by Kevin Smith, Texas-Licensed Professional Inspector
How We Talk to Our Clients
As practicing real estate inspectors, what we do is like a scientific investigation: we observe and report, and that’s it. The observation part is easy. We’ve been trained to comply with a set of standards of practice, so we have a pretty good set of guidelines as to what is expected of us and what we are responsible for. Besides the standards, we have code books, other inspectors, tradesmen, and other authorities we can depend on to present the pertinent information about a property to our clients. There are also yearly mandatory continuing education requirements for licensing in many locations. We rely on these resources to present a true and accurate picture of the house at the time of the inspection.
So, how do we keep up, and how do we get better in a field that is ever-changing? InterNACHI® and its monthly newsletters are a goldmine of information, from online classes and to other resources for the inspector who wants to keep current on the ins and outs of the industry. MCE courses are offered by local associations, and there is an endless variety of reading and research available on the internet. The Google search engine is your friend, and an oftentimes late-night friend at that. Another one of the best ways to upgrade your base of knowledge is by attending meetings of local inspector groups. This is where you can ask questions and get answers from other inspectors who work in your local area. Annual conferences offered in some locations bring in inspectors from all over the state. You will often learn as much at the breakfast table as you do in the breakout rooms. Every one of us has a shared experience, and every one of us has different experiences.
One of the best and most frequently asked questions when inspectors get together in person or online is, “Have you ever seen (or done, or been asked) this?” Here’s an example: An inspector who has been licensed for a relatively short time may come across a Magnetrip panel and think it fell off a spaceship from Mars. Another inspector who has been in the business a little longer can inform the new guy that Magnetrip panels were made by Zinsco, and that there are certain health and safety issues associated with both Zinsco and Magnetrip. It pays to open your mouth and ask the question, even if it seems like a stupid question to ask.
Let’s face it – all we have to sell is information. That’s the easy part of what we do. The challenges come with the other part of what we do: providing the client with that information. Our clients are the same in that they all have expectations about our services. Some want more details; some only want to know “if this is a good house.” An engineer wants different types of details than a school teacher, an investor, or a first-time buyer. They process the information we give them in different ways. It is our responsibility to deliver the report in a way that makes sense to them and that they can understand. We are there to help them make a decision about a property, and to provide them with information that they are not capable of discovering for themselves. If they knew how to inspect a property, then they wouldn’t need us.
Communicating with the client is a big part of what we do; there’s a lot more to it than verbally recapping the report at the end of the inspection, and putting together a well-written, adequately documented report, and delivering it in a timely manner. Communication starts way before that, and it can be just as important as the information itself. An inspector can do an exemplary inspection and produce a magnificent report, but if he or she can’t provide the information in a manner that is consistent with the client’s understanding or capacity to process the information, he might as well be delivering the report in a completely different language.
What can we do to improve our chances of successfully serving our client? Communication helps, and good communication helps a lot. Speak early and speak often. Your client is, after all, temporarily insane. Buying a house is a huge investment, and it scares the pants off of most people. They can become quite unsettled by the time they have signed the contract and are ready for their inspection. It is our job as inspectors to gather all the information, and to report it to the client in a way that is meaningful to them. The client may be well informed, or they may have only a limited knowledge of what they are getting into. It is our job to deliver the goods, and we do that by communicating to them in a manner in which they fully understand what we are telling them.
There are some people who are born with the gift of gab, and some who could not lead a group in silent prayer. There are lots of ways to learn how to speak well, and how to think and respond on your feet. Toastmasters International is a group that teaches people how to speak in public. Dale Carnegie Training offers courses on speaking and management for success. There is a wealth of instruction and exercises on the internet to help the befuddled learn to talk. It can be as simple as talking out loud to yourself when you are alone, or starting a conversation with someone in the checkout line at the grocery store. Being able to think and speak on your feet is a critical component to your success if you work with the public. Being able to communicate with the client paves the way to harmony, acceptance, rapport and trust, as well as the client’s overall satisfaction. Without providing the information we are trained to provide and paid for, we have not done our job. Failing to inform the client invites problems related to health and safety, performance issues, or, worse yet, demand letters.
There are some proven ways to up our communication game. Let’s look at some of the avenues that guide us to successful engagements and a sound reputation in the real estate community. Clear communication is one of the ways in which you distinguish yourself in this crowded and competitive world.
1. Booking the Appointment
How do you answer the phone?
This is your first chance to make a good impression. Polite, sincere, informative and available are always good postures. The client is looking for someone to help put them out of their misery caused by making a huge investment on an unknown (to them), complex product. Be reassuring, be competent, be patient. The longer you stay on the phone with them, the better your chances are of booking the engagement.
You already know what happens if you don’t pick up the phone. The prospective client goes to the next inspector on the list, and that means you lose revenue. Yes, sometimes the phone rings when you are lying on your back looking up into a horizontal gas furnace hunting down a serial number. Your focus needs focus; you can roll back over and resume your interrogation of the furnace in a few minutes, but the revenue fairy will have flown away without landing on your wallet if you don’t pick up the phone.
Price Shoppers and Tire Kickers
The time to think about your posture on the phone is before you are on the phone. A good salesman handles objections in the sales presentation. It is a way to kill objections before they show up in the conversation. Be prepared to inform callers about your experience, availability, and genuine concern for providing timely, pertinent information that they can use to make their buying decision. Anticipate the question of pricing and counter with the quality of your service, the experience you have, and how you can help them make this critical decision.
Tell them that they can accompany you on the inspection (if that is your practice), or meet you at the end of the inspection for a thorough recap. Demonstrate quality. Inform them of your experience. Make them understand that a guy with a brand-new license is well intentioned and that his training is thorough and up to date, but there is really no substitute for experience. If the ink on your license is still wet, sell them your up-to-date training instead. Tell them you learned from the best and they trained you thoroughly in current building standards and inspection practices. Tell them about other certifications or licenses that you have earned. Always present your inspection skills to your prospective client as being thorough and in full compliance with the standards of practice that govern the licensing in your location.
There is an impulse to tell price shoppers that they are wasting your time and that price shopping will get them just what they are looking for – a cheap inspection. When this scenario comes up, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to book this inspection?” Consider talking to the prospective client the way a respectful adult speaks to an intelligent 10-year-old. Gently guide them to the decision you want them to make while maintaining their dignity. They want to be understood and they want to be right.
Many times, the client does not know you personally, and does not know about construction, performance, or possible health and safety issues. This is your opportunity to teach them about yourself and why you understand their needs and are capable of meeting them. It is not necessary to tell them how many books you have read or how many seminars you have been to. This is a time to build their confidence in you and to generate rapport with the client. You don’t have much time to do this, but it is important that you make the client comfortable with you and confident in the services you provide.
That phone conversation is where we secure the details of the engagement, such as:
Call or text them when you start the inspection, and let them know you are working for them.
Informing the Client
If you have an active website, let your client know where to find more information about you and your services. It is a good idea to have a sample report on your website.
Tell them what you inspect (foundation, drainage, roof, attic, etc.).
Tell them about other services that you provide – pool inspections, termites, drone inspection, etc.
Inform the client of anything that they could conceivably expect from you that you do not include as part of your inspection, such as cosmetic items (like poor paint or carpentry), stucco, phase inspections, crawlspaces, roof surfaces on multi- story homes, older homes, houses that have been or damaged by a tornado, flood, or earthquake, for example. Informing the client of what you do not do is as important as telling them what you do provide.
Tell them what they can expect from you personally: that you will show up on time, do what you said you were going to do, deliver the report when you said it would be delivered, and be respectful of the seller’s property.
Clients can be somewhat timid about asking questions because they do not want to look stupid. Let the client know that you encourage questions about the house and the inspection. It is of value to mention that there are no dumb questions. If the client needs to ask the same question two or three times, that is because they haven’t gotten the idea yet about why the item is important. Answer their questions cheerfully, competently, and thoroughly until they can understand the information that you are providing. Tell them that you want them to ask questions because that is what you are there for – to provide information. Let them know that it is important to you to provide them with the best inspection that you are capable of, and that their needs are important to you.
Make your client feel important. It doesn’t take much, and it paves the way to trust and confidence in you as the expert. Let them know that you are prepared to stay and answer questions until next Christmas, if that is what they need so they can understand what you are telling them. Doing this further designates you as the (benevolent) authority, gives the client more confidence in you and your work, and lets them know that they are the center of attention. Above all, it lets the client know that you are the inspector they should hire to do the job.
Be respectful. Their name is on the front of your paycheck, and your name is on the back of it. “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” or any other polite form of address lets the client know that they have value in your eyes. “Yeah,” “Uh-huh,” “Nope,” and silence do not belong in the conversation between any service provider and their client. They want to be heard and they want to be acknowledged.
Call them by name. This helps you distinguish this particular client from the 30 or so other people you will meet this week. A person’s name is the sweetest sound they will ever hear, and their ears perk right up when they hear it. It is something that helps move you from someone who is standing in front of them to someone who is on their side. That’s a big difference. They will talk about you later to their friends and colleagues either positively or negatively. Your performance and the way you treated them is information that will be repeated more than once. Word-of-mouth advertising is priceless.
Listen carefully and dig for information.
Ask the client what they have noticed about the house. What bothers them about the house? Ask that question again in another way: “Did you notice anything peculiar about the house?”
If they mention something more than once, it is a hot spot for them. You will want to make sure you cover that feature in great detail in your conversation and in the report.
Use the same words they use to describe a defect that they have noted. “Leaking,” “rotten,” “something wrong with the …,” “bad smell in the …,” etc. This helps the client understand that they are being listened to and that you are working for them.
Make their expectations your deliverables. Write down the defects they mention, and write down their concerns. Handle those identified items in detail in the report and in the recap. Be responsive to the needs you came to fulfill because that’s what you are getting paid for. If they knew what you know, they wouldn’t need you or your services. Be worthy of your license, and do your job.
2. Managing Expectations
Again, be thorough in telling your client what you inspect and what you do not inspect.
Explain to them what they can expect from you.
Tell them whether you allow clients to follow along on the inspection.
Be certain to respond to their questions and comments about any perceived deficiencies as soon as you have answers for them. “I’ll pay special attention to that” and “I’ll get back to you on that” are valid answers. The communication here is not about the details; it is about whether or not you are listening to and understanding the clients’ concerns. Any time you can do this it reinforces the rapport you are building and the confidence they are developing in you.
Listen – really pay attention to what your client has to say. It is more than waiting for the noise to stop coming out of their mouth. You may have written the book about what they are asking you about, but do not interrupt them. Anything less than your undivided attention at this point will be perceived by them as being dismissive, and your essential rapport goes flying out the window.
Under-promise and over-deliver. If they say, “I am worried about the water heater,” listen to all they have to say. Make it a point to tell them that you will inspect the water heater thoroughly and let them know you will do it. You then go into great detail with lots of pictures in your report. Make them feel like they have been listened to and that what they said was important to you.
Listening to your client’s questions is a critical component of communication. Their questions inform you of what the client expects from you and your inspection report. List their questions out. Write them down. Their expectations are your deliverables. Ask again. Repeat back what they told you. Listen and don’t interrupt; wait until they have finished. This part is critical to your successfully serving the client’s needs, and also in building the rapport necessary for a successful engagement. We’re talking about the success of your inspection business here; we’re talking about your income.
3. At the Appointment
First of all, you are the expert. You are the knowledgeable authority and it is important to present yourself as such. Your client is temporarily insane because he is about to make the largest investment most people will ever make in their lives. Whether it is their first house or their fifth house, they are scared. They do not want to make a bad decision that will cause them to lose their money. They do not want to make a money-pit investment that will turn into a nightmare of replacement costs and repairs. That’s why you are there, to help protect them and to aid them in making a decision that has far-reaching consequences.
Most clients do not have a background in construction, health and safety issues, performance, or deficiency identification. Some are licensed tradesmen or seasoned real estate people. Of course, this type of client will have a greater understanding of the complexities of the building. Most clients make their living doing something besides construction or real estate. It is important to adjust your vocabulary to suit the level of understanding of the client.
If the client is an electrical engineer, for instance, you can begin recapping the electrical section by talking about equipotential bonding and grounding. If the client is a lawyer, a truck driver, or a school teacher, then it makes more sense to them to begin the conversation by talking about lightning strikes and how electricity behaves. If your client is a plumber, he is going to be familiar with dielectric unions. If you are talking to the school teacher, it will take just a little longer to talk about corrosion, what happens to the metals over time, and leaks. You are here to deliver the information. If they can’t understand what you are saying, then you haven’t done your job. This can mean unwanted phone calls, misunderstandings, and, in some cases, litigation.
Observe and report. That’s it. No conjecture and no opinions. The clients are fond of asking if the inspector would buy this house. Figure out how you are going to answer that question before it comes up because, sooner or later, you are going to hear it. They will remember every syllable of what you tell them. If that is not enough to fill in the blanks in their memory, or if they want to build a case, then they sometimes quote you as saying something that you never said at all. Be careful of offhanded, over-the-shoulder remarks, as they can come back to haunt you.
What do you tell the client if you get stuck, or if you don’t know the answer? “I know a lot about houses, but I see new equipment or custom construction all the time. Let me find out and I will get back to you when I send the report.” Nobody knows it all, and if you are trying to blow smoke, they are going to smell it. Tell them the truth; it’s easier to remember.
People are watching you. They could be at the property with you, or they can be watching you on cameras as you travel through the house. Behave yourself. You may have left your house without breakfast and worked right through lunch. Now it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you haven’t eaten all day, and you open the door to the pantry. There are the cookies, snacks, candy, and all the temptations you and your empty stomach can imagine. Tough decision, some days. Don’t do it. The cookies do not belong to you. Don’t give in; those cookies can cause more problems than they are worth. We get paid well for what we do, so buy yourself a wheelbarrow of cookies on the way home. Don’t sell your integrity for a cupcake or a handful of cookies.
Be polite to everyone, even if they are a jerk. Listing agents, sellers, and occupants can be difficult to deal with. Handle them carefully. The last thing you want to do with anyone involved in the transaction is to get sideways with them and cause an upset. Inspectors are professionals, and professionals avoid upsets. Professionals make everyone feel comfortable and at ease. Professionals maintain control of the situation and never let it get out of hand. Communication skills are a compass to help professionals learn to navigate the troubled waters of interaction with sellers, agents and clients.
Sellers and listing agents can be horrible. The sellers want to know everything you find, and the seller’s agents sometimes ask when they will be receiving their copy of your report. Be ready for this question, and be prepared to offer information rather than take a stance that will put the other person into a defensive posture. “I have a fiduciary responsibility to my client because he is paying me. You can ask them for a copy, but I am not at liberty to disclose the findings of the inspection without the permission of the client. I’m sure you understand.” Don’t reprimand or lecture them. If they see you as being aggressive or despotic, then they will be forced into a defensive posture. Be civil. Work for understanding. It pays off.
There are times when you will be inspecting and a neighbor will come out into their yard and stare at you with their arms folded across their chest. The best practices for this situation are: 1) Hold up your hand and wave. This tells them that you do not have a rock, a gun or a knife – you are nonmalignant; 2) Put a smile on your face – it tends to be disarming; 3) Take a minute to walk over and introduce yourself. Tell them who you are and what you are doing. Neighbors can be a huge resource for the inspector in terms of the history of the house and its occupants. They can tell you things that you may have missed otherwise, such as flooding, a fire, or the owners getting sick all the time from problems like Chinese drywall or a cracked heat exchanger.
If the inspector is documenting his findings on a laptop, the seller may wander over to have a read whenever the inspector walks away from the computer. Sellers may resist the findings of the inspection and call the inspector out on it. The seller may say, “There is no problem with this roof,” when the observations are that there are holes in the roof system, stains on the ceilings, and attic framing that is blackened.
That sort of situation can be hard to diffuse. Sooner or later, you will encounter it. Polite goes a long way, keeping your voice down can help, and staying calm in the face of such profound stupidity is sure to test your skills. If the conversation starts to get heated, talking a little more slowly can help begin to fade the heat of the conversation. If there is an opportunity for both of you to sit down to discuss it, that helps, too. Remember that someone who takes issue with you will always want two things: they want to be understood, and they want to be right. Leave them with their dignity. If you let yourself get angry or If you try to outshout them, then you have lost the battle right there; they will have won. They will naturally take a defensive position and things will only escalate. Like the man said: “Never argue with a pig. You just get all dirty, and the pig likes it.”
Be patient with the client. Tell them that you will be glad to answer the same question two or three times if they forget what you said or if they need more information. Let them know that they can call you later if they need to go over something again. You are past building rapport now; you are building trust. Trust is essential to a successful engagement; it greases the wheels. They are going to talk about you and the service you provided for them. Make sure you give a good report so they can brag about what a great inspector they found.
Tell them what you saw, and tell them what it means. Health and safety issues are of high importance because the client will live there. The big three (roof, foundation and HVAC) are high priority because of the potential costs associated with repairs and replacement. Make sure your client understands what is going on and why it is important to them as buyers. Some deficiencies have more weight than others. An out-of-date temperature and pressure relief valve is s deficiency, sure, but a Federal Pacific panel has a lot more weight to it because of the potential health and safety danger.
Two more questions that you will run into are: “How much does it cost to fix it?” and “What do you think this house is worth?” Explain that the cost of “fixing it” will always depend on who does the work, and what the materials are going for on any given day. Inspectors do not diagnose or prescribe; they only observe and report. Since inspectors are only concerned with the condition if the house, the client may be best served by consulting an appraiser or a specific licensed tradesmen for further information.
Somewhere along the way, a client will ask you if the property is “a good house” or ask you if you would buy it. Your answer to their sincere question needs to be noncommittal but not evasive. “I’m happy with the house I am in now,” or “I need to stay in a different part of town because of the nature of my work,” or “That is a personal decision that each of us makes based on our needs and our lifestyle” are all good answers. Never tell the client that you wouldn’t buy the house, or offer any opinions on the house. That’s not what inspectors do. We are not there to offer opinions or conjecture; our purpose is to observe and report.
Again, tell the client when they can expect to receive in the written report. Under-promise and over-deliver. If you tell them it will be delivered tomorrow morning and you are able to get it out that evening, you will look like a hero. It you tell them this evening and you don’t get the report to them for two days, they will think you are a jerk, and they will be right.
4. At the End of the Inspection
Ask the client if they understand what you have told them. Ask them if they would like you to go over anything again, or it they would like more information on anything you said. Ask them if you answered all of their questions. Tell them that they can call you later if they have questions about the inspection or the report. You can say something like, “I’ve told you a lot today. If you have a question later on after the information has all settled in, don’t hesitate to call me so I can get you the answer. My phone number is on the report. If the agent, contractor or seller has questions, they can call me and I will answer their questions. Phone calls are free.”
One of the best questions to ask is, “In addition to what I have talked about today, is there anything else that I can tell you about the house?” A variation of that is, “Did I address all of your concerns?” This gives the client the opportunity and the permission to ask that “dumb” question. Let the client know that you will be glad to answer the same question three times (and not make them feel dumb), if that is what it takes to give them the satisfaction they need to make the decision about buying the house.
This is what we get paid for: informing the client so that they can decide whether or not to go ahead with the transaction. It is important to make sure that you give them all the facts that you can to help them make that decision.
Remember to ask if there is someone else the client would like you to send the report to. Remind them of our fiduciary responsibility to them because they are the one paying for the report. Explain to them that your report does not go to anyone else without the client’s permission, including the buyer’s agent. Make it a point to ask the client if they would like the report sent to their agent. It makes you look more professional and engenders their trust.
There are other guys out there with licenses, levels, and cameras. Don’t forget to let the client know that you are grateful for their business, and thank them for using your services.
5. Reporting and Follow-Up After the Inspection
It is important to get the written report to the client as soon as possible. They will use the information to make the decision whether to buy the house, and where they should press for price negotiation, if there are deficiencies. Oftentimes, there is an option period during which the buyer can get their contractors, appraisers, and other inspectors in for wood-destroying insects, or further structural evaluations, for instance. This option period is a limited time, so the buyer has to act quickly. Don’t make them wait – it’s not professional. You are there to help them, not to add to their already high level of anxiety.
Be clear and concise in your reporting. It is not about how many books you have read or how many certifications you have earned. It is about informing the client about the house so they can make a decision.
Proofread everything you send out. Sometimes the wording in a report will be corrected or amplified by the inspector in such a way that it turns the report narrative into gibberish. This happens when you expand on a thought and park your new words in the middle of an existing sentence without re-reading the whole edited sentence. Another mistake is leaving a sentence incomplete because you thought of something that should go into another section of the report and you forget to finish the thought or sentence you were working on.
Spell-check. Be careful here because spell-check and “spill chuck” will both get a pass from the computer. There is no substitute for a good proofreading. Some inspectors proofread twice before they send the report. They proofread from top to bottom, and then from the bottom back up to the top again. This is important because misspelled words, bad grammar, and incomplete thoughts don’t make you look professional – they make you look like an idiot.
Check to see if you have followed all the standards of practice of your licensing entity. If you use code references, make sure the chapter and verse references are correct and complete. Are all the deficiencies you found noted in the report? Are the names, addresses, dates, and pictures all correct and in the right place in the report? The report is a legal document and it has to be professionally presented. Ask yourself if you would be proud to stand up and read the report to a group of your peers.
Check the report, and check the email address when you send report. Open your attachments before you hit “send.” Is the report you are sending the right report? Is it the right invoice? Are there other references outside of the report that you are sending, and are they correct? Often, the reports go out late in the evening after a long and tiring day. Make sure you are really sending what you think you are sending out. Be worthy of your license, and be the best you know how to be. The clients you serve are going to talk about you, so be someone they want to brag about and compliment.
An inspector’s license is a professional license. You are competent and well trained. Do what you are paid to do, and be worthy of your license. Go out and earn your place in this crowded world today.
Kevin Smith has been a licensed inspector in Houston, Texas, for 29 years. He is a former rehab contractor who focuses on investment properties. He has written and spoken on inspection for investors and real estate groups for years. Contact Kevin at 713-858-1330.