A few months ago, I asked "What Makes an Agent Good?" and triggered a bit of a conversation. I was after an objective standard of quality by which a particular real estate agent can be measured, but ended up in a discussion (which is still ongoing one way or another) about professionalism, understanding technology, perspectives, and viewpoints, and so on.

Marc Davison, of 1000Watt Consulting, even wrote a post somewhat in response and concluded: "A bad Realtor is one whose marketing effort for a six-figure listing pales in comparison to a 7-year-old’s playful regard for his $11.95 pet dinosaur. A good agent is one who says, ‘no problem, I’ll take care of that’ when asked to compensate for the bad agent’s job.

As much as I like that colorful description, it still raised more questions than it answered and didn’t provide a framework for analysis. In what way does a bad Realtor’s effort pale in comparison? If comparing two Realtors with each other, does the one who puts out more effort automatically trump the one who doesn’t? Would the agent who hires a skywriting airplane be "better" than the one who doesn’t?

Over the weeks, I’ve been turning the question over in my head. Then I found the answer today.

The answer

The answer came from a law blog I read periodically. Dan Hull of "What About Clients" is one of the finest commentators on issues of client service, from a lawyer’s perspective, but other service professionals can learn much from him.

His post, Ease-of-Use for Services: Will we ever get there? is an eye-opener. Read the whole thing. Dan posits that companies in every sector are competing more and more on concepts of ease of use, and advocates that services companies also embrace the concept, as difficult as it is: "Law firms, of course, have always sold services. And we are a small but powerful engine in the growth of the services sector. We strategize with and guide big clients every day. While that’s all going on — day in and day out — what is it like for the client to work with you and yours?

"Are clients experiencing a team, or hearing and seeing isolated acts by talented but soulless techies? Do you make reports and communications short, easy and to the point? Who gets copied openly so clients don’t have to guess about who knows what? Is it fun (yeah, we just said ‘fun’) to work with your firm? How are your logistics for client meetings, travel and lodging? Do you make life easier? Or harder? Are you accessible 24/7? In short, aside from the technical aspects of your service (i.e., the client ‘is safe’), do your clients ‘feel safe’?

"What if law firms — or any other service provider for that matter — ‘thought through,’ applied and constantly improved the delivery of our services and how clients really experience them? And then competed on it?"

A lightbulb went off in my head.

Following Dan’s lead, I am ready to advocate that what makes one Realtor superior to another is ease of use. Her services are easier to use for the client than another Realtor’s services.

Ease of use in real estate services

What constitutes ease of use in real estate services?

I’m going to attempt one answer, recognizing that more conversation and refinement need to happen before consensus can be reached.

Ease of use is the degree to which the client achieves peace of mind about the real estate transaction.

Ease of use must encompass communication. Communication must be relevant, at the frequency at which the client achieves peace of mind, and by a method the client wants. If I want to be called, then don’t e-mail me. If I want to hear from you every day, then contact me every single day. Contra "Depeche Mode," words are most definitely not violence, and clients do not enjoy the silence. (Unless they really do for some bizarre reason.)

Ease of use must encompass guidance. Clients recognize that they need help; otherwise, they wouldn’t hire a Realtor at all. That help then must be authoritative, educated, and capable of being explained. "Because I said so" or "Just trust me" are not good responses to a client who wants to know why you are recommending that he repaint his living room from fuschia to white. Explain the advice so the client also understands. …CONTINUED

Ease of use must include anticipation. The best client service is proactive. It anticipates the client’s need and addresses it, often making recommendations. One of the best salesmen at Bergdorf Goodman Men I worked with would go find a suit for the customer, but at the same time pick out a couple of shirt and tie combinations that matched that suit perfectly. Then he would ask the customer how the rest of his wardrobe worked with the suit the customer had just selected. More than half the time, the customer would want to see what the salesman had in mind. (It didn’t hurt that this was an extremely effective way to cross-sell merchandise.) In real estate, anticipation can take many forms. Perhaps the buyer client was looking for homes in a good school district — anticipate her need and ask if she’d like to do a short tour of the local elementary school. If you know that a client is going to ask for something, don’t make the client ask; just do it for her.

Lastly, but not least, ease of use encompasses delivering the result the client is seeking, or at least helping the client understand why that result was not achieved. If what the client wants is not something you can deliver, and won’t change his mind even after you’ve explained, then ease of use dictates that you send the client somewhere else.

What about skills?

In the original post, a number of commentators spoke about things like market knowledge, technical skills (such as knowing the law, doing paperwork, negotiation), and the like. Surely what makes a Realtor good includes some measurement of the craft of brokerage?

It does. But not to the extent one might imagine, and perhaps not for the reasons one might imagine.

The technical skills and market knowledge are critical, of course, but … a Realtor who doesn’t possess these basics could hardly be considered a professional at all. Issues of client service can hardly enter the picture if the Realtor in question doesn’t know local market conditions and can’t negotiate her way out of a paper bag. We are better off considering such individuals as Realtor larvae, as we think of first-year law associates to be lawyer larvae.

As a rule of thumb, may I propose that a Realtor whose technical skills and knowledge can be matched by a consumer who spends a day on Google looking up information, data, and the real estate process needs more basic training? Or to find some other line of work.

Competing on ease of use

I believe that ease of use is the perfect grounds for competition. It is easy to understand, obvious to the client, and easier to differentiate than the alternatives.

Consider something like "market knowledge." There is no real way for the consumer to judge whether one Realtor has more market knowledge than another unless the consumer himself is an expert in local market conditions. Negotiating skill is another thing the consumer can’t possibly judge without sitting in on a bunch of negotiations by a bunch of Realtors.

But the frequency and quality of communication is something the consumer can judge. Whether one Realtor takes the time to explain the advice whereas another one doesn’t, or does a worse job, is something the consumer can judge based on his own understanding of the advice and issues after having it explained. "Joe made that really clear, but Jane not so much."

The consumer, after interviewing a few different agents, can decide whether one agent gives him a greater feeling of peace of mind.

That’s great, but how?

I’m not really sure. I have ideas that I plan to explore in future posts, since the whole insight was new to me as well.

Offhand, however, it occurs to me that most Realtors and brokerages focus most of their investment into getting more eyeballs on listings. There’s a lot more energy spent on thinking about random visitors from Google than there is on people who have entrusted their biggest asset to the agent. That might be a place to start.

I’ve got things to think about. What about you?

Originally posted at Notorious ROB, Copyright (c) 2009 Robert Hahn

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