Building Rapport with County Employees
GettingThem to Work for You
How to start
You might well ask why we have spent so much time and effort in discussing Web-based research when now we are telling you that you should be making personal contacts with individual human beings who work for the various counties you want to farm in. Understand, we do not denigrate the importance of gathering information from Web sites.
We do recognize a few important points:
- It may sometimes be difficult to personally contact people at county offices if you are unable to call during regular business hours on week days.
- When you gather information about the county and its government procedures online before you make telephone contact, you can be more knowledgeable in conversation and you won’t have to ask so many time consuming questions that may tax the patience of the employee
- Some counties do provide full information about their tax delinquency policies and procedures along with a researchable list of delinquent properties available many months prior to the auction.
On the other hand, we also recognize that:
You know what the choice would be. In other words, if the county has no Web site, they have time to talk to you.
It therefore appears to be prudent to utilize all the tools at hand, Web-based, telephone, and, where possible, face-to-face conversation, to build our business. It is with the latter two, both of which involve direct, personal communication, that we cultivate our farm for future growth and harvest.
We get by with a little help from our friends
There is nothing revolutionary in what we are telling you here. On the other hand, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to continually re-invent wheels. For this discussion, we may adopt this little axiom:
It is good to learn from your own mistakes, better to learn from the mistakes of others, since it is less painful, but best off all to learn from the success of others.
The application we make of this axiom to the business at hand focuses on the fact that human nature being what it is, people are more likely to make effort to help people that they feel comfortable with, trust or like. We can say that familiarity breeds trust, which generates comfort.
In other words, our objective when we want to gain the cooperation of counties in getting a good harvest of leads is to create a relationship of trust and comfort with a specific human being in that county office. If you have a pleasant rapport with an employee of the Treasurer (Tax Collector, Trustee, Sheriff) office, you can help that would probably not be available to the average person.
Many people reading this are possibly not excited by the prospect of calling people they don’t know to get to know the person and then ask for information. People who work in customer service or sales are used to it. If you make your living doing taxes, as a nurse, or on the loading dock at the warehouse, this may seem like a daunting task. If that seems so, read on!
There Is No Need to Fear
Logic should tell you to not be afraid to talk to people. Too bad it’s not that simple. However, there are a few basic fundamental principles that you can apply to the action to make it easier. The most important part of your presentation, more important than what you say or how much you know, is your confidence. Your confidence instills confidence in others. If you seem confident, people will trust you. You may not feel particularly confident, but there is nothing wrong with an application of the idea, “fake it until you make it.” No one would consider you dishonest or hypocritical if you act confident while actually trembling in your boots. In fact, people write songs about the virtue of “whistling a happy tune so no one will suspect” you’re afraid.
In speaking to an employee of the Treasurer or Tax Collector office, a little knowledge of her job might help your level of confidence. A large percentage of the calls she receives consist of complaints. Your polite and business-like approach will sit very well with this employee.
In fact, just to build on that notion a little, let’s take a quick look at the art of conversation. This will be especially useful when you are talking to a perfect stranger: talking to a stranger is not difficult so long as you remember the first and fundamental principle of conversation. What is that, you ask? It is that the subject matter of your conversation must always be the person you are talking to. Of course, your topic can be anything – it can be the weather, the latest shenanigans of your local government people, the record of the local college football team, or whatever. Just be sure to discuss it from the point of view of the other person – get that person’s opinions, feelings, and thoughts on the matter. Let her express herself. Push your own ego into the background. Good listeners always get paid well – look at the fees you pay a psycho-analyst. If you learn how to listen, you won’t need an analyst, because there will so much good in your life that you won’t have anything to complain about.
This fits well with another excellent aphorism: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Your genuine interest in the other person will help that person feel comfortable with you and will open up channels of communication. We all enjoy talking to people that make us feel good. This is not flattery; this is simply a healthy focus away from the self toward the other person, which is a characteristic of all successful leaders.
Speaking of leaders, in most cases the person you wish to create this rapport with will not be the elected official, the Treasurer or Tax Collector. In most counties, this figurehead person is too busy meeting with the county commissioners and golfing with local power brokers to get deeply involved in the day-to-day minutia of the tax collecting procedure. Not only is this person very busy in other areas, but no knowledgeable in what you need from the office. Your better choice is a staff clerical person. The ideal situation would be a woman who has worked in that office for 23 years and knows everything about its operation. She is the one everyone else goes to for questions, and that makes her feel good. She might well take a maternal interest in helping you with your questions.
The exception, of course, would be the one-horse county that is so small the Treasurer has no staff and shares a secretary with the Assessor. Obviously, this person has to know the ins-and-outs of the procedures and also has the time to talk to you – there is no one else available.
The ultimate purpose of any conversation you have with an employee of the Treasurer or Tax Collector office is to get a harvest of leads. This question differs in nature from the other questions you might ask.
Questions to Ask
As you contact various counties, there are certain points of information you will want to learn. It will help to know whom to speak with. This would be the county department that collects taxes. The names may vary, but the duties are the same. As mentioned early in this article, the most common name for this department would be the Treasurer or the Tax Collector, although occasionally a county may designate the Sheriff’s department to collect taxes; the State of Tennessee uses the term, Trustee, for this department.
This is, of course, one of the easier questions to ask. Simply find out which county department collects taxes, and talk to someone there.
One of the primary objectives of you call is to make acquaintance with an employee of this department and build a rapport that will enable you to get ongoing help and information from this person for years to come. This is the preparing the soil that we referred to earlier in our agricultural analogy. A good farm will yield excellent harvests for years to come. In other words, the relationship you develop with this person is more important than the information you get out of your first conversation.
With that in mind, we would like to look at some good questions to ask, the information from which will then allow you to plant productive seeds. These can be springboards to discussion about other points of the tax collection process in the county, which will provide you with more information for your business and help you build a sense of connectedness to the specific county employee.
These are some questions to ask:
- If you have introduced yourself by name with the information that you are thinking about buying some properties in the county that happen to be tax delinquent, this is an excellent question to start with: At what point in time does the property owner lose the right to pay the taxes in order to save or redeem the property – in other words, when does the owner lose the property because of unpaid taxes? You want to know when the next date will be on which this happens, and you want to know how long after the onset of delinquency that this occurs; also in a tax lien sale situation, make sure whether it is the delinquency or the lien auction that triggers the redemption period.
- What does the county do with properties that do not sell at the auction? This helps you determine other opportunities for acquiring properties, possibly over-the-counter. It is also a nice conversational question, good for building rapport.
- How can you obtain a list of the tax-delinquent properties that are within a few months of the termination of the right of redemption; in other words, can they provide you a list of properties delinquent enough that within a few months the owner will lose the right to save the property by paying the taxes.
There are, of course, more questions than these that could be asked. You may have to ask to find out which office in a county collects taxes. You may want to ask when the next auction will take place, as well, keeping in mind that although most states have the foreclosure and the auction simultaneously, certain states leave a few months between: the county forecloses and takes ownership of the property, then holds it for a few months before holding an auction. This is why our focus is on the date of termination of right of redemption. If you are attempting to contact people shortly before the auction in one of the half dozen or so states that separate the two events, you will likely discover that the “owner” no longer owns the property – the county already foreclosed on it. At this point you dealings would be with the county in its regular auction process; such a property does not work for our pre-foreclosure strategy. Thus the focus on the date of termination.
How to Ask the Questions
Despite what we might say about them, employees of the county Treasurer or Tax Collector office are normal people. They have the normal hopes, fears and hang-ups that we all share. However, the nature of their job does not encourage creative thinking outside the box. Their job performance evaluation depends on how well they follow and implement policy and procedures of that county department.
This means that if they think your question about getting a list refers only to the list of properties that will be available at the next auction; they will give you that list only. If it is not available to the public yet, they will tell you it is not. Instead, the will recite county procedure to you: “oh, yes, well, the auction will take place on April 21st, and we will publish the list of properties to be sold in the local newspaper on March 18th, and that should be up on our Web site within about a week.” If you point out that that publication date is several months away, she will point out that the list will not be available until them. If you tell her that you need it earlier so that you can do due diligence and research the various properties, she may even say, “I can’t send that out now, that would be illegal.”
There is a real irony here. She is telling you that giving you public record information is illegal – but it is public record, available to anyone. It is tradition in English common law going back a thousand years that people have the right to know who owns real property and how much they are paying in property taxes, in fact, whether they are paying property taxes. If you were to visit the county offices, you could look this information up on your own, most likely on a computer terminal in the public area of the Treasurer or Tax Collector office. What she is telling you, in fact, is that she doesn’t understand what it is you are asking. It is human nature that if someone asks us to do something, but we don’t understand what they are asking, we automatically say “no.” The bureaucratic mind, when pressed, my even graduate to “no, that’s illegal,” because it then seems there can be no further argument.
The lesson here is we should not let the employee think that we are asking about the auction. Remember that there is an official county procedure for the auction – protocol that gets followed. However much she might tell you that the list is not available yet, there is a list. We don’t imagine that the staffers at the county are going to pull an all-nighter, working frantically researching throughout the night of March 17th to prepare the list for publication on the 18th. In fact, with the miracle of computerized databases, this information is available simply by sorting the database by delinquency date. That takes seconds.
In fact, it helps us talk to the county employee effectively if we think of all the real properties in the county as accounts receivable. An account receivable is an account balance owed to a company. As an example, think of Al’s Lumber and Hardware in town. The local builders and contractors get most of their building supplies from Al. If a contractor brings a truck in to get a load of lumber, he doesn’t pay for the lumber there on the spot; he receives an invoice and pays on account, generally within 30 days. In other words, the amount owed for the lumber becomes an account receivable to Al.
Let’s say that one day, Al goes into the bookkeeping department for his business and asks for a list of accounts that are in excess of 90 days delinquent. He wants to take them to the collection agency. How long do you suppose it will take the bookkeeper to produce this list? It will take maybe 30 seconds to sort the database and another minute to print if off. That’s it.
All you want the county employee to do for you is print off a list of the accounts receivable within the county that are delinquent enough that the county will soon be taking them to collection – i.e., they are approaching the date of termination of the owner’s right to redeem the property. If the county employee can think of it that way, what you are asking for becomes less mysterious and therefore less threatening.
A Foundation of Friendly Rapport
Logic tells us that a county employee that trusts you will cooperate better with you. We have also observed that familiarity breeds trust. That is human nature. You trust people you know more than you trust strangers, sometimes to your detriment.
Therefore, we want to develop relationships with representatives of each county we work with. In fact, once you have a solid rapport with a county employee, you can count that county as a client, as we discussed previously. In other words, to pursue the agricultural analogy from before, if researching the workings and procedures of a county counts for preparing the soil, and building a pleasant relationship with an employee represents planting the seeds.
The essential point here is that if you have a personal contact within the county Treasurer or Tax Collector office who knows you, understands what you are doing and likes you, that is a county that you can count on for leads for years to come. Even if your first contact leaves the job, you can mention that person’s name to the replacement and describe what the two of you had worked out together: it is likely that the replacement employee is willing to follow suit.
So how can we create such a relationship as quickly as possible? Let’s look at three fundamental principles of building rapport. Who you build rapport with is less important than the employee’s willingness to talk to you and work with you. Ideally you would like to work with the woman who has worked in that office for 23 years and knows everything that could be known about the policies, procedures and protocols of the property. However, nothing you are going to ask is going to require a rocket scientist to answer – more important is the person’s willingness to talk to you.
Here Are Three Fundamental Pprinciples to Help You:
To illustrate these principles, here is a fictional sample conversation. “I” stands for you, the investor, and “E” stands for the county employee you speak with:
I: “Hi, this is Reg Schmedlap. I’m calling because I’m thinking of buying a couple of properties in Podunque County. I’m aware that they are tax delinquent, so I figured I should educate myself on the way the county handles delinquent taxes. Who would be the best person in your office there to talk to?”
Note: If you recall, the most important quality is that this person is willing or able to talk to you. If you are talking to the receptionist who only answers incoming calls, or an employee working under a deadline, this person may be either unable or unwilling to talk to you right now. Therefore, this question allows them to transfer you to someone who can or will talk.
If you do get transferred to another person, you will want to introduce yourself again:
I: “Hi, this is Reg Schmedlap, and I’m calling because I’m getting ready to pick up a couple of properties there in Podunque County. Now they are tax delinquent, so I’ve been studying up on how you handle delinquencies there. I think I have a pretty good handle on it, but there are a couple of points I’m not quite clear on. I was wondering if you have a couple of seconds to help me a little."
Note: There are some elements worth mentioning to this introduction. We give a reason for the call up front – don’t make people guess. We also explain that we have put some effort into due diligence, but just need a little more help – very understandable, but indicating she can't just blow off the conversation by telling you to read the Web site. We also indicate that we only need a small amount of time – a couple of seconds isn’t literal, but she understands we don’t need an hour, either.
E: “Sure, I can help you.”
I: “Fantastic, I really appreciate that. Thanks. – Oh, tell me, what’s your name?”
E: “Well, I’m Marilu.”
I: “Great. Well, Marilu, like I say, I appreciate your help. Here’s what I need to find out. Could you tell me at what point does the property owner loses the right to pay the taxes in order to save the property? In other words, what is the next date of the termination of the right to redeem a tax delinquent property?”
Note: This question is comfortable for Marilu because it is factual, based on county procedure, which is the focus of her working life. I am not asking for opinion or asking her to take action. This helps build easy-going rapport because there is no stress for her.
You would like to this to lead to a conversation, because you want to know more than the date. You also want to find out how much time elapses from the date of delinquency until the termination date. In a county that sells with a lien sale, the termination date may come a certain time-length after the delinquency date or the auction date. You want to find out which event triggers the redemption period so that you know for future years when the termination date will occur.
An additional question to ask could be:
I: “So, Marilu, what does the county do with the properties that don’t sell at the auction?”
Note: Not only does this question help build rapport because it is factual and based on county procedure, but the answer helps you to know whether that county offers over-the-counter sales of properties, which represents an additional source of properties for you to obtain.
At this time, chances are good that asking her to send you a list of delinquent properties at a time different from normal procedure would be pre-mature. She might not know you well enough yet. If the connection between the two of you is like long-lost friends reunited, she would probably agree. Otherwise, end the conversation with the following:
I: “Wonderful. Marilu, that helps me a whole lot. I understand things a lot better now. You really know how things work there in Podunque County. How long have you lived there?”
E: “Oh, I’ve been here for 23 years.”
I: “Twenty-three years, huh? So, are you a native?”
E: “Oh no, I’m originally from Minnesota.”
I: “No kidding, Minnesota. What brings you from Minnesota clear down to Podunque County, Mississippi?”
E: “Well, this is where my husband’s from. We met while we were in the military, and when we got married we settled down here.”
I: “Is that right? Do you like it there?”
E: “Oh, yeah, it’s a nice place.”
I: “Hey, tell me, Marilu, if I ever came to Podunque County, what would you tell me that I should see and do while I’m there?”
Note: You might notice that this entire conversation has been about Marilu. We start by asking help from her in an area that she comfortable and a degree of expertise in. People like to be helpful when doing so is not inconvenient, and it feels good for them. Then we talk about her life, her family, where she is from, how she met her husband, etc. This could open up several other topics, if she feels so inclined. Finally, we call on her knowledge of a place where she has lived from more than two decades; it is a part of who she is, and I am allowing her to tell me about it.
At this point, I can terminate the conversation with the intent of calling back in two days, ask for Marilu, and say the following:
I: “Oh, hi, Marilu, this is Reg Schmedlap again. I wanted to thank you once more for the help you gave me the other day about delinquent taxes and termination of rights of redemption. You know, I have just one more question for you, if you have a second. I’m wondering if you could put together a list of the properties that are reaching the date of termination of the right to redeem within the next few months. If you could do that, you could just fax it to me, or drop it in the mail – even email it, whatever you prefer.”
If Marilu does send you this list, it will be solely because she likes you and feels comfortable with you. Doing so is definitely not part of her job description. Her performance review will not cover how far she goes out of her way to help anonymous customers. Your only hope is the get to the point where she wants to help you because of who you are.
Your most effective tool when you ask for the list of leads will be the confidence that you exude as you talk to this person. Your confidence rubs off on Marilu. It makes her comfortable with you. Let’s be clear here, confidence is the opposite of arrogance. You don’t want to build yourself up to the point of intimidating her. We are looking for a comfortable rapport here. A quiet confidence, indicating that you are at ease with who you are and what you are doing, will come across well.
You will notice that researching a county and building a friendly and comfortable relationship with an employee of the county’s Treasure or Tax Collector office involves more work than just finding a list of delinquencies online. That represents preparing the soil and planting seeds in preparation for the harvest, as opposed to just gathering beans and berries in the woods. The benefits can continue for years to come as you build a solid and continuous business. Eventually you will have built a system that continues to run like a well-oiled machine without requiring continual building, rather minor maintenance.
Maintaining a business always takes less time and effort than building one. It is definitely worth the effort.