on the phone talking to people and asking for leads every day.

But there is something about that direct approach that never felt right for us. We tried the scripts (pre-fab things to say on the phone) at one point but quickly stopped, as it felt phony and forced. Unnatural for us. For those who can pull it off without feeling like a pest, more power to you. You’ll probably sell more homes than us if you do it consistently.

We prefer the “soft touch” method over the direct and blatant asking for leads. It’s a tough balance, especially when business slows down as it has this year. If we had a real estate coach, she’d be hammering us to “get on the phones and start calling your database and asking for referrals”.

But, in the end, we have to like what we’re doing. Every Realtor has to find his or her way of staying in touch and asking for referrals whether it’s direct and to the point or passive and more subtle.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 austin apartments for rent September 28, 2011 at 1:06 am

What is this soft touch method?

2 Andy September 28, 2011 at 8:12 am

Steve, I very much appreciate your “soft touch” method. Nothing turns me away faster than clingy, needy outreach from people I’ve hired. When I get a note from Sylvia it’s never too soon, too intrusive, or too impersonal. I won’t get annoyed and I won’t forget who my agents are. This is perfect balance.

3 Sylvia September 28, 2011 at 11:11 am

I consider my approach to be very “soft touch”. This means mostly emails and cards reminding people we are still in the business without directly asking for referrals. Often, when I send a birthday card to someone, I will include my first and last name on the card reminding them to have a wonderful day, but I leave OUT the business card. When I send an email “checking in” I will offer something that may be helpful to my past clients. This last month I let them know we have a great list of vendors in case they are in need of any type of remodeling or repairs. The “pushy” approach has never worked well for me. It feels phony and I think my clients can sense that.

4 Tim September 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Steve,
Do you think/know that your internet leads have slowed down over the past year? Or do you attribute it to just the overall sluggishness of the market?

As an avid reader of your blog, I’ve noticed that you posting less frequently (as you have pointed out yourself) in the last year or so. I’m assuming that’s contributing to lower traffic numbers on your site. Or are you still getting plenty of referrals as people land on your site through hits off of one of the many blog articles written in the past?

Just curious how close of a correlation there is between your blogging activity and new leads.

Thanks for the continued interesting reading.
Tim

5 Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX September 29, 2011 at 6:49 am

Thanks Andy, we appreciate you both! Hope all is well on the “ranch” and your well is holding up.

Tim, I don’t know if a decrease in the volume of blog articles has affected business or not. I think it might have a negative impact but I don’t know that it’s significant. All agents we know have slowed down this year. We did it somewhat on purpose because it was our oldest daughter’s last year at home before starting college, and we didn’t want to be working 12 hour days all summer. So we slacked off a bit for the past year.

Steve

6 Craig September 29, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Thanks for your honesty about the slowdown in business, you don’t hear that very often from realtors. I figured as much given everything we’ve endured the past six months.

7 Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX September 30, 2011 at 9:30 am

Hi Craig,

> Thanks for your honesty about the slowdown in business

I’m not sure why Realtors want to hide the fact that it’s a cyclical business. There is a certain amount of ego involved, and in larger offices, such as when we were at Keller Williams in Austin, “production” is recognized and rewarded publicly and internally, whereas mediocre performance is not. It did “feel good” to be ranked as a “Top Team” consistently, when we were there, whereas now, nobody outside me and Sylvia really knows what our production level is unless they read the blog.

But a real estate income over a career is going to have a jagged income graph. No surprise. Some months, or multiple months, are “Zero Income”. Back when we were closing eight or nine transactions some peak months during 2006-2008, there were big spikes and no “zero” months. We try to average 2 to 4 closings a month, and this year we’re at about 1.2. Many agents we know haven’t closed anything in over a year though.

But graphed over 5, 10 year periods, the ups and downs all average out. Agents who understand and prepare for this, and who don’t spend all their “up cycle” income, can weather forced downturns or lifestyle slowdowns and simply gear up and prepare for the next up cycle.

Also, there are levers that can be pulled and knobs we can turn, so to speak, to turn up or down how busy we are. This year I grew my property management portfolio by 38%, which adds static, fixed income each month and smooths out the income graph a bit. It’s not as profitable as sales, but it’s 100% predictable and easy to grow.

I’m having a contractor start some new work at my house next week. He told me he was doing 90% new homes three years ago and 10% remodel, and now he does 90% remodel and 10% new construction. He use to never do small bathroom jobs like ours, but now that’s half his work. He’s adapted and shifted, like us.

Being able to shift and adapt is required in these businesses where income is volatile and unpredictable. Agents who have no levers to pull, knobs to turn, who can’t shift and adapt, and who haven’t structured their personal finances to ride out the downturns wash out of the real estate business during these slowdowns. Others just hunker down, wait and enjoy the reduced stress and additional free time.

Steve

8 Craig September 30, 2011 at 10:13 am

Thank you Steve. As usual very interesting, capable and honest. We keep getting emails about how our market is booming, and you want to believe it but common sense kicks in and says “how is that possible?” Realtors are tireless in promoting the idea that we’re an island of prosperity. It doesn’t jibe at all with what we see and hear in the business community.

9 Robert Grunnah October 2, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I read this entry with interest, because as an “accidental salesperson” (ie, one who never thought he’d be in the sales line of work) I frequently wonder the same thing. What is too much? But more importantly – what is too little? Ie, when am I actually losing business by not being in a client’s “face” more often? It’s a serious fear I sometimes have that because I’m a fairly low key marketing guy, maybe I’m losing money.

I have come to the conclusion that I can do *only* two things – regular direct mailings to my target market and email updates to those that have emailed me in the past. I don’t go out of my way to contact specific previous clients. If I happen to remember a client (or they email me), I may send something if their property, or a property in their neighborhood, comes to mind. 99% of the time, however, I have no specific reach-out process, other than my very non-specific postcard and email campaigns.

Though I am far from certain, I believe my marketing strategy is likely to be the correct one, based on the fact that my sales numbers go up and down as a consistent percentage of the overall sales in a given year. In other words, when 1200 duplexes in Central Texas sell in a given year, our firm will make $2M in commissions. When 350 sell, we clear $600,000 a year in commissions. In other words, our percentage market share of the overall market stays fairly consistent, as do revenues. There is nothing special (that I have yet learned) that will allow us to gain a higher percentage of market share. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many hours we can spend with any one client, no matter how narrowly focused our skills.

Steve – we’ll talk offline about your new client tracking software, and we’re excited about our October launch of our new website. But at the end of the day, I think the most important thing for a real estate brokerage service provider can do is ensure that their client base is aware of their existence. When people need our services, we can only hope that we are top of mind (as you say), because unfortunately, right or wrong (definitely wrong), we’re commodity service providers. And just like Coca-Cola needs you to remember that Coca-Cola makes a mean soda, you only want a soda when you want a soda.

Robert

10 Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX October 3, 2011 at 7:18 am

H Craig – (Edited: wrong response to wrong comment. See Fence Blog.) Thanks for your comment Craig.

Robert: Yes, you’re postcard mailings (which I receive as a duplex owner) are very persuasive because of 1) the niche focus on Duplex/4Plex sales and 2) The “evidence of success” you’re able to promote through the sales stats you’ve achieved.

I’m just gearing up again to start postcard campaigns again, though it hasn’t been very effective for me recently. It’s tougher for residential sales because the recipients are not as homogeneous as 4Plex/Duplex Owners and therefore the messaging is a bit more generic and broad. Also, Residential Single Family Home owners are bombarded with a lot of direct mail, so it’s a “noisier” space to market within. Every time I swear I’m giving up forever on post cards, I end up trying it again anyway. Old habits.

But I think you’re right, a couple of simple things done consistently will always work over time better than a bunch of random efforts.

Steve

11 Daren Phillipy October 22, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Steve,
Excellent post. I am blown away with that stat that 90% are NEVER contacted again, but not surprised. I am a HUGE believer in databases and you are right. There is a fine line between being “Creepy” and providing value. I feel it’s important to find out what your clients want from you as a real estate professional, and provide that value in a way that is efficient and effective. Anyway, I could go on forever on this topic. I just applaud you for tracking your numbers and using your database with a though of the over goal of capturing referrals. I believe your 90% stat could pertain to Agents that DON’T do the KEY tasks of tracking your numbers and using a database.. Great job, and thanks for sharing.

12 Karen Anderson December 1, 2011 at 5:20 pm

You wrote: “What we don’t do is what is considered to be most effective. That’s the phone call pretending to just say hi but with an eventual “who do you know that needs help buying or selling a home in the next 90 days” pitch.”

I love it that you don’t do this, but I have some advice for the realtors who do make the calls.

The key word here is “eventual.” I’m happy to hear from realtors, local business colleagues, who are upfront about “checking in to see who needs help…” etc. What I can’t stand is the ones who waste several minutes of my time trying to be chummy and chatty before they get to the “eventual” pitch. Please JUST ASK. Don’t waste a self-employed person’s valuable office time and, please, don’t invite me out of coffee to chat me up and waste more of my time.

13 Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX December 1, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Thanks Daren.

Karen, good points. It’s a very fine line between respecting people’s time and not blurting a robotic script. I think it’s best for the agent to just do whatever best fit’s their own personality while being mindful that it might not be a good time for the person being called.

I’m glad Sylvia does this because I’m no good at it.

Steve

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