Riding shotgun

I’ve never owned a real estate brokerage or worked the field as an agent. But I’ve ridden shotgun in this industry by virtue of exposure to it.

In this position you get to look out the window and gaze at the little things. You get to notice the garbage that lines the sides of the highway, and wonder what possible treasures might be hidden in them. In many cases, you are in charge of the map. Your eye scans for landmarks and road signs. You’re assigned to search for turnoffs, exit ramps and street addresses.

The co-pilot picks up things along the way that drivers don’t often pick up because their eyes are fixated on the big picture — the road.

Lots of eyes lately have been fixated on real estate’s road. Quarterly sales goals. Driving the team hard. Crushing expenses. Analyzing the economy. These are critical factors for the drivers in real estate.

But without shotgun eyes, are you seeing all the little things outside the passenger window? Have you noticed the garbage littering the road? Have you considered what treasures might be hidden within? Are you counting the mile markers?

I thought I would list some of the things I’ve seen traveling down the road of 2007. If cleaned up now, the road for 2008 could lead to a better year.

Communication. Littering the road in 2007 is the communication breakdown between frustrated brokers who face diminishing revenue streams and the ever-increasing cost of vendor products. Vendors are pushing for more sales and don’t want to hear about the bad market or brokers’ woes. Conversely, brokers are trying to understand why they’re paying for things that aren’t living up to their promises or things they can now get for free such as data, social applications, CRM, Web sites, and mapping applications. Brokers are reevaluating vendors and their products and looking to the Web and free applications to replace things they don’t need, understand or that haven’t proven their value.

DIY. Brokerages wanting to do everything in-house are suffering from their own sagging curb appeal. Their programming departments are never big enough or fast enough and resources are never deep enough to keep up with the trends. In many cases they are busy patching, fixing, updating, applying Band-Aids rather than innovating. By the time they launch something new, it’s past the idea’s expiration date. This is fast becoming a 10-ton anchor that is going to drag many underwater. Outsourcing is on the horizon.

Thinking. I’ve attended think tanks, and listened to many product pitches. While a lot of thinking is taking place, there’s not enough knowing. It’s one thing to think this is what consumers like, or think this is what brokers want or think $19.95 is what agents will pay for something. It’s another thing to know. Vendors, brokers and agents will each improve their relationships with their desired audience by hosting open discussions before things are cooked and served.

Relationships. We all talk about them; we all want them. Let’s start by asking each other what we each need rather than telling each other what we need. Let’s start asking each other how we can be of service rather than just trying to find out who we are. Knowing my name and how to contact me is not how a relationship is built. Asking me what I want and delivering that instantly is how this is done.

Watchdogs. Brokers really need to know what the next cool new application will be. Vendors really need to know which brokers are looking for these applications. Matches that could be made in real estate heaven are kept separated by the watchdogs at the gate. Pushing vendors off to some kid named Jason in the IT department is not how you are going to grow your company in 2008, especially if Jason is too busy protecting his in-house application and his job. Granted, vendor sales guys can be a handful, but you are better off talking to them and knowing what’s out there than being tuned out of the loop and five years too late to the party.

I know an executive whose voicemail basically says, “If you’re a vendor, hang up. My edit would read something like this: “If you’re a vendor, please proceed to our Web site and click the tab that says ‘Vendor Submissions.’ ”

Brokers: How about allowing all vendors to submit requests to introduce their ideas, products and services to you? Put someone else other than Jason in charge of vendor relations, someone who welcomes ideas, reviews them and makes appointments to learn more. From my shotgun seat I’ve learned a lot about what’s on the horizon and it’s why I see a glorious sunrise.

Income streams. Brokers need them. Vendors would do themselves a world of good if they re-evaluated their pricing as well as prepared clear ROI programs for brokers who can license applications below wholesale and distribute wholesale pricing to agents. Furthermore, it would categorically help if vendors could design ways to market and distribute their products down through the brokerage instead of leaving that completely up to the broker whose influence on the individual agent is not as strong as you think.

Customer Service. So many preach it. Few practice it. Agents need to stop saying they go the extra mile when they don’t. It’s time to go there across the board — from inquiry management to developing long-term customer loyalty programs. Agents should make it their goal to never let an inquiry go to voicemail or an e-mail inbox. Vendors also can do better than a 24-hour turnaround on a call.

There is simply too much innovation out there to ever lose a client because you failed to respond immediately to their needs.

Interlopers. Let’s put an end to this word. I’ve changed my own tune on this topic. Real estate has endured 10 years of outsiders coming in, and the list of companies that have been shown the exit door reflects poorly on this industry. Here we are, it’s 2008 and agents have not been replaced, the MLS has not been replaced, and homes are still priced quite high. The real estate industry is all-inclusive. Agents, vendors, alternative models, media, consumers — we are all in this together.

Common sense. It’s one thing to debate an idea. It’s another thing to slam individuals. I’m disappointed in the online smear campaigns hosted by real estate people against members of their own profession. There was a time when you talked behind people’s backs and there was a chance it stayed private. Today, all this dirty laundry is lying on the side of the real estate road and it feeds the negative stereotypes of agents. It’s great to have a high IQ. Bobby Fischer’s was 181. It’s more practical to have common sense.

Simplicity. Lying on the side of the real estate road are tens of thousands of agents and brokers who own products they don’t use or know how to use. Transaction management systems have become deep labyrinths of complexity that most agents get horribly lost inside. Web site text editors are clunky and require lots of training to use. Realtor blogs have become confusing and many use techie verbiage that mean nothing to a visitor. Broker Web sites are not clean enough, defined enough or focused enough on the things that matter to consumers. Map mash-ups are becoming Rubik’s cubes that few know how to use properly.

Real estate has been made more complex than it needs to be. “Googleize” yourself. Think simple. At a glance. Short, to the point.

There’s much more

Rely on your own good senses. Start conversing with each other. Keep an open mind about everything. Invite the challenge. Don’t let anything keep you from the opportunity buzzing around.

Finally, if you are the driver, switch seats for a time. Check the map. Gaze out the window. Embrace the silence. There’s much to learn from it.

Marc Davison is a founding partner of 1000watt Consulting. He can be reached at marc@1000wattconsulting.com.

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