Have we not learned anything?

Our industry is a little under the weather lately, and a whole lot of agents are in some serious pain. I’m reminded of the old joke where a man says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this." The doctor’s obvious reply is, "So, don’t do that."

Sometimes the answer is just that simple. If it hurts to do something, don’t do it anymore. Do something else.

Have we not learned anything?

Our industry is a little under the weather lately, and a whole lot of agents are in some serious pain. I’m reminded of the old joke where a man says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this." The doctor’s obvious reply is, "So, don’t do that."

Sometimes the answer is just that simple. If it hurts to do something, don’t do it anymore. Do something else.

This past week I received a call from an agent affiliated with a big brokerage. He was calling to "preview" one of our listings. More accurately, he was calling to schedule a time for 13 agents from his office to preview one of our listings. Being very, very smart, I immediately questioned the likelihood that each of this baker’s dozen from the same office had potential clients for this particular home. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really nice home, but given a pretty healthy market time and the million-dollar price tag, I found the sudden spike in interest slightly suspicious.

He went on to explain that his office manager had established a "SWAT team" of sorts and had designed a coordinated plan of attack, a la General Patton. First they would be previewing each of the 100 or so homes offered for sale in this particular community, thereby becoming the "neighborhood experts." This reconnaissance was to be followed by a deployment of troops to pre-assigned territories in an attempt to recapture the market share flag. Each would be heavily armed with tax records and a telephone. Their secret weapon? The cold call. Hide the woman and children!

Cold calls? Is that the best we can do? Why don’t we all just congregate on random front lawns waiving our lava lamps, abacuses and "10 Biggest Selling Mistakes" pamphlets to attract attention? Maybe we should walk the neighborhood and knock on doors; people love that, and the world is after all flat.

Before I even begin to address how many things are wrong with this picture, there’s more. I was told that when one of the soldiers in "Company B" asked why they would be targeting this fairly pricey neighborhood 10 miles from the office when they could see a sea of ripe condominiums from their cubicles, the answer was simple, "Our average sale price per transaction is down. We need to target more expensive homes." Good grief.

So, let’s review. You want my clients to mop the floors, make the beds, hide the laundry, and kill an hour at the park so that you can bring the entire new recruit corps through the home and use it as a training exercise. Your ultimate goal is to put me out of business in my core market. You plan to accomplish this by employing a tactic as relevant today as carbon paper and about as welcome as Mother Teresa at a frat party, all because selling condos is too much work and not enough reward. And if that’s not enough, you admit as much to me.

Here we are with our Web 2.0, living with the backlash of a poor image and questioned value, and we are teaching our agents the same things we taught them 20 years ago. When I joined my first office, my first stop during orientation was at a big pile of cross-directories. But we didn’t limit our business development opportunities to our own time zone. We had mandatory cold-call nights. We were sent to the bookstore to buy out-of-state newspapers for the classified sections they contained, and then we were told to call all of the for-sale-by-owners to place as many "referrals" as we could. During my first of these events and while enjoying free pizza at my company-provided desk in San Diego, I talked a nice elderly lady in Washington into accepting my agent referral. She eventually sold her home with this agent, and my broker and I cashed our checks. I have never forgotten how bad that felt.

Our training also included "practice" open houses where a group of new agents would role-play using some lucky veteran agent’s vacant listing. In this lab, we were taught how to "get names and numbers," which in its simplest form involved a guest register and a headlock. It was a message of predator and prey, and never were we reminded that the living room we were cluttering belonged to a real human being who had hired us to sell this home. We were being taught to sell any home, client be damned.

It hurts us when we do these things, so why are we still doing them?

Marketing ourselves is essential in our business. We all know this. Our livelihood is dependent on getting the job. In this spirit, I will offer a preemptive strike. Many of us have enjoyed past success using cold-calling and door-knocking techniques, but the number of people today who will respond favorably to this approach is far fewer. Ask yourself how happy you are each time someone shows up at your door offering to wash your windows or calls during dinner offering a better long-distance plan, and I think you will agree. With too many agents chasing too few transactions, this is a new agent needle-in-the-haystack approach at best, not to mention one that I fear propagates the notion that we are vultures concerned only with our next meal.

How we conduct business before we are hired is as important as how we perform once the agency contract is signed. In fact, our survival depends on it. Just like my knowingly allowing 13 agents to use my client’s home as an educational junket would violate my fiduciary duties, using the showing system in this manner smacks of malpractice. We can continue to see ourselves as opportunists looking for the next mark, or we can redirect our marketing efforts toward demonstrating value.

Instead of coordinating a massive field trip and firing up the phone banks, I might have considered a lab on designing a neighborhood Web site or a session on analyzing market data and trends. I might have held a brainstorming session on online and offline community involvement opportunities, or on replacing the Recipe of the Month mailer with a piece relevant to the customers I serve and the service I provide. And I just might have thrown in a little discussion on ethics and integrity, in both the ways we treat the customer and each other.

I earlier wrote about the need for the real estate industry to reconsider the mission statement and make the customer’s interests, not our own, central to our message and our culture. Yet my most recent encounter serves to remind me that we have a long way to go. I just hope we aren’t too far gone.

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.

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