A memorable customer service lesson I learnt 

Every business thrives on excellent customer service, which is deeply rooted in every salesperson’s mind. From keeping up a professional appearance to a comprehensive knowledge of the market, every professional salesperson picks up these foundational skills of customer service before their first customer meeting.

However, I’m not here to preach tips on how to improve your customer service skills, because I’m no longer active in the sales business and certainly not a business guru.

Instead, I’ll share with you an unforgettable story of mine that involved ridiculously funny yet valuable customer service lessons from when I was working as a realtor.

A smile is a curve that sets everything straight, and that’s the theme of my story.

The names of the people in this story have been replaced for confidentiality purposes.

My VIP client and a duplex deal 

Image credit: @lieucap

This event took place four years ago when I was working as a realtor in an esteemed real estate agency in Saigon. Most of the properties we promoted back then were built-to-order (BTO) housing, meaning developments that had yet to be constructed or completed.

For this reason, many buyers from countries such as the US or Canada where open houses are readily available found our housing regulations vague and less protective of buyers’ interests – after all, who wants to buy an apartment that doesn’t exist yet? 

However, the housing prices in Vietnam were relatively affordable compared to other countries in the region and the returns were desirable, so savvy investors still flocked here to hoard properties.

One of them was Edward, my client in his 50s from a country where he was a very successful banker and on the hunt for a holiday home where he could kick back and relax after his retirement.

The heart of Bùi Viện in District 1
Image credit: Georgios Domouchtsidis

“I love Saigon because the food here is great and the people are very friendly,” he told me in one of our conversations before flying to Saigon.

He’d set his eyes on a duplex facing the Saigon River, situated in a prime location within a stone’s throw from District 1’s city center. Totally enchanted by it even though it had yet to be completed, and when all I could show him was a layout and some photos of its supposed views, he decided to place a hefty deposit. I sent him a copy of the contract three days in advance for him to go through it. 

Because the construction was mid-way in progress, the deposit was non-refundable and he had to fly over to Saigon to sign the contract. If he didn’t sign it within a certain period of time, the developer of the unit, also known as the seller, would sell the duplex to another person and my client would lose his deposit.

He was completely aware of that, and I was confident that he would sign the contract and I would receive my hefty commission soon. I thought I had a 99% chance of closing it and to become the top agent of the month.

However, it was not that simple.

Lawyers and sales agents are like chalk and cheese

Image credit: Hoang Loc

Edward did land in Saigon as planned, so we arranged to meet at the developer’s office.

He showed up at 9AM sharp, looking casual and smart in a loose, navy striped T-shirt and skinny jeans with his blond hair combed back. I dressed to the nines for our first meeting, wearing a black suit, crimson lipstick, and eyelashes so long that my eyes looked like black butterflies. 

I thought that I would be the first one that he’d meet in this bustling and sprawling city, just like with most of my overseas clients.

To my surprise, and horror later on, Edward had engaged the service of a law firm before meeting me. As we sat down at a table at the developer’s office, where I was ready to give him a contract to sign, he gave me a paper filled with questions written in English.

Image credit: RODNAE Productions

“These questions are from my lawyer in Saigon,” my dashing, friendly client said in a confident tone. “I will not sign the contract unless all the answers are yes.”

I felt my heart skip a beat and my smile turned dry.

Real estate agents and lawyers are like chalk and cheese, and lawyers are every local realtor’s nightmare. Agents’ jobs are to plug the holes in a contract to close a deal, and most lawyers are paid to find a contract’ loopholes. 

Most, if not all, BTO housing contracts in Vietnam are pre-approved by the Ministry of Construction and every developer can tell you that such contracts are not subject to amendments. 

I walked through every question with Edward, giving him explanations based on the current housing regulations and banking practices. For every single point that I made, he called his lawyer to seek his opinions.

At least that lawyer gets paid to pose questions, I thought. In the meantime, I as an agent didn’t get one dime from my client to answer all those questions. 

We sat at the developer’s office for five hours through lunchtime just to answer questions from his lawyer as the customer service staffers at the developer’s office gave me pitiful glances. What pissed me off was that Edward, albeit keen to buy, gave all the decision-making power to his lawyer who obviously tried to persuade him not to buy.

Image credit: jet dela cruz

I returned to my office after receiving more questions from the lawyer whom I had never met yet resented immensely. 

I stayed up late in my office that evening, scanning dozens of pages of the Housing Law 2015 and various legal forums to find relevant answers to the questions of Edward’s lawyer.

The next morning, I came back to the developer’s office to meet with Edward.

He no longer grinned ear to ear praising Saigon’s food and people zealously, and I in my suit looked as if I was about to speak to a jury.

I presented answers to his questions to him, which he recorded and sent to his lawyer later on. Of course, the lawyer was not happy and Edward was not willing to sign.

Nearing my breaking point, I asked my client frankly, “You know that you can lose your deposit if you don’t sign the deposit before this date right?”

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” he replied. “If you can’t give my lawyer the answers he’s happy with, I’ll not sign.”

How in the world could I possibly come up with a satisfying answer when his lawyer suggested that the developer request the Ministry of Construction to approve the changes of clauses in the contract? 

Please! It was just a duplex, not a whole building. 

Image credit: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

Even though I was fed up with my client’s dependence on his lawyer, I managed to smile and resisted the urge of calling his lawyer a devil’s advocate. And I felt like a sheep being slaughtered by a sheep who didn’t know better. The more we talked, the more it dawned on me that my client didn’t care about my answers or the developer’s explanations, but only the nod of his lawyer. It was useless presenting him the facts and figures when the lawyer was never there.

Again, we sat in the developer’s office for five hours that day, working through lunchtime, and I even got all sorts of people in charge downstairs to talk to him. 

“This is a tough case and I thought you were so close to nailing it,” the office manager of the developer’s office told me.

I agreed.   

“You have five working days to make him sign it,” she added. “After that, we’ll release the unit and sell it to someone else.”

That didn’t help at all. Some colleagues even suggested that I look on the brighter side in case I couldn’t close the deal, commenting that I had at least gained remarkable legal knowledge within just a few days. 

The daily heated discussions between Edward and I must have been a hot topic in the developer’s office those days, because no one remained as long in the spacious gallery as we did. And nobody emptied the complimentary coffee bottle reserved for visitors faster than I did. 

My client would return home in a couple of days, and I didn’t have much time left to get out of this checkmate.

I was determined to put the case to rest the next day, regardless of what the outcome was. 

I couldn’t sleep that night, tossing and turning thinking about the shame I would have to endure walking to my office empty-handed when I told everyone I would close that deal.

The twist I never saw coming

customer service story
Image credit: Anthony Shkraba

On the third day, I returned to the developer’s office, this time with a browbeaten look and a forced smile. The staff members looked at me with a compassionate smile as if they had known how my day would end.

Feeling too hopeless to curry favor with my difficult client with glossy questions about his breakfast or city tour, I got right into business. 

“Are you buying this apartment or not?” I asked. 

He replied with a nonchalant attitude, “It depends on my lawyer’s opinions.”

Determined not to let myself be messed around with for any longer, I stood up and held out my hand, “Enjoy your stay in Vietnam.”

As I was about to leave, Edward started to raise his voice and complained about his vexing experience in Vietnam. I remained to listen to what he had to say, and raised my voice back. Losing my cool, I called his decision to pay a lawyer to pose me useless questions that wouldn’t change anything ignorant beyond measure. 

“You want perfect transparency? Try Singapore or developed countries where the rental yields are below 3% per annum,” I told him point-blank.

Stoked by my brutal honesty, he started to yell at me, and this time, he uttered the words that I had been waiting for for the past 72 hours since I first met him.

“Nobody in this place is paying me respect,” he said. “The office manager never even smiled at me. She never came out to greet me knowing that I am a paying client. The Vietnamese music you guys play on repeat daily annoys me to death.”

His tirade went on for a few more minutes, but my train of thoughts ended at the part when he talked about the office manager and the music

An idea flashed through my mind, reminding me what the real issues were. It was not about the law, but the human elements. 

Thrilled by my discovery, I walked to the desk of Delilah – the office manager. I told her exactly what Edward had just told me, and asked her to come over there and gave him a smile. 

Image adapted from: Pexels/Alexander Suhorucov

She looked at me with her wide, dubious eyes as if I was trying to pimp her out to a client.

Here’s something about Delilah: she was by no means an irritating, unprofessional person. She was a nice person who had a naturally forlorn face and a super introverted personality. It amazed me that she was the one whose lack of a smile and friendliness caught Edward’s notice, when I and the rest went out of our ways to please him.

“I’ll give you USD100 in cash for your smile,” I told Delilah in a desperate voice. “You’ll also get a share from my commissions if I close the deal so I need your help.”

I also turned to other staff members and had them change the music to any Vivaldi playlist they could find on YouTube. 

Edward finally spilled out what he was unhappy about and my fixing it could be the only chance to savage my deal. 

After much pleading, Delilah left her workstation and walked with me towards Edward’s table.

She smiled awkwardly and talked to him about Saigon’s weather. He smiled back, combed his hair back with his hands, and his facial muscles all eased up. They started chatting about casual things that had nothing to do with housing or the law.  

customer service story
Image adapted from: Pexels/Alexander Suhorucov

With a palpitating heart, I took out the contract from my bag and gave it to Delilah. 

She took it and held it to him with both hands, this time with a wry beam and tender voice, “Will you sign it?”

And signed it he did!

customer service story
Image credit: RODNAE Productions

Later on, he shook my hand and left the office grinning from ear to ear. The staff members congratulated me on my deal, and Delilah assured me that I didn’t have to give her USD100 for her triumphant smile.

I walked out of the office in disbelief, and never heard from Edward about his lawyer’s questions again. I still felt frustrated at some point, reflecting on all my hours spent worrying and studying the law to resolve something that was easily fixed by a smile.  

The minor details matter, and so do your values

As people doing business, we are trained to mind both the big picture and the little details. Nonetheless, things can still go awry. Clients differ, and their true desires are what only they know best.

I acted as professionally as I could. And yet I couldn’t have, in a million years, predicted that what my client wanted was a smile from another colleague and good music while all he talked about was the law. 

Turns out that the little things can play a defining role in giving you the win you work hard for. On top of that, act decisively and don’t let yourself be dragged around. A client is valuable, but you also have your values, so don’t hesitate to walk away if you feel slighted or your efforts ignored.

Some of you who read my story might think that you could have cracked the code faster and done better. Maybe you could, and I’d love to hear about your perspective.

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Cover image adapted from: Anthony Shkraba

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