If we build it, will they come?

If our clients are ready to demand more of us, we'd better get ready to deliver

You know what most great real estate agents have in common? They’re really good at their jobs.

They’re good at developing rapport and trust with sellers at that initial consultation. They’re good at marketing homes. They’re good at identifying what a buyer needs, even if he doesn’t know yet. And they’re good at putting together — and keeping together — transactions, guiding their clients through the minefield of inspections, mortgage applications and title review.

ValeStock / Shutterstock.com
ValeStock / Shutterstock.com

But we don’t have enough of those great agents. In fact, we have too many of the other kind of agents, the ones who don’t know what they’re doing but still somehow manage to do a handful of deals every year in spite of themselves.

We all know this. When I’m doing a talk about client service for a group of agents, I routinely ask how many of them would work as a client with more than half of the agents in their market. No one raises their hand. No one. No. One.

That’s partly our fault. As an industry, we don’t recruit, train, reward or invest in competence. We’re all about “sales.”

We lower our hiring standards because even the most hapless agent might sell a house or two. We train agents in how to prospect for leads, not what to do once they chase one down. We reward people for production, not for client satisfaction. And we invest our money on technology designed to generate leads, not to deliver a better client experience.

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As Brad Inman points out in his recent op-ed, “everyone is focused on marketing and customer acquisition” rather than refining the consumer experience from search to closing. He singles out the technology players like ZRT, but is also correct in finding fault with most brokers and agents within the industry.

For example, every great broker I know has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on a website that is a great tool for anyone shopping for a home, and is virtually useless for anyone who is buying a home.

But it’s not entirely our fault. If we’re looking for people to blame for this mess, where the whole industry focuses its energy and attention on client acquisition rather than client service, let’s not forget to throw some shade on the people who make all this possible: the clients themselves.

If they have, as Brad put it, “a bitter taste about the industry,” they have only themselves to blame for what we’re serving them.

Why? Because clients aren’t choosy enough in selecting an agent. We don’t recruit for competence, because clients don’t screen their agents on ability. We don’t train for service, because clients don’t evaluate their results. We don’t reward great experiences, because clients don’t expect them. And we don’t invest in better transaction technology, because why should we bother if clients are going to end up working with agents who can’t even use the technology we already have?

The sad truth of this industry is that most clients do not choose their agent — their agent chooses them. They knock on an open house at just the right time in their ovulatory cycle, and buy from the agent who opens the door. They click a button on a website, and work with whoever answers the email. They call a number, and get the agent on “up time.”

And even if they do “choose” an agent, many don’t consider competence. They hire the neighbor who got her license last year and has yet to sell a house. That nice person at the club who is great at bidding bridge contracts, not so much with the real estate. Their second cousin who lost his lockbox key six months ago. Their friend of a friend who does real estate on weekends.

And it’s not just agents. It’s brokers, too. I look around my market, and over a third of the business is being closed by brokers who don’t even have a functional website. A website! In 2014! And yet those brokers are still doing business because clients don’t demand any better.

So I blame the clients for much of this. They’re just not choosy enough. They’re keeping all these lousy agents and brokers alive in the business, and creating all the wrong incentives for everyone in the industry. Agents spend too much time doing all that lead generation, rather than focusing on the needs of their actual clients. Brokers are willing to retain incompetent agents, because even the worst agent in the world might have a brother-in-law who will hire him.

And we all end up investing too much money in lead generation, rather than on actually building that perfect transactional model that Brad is rooting for.

So I’m not so sure about Brad’s argument that what we really need is someone to invent a better transactional mousetrap. I don’t see this as a supply problem. Many of those technologies already exist, and are being used by smart brokers and great agents across the country to service the needs of clever and discriminating clients. Even if we did have that great transaction technology, it would be wasted unless clients start choosing great agents who know how to use it.

Basically, this is a demand problem. The industry is just responding to the incentives created by clients who are still willing to be “chosen” by mediocre-to-terrible agents.

But if more clients start doing the choosing, if they start selecting agents based on ability, if they insist on a better service experience, then we will see those incentives start to shift. And maybe then we’ll see the industry, and its technology partners, take the client service experience more seriously.

Indeed, maybe we’re already seeing that shift. I’ve seen more attention to the consumer experience in the past year than I’ve seen in the past 10 years combined. Lots of discussions about ratings and reviews, and not just about how to market them.

Vast amounts of money poured into startups that are trying to improve the transactional experience, rather than lead generation. A whole conference coming up this summer dedicated not just to technology, but innovation specifically aimed at improving the client service experience.

Maybe clients are ready to demand more of us. And maybe we better get ready to demand more of ourselves.

Joseph Rand is a managing partner of Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty, and author of the Rand Blog; his personal blog, The Move to Suma; and his real estate education blog, The World’s Best Real Estate Agent.


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