Nine Ways to Stop Dreading Them…and Start Helping Them

If you’re like most business people, you’d do almost anything to avoid a fearful, tearful, or angry client. Joseph Callaway, who has helped many people through the worst times of their lives, urges you to change the way you view these customers in distress. Not only might you change their lives, you might change yours.

When the economy tanked in 2008, the way we saw the world shifted. Fear took over. People worried they’d go to work one day and discover they no longer had a job. They worried that they might fail their families, that their retirement savings were gone forever, that they might never get back on their feet. For a great many people—maybe including some you do business with daily—that sense of insecurity still lingers. In some cases it has led to hectic, stress-filled workweeks that bring less pay, little thanks, and often a host of problems in their personal lives.

In a word, distress.

Joseph Callaway knows all about distress. He and his wife, JoAnn, own a real estate company—Those Callaways—that survived the bursting of the bubble and the accompanying economic spiral. They saw the very human fallout up close and personal. In the process they learned a lot about working with anguished clients—lessons anyone in any segment of the business world would do well to heed.

“Distressed clients and customers are everywhere,” notes Callaway, who along with JoAnn wrote the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle.  “Sometimes the reasons are money-related, sometimes personal, sometimes a mixture of both. Regardless, when you open your eyes and really notice the pain these people are in, you will have taken the first step toward helping them.”

Unfortunately, says Callaway, many people don’t want to deal with distressed clients and customers. That’s because they can be time-consuming. Indecisive. Needy. Maybe even angry and hostile. But rather than avoiding such difficult people, Callaway suggests you embrace them and do whatever you can to make their situation better.

Sincerely putting clients’ needs first—regardless of how hard to deal with they may be—is the bedrock on which Those Callaways built their company. They attribute their prosperity to this commitment and adamantly believe they would never have survived the bubble otherwise. (Many realtors did not.) To date they’ve sold over a billion dollars’ worth of homes and have a cadre of loyal clients who would never consider doing business elsewhere.

“Deciding to really put clients first, whether they were individuals or institutions, was a remarkable—and remarkably simple—discovery,” Callaway shares. “This strategy has the power to change your life, to transform your business, and to bring about financial security. Even when clients make your life a lot more difficult than it theoretically should be, your job—your professional reason for being—is to serve them. And that is never more important than when your clients are going through their toughest times.”

If you’d like to incorporate the Clients First method into the way you handle your distressed clients, read on for a few of Callaway’s tips to help you get started:

Make the Clients First commitment. According to Callaway, really putting clients first is a big commitment. And if you’re comfortable with your current way of doing business, level of success, and customer relationships, that commitment is not for you. However, if you find yourself wanting more—more fulfillment, more professional growth, more experience, and yes, even more money—you may want to give Clients First a chance.

Realize the benefits of sticking with customers in distress. When you truly succeed in helping a distressed client, you will have built an important relationship. Often, these are the people who go on to tell others how wonderful you are, and what lengths you went to on their behalf.

When you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated clients, you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards. And you may even become known in your company or industry as the guy or gal who can handle the toughest clients—and receive referrals as a result!

Learn to like people. Even if you already consider yourself a people person, chances are you still need to learn to like people more. Think about it: Do you hold yourself emotionally aloof from your clients and complain about their foibles to your coworkers and family, even though you were all smiles during your meeting? Or do you always make a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes and to learn more about them as people, not just as billable hours or potential sources of income?

Get comfortable with out-of-control emotions. We’re all human. And while it’s true that most of us try to leave our emotions at the door, it’s not always possible. Sometimes our fear, pain, and anger just spill over. If a customer loses his or her cool or bursts into tears, don’t get upset, advises Callaway. Look at the event as an opportunity to help in any way you can.

Before Clients First, we weren’t above covering up a mistake now and then as long as it didn’t really matter. But when we decided nothing else mattered as long as we kept the client, we suddenly had a different standard by which to measure our success, and toying with the truth did not work anymore. When you are truthful with customers, you know you’re doing the right thing. You don’t feel as if something was left unsaid or undone.

Stay competent. Often, it’s the best way to help your customers. As foreclosures mounted during the financial crisis, the government began a series of steps to stem the tide. The thinking in Washington was to take action before the banks ended up taking properties back. First came the foreclosure moratoriums. The next step was to address all those people in trouble by modifying their loans wherever possible. The government came up with the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Then the government came up with the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA).

Short sales, transactions in which the bank agrees to accept less than the balance owed so that a homeowner who cannot keep paying the mortgage may have a more respectable outcome than foreclosure, became the order of the day.

“During this time, people panicked,” says Callaway. “We observed negligence all around us. Up until that point, JoAnn and I had dealt with regular clients. The short sale created a whole new kind of client, the distressed seller, with all that the situation entailed. We knew we had to do the leg work to make sure we were serving them properly. We invested anew our time and energy to be the best, to be on the cutting edge as things changed.

“Real estate had become ever more affected by government and legal considerations,” he continues. “We had to redouble our efforts to remain competent. We justified our values with extensive market comparables so the banks could have confidence in what we told them. Every day, we improved our short sale package so that our client’s file would have the best chance. We took every class, attended every convention. We cared about and for our clients, and they in turn stayed with us.”

Always care, even (and especially!) when your clients don’t. Distress can bring with it despondence and ambivalence. If you have distressed clients, you know what that means. It’s calls that end with, “Do whatever you want. We’re screwed either way.” Or, “There’s just no hope. I guess I’ll have to let most of my employees go.”

Consider your “karma bank.” According to Callaway, he and his wife have never bought into the philosophy that advises “cherry-picking” clients. Instead, a central tenet of their Clients First method means serving every client, regardless of the return on their investment of time, energy, emotions, and money.

Help them look to the future. (It’s a bright one for them and for you.) Most of us need to be reminded from time to time that “this too shall pass.” Your customers are no exception. When they are up against the wall and feeling hopeless, you have to help them look to the future. Emphasize your willingness to help them through whatever crisis they’re currently facing and then let them know what the future will look like once the problem is resolved. There’s a good chance you will be part of that future.

About the Authors:

Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways.

JoAnn sold more than four thousand homes totaling in excess of a billion dollars. She accomplished this in her first ten years selling real estate and she did it one client at a time. She is proud to be a REALTOR® and believes her fellow agents share her heart for helping others. She loves flowers, art, books, and Joseph. JoAnn lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and wishes it had a beach.

Joseph is the author of countless advertisements, newspaper pages, magazine layouts, fliers, blog posts, manuals, property profiles, and thousands of real estate contracts. He surfed Dana Point, California, before the Army Corps of Engineers built the breakwater and he loves JoAnn very much.

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