Expertise is granted, not proclaimed

Build your brand on the value of relationships

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This might be hard to take. But it might be true. And it might turn out to be helpful. That is, once the sting to your pride fades away a little bit.

Alright. Here goes:

You are not the expert.

There are so many kinds of marketing in the real estate industry that are focused on positioning agents and brokers as experts. Experts of neighborhoods. Experts of negotiation. Experts helping people understand their housing needs. Experts of marketing. Experts of technology. Experts of social media or SEO or radio advertising.

That’s a lot of expertise.

And all this expertise is required because the corollary marketing meme that precedes all this expertise is about how a housing transaction is the biggest, most emotional, most important financial decision of a lifetime. Think of your children!

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First generate fear and anxiety, then offer yourself — and your expertise — as savior. This marketing technique might work in a sort of sheepherding way to funnel consumers as leads into a sales process. There’s certainly data to back that up.

But it might not be very good at building relationships with people. In times of change, especially rapid change, relationships with people are going to be more valuable than databases full of leads. When you’re learning new skills and identifying new opportunities and threats, relationships with people are valuable.

The leveling of expertise-based hierarchies brought about by digital technologies is astounding. It has been going on for many decades now, chipping away at the edges. We could craft a new Niem├Áller’s lament that starts with "First they came for the typographers" and progresses through the newsroom and out into the professions. Real estate expertise may be no better.

With the addition of the social layer to digital technologies, direct and personally verifiable "expertise" is with us at all times, chirping away in our pockets. An aggregated neighborhood expert is right there encoded into an app. An entire encyclopedia of negotiation is a few keystrokes into a search browser.

What is expertise in this kind of environment? What value is there to being an "expert" in this sort of world? The only thing that can be done is beat the drum of fear all the louder (and there are many who sell bigger, faster and louder drums to make this possible).

I’m thinking about this because I’ve been hanging out in New York enjoying a bunch of geeky symposiums and lectures, feeding my brain a bit. And while here I’ve been staying with a friend who lives in Brooklyn. He’s a little media-shy, but I’ll tell you a little bit about him.

I joke with him that he’s the Lorax of Brooklyn. He’s a forester (or, I guess in this case, an arborist) for the city. He knows the trees of New York like nobody’s business. He knows how they live, and what kind of tree works best in which neighborhoods and conditions.

He was recently promoted so that now he is involved with all new projects across all of the city, helping the design and construction crews put in trees that will serve the city well for many years past the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

My friend is an actual expert. He knows more about neighborhoods in New York than many of the "No. 1 experts" out there. Certainly his domain of knowledge is limited — he knows trees and things related to them: light; traffic; soil compaction; human behavior that helps/harms trees; attitudes and policies around land use; varieties of trees; city climate projections; and so on. But he is, truly, an expert. And he’s continuing to refine his knowledge and add to his skill set in his new, expanded role.

But if you met him he is the last guy who would ever say he’s an expert. He’s just trying to get his job done and help his team, his city and the people he works with.

In a world where the value of expertise is diminishing daily, people who do good work and maintain focus become acknowledged as valuable resources, whether they claim expertise or not.

And that’s really the powerful mirror of the social layer on the Web: Expertise is granted, not proclaimed. We can all select from a wide variety of sources to find someone we personally trust to guide us in decision-making. This is far deeper than friend-of-a-friend marketing.

If real estate professionals can lay down the burden of expertise and instead get to know, learn from and support the work of practitioners and people who live in the neighborhoods, then there’s a different value proposition that comes into play.

Building a brand based on the value of relationships instead of the fire and brimstone of big decisions and expertise is a different path, but one that may be more sustainable in the face of devalued expertise.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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