Most agents - so the story goes - get into real estate because they love property and they love helping people. And the chance to earn a small fortune is pretty alluring too.
But within just a few short months, they are destined to hate both houses and people - and be broke - burned out by psychotic vendors, ungrateful landlords, feral tenants and disgruntled buyers.
Why does it happen like this? What is it about real estate that brings out all the crazy people? And why does your agency seem to be the one that attracts them as clients?
A look at neurological and behavioural research provides some clues that indicate maybe it is not individual agents or offices that attract the unstable or unbalanced, but that the stress involved in buying and selling property is enough to make pretty much everyone feel unhinged.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory argues that human psychological wellness is served by the meeting key needs. Until we feel secure at the base levels, we cannot move towards more enlightened behaviour.
Shelter is one of our basic physiological needs according to Maslow. What does that mean for agents? It means that when humans feel their “shelter” is uncertain, they they feel their very survival is threatened on a subconscious level and are in a constant state of anxiety. Property is a key part of the second layer of needs – part of our safety and security. When property is insecure, this makes us feel endangered and unsafe.
Selling a property is to walk headlong into these feelings of anxiety and distress that often refuse to be reasoned away. But so too is the feeling triggered for buyers who can’t find a property, or tenants struggling in the search for something suitable to rent.
Want to know why your vendor is shouting at you? Or a potential buyer just slammed down the phone on you during the negotiation? It’s not because they’re nuts. It’s because subconsciously, there’s a voice telling them “You’re not safe. You have no shelter. You’re in danger!” and that anxiety is affecting their behaviour in a way that can’t always be rationalised away.
This is because new research from neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh has identified that anxiety disrupts the decision-making regions of your brain which can make it physically impossible to think clearly in some highly stressful situations, which in turn is likely to affect your behaviour.
The study found that anxiety affects your prefrontal cortex – the front part of your brain responsible for understanding rules, the consequences of risk, problem solving and decision making. In doing so, it also affects our ability to regulate our emotions and control behaviour.
So when you’re in the middle of an auction, pushing a vendor to accept the highest offer, when you’re negotiating with buyers who’ve missed out on numerous other properties, when you’re asking someone who has lived in a home for 40 plus years who has been prevaricating to sign the sales agreement – these are all times when our stress responses are in full flight and in fact, our brains are actively incapable of making a good choice or monitoring our behaviour.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are things real estate agents can do that can alleviate the stress their customers feel which will in turn improve the behaviour they demonstrate toward you. These include:
1. Let people know what to do in case of an emergency
Every time you get on an airplane, the crew runs through the safety demonstration. You’ve seen it a million times, but it is based on the fact that in the event of an emergency when your brain is flooded with cortisol and you literally can’t think, you’ll revert to something that has been drummed into you.
It’s a great approach that more agents could take too – because while there’s no way of avoiding the fact that buying or selling a property is stressful, as a real estate agent with extensive experience, you’ve seen everything before – so share that knowledge with your clients.
Research from University College London identifies that the unexpected is more stressful, than the expected, even if what’s expected is painful. So explain to your clients what the selling (or buying, or renting) process looks like, where things sometimes go wrong, and how you proactively solve those things when they occur. Make sure you know their auction instructions well in advance and ensure they’ve been planned for quietly and rationally, so you can remind them of that decision, not ask for a new one. Hope for the best but plan for the worst is the mantra. Make solving the stress in advance part of your procedure.
This has a two-fold affect – it reassures people that what’s happening to them is normal and it tells them that you’ve got their back and they are in good hands which goes a long way to establishing a relationship based on trust.
2. Help clients take a break from the stressors
What is the most stressful thing about the sale process that is upsetting your vendor? Is it having the property clean in time for each open house? Is it making sure the dog is out of the house? And are there ways that you could give your client a break, even just once – by offering to organise a cleaner, or a dog sitter?
Research from the American Psychological Association identifies that taking a break from stressors can be hugely beneficial, even if it’s just short term. Even a small gesture such as a voucher for coffees and a snack at the local café during the open tells them that you are noticing their behaviour, have empathy for what they’re going through and you’re there to support them. (and you can meet them for a coffee afterwards and let them know how it went).
3. Encourage mindfulness
Both Persian and Jewish philosophers are credited with the saying “This too shall pass” – so dealing with stressful situations has been going on for millennia. But rather than enduring, modern psychology has identified that being able to visualise what the end result both looks like and feels like in a positive way is hugely powerful to reducing stress.
Sometimes your clients may resist this – if they’re selling a long-loved family home, the idea of leaving may terrify them and increase feelings of sadness. But encourage them to visualise how exciting it will once the hammer has fallen on auction day and they know how much money is coming in, how lovely their new home is going to be, all the things they will be able to achieve as part of their new chapter.
If you’ve outlined your process for selling (or buying) in detail and your clients know what to expect each step of the way, they’ll find it easier to imagine positive outcomes.
Kylie Davis is the Head of Content at CoreLogic.