THE BIGGEST brands in the world know they are only as good as their customers think they are.
In fact, they are so concerned with this they spend millions of dollars per year researching customer satisfaction to determine how their service rates compare to their competitors.
The newest and arguably most effective way of determining this is the Net Promoter Score (NPS). By asking just one question a business can measure how loyal a company’s customers are. This measure can then be used to accurately predict the future revenue growth of a company.
This gem was invented by Bain & Company partner, Fred Reichled. But what is the magic question? It’s remarkably simple: How likely is it that you would recommend [the company] to a friend or colleague?
The customer then responds on an 11-point scale, from zero, showing it would be unlikely they would recommend the company, to 10, which indicates they would be very likely to recommend the business to family and friends.
The respondents are then broken up into three sections: 0-6 are ‘detractors’, 7-8 are ‘passives’ and 9-10 are ‘promoters’.
The NPS is created by calculating what percentage of a company’s customer base are promoters, and then subtracting the percentage who are detractors.
The resulting score captures the current status of a company’s customer base and is said to predict future revenue growth.
Many brands you know use this method; some score highly and are thus destined to grow their net worth, like Singapore Airlines, Bendigo Bank, BMW, Apple and Google.
Ewan Morton, managing director of Morton&Morton in Sydney, has been using NPS to track his customer satisfaction for the last six months.
“The system appealed to us because it gives an objective measure to a subjective process,” he says. “If we can put a number around customer satisfaction then we can try to manage it.”
Mr Morton confesses it is still early days for them but is interested to see how different trends will develop.
“To get a true judge of your score you need a history of surveys,” he explains. “Right now we are getting good results and this helps us determine whether our customer service is translated into customer satisfaction, because they are two very different things.”
But as Charles Tarbey, CEO of CENTURY21 Australasia points out, no matter how hard you try it is near impossible to ensure the customer experience is a good one, 100 per cent of the time. It doesn’t mean you can’t try though.
“There is a whole range of surveys that we do to see where we are heading and that helps us to plan our TV commercials and advertising,” he says. “We also do a very serious survey annually to find out customer satisfaction with all aspects of the brand, and you find so many errors.
“You drive it really hard and it all comes back to the people you recruit.
“I hate to say it, but we are never going to get it right.”
According to Mr Tarbey, he experienced this first hand at a prestigious five-star hotel in Sydney in January this year.
“I rang the hotel and asked if they could deliver a bottle of champagne to a couple honeymooning, who were staying at their hotel. Sure enough it turned up and the couple posted the letter on Facebook. It read perfectly as I had requested, but the date was 29 October 2012 on top of the letterhead,” he recounts.
“It may be a small thing and to many it may be insignificant, but I looked at that and thought no matter how hard you try or what training you put your staff through, there is always going to be something that goes wrong.”
hockingstuart also uses the NPS surveying system, according to the group’s CEO, Nigel O’Neil. He believes that the information provided is critical for the group to constantly improve.
However, there are many other ways to survey customer satisfaction, and real estate offices across Australia are using them with mixed results.
Mark Lynch, business development manager of the Barry Plant Group, says the group uses two main ways of determining customer satisfaction – the first being a selection of surveys that question a sample of clients to determine what they want.
“We engaged a company called The Loyalty Zone to survey a selection of clients from all our offices,” he explains. “Over four surveys we found clear outcomes across all offices as to what was important to clients and what the ‘must dos’ to deliver a great customer experience were.”
The second method tests the facilitation of online enquiries in a mystery shopper type experiment.
“Another interesting exercise was one where we used the email facility of a major portal to email a group of our agents, asking about properties they had for sale and in each one indicating that we had a property we wanted to sell,” he says.
“The number of agents who either didn’t respond, or replied with one word answers and didn’t follow up the opportunity to list was a real shock.
“Through focus groups with the agents we were able to ascertain that they were not treating internet enquiries with the same amount of importance as they would a phone call.
The emails were almost a nuisance. They had mentally downgraded email enquiries to a ‘C’ class.”
On top of the Net Promoter Score, Mr Morton conducts six-monthly surveys with all people involved on the property management side of the business. However, he says he takes a different approach with sales because he believes it’s a more emotionally driven side of the business, and feedback needs to come in and be dealt with as an issue arises.
Mr Morton personally writes a letter of thanks, leaving his name and contact number with everyone who lists and sells with the company.
This means Mr Morton is the first to hear feedback, good or bad.
Raine & Horne is making the move to have their customer satisfaction survey placed online. At the moment the group is using a manual self-addressed envelope to communicate with buyers and seller, tenants and landlords, according to Sean Green, national operations manager at Raine& Horne.
“It’s important to go online with our customer surveys because it is so much easier for our offices and the consumer,” he explains.
“The information is so vital to tracking our group and helps us design training programs, as well as organise appropriate speakers at our national conferences.”
WHEN THE TIME’S RIGHT
Whether you’re using NPS or conducting a secret shopper experiment, at what point in a property transaction is it best to survey a customer?
While there may be no firm ideas, some of the industry’s leaders have given their insights.
For top selling agent James Tostevin, director at Melbourne-based Marshall White, you should start surveying people before they become customers.
He told attendees to the Sales Summit – held in Sydney in early February –agents who miss out on a listing should be inspired to ask one simple question: Why?
He also accepts that you won’t obtain every bit of business going, but that shouldn’t mean that you won’t get that person at some point in the future.
“Even as a top agent, I know that not every buyer I deal with is able to buy the property,” he continued, "which is why I direct them to other properties that might be of interest to them – even if they’re listed by a competitor.”
He claims this small gesture is hugely effective later when the buyer eventually becomes a seller.
“People are very grateful when you make that small gesture, and once they move into their new home, I’ll still follow up with them to make sure everything went smoothly with the other agent.
“That way, even though I wasn’t directly involved with their purchase, they still have me in their minds when it’s time to sell.”
Michael Sheargold, founder and CEO at Real Estate Results Network (RERN), of which four-office Marshall White is a member, says getting feedback from the people that say no to you can be incredibly informative.
“I think the whole feedback issue is so important,” he says. “Of course, when an agent wins a piece of business, they should be asking, ‘What was it that tipped it in my favour?’
“The other one that I think is a hole in most agents’ businesses is they don’t do a good job at following up when they lose a piece of business, and that can be as revealing as anything in terms of strategy.
“The problem is, the agent can’t follow it up and say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you appoint me as your agent?’ The client is going to say, ‘Hey, you were really good, it was all great, it was really hard, I had to flip a coin’.
"But if you have the principal from the agency, or maybe a customer service person say, ‘Congratulations on appointing XYZ agency. We’re disappointed that we didn’t win it; is there something that we missed or something we can improve on, because we’re committed to learning and improving?’ the information that comes out of that particular process is huge. But most agents don’t do it."
He says many agents would instead blame the client or competitor for not realising they were the best option, rather than really understand what the key triggers were.
According to Mr O’Neil, hockingstuart determines the timing of its survey distribution by customer type.
“For vendors and buyers we call them once their transaction with us is complete. This way we are able to ask them about their entire experience, not just a snapshot of it,” he says.
“Tenants and landlords are sent an online survey at any point during their experience as this is an ongoing relationship and we try to capture information at the different moments.”
However, to ensure independence is kept, hockingstuart uses a third party provider to conduct the phone calls and surveys.
Similarly, Mr Lynch says The Barry Plant Group makes every effort to ensure honest responses.
“An honest response is never guaranteed and is probably more likely to be achieved with third party pollsters or anonymous online surveys,” he says.
“But stressing the confidentiality of the responses and positioning the reason for the questioning as a genuine attempt to improve a service offering usually gets a frank result.”
POINT OF FOCUS
While all aspects of the property experience are important to customer satisfaction, Mr Lynch says lost listings are a particular focus for The Barry Plant Group.
“When a listing is lost, every effort is made to find out why, and we have offices who engage a third party to survey all lost listings,” he explains.
“As you can imagine, the information received from this is extremely valuable.
“Having said that, it’s interesting that the reasons for losing the listing are more often than not because the potential vendor had a personal relationship with another agent, or they made the decision based on estimated selling price.
“The first reason we can work on,” he says.
Mr Tarbey says one of the main areas CENTURY 21 focuses on when it comes to customer feedback is the relationship between the agent and the seller.
“If the communication with the seller is not set before the property goes on the market, then there will be problems,” he says.
“I’ve had numerous agents call me up over the years and say ‘I’ve got this property with an exceptional offer but the seller won’t take it. What do you recommend I do?’
“It’s too late by this point; your negotiating started the moment you met the sellers, not eight weeks later, and if you haven’t prepared them for the process of an offer, and you haven’t prepared them with what the market is going to be like, then you are not going to solve this problem with some trick or technique, or something you read out of a book that helps you handle a rejection.
“To me, this is really the biggest problem in our industry.”
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
Once you’ve collated your data or received a feedback form in the mail, it is time to make sense of all the information.
According to Mr Morton, it is important for staff not to focus on the negatives.
“What you are looking for are trends, not just one-off negative comments. If there is a pattern and they are willing to put it in a survey then you need to take action,” he explains.
“It can be an empowering moment – these type of things let you look back at your business practices and it can be a powerful tool between you and your team.”
Paul Curtain, managing director at Place Estate Agents, agrees that all feedback allows the agency to grow.
“If we receive positive feedback we share this with all internally to celebrate the agent’s great service,” he says.
“If we receive negative feedback we go straight to the source and try and work through any issues, hoping for a better conclusion.”
Mr O’Neil says the information is used in two ways at hockingstuart: at a corporate office level and at a principal level.
“On an individual agency basis, the information is provided to directors so they can improve processes within their offices.
“It’s also useful as a benchmarking tool for their staff as they are given a Net Promoter Score by their own customers,” he says. “At a group level, we use the information to foster a culture of customer service.
“We recognise great customer service by sending out constant communication about the offices that are doing this well to help encourage and give ideas to the group, as well as by including the NPS in our annual awards.
“For example, our ‘Sales Agent of the Year’ award not only measures the number and value of properties sold, but the NPS feedback to ensure customer service is included.”
Mr Green says the feedback they receive from customers is also used to determine the year’s training program.
HAPPY TENANT HAPPY LIFE
NOT NEARLY enough property management businesses ask for customer feedback, according to one leading Western Australian principal.
Suzanne Brown, director of Rentwest Solutions, winner of the Real Estate Institute of WA’s (REIWA) Medium Residential Agency of the Year award in 2011, says when she sends routine customer satisfaction surveys to her tenants they are often shocked.
“Our tenants love being surveyed as it does not seem to be the norm in the industry,” she says.
“We definitely focus on tenant feedback because it is rare in the industry and many tenants comment on this.
“They even thank us for asking the questions, and often they are shocked when they are asked for their opinion.”
Ms Brown currently uses real estate survey program realsatisfied.com to conduct ingoing tenant/owner surveys, exiting tenant/owner surveys and ongoing tenant/owner surveys.
“The information is collected at the beginning of each relationship with Rentwest and throughout the tenancy with both our owners and tenants,” she says.
“I suppose honesty is helped by the fact they feel it is collected byrealsatisfied.com. I think if they don’t want to be honest they wouldn’t fill it in.”
Ms Brown says customer satisfaction is always at the forefront of her mind.
“Building a happy client for life is important for customer retention, especially as we do not have a sales arm to fall back on,” she says.
“We need to retain every single management, otherwise it is a cost to the business.
“We also have a high referral rate of new business from existing clients.”
While much of the feedback is positive,Ms Brown knows any negative comments will help her business offer a better service.
“I got one today that was a complaint about a breakdown in communication between the property manager and a landlord,” she explains. “So in our morning meeting we will discuss ways to rectify that and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I will personally call the landlord to ensure we keep a positive relationship.”
ARE YOU BEING SERVED?
Mark Lynch, business development manager at The Barry Plant Group, outlines the importance of customer satisfaction for the group.
"ALWAYS DELIVERING the best customer experience is one of the main drivers of our business; we believe it has been a major reason we have picked up market share from our competitors in a time when real estate agencies have been struggling to deliver good outcomes to their clients.
When you market yourself as a real estate company that promises to provide your clients with a ‘red carpet experience’, you need to be very sure that you are going to deliver on your promise.
All the recent research is pointing to Australian consumers becoming more like their American counterparts – much more strident and demanding when it comes to quality of service.
They won’t put up with bad service and technology is providing them with many powerful tools to allow them to tell the world about their dissatisfaction.
From a corporate point of view, we ensure that the customer service message is in every training course we provide; that our people understand that every aspect of the sales and property management process is an opportunity to deliver a ‘wow’ experience. We also encourage agents to look at the process through the vendors’, buyers’ or landlords’ eyes, to consider their personal circumstances and think about how they are probably feeling, and to also take into account that different ethnic groups – even different age groups – may have unique expectations.
We put our money where our mouth is as far as delivering the best experience goes. We have a ‘red carpet guarantee’ that lists actions we guarantee during the sale of a property. The guarantee is signed and given to every vendor. If the vendor feels that the agent has not lived up to the guarantee, they can alert the sales consultant to their concerns and the consultant has 48 hours to rectify the problem. If this doesn’t happen, the vendor can terminate the authority to sell. In the 12 years we’ve had the guarantee in place, we’ve never had anyone terminate. We also have a similar guarantee for landlords.
Furthermore, we have a Customer Service Charter that is given to every tenant, landlord, seller or buyer. This charter outlines our commitment, but acknowledges that sometimes problems occur. There is a step-by-step procedure outlined to solve the problem, commencing with talking to the office principal and ending with providing them with contact details of the appropriate government resolution agency. We don’t duck complaints, we try to resolve them."
LISTENING FOR CHANGE: CENTURY 21
Charles Tarbey, regional owner and chairman of CENTURY 21 Australasia.
"VERY EARLY on in my business we had a home we couldn’t sell and the vendor was upset. We were at a complete loss, until one of my team said that he had received some feedback as to why the buyers weren’t buying. It was due to really loud and squeaky floorboards.
After careful consideration we decided, why don’t we tell the people who view the house before they get inside how bad the floorboards are and focus on the value of the home instead?
That home was sold within a week.
What I learnt was if I was able to discover all the things that went wrong with a buyer or seller and then put procedures in place to alert them, we could eliminate angry vendors.
Now we tell our seller the ‘11 things that can go wrong between now and selling the property’. When some of these things happen – and not all of them do – they say, ‘Well, at least I was warned’.
That was the biggest change we made: to put procedures in place that allowed the seller and buyers to become very educated about the process."
EVOLVING FOR YOUR NEEDS: MORTON&MORTON
Ewan Morton, managing director, Morton&Morton
'WE’VE BEEN going for 15 years and during that time I’ve always been very conscious about what customers want from us as a real estate business, and how to tackle things that may have slipped through the cracks. This is one example:
We used to pay our landlords once a month for a number of reasons, which we tried explaining to a certain persistent landlord. But he really couldn’t understand and we received feedback from others that expressed the same confusion.
On thinking about it, we decided we could alter the way we pay our landlords to twice a month, on the 15th and 30th of the month. People have been very satisfied since and we no longer have any issues with landlords on this topic. It is a perfect example of what the customer wanted and what we could deliver to them."
WE LISTEN AND WE TAKE ACTION: hockingstuart
Nigel O’Neil, CEO, hockingstuart
"WITH THE introduction of the Net Promoter Score system alone we’ve seen a marked improvement in our performance on an agent, office and group level.
It’s helped us to have an umbrella approach, focusing on all parties in the process.
A good example of this was our Melton office, which received feedback that their buyers and vendors were confused by the settlement process.
As a result, they have implemented a communication strategy to ensure that the parties understand their obligations at settlement.
It has helped the business enormously, as most people acknowledged they don’t conduct property transactions on a regular basis, and this educated and supported them through the process."