Real Estate Agents & Their Clients: A Love Story in Two Acts

Agent Client Love Affair

Professional relationships have all the complexity of personal ones, and when the professional relationship involves the spending of millions of dollars and a place called home, the complexity ratchets up dramatically. “It’s an intense relationship because it revolves around people in the midst of making one of the biggest financial decisions they’ll ever make,” observes agent Marc Silver of the dynamic between agents and their clients. “It’s a relationship that happens very quickly, too.”

There’s no Match.com screening app for home buyers and sellers looking for an agent, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. It’s a curiously intimate relationship, too, and the parties involved have to like each other; however, if they like each other too much that creates problems. There are instances of this line having been crossed, of course — we’re dealing with human beings here — still, one broker concludes unequivocally that “it’s not the best idea to turn a new client into a best friend.

“You don’t want to be best friends with your lawyer or accountant, and you keep the client longer and there’s more respect if you maintain some boundaries,” he continues. “My job is to protect you and provide you with the service you need, and to be your advocate. If you happen to like me and want to have dinner after our work is done that’s a bonus, but my goal is not to make you like me.”

It’s a tricky dance, and everyone does it differently. “There’s room for all types of people in the real estate industry,” says a veteran broker, “because clients want different things from the person handling their business. There’s the chubby mother hen broker for clients who want a reassuring, mommy kind of person who’ll give them a hug. Other people want the eager beaver, just out of college type. Some like the glamorous, gorgeous woman you could date and want to be seen with, and others want the power broker who can barely fit them in because they’re so powerful and busy and make so much money.”

One thing every client needs is an agent with a fairly astute understanding of human relations. “We often find ourselves serving as therapist as well as real estate agent, because you’re dealing with the dynamics that go on between couples, and the subtle power structures that exist within families,” says another agent. “The process of home buying can really bring those things out, and people can get quite emotional. Have I gotten calls at 11:30 at night? ‘I’ll never find a house!’ ‘Promise me this will all work out!’ ‘Why isn’t my house worth more money?’ ‘I’ve made a horrible mistake.’ Yes, those calls definitely come in.”

Some agents find midnight calls intrusive and try to set boundaries with their clients. Others feel that those calls come with the territory. “If a client calls me at 11:00 at night of course I pick up,” says agent Victoria Risko. “That’s the job! If they’re calling me in the middle of the night there’s a reason for it. A broker can’t make a deal happen, but they can screw a deal up in a million different ways, and one of them is having the client’s phone call go to voice mail. If you’re in the middle of a deal, you take their call, no matter what. Many deals go south because brokers try to set boundaries with their clients.”

Risko considers it part of her job to be completely available to her clients, and says her clients almost always become friends. She also prefers to keep her practice small. “I’m usually working with an average of ten clients at a time, and maybe three or four are very active,” says Risko, who describes herself as “a low-pressure sales person.”

“My roots aren’t in sales,” she continues. “I was an aerospace engineer before I got into real estate, so I’m very analytical and I like to educate my clients so they can make their own informed decision. You want a house in Brentwood? Okay, I’m going to teach you about Brentwood. My job is to gain some kind of credibility with the client so that when I tell them, ‘you should see this,’ they’re willing to go see it. Without that credibility, you’re just the checkout girl.”

Agents must know how to calibrate the degree of familiarity they bring to their relationships with clients, and one agent is quick to point out that “most celebrities don’t want much familiarity at all.”

Civilians, too, have become more aloof. “In the old days, you always had the client in the car and as you drove along and passed houses, you could watch their faces and see which houses interested them,” says broker Barry Sloane. “They may be telling me they want a Spanish, but they’re looking at every gingerbread cottage we pass. I’m rarely with a client in the car now, though, because people prefer to follow you so they can talk on their cellphones, or they just want to meet you there.”

These changes make it harder for agents to intuit a client’s desires, which is their job description in a nutshell. “I often feel like I know what the client wants before they do, and that’s part of what makes a good real estate agent,” a broker explains. “A buyer might see a picture on Instagram of a great mid-century house, so we go see six of them, even though I already know that kind of house won’t work for them. They don’t know it yet, though, and they need to see a few before they can say, ‘I don’t want walls of glass, I want a more traditional layout.’ Part of my job is to be alert to what you do and don’t respond to, and to steer you towards things that fit needs you have that you may not even be aware of.”

What transpires between agent and client is a two-way seduction, but do agents have the option of saying no, or breaking up with a difficult client? Everyone I spoke to agreed that it’s difficult. “It occasionally happens that someone approaches you and you immediately know you don’t want to work with them,” one agent admits. “If a person has unrealistic expectations, that’s a real red flag. ‘I want a two-bedroom house with a view in the hills, and I know someone who knew someone who found one for not much money’ — that’s going to be problematic. If it’s a seller and they say, ‘Three houses on my street sold for $1.5 million, but I’m sure my house is worth $5 million,’ that’s another red flag.”

As is always the case in love and war and business, it’s every man for himself in the end. “I worked at the ‘Dr. Phil’ show when it first started airing,” says Marc Silver, “and one of the things we used to say there is that people tell you and show you who they are, and it’s your job to pay attention. If they’re going to be an insane client they’re going to reveal that to you fairly early on, and it’s your choice whether or not to proceed.”

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