Written by Brian Hopper
I was recently asked to write an article for Inman News about working with international luxury clients to help shed some light for agents nationwide that find themselves working with international clients from all backgrounds.
Working with international luxury clients? Nail these 3 crucial skills.
Forge genuine relationships based on commonalities, building trust and giving exceptional service tailored to the client’s preferences.
If you have been an active luxury real estate agent during the past three-plus years and work anywhere near a major metropolitan city in the United States or Canada, there’s a good chance you have had experience working with international clients looking to purchase or sell real estate.
If you have not, you most likely will soon.
Here in the great Pacific Northwest we have had a tremendous amount of international buyer and seller activity in the last few years.
I will say there definitely has been a learning curve for real estate agents learning to work with international clients, and there are different challenges, such as deals falling apart because of financing issues, getting money into the country or buyers going MIA.
Having major employers here in Seattle such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google—to name a few—fantastic talent has been drawn to our community from all different backgrounds and nationalities, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with many.
Chinese, Indian, Nigerian and Portuguese buyers along have made up as much as 26 percent of our home purchase sales by international buyers (and mostly luxury homes). With continued unprecedented economic growth across many metro areas in the county, the international buyer or seller is a very active part of our market and in many other parts of the country.
Through these past few years, many agents have learned and mastered best practices for working with international luxury buyer or seller clients. We’ve tapped into what works for top agents and extracted three skills all international luxury agents should master.
Photo of me with my dear clients/friends from Nigeria. They have an amazing story about working for Google deep in North Africa getting internet to the smallest of villages.
1. Get comfortable with the culture
It’s so important to know the culture of the international luxury buyer or seller you’re working with. Obviously each culture has different nuances, and this is especially true when it comes to business.
There are a number of resources you can tap to ensure you’re prepared, but there is one book in particular that I have found to be useful, called Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries.
This book covers the importance of punctuality, cultural negotiation practices, entertaining and much more. The book also goes over different greetings, forms of address, dress, dining and even a gift guide.
With the majority of international buyer clients hailing from China (spending $30.4 billion on 40,400 units in 2017), the book covers the Chinese culture very well. You’ll also find a robust resource section on Indian culture; buyers from India purchased 13,100 units at a cool $7.2 billion last year.
What do you do when being handed a business card from a Chinese international client? What common hand gesture is considered offensive in Saudi Arabia and Dubai? You’ll learn that and more with this book (and if you’re like me, you can absorb it quickly on the Audible version at 1.5x speed).
In summary, the goal of all this is to handle common business interactions with grace, respect and an appreciation for different cultures, poising you as the professional you are.
If you have the ability, speak the language, or at least learn how to say a simple greeting or introduction. It’s impressive to the client and gets things started on the right foot.
A few other key tips I have had success with:
- When emailing or calling, always use the name you have displayed on the advertisement of the home (for a new international buyer client), rather than a nickname.
- If one is available, direct new leads to a native speaker (of the language spoken by the person you’re connecting with) for first contact. There are resources to assist with this if you do not have a person on your team who is bilingual.
- Be organic with your cultural knowledge. Don’t try too hard, just keep it natural and in flow with the meeting.
Richard C. Williamson, with Today Sotheby’s International Realty has developed special expertise in working with international buyers and sellers. “Don’t get swept away with the allure of the gazillionaire foreign client,” Williamson said.
He advises vetting the client to validate his or her financial capability and identity. Sometimes that means simply knowing who they are and validating with a bit of Google research and eventually getting a financial capability letter from a bank officer or third party when it’s time to write an offer.
“I don’t need a bank letter on day one, but I need to be able to validate the client through Google at least,” he said.
If you can’t do that, cut it off there.
“All of the best clients, in my experience, were perfectly happy to provide adequate information to confirm capability,” he said.
Then, focus on building trust and a solid relationship.
“That is a two-way street. They need to trust me, but I also need to trust them. These larger transactions may require months or years to cultivate and finally close. We need to be comfortable that there is a good working relationship,” Williamson said.
Keep in mind that these clients have a lot on their plates. That’s likely why they are in the position to buy high-end real estate. If they get distracted or if something more urgent comes along, the window of opportunity may close.
So keep it concise, prompt and expedient when delivering information, Williamson advises. Get down to business, don’t waste time and be discreet. It’ll go a long way with your clients.
“I never discuss a client’s identity or property address any further than absolutely necessary within the context of the transaction. People of great financial capacity are targets for solicitation from well-meaning charitable organizations to wacky entrepreneurs. If the client’s identity and address are known, people will literally climb over the fences to get access,” he said.
2. Learn how to connect
What platforms do your luxury international buyers and sellers best communicate on?
I recently closed a transaction with an international buyer who was comfortable using WeChat. With now over 1 billion users since its inception in 2011, WeChat has quickly become the app of choice for Chinese consumers.
If you’re not on WeChat, stop reading this, download the app and create a profile right now.
My client felt most comfortable on WeChat for nearly every bit of communication from start to finish. I would direct message (DM) him all updates on the transaction and send him invites to sign documents on WeChat.
Believe it or not, I don’t think we emailed once. In fact, we keep in touch through WeChat to this day.
Now, one of the first things I do when meeting with Chinese international luxury buyers is to show them my WeChat profile and ask that they add me to their list (like a friend request). Adding me is the first sign they are comfortable with me.
Know what platform your client (or potential client) is most comfortable on, and use it. Whether it’s Facebook Messenger, WeChat or WhatsApp, you should be there if your client is.
Respond quickly and engage immediately. Also, be aware of time zones; don’t call or message at 2 a.m. their time.
Most Chinese clients I have worked with use Juwai.com. Juwai.com is a Chinese website for buyers of overseas property that takes advertising from international property marketers, including developers and agents, and translates it into Mandarin.
Carrie Law, CEO and director of Juwai.com recommends making it clear how you know the client as soon as you connect. For example, if you connected through Juwai.com, make that clear, otherwise you risk them thinking it’s a spam call.
Once you’re acquainted, continue following up with useful, relevant topics, Law added. When it comes to buyers in particular, learn what platforms they are using for their home search. When your clients want to refer you, it’s important to be on their platform of choice.
3. Don’t forget the basics
Just like any client you first meet and engage with, it’s equally important with international buyers that you look for genuine common ground and commonalities.
For example, if you’re into soccer, it might be a good way to connect with clients. I have noticed that my international clients tend to be into our local Seattle soccer team, which is just a reminder of how big soccer is outside of the U.S.
Other key things I have seen most international buyer clients be interested in are information on schools and access to mass transit. I have had some international clients even go as far as purchasing a home in a certain school district just to get their unborn child a chance at getting into a certain school.
International clients like personalized service just like any other client would want, but sometimes going a step further with these clients can make the difference.
I always try to introduce international clients to other friends of mine whom I think they would mesh well with, and I have seen great relationships forged as a result.
A few things to keep in mind when connecting with clients:
- Know the best restaurant in town. I often ask my past clients about their favorite restaurant, and then I will take the client to that restaurant if it’s the right fit. They love it.
- If at all possible, visit the clients in their home country. I have yet to do this, but Williamson has done this many times. He makes numerous trips to China year after year. “I meet so many amazing people each trip I take to China,” Williamson said.
- Make the time, with international clients in particular, to explain everything ind detail. Take solid notes and keep records of conversations had.
One of the basics of working with clients who are looking to purchase a home is to ensure they have their financing taken care of. Working with international buyers can be different, and sometimes it’s a bit trickier and requires a little more care.
“Working with international clients means you’re working with clients in all time zones in all parts of the world. It means you may have to stay up later or get up earlier to communicate properly with your client,” said Hung Hsi Chen, branch manager of East West Bank in Seattle.
Chen and I also talked about ways real estate agents can be an asset in introducing the client to a lender. It’s important to know if the money is in the U.S. yet, and if not, how long it will take to arrive. If you have a cash buyer, you should find out where that money is coming from as well as obtain proof of funds.
“Agents with a ‘can-do’ attitude [are] the best. We all work together for our international clients to do the best job we can,” Chen added.
Although a large percentage of international real estate purchases have been from Chinese buyers, China is the not the only country in Asia whose citizens are buying homes in the U.S.
“Asia’s a big place, and it’s not all about China,” said Dean Jones, president and CEO of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty in Seattle. “We’ve recently added hand-selected brokers to increase our service to Indian nationals here at home and abroad, which is synchronized with our brand development in this important country,” Jones added.
According to Jones, Sotheby’s International Realty recently announced that it signed a 25-year exclusive franchise agreement with Realpro Realty Solutions Private Limited to further expand the Sotheby’s International Realty brand presence throughout India with the opening of India Sotheby’s International Realty.
The brand’s existing affiliate in India, North India Sotheby’s International Realty, which commenced operations in October 2014 in New Delhi, will work cooperatively and also now do business as India Sotheby’s International Realty. With this expansion, India’s Sotheby’s International Realty plans to focus on the luxury real estate market in the key cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune, Goa and Kolkata, while continuing to serve the New Delhi market.
Jones and others recently returned from a trip to India after participating in the opening events of a new Sotheby’s International Realty office.
Regardless of where they’re from, working with international luxury clients takes special care. Build a good relationship with any client, and they will introduce as many people as they can to you, which can lead to more and more referrals. It’s just what we do as real estate agents, no matter what nationality.