I am a trained professional, a trusted real estate adviser. I’m just like that well-coifed woman on the snappy National Association of Realtors ads — the one standing just inside the white picket fence wearing a tailored suit, a proud lapel pin and a big-ol’ smile.
Yep — I’m just like her. Except I spent the better part of yesterday scouring the copper bottoms of an entire set of cookware that might have been unearthed from the Mayan ruins on a recent archeological dig. They might have, that is, had the Mayans possessed the Cuisinart Chef’s Classic series. (Emeril hadn’t yet been invented.)
So it was that I spent my Saturday morning hanging out in my client’s kitchen, helping him help himself. Sure, I could have told him to scrub his own pots, but he has a Y chromosome, which means it wouldn’t have gotten done. It’s part of a process we call staging and, try as I might to uphold that business-suit image, I somehow get sucked into the process every time.
You see, the pot rack was a thing of beauty but the black, crusty cooking thingies dangling from it were not exactly a selling point. Nor was the misplaced 700-pound mirror that had to be rehung, the computer desk looking disturbingly out of place in the dining room, or the 4-foot-tall brass giraffe hanging out in the hallway of this Mediterranean-style wondering which way the Serengeti might be.
It’s glamorous, this real estate gig. In the past week, I have met two carpet cleaners, one window washer, and a roofer. I have manhandled furniture with the stager at four different homes, and I have hung out with the photographer three times. I met with one painter for an estimate, and with another to bless the chosen paint color as being worthy of the walls.
I installed a towel bar, removed curtains, patched and painted holes, wheeled trashcans, and dusted cobwebs from a front porch. Mine is a service industry, after all.
"How demeaning!" you say. "Our clients pay us for our years of experience, our pricing expertise, our knowledge of contracts, and our negotiating skills." That much is true. But what they really pay us for is results, and moving a gently used home in this market requires more than throwing a stick in the ground and sitting back waiting for the calls to pour in.
I was recently contacted by someone asking me to hold court on a webinar in which I would share my "secrets of success." The idea is that I would fill one hour with all of the little magic things I do in my business to stay in business. And as I considered my talking points, I started to get a little anxious. I suppose I could manage three slides with "Work … Really … Hard," but that would leave orphaned 59 minutes.
That’s the secret, of course. Work really hard. And no one can tell you how to work really hard, because the "how" comes back to your business model, your image — your brand.
Like it or not, people have expectations every time they see your name and your logo. If they don’t, it is because you have failed to extend a promise, to adequately communicate what you stand for and what you will deliver. They are expectations based on past performance. In our case, as listing agents, our message is one of marketing and service excellence — and, apparently, pot scrubbing. Yours may be a different message, but every single thing you do, whether you are advertising your listings or yourself, has to uphold that promise.
The idea is to deliver what the customer wants, and I think too often we get comfortable in a routine, mired in a traditional real estate mindset of prescriptive paths to success. Find client, win client, cash paycheck. It’s like waving a couple of bread slices around and calling it a sandwich, when it’s the stuff in the middle that defines the dining experience. That stuff in the middle is the work.
And while our world changes, the new requisites for success are not so new at all; they are just wrapped in modern-day terms and rhetoric. The open house has become the blog; the bus bench ad has become a Facebook page. Instead of mailing more brochures, we are encouraged to increase our SEO (search engine-optimization) and tweet about it. But, it’s the same old loaf of bread, any way you slice it.
For all of our talk about retooling our images and reestablishing our worth in the eyes of the customer, so many trainers, coaches and brokerages just can’t seem to shed that tattered coat of salesmanship, and it tends to drive the whole wardrobe. For all of our technological advancements, as we continue our quest to digitize friendships and secure our own cyber-corner of validation, we seem to be missing the bigger message — and opportunity.
The way we market ourselves really hasn’t changed all that much, but our roles and our clients’ expectations have undergone enormous change. All the Internet has really done is trumpet our lack of differentiation to a larger audience.
The focus still seems to be on getting the work, not doing it. I wrote about this on my own blog recently: this two-headed monster dog that is our business, and the tendency for agents to have an unhealthy focus on one at the expense of the other — too often at the expense of ethics.
One commenter wrote, "Your treatment of the balance between get and do the job (emphasis added) is one that many of us have to face. Is there a chance of pulling back the curtain and showing us how you are able to do both of them so well?"
Admittedly, were I in a position to deliver the "magic bean," I would be retired. At least, I might be able to fill a one-hour webinar with my "secrets." But the answer really doesn’t seem all that elusive. It’s a matter of which end of the paycheck you tackle your career from. Understand what your customer wants and deliver it consistently, without fail. Over time, the work you do will become your brand, attaching like a barnacle to your name, logo and likeness. Do this, and only then will your marketing — whatever or wherever it is — be effective in wooing new clients.
Put another way: by focusing first on the promotion, you have nothing to promote.
Apple is a cool company. We all know that now, and its advertising continues to remind us lest we forget. Zappos is fun and happy and all about the customer, just like its marketing proclaims. But a few crappy computers or one creepy, grumpy service representative would undo all of that marketing faster than you could say "top producer." Perception and reality go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other, and it all begins with the work.
If you put your ear to the ground and listen carefully, you might hear what I hear, and it’s not about our profile pictures, our check-in badges, or the number of apps on our gadgets. Those things may matter (or not), but it’s not where success begins. Our roles are shifting in mysterious ways. Doing the same things are no longer good enough, because the customer expects more — is starving for more — while the primary focus of our training seems to be to move our sameness online and call it industry change.
Building a brand (cliché alert) is a process, not an event. It requires unflagging consistency, and it requires ongoing effort. For the cast-of-thousands brokerage, it is difficult; for the smaller brokerage, a little less so. But one bad actor for any brokerage can mean curtains. And where it is nearly impossible in a model reliant on quantity, not quality, to achieve this customer association of brand excellence, the individual agent can accomplish this quite handily.
How? It depends on what you want to stand for, and what you stand for needs to be aligned with what the customers in your market demand. Whether you are a low-cost option, a high-profile marketer of listings, or a darn good pot scrubber, you’ve got to consistently deliver. You need to work really, really hard. Then, you can go blog about it.