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6 Things Real Estate Agents Can Learn From Doctors About Delivering Bad News

There are a lot of tips available to help real estate agents grow their businesses—marketing tips, sales tactics, networking strategies, and more. But when it comes to building trust among clients and achieving the most loyalty humanly possible, one of the greatest gifts we can all give ourselves is the ability to stare our fears right in the face during those times when we must deliver the not-so-great news that occasionally interrupts our victories.

In a sense, real estate agents are similar to medical professionals—as much as we love delivering great news to our clients, we’re also unfortunately burdened with the task of delivering the bad news that affects our clients emotionally. As such, our communications with clients must be consistent and empathetic, especially when things might not be going great.

First things first: Embrace the art of facing your fears!

Whether the periodic ‘bad news’ is purely circumstantial or the result of our own mess-up, our natural tendency to procrastinate on making the tough phone calls is most likely due to a fear of unknown consequences. But facing our fears is actually one of the greatest gifts we could give ourselves; by doing so, we can become stronger and more confident in the way we deal with any kind of tough situation.

Your fears are an opportunity, not a curse.

When faced with bad news, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t always have to translate to negative attitudes/opinions or poor reviews from your clients. While it’s easier to hide from the potential consequences of unfortunate circumstances, the agents who possess the courage so many others lack will find themselves with a far more loyal following. Fact is, that negative news comes with the gift of much untapped opportunity.

Have you ever awarded your business to a company who bravely addresses reviews and customer support on a public forum such as Twitter? It’s rare. Most companies shy away from potentially negative feedback in the presence of customers or prospects. It requires confidence and bravery.

Simple, a bank card for budget-conscious consumers, welcomes whatever rants you wish to throw their way. Even the nastiest of the nasty comments are responded to with integrity and class by the Simple agents. They realize that negative reviews are opportunities to build trust among onlookers. It’s no surprise that Simple has created a very loyal culture by facing their fears.

How to deliver bad news to your clients like a pro

First, to put things in perspective, take a moment right now and be thankful that you’re not a doctor. When compared to the tough conversations medical professionals must have every day as they deliver some of the worst news imaginable to their patients, suddenly the task of delivering news that an offer fell through on a sale doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, the thought of delivering that “bad” news suddenly becomes a lot easier to swallow.

This, however, doesn’t mean that your clients won’t react with the same emotional response! So we decided that we could probably learn a lot from these true experts at delivering bad news. In this article found in the official journal of the Society for Translational Oncology, a six-step protocol for delivering bad news to patients is presented with a clear plan that can benefit anyone in the business of delivering news that could negatively impact another person’s emotions. Here are those steps, plus some takeaways for real estate agents:

1. Set up the interview

If you’ve got some news that could upset your clients, stop and think before shooting over a text or email. In fact, be selective of your communication channel! Most likely, a call or visit is the best option.

What doctors do: No one wants to hear that they’re going to have to endure some kind of intense surgery, so good doctors never simply pick up the phone to deliver bad news without first rehearsing a bit and getting mentally prepared for the conversation ahead. Often, the doctor will ask if the patient has a close friend or relative who could join. In a sense, this offers a subtle cue that allows the patient to begin mentally preparing for the meeting.

What real estate agents can do: When your clients are a couple, it’s often a good idea to let them know you’d like them both on the phone, while being mindful of keeping an even-keeled tone so they don’t draw up any premature conclusions. Make sure you schedule enough time for a call that could go long, and make sure it’s a good time for your client. “Bad news” conversations are only cursed if they get cut short before you’ve had a chance to strategize next steps!

2. Assess perception

I remember once I popped a malted milk ball into my mouth with great anticipation of the crunch and malted milky flavors that I love so much. Well, turns out, it was actually a chocolate covered raisin…and I hate raisins.  No one likes an unpleasant surprise at any level! Before getting straight to business, realize that a call from the real estate agent is often associated with the potential for very exciting news! Best bet is to assess your client’s mood a bit so that you know how to appropriately communicate!

What doctors do: Good doctors never dive into the bad news without allowing their patients to talk first. This allows the doctors to assess how they might be feeling, so that they can react appropriately.

What real estate agents can do: Without tiptoeing around the reason for your call too much, start off the call with a simple gesture of personal interest: “How are you feeling about everything right now?” This will give you an idea of the potential level impact that could result from your bad news. You’ll know right away if this call is going to require a bit of extra empathy and time.

3. Obtain invitation

Medical patients don’t always want to know the details! This is probably where real estate agents’ clients most differ from doctors’ patients—in real estate, we can pretty much assume that everyone wants to know as much as possible about their transactions. However, a rule we can all share is the act of requesting how much detail they’d like.

What doctors do: The best doctors around need to be sensitive that their patients might not want a lot of details surrounding their prognosis. It’s a very personal matter, and it might carry so much emotional baggage that the patient simply wants to know if it’s good or bad news. And if it’s bad, they might need some time to deal with their emotions before taking further steps, even if that means delaying learning more. As a best practice, doctors will ask the patient if they want to hear their results in detail or if they want to come back to them at a later time.

What real estate agents can do: If you’re dealing with a buyer who’s heartbroken over an unsuccessful bid, they might prefer to just get past it and learn about what else is out there on the market. Trying to keep them engaged with details that they don’t really care about runs the risk of stringing out negative emotions when you could potentially move right along to the next exciting property and change the mood quickly. If you find that your client is ready to move on, jump to step 4!

4. Give knowledge and information

Well, here goes. It’s time to face the music and deliver your bad news. Bottom line here is that we’ve got to really focus on putting ourselves in our client’s shoes. Empathy is the name of the game.

What doctors do: When the doc feels like the patient is in the best place to accept their news, they waste no time in getting to the point. Doctors are direct with their prognosis, leading with a very clear statement, “Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news”... followed by a detailed description, without rambling on about details, and being mindful to speak all medical verbiage in layman’s terms so the patient can clearly understand.

What real estate agents can do: The most important thing is to get right to the point. Remember that buyers in particular (and especially if they are a couple buying their first home), have been likely dreaming together, imagining themselves living in their dream home, raising a family together. Precede the details with a clear statement, “I’m afraid I’ve got bad news.”

There’s no way around a broken heart at this point. But, like ripping off a bandaid, getting to the point ensures that the sting will only last a short moment.

5. Address emotion with empathy

Now’s the time to let your clients know that they’re not alone, that you’re truly their advocate, that you share their disappointment. The rule here is simple: When it’s clear that you’re just as upset, your client is far less likely to lash out or blame you for wrongdoing!

What doctors do: A good doctor will never end the conversation in the middle of an emotional reaction. In fact, even if the patient is not terribly responsive, they’ll be sure to ask questions about how they are feeling. These are tactics that ensure that the patient doesn’t feel alone. It’s also important that the patient has an empathetic partner with whom to endure the initial acceptance.

What real estate agents can do: Be prepared for anything! Real estate clients who just lost a deal could react in many ways. As the professional, your role is to be both sensitive and a strong leader. Tell your clients that you were hopeful as well and that you’re also very disappointed. Allow your clients to get it all out, and then quickly transition to step 6, “the plan.” But whatever you do, avoid getting defensive; an emotional response to what may be an unpleasant reaction will indicate that you’re possibly not as professional as you led on to be, and you’ll run the risk of getting dropped by your clients.

6. Strategize

It’s time to strategize. Bad news should never be left at bad news! The final step is to team up and build a game plan to make good and plan a route to victory! It’s time for the recipient of bad news to see some options ahead. The great thing about next steps is that they bring opportunity!

What doctors do: Further treatment is never anything to look forward to, but it’s usually far better than the alternative of letting a prognosis go untreated. Treatment is the opportunity to overcome the burden. But still empathetic, a great doctor will always ask first if the patient is ready to discuss next steps. There’s always the chance that the patient would rather leave at this point and just sort out some emotions. But when it’s time, doctors need to lay out the options and be encouraging (but avoid offering false hope).

What real estate agents can do: Even though the next steps are often to try, try again, the strategy moving forward should offer a slightly revised approach to ensure that you’re going to take an even more aggressive position in the upcoming transaction. Just as doctors do, it’s important not to lead on to a false sense of hope; as we know, our industry is highly variable by nature! But ensure your expertise nonetheless and lead on to the next opportunity.

This may seem like an awful lot of strategy for a single phone call, but the extra time taken to face your fears and be fully transparent (and empathetic) with clients will pay dividends later. It’s all a matter of confronting those losses or mistakes, and then demonstrating that you’re sophisticated enough to play hard and win the next opportunity.


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