“THIS IS THE JOB”: Seven Things That Real Estate Agents and Brokers Do that Are Not Good Enough

In a post last week, I argued that the enemy of the good is not the great, but the crappy. That is, the classic cliche that the “enemy of the good is the great” has some truth for perfectionist types that have difficulty finishing projects because they’re never quite “good enough,” but the bigger problems in the real estate industry are actually caused by agents and brokers who  do crappy work instead of good work.

The enemy of the good, I argued, is that so many people settle for doing things poorly in situations where doing them great does not take all that much more time, energy, or money.

Why? Because sometimes those things are boring, or difficult, or take a lot of time. But like I tell my agents: THAT’S THE JOB!  The job is doing those things.

Put it this way. You know what job I don’t want? Being a mover. I really wouldn’t like being a mover. I hated having to move myself, and that was my own stuff. I’d really hate schlepping around with YOUR stuff.  When I lived in Manhattan, I had a four-story walkup, and every time I got something delivered, the guys (not being sexist, it was always guys) would huff and puff while they climbed the stairs, complaining about the walkup.

My reaction was always the same: “THIS IS THE JOB!”.  If I lived on the ground floor, I could carry my own stuff in.  The only reason I AM PAYING YOU is that it requires carrying heavy stuff up stairs, and I am a soft, pasty man who doesn’t like carrying heavy stuff up stairs.  So stop complaining about the job.

It’s like if you went to the dentist, and the dentist looked at you and said, “Oh, God, more teeth. I hate teeth.”  THIS IS THE JOB!

So let’s stop complaining about things that we have to do for our jobs. If we can do things the right way, and the right way requires just a little more work than the crappy way, then do it the right way.

I got some emails from people who asked for specific examples to demonstrate the point, and I came up with exactly seven. Not nine, not six, but seven.  Amazing how that always happens.

So here are seven things that most agents and brokers could do that would be great, but most do crappily:

1.  Crappy Pictures of Listings

This is one of my pet peeves about the real estate industry.  Even thought great pictures of listings are the single best way to market a home, most agents take too few pictures, and take them poorly. It’s like the old joke: the food is bad, and the portions are too small.

There’s no excuse for this. Good digital cameras are cheap, and if you learn how to use them they can take really great pictures. You just need a decent-sized sensor, a wide angle lens, and a basic understanding of lighting.  And then you just need to keep snapping. Most MLS systems allow for a lot more pictures than most agents submit, and some allow for high-resolution photos. Instead, though, you’ll see a listing for a high-end property that has 4,000 square feet, a pool, and two acres, and you’ll get eight pictures with none of the pool, or the grounds, or half the rooms.

That’s unacceptable, and it’s not because the agent was trying to be great and thus couldn’t be good.  The agent was willing to settle for crappy.

2.  Crappy Property Descriptions

The same goes for property descriptions. It takes a little time to sit down and write a good property description, one that engages the reader, describes the entire property, and inspires buyers to want to see it. Probably not a lot of time. Not as much time, for example, as it took me to write this post, but a little time.

But most agents under self-imposed pressure to get a description done in the inadequate 24 hours that most MLS’s require to get listings uploaded will just dash off a couple of cliches, use abbreviations as if they’re under a strict word count, and just leave it there like a festering pile of crapulence for the entire listing term without every revising it.  Not good enough.

3.  Crappy Listing Information

What are the taxes? What is the square footage? Does the property have an updated certificate of occupancy for the new porch or downstairs bathroom?  That’s something that buyers need to know, and listing agents need to provide. But most agents never confirm the taxes, never go to the municipality to get the property card to confirm the C/O, and are often afraid to provide estimations of square footage for fear of being sued if they get it wrong.

But that’s the job. You’re brokering a piece of property. How can you do that properly if you haven’t confirmed that the property is legal.  All that’s going to happen is that the lack of the C/O is going to show up on a municipal search and delay the closing. Or you’ll get the taxes wrong and the buyer will demand some sort of concession. And even if you get the square footage wrong, just make clear in listing that it’s estimated and you’ll be pretty much safe from lawsuits.

Getting that information, and getting it right, is not a lot of work, and it’s the job.

4.  Crappy Broker web sites.

Okay, we’ve hammered the agents enough, what about the brokers? Most broker websites are abominable.  Indeed, most brokers don’t even have a website, and it’s 2011.  I can set up a reasonably professional website with a dedicated domain in bout two hours for less than $100 to write Star Trek fan fiction, and brokers who are selling millions of dollars in real estate every year do not have a website.

And even if they have a website, most of them are pretty crappy.  I’m not talking about “crappy” in the way that the smart guys at 1000WattBlog talk about real estate websites that are not intuitive or up-to-date or client friendly, and have the challenge of competing with well-funded national sites like Trulia or Zillow. I’m talking about stuff like this (no names or links, because I’m not trying to disparage anyone personally):

  • A local competitor of mine in Orange County, New York, one of the top 3 brokers by marketshare in the area, whose front page of the website has two paragraphs of text with three grammatical errors and discusses all of its 2009 accomplishments.  2009!!!!  Obviously, one of the 2010 accomplishments did not involve updating the website…
  • A local competitor of mine in Rockland County, New York, one of the top 5 by marketshare, whose website has scrolling text, flashing links (smiley faces), about 50 link icons and over 80 links on the sidebar.  80 links!  Lots of stuff I don’t even know what it is, but I did find the “Contact Us” link there, coming in at number 75, right above the “Find Your Agent”.  Can you imagine sifting through 75 links to find a “contact us” page?
I could do this all day, but the fact is that at least those companies have websites. By my calculation, about 35% of the business in our market is done by companies that don’t even have one.  That’s seems odd, given that the internet has kind of become a big thing.

5.  Crappy Agent web page pictures.

Earlier this year, my company had an “Extreme Makeover” training class for about 300 agents.  During the full-day class, we provided every agent who attended with new head shots.  The photographer was actually in the back of the room, and people signed up for times and would get up from the class to take their picture when it was their time.  Why? Because I was tired of low-resolution, lousy headshots on marketing materials and the website.

You can go get a good headshot for $40, and put it on every piece of marketing that you do. Or you can continue to have that cropped, low resolution photo that a friend took with a camera phone four years ago, and use that as the way you present yourself to the world.  Get a new picture.

6.  Crappy Disclosure Documentation

Disclosure documentation is a fact of life in the real estate business.  Every agent meeting with every client is supposed to provide a set of documents for disclosure and acknowledgment. If that’s the case, though, why are most disclosures so crappy? Why are brokers still requiring agents to provide clients, at the first meeting, when first impressions are formed, with documents that are fourth-generation copies of copies, on different-sized paper, all bundled haphazardly in a cheap folder.

It’s such a terrible system.  The first impression you make on your clients is that you’re too cheap to get professional forms copied. Brokers — find out what forms you definitely need for a new listing, and a new buyer, and get them bound together and copied professionally so that they look good, don’t get lost, and make a good impression. It costs a little more, and it takes a little more work, and you get killed on printing costs when the stupid department of state makes a technical change on the New York State Agency Disclosure form and leaves you with 5,000 extra copies of your bound disclosure packets that you now are going to use for mulch (okay, that’s pretty much just me, this year).

But on the whole, you make a better impression than when your agent has to root around in a folder looking for some grainy copy of a form that might have fallen out in the car.

7.  Crappy Industry Knowledge

Why do so few brokers and agents stay on top of what’s happening in the industry? Every year, I attend about four or five industry conferences. I see the same people there. We all know each other. But I’m shocked at how few agents and brokers actually attend these gatherings.

And for the most part, agents and brokers don’t even follow industry news.  Each week, I send out an email with industry and real estate news.  The biggest response I get is that the email is too long.  Too long!  It’s news about the industry we work in, with information that keeps us up to date about how we can best service our clients!

Imagine going to the doctor and he looks over at a pile of medical journals on this desk and says, “Oii, I hate reading all that stuff.”  Would you feel good about your upcoming surgery?

Yes, going to industry conferences can be expensive and a drain on your time. And, yes, trying to follow the unending stream of news about the industry and the market can seem like a full time job. But that is, after all, the job.

So do the job well.

The Real Estate Broker of the Future?

I was at a conference this week and one of the issues we discussed was the “Real Estate Brokerage of the Future,” a topic that has come up a lot in discussions at industry conferences in the past year. Unfortunately, much of the discussion drifted, as it tends to do, to a simple application of technology, particularly the effect of technology on facilities. The idea is that the brokerage of the future tends to be perceived as a less office-intensive enterprise, leveraging technology to free agents from an office, or at least from a specific desk in the office.

I have no particular problem with this thought. My company has 23 offices, with 23 leases, and hundreds if not thousands of desks, phones, copiers, etc. Any sort of evolution in the industry that allows us to reduce our cost footprint without impacting the services we give to agents or clients would be a good thing.

But I do think that I’ve been part of that “broker of the future” discussion a half-dozen times now, and it seems we always end up talking about facilities. Every single time. It’s sort of like a framing limitation to the discussion, that all anyone can think about is how brokers of the future will be freed from their obligations to pay for office space.

It seems to me that the “broker of the future” issue is larger than that, that facilities are but a small part of it. Indeed, I think technology is a relatively small part of it, and that people tend to overestimate the effect of technology on the industry. Of course, the internet and mobile technology has had a significant impact on the real estate industry, just like all other industries. Consumers are more empowered with information, and do most of their shopping online rather than in person. And agents have myriad more tools to market properties and attract clients than they did ten years ago. But all that technology hasn’t really changed the dynamic of the industry. People still list with brokers, they still go out with agents to look at properties. Agents now market properties on the internet, rather than the newspaper, but the basic methodology is just an improvement on the old process, not a whole new process.

Will that change? Maybe. Certainly, lots of people are spending lots of money and going to lots of conferences to talk about how the industry is doomed (i.e., the travel agent example), but those people have been saying that for a long time. I’d be curious to pull out an Inman conference agenda from, say, 2002, and look at the list of presenters who predicted the death of the traditional brokerage industry back then, and how many of those presenters are still working for that same company and whether that company still exists. They were wrong then, but it may just be a matter of time before these predictions of inevitable decline play out. Maybe.

That said, I do in fact believe that the industry will change, and that technology will have its impact. But if I were to guess what the “Real Estate Broker of the Future” would look like, I am less interested in talking about the superficialities of facilities, website display, commission models, or agent compensation models. If there is going to be a transformative moment, I think it is going to be something more foundational and simple:

Essentially, I think that the real estate broker of the future is going to be the brokerage that finds a way to deliver a better experience for the client, and a way to add value to the transaction.

It’s that simple, and that hard. I have no idea what the broker of the future will look like, whether it will be a virtual office or a single big office with 200 desks and no private offices or a broker that essentially acts as a landlord for agents rather than a partner. All those things are possible. But what I think it inevitable is that the only real estate brokers who will thrive in the next ten years are those that find ways to go beyond the traditional service offerings of the industry.

There’s not a company in the country that doesn’t pay lip service to service through various platitudes and slogans, but there’s also not a company in the country that I’ve seen successfully implement a service ethic that creates a different experience for the client. Better information. Better care. Better communication. Right now, brokers do not differentiate themselves on the actual service experience they give.

Why? Because they haven’t had to. Clients are just not that choosy. They pick the agent they meet at an open house, or answers their call on a sign, or responds to their internet inquiry. Some choose an agent by referral, or work with the agent who helped them last time, but even to this day a plurality, if not majority, of agents are not particularly choosy in selecting an agent. And because of that, they end up with the experience they bargained for: sometimes good, sometimes not so good.

That’s going to change. One thing that’s going to happen in the next few years is that clients are going to be more selective about their agents, and one of the selection methods they’re going to use is the experience of past clients, and the statistical performance of the agents. Agents who burn their clients, who are good at prospecting but not at delivering service, are going to find that a difficult transition. Agents who take a lot of listings, and never sell them, are going to find this a challenge.

So the brokerage of the future, to me, is the one that actually finds ways to improve the qualify of the service experience delivered by its agents. I don’t care how that happens, whether its technology or compensation or commission or whatever, but the companies that create better client experiences are going to thrive as brokerages of the future. And the companies who ignore the client experience are going to become brokerages of the past.

The Real Estate Convention of the Future: What do Real Estate Agents Want in a Convention?

March is usually convention season, so at this time of year I’m generally planning trips to Las Vegas or San Diego or any of the other traditional convention venues, and coordinating itineraries for the agents who will coming from our company. Our company has always been big into conventions — we encourage agents to go, even provide convention stipends as part of the commission schedule — and we generally bring a larger percentage of our agents to conventions that other companies.

But not this year.  This year, most of the large franchise brands canceled their conventions, reasonably judging that the industry had been so difficult that most agents could not justify the expense of a three-day trip on their budgets.  A few franchises kept them for 2010, but most were postponed (smartly) for next year. So now I have March to get some work done.

But that raises a question in my mind — will the conventions come back, or will they be a casualty of the market correction of the past few years?  For example, one of the silver linings in the significant retrenchment of the past few years is that brokers were forced to eliminate costs that were not directly contributing to revenue.  If we were spending money on things that were not helping us sell houses, attract clients, or develop agents, we couldn’t afford them anymore.  For example: for years, brokers tried to break agents of the addiction to print advertising, usually failing based on the agent perception that sellers demanded print.  We all knew it didn’t work, but most brokers kept doing it because agents felt it was necessary.

In the last few years, though, brokers have been forced by the market correction to drop all or at least some of their newsprint advertising, ultimately finding that agents understood particularly as clients came to realize that print doesn’t actually sell homes.  So the silver lining?  Even when the market turns around, those costs probably aren’t coming back, and brokers can invest their money in more effective ways rather than just to satisfy a perceived rather than real need.

Well, what about conventions?  Once agents have broken the habit of spending three or four days socializing with agents from across the country, hearing some famous people say things, and getting some half-day “informercials” on vendor products, are they going to pick the habit back up?  Are they going to budget upwards of $1,500 for a badge, flights, hotel, expenses, etc., and take three or four days off from their business?

I have my concerns, and I say that as someone that thinks a properly conceived convention can be valuable for team-building, education, making connections, and all the other reasons people get together like that.  But I do think that the large franchise brands would be smart to reconceptualize what they do at conventions.

What do I mean by that?  Well, here’s where I thought our previous franchisor went wrong in the conventions we went to in the past few years:

  1. Minimization of award recognition. Clearly, people that don’t get awards were giving feedback that they hated sitting through award presentations.  So at more recent conventions, award winners were given extremely short shrift.  Rather than walking across the stage and being able to say their name into a mic, they were either ignored or given a brief moment to stand as one in the audience and be recognized. It was a little embarrassing. Conventions recognize award winners. If you don’t recognize achievement, you don’t have a real convention.
  2. Empty speakers. I like a good generalist as much as anyone, but we had too many empty speakers like Bob Costas, Sarah Ferguson, Larry King, and the like.  Even remarkable people like Rudy Guiliani or Norman Schwartzkoff might have been inspiring, but the effect dissipated quickly. More significantly, the speakers all had disconnected (or even discordant) messages — just empty calories.
  3. Endless infomercials. There’s nothing as unhelpful as an educational session that is really a general introduction by a vendor for his product. I don’t care how great the product is, I always felt that I’d gotten a bait and switch when instead of learning something, I got a vague overview of a problem and then a fifteen minute informercial on how the product would address that problem.

So how would I fix all this?  The first thing I’d do is recognize that we have examples of successful “conventions” even in our own industry.  Mike Ferry for years was able to get thousands of people to his Superstar retreats.  Brian Buffini currently gets a larger group coming to his yearly “Mastermind” meeting in August than any of the franchise conventions.  In both cases, those trainers were dealing with a smaller group of potential attendees, but they outdrew the franchise conventions.  Why?  Because they delivered an integrated experience that promised agents they would come out of the conference with a new plan for improving their life and business.

That’s what I would try to emulate: the experience of going to a conference designed to improve my life in a significant way, with an action plan for putting the ideas I got at the conference to work.

What are the basic ideas?

  1. Have a BIG IDEA. Every convention I’ve ever been to has some sort of empty theme, really just a catchphrase.  The speakers might pay lip service or offer platitudes about the theme, but it never went anywhere. If I ran a convention, I’d want one BIG IDEA, something that would be a huge draw either because it’s an evergreen need (personal development, time management) or a hot topic (distressed sales, social networking).  Take that one BIG IDEA, and make the whole convention about it.  Make a deep dive into that area: all the speakers on the main stage address it, all the educational programs revolve around it.  People would come if they wanted to learn about it, and they’d leave with a much greater understanding of that area.  Think about a convention established around “personal power” and self-improvement, with a dynamite lineup of speakers, and how that would draw agents.
  2. Integrate the general sessions and breakouts. If you did have a purpose to the convention, you’d eliminate anything that doesn’t go to that purpose.  Every speaker, every educational session, would build that idea, which if it was broad enough could encompass a variety of applications.  Get rid of the informercial educational sessions, replace them with specific explorations of the general idea.
  3. Have follow up. If the convention is not going to be just an empty experience, you need followup.  People who walk out of the convention should have specific ideas, plans, materials, and whatever that they can use in their business, with opportunities to follow up to put all that to work.  Schedule webinars after the convention for attendees, give attendees actionable materials that they can use in their business.  Moreover, lead up to the convention with a series of previews of what’s coming, to whet appetites and give agents materials to review in the weeks before the meeting.  This would also, of course, require the franchisor to actually have a program to launch at the meeting, something that built the theme and necessitated a follow up.
  4. Tighten awards, but give them. Also, I’d find a way to meaningfully recognize award-winners without taking too much time or sapping the energy out of the convention.  Part of the problem in our past conventions was the repetitive nature of the awards, the same people winning over and over (volume, units, top of this region or that region, etc.). I’m not sure how to solve that, but there should be a way to balance proper recognition of people who deserve it with “awards fatigue.”
  5. Provide REAL training. Even if you didn’t buy into the idea that every breakout has to connect to the theme, any training at the convention should be an actual dive into a subject agents want to learn, not just an infomercial for a vendor. If the vendors need to demo products, and make their financial support contingent on that, offer those sessions as well, but don’t build the breakouts around them.
  6. Meaningful networking. Most conventions have empty networking, the idea that agents are going to meet agents from other parts of the country and generate referral sources.  But, really, how often is it that an agent in Des Moines is going to meet an agent in Tulsa, and those two agents will just happen to have a potential referral from Des Moines to Tulsa (or vice-versa) to share.  If you want to create networking opportunities, identify the recipient markets for referrals (Florida, Vegas, retirement areas, etc.) and give agents from those places opportunities to “host” meet and greets with agents from other parts of the country.  And if you want agents to network for idea sharing, then give them breakout sessions dedicated to small discussion groups (of the “twenty tables, each a topic, three sessions in 90 minutes variety) so they get to meet and talk.

I’m not saying that the convention wouldn’t have some other stuff in it: a review of franchise performance, new commercials and marketing campaigns, and so on.  Of course that would remain part of the general session.  But the problem with conventions in the past is that they were full of empty calories — information that would not stick with you, all delivered in an incoherent jumble.  The old saw that “it’s worth it if you get just one good idea out of it” really doesn’t work anymore, not when conventions can cost $1,500 to $2,000 and a great idea is one Facebook post away.  You need more than just a parade of big names. You need a BIG IDEA, integrated in virtually every session, meaningful education and networking, and a followup program.

Indeed, if you want the biggest idea possible, focus on the idea that’s been permeating real estate management conferences for the past year, this “broker of the future.”  But for an agent-oriented conference, focus the BIG IDEA on “the real estate agent of the future” — what tools, training, information, skills does an agent of the future need, and then deliver a conference based on building them.

Just my thoughts on the matter, free advice probably worth what you paid.  But that’s what I’d do.