There is a fine line between service and servitude.

Real estate is a lot of things for the agent. It is consulting; it is business administration; it is public relations and marketing, and a lot of dry number crunching and contract management. Mostly, though, it is a service industry. So, where does one draw the line between providing exceptional service, when and where the customer demands it, and holding the line of professional decorum?

For me, this is a question as loaded as "what’s for breakfast?" My children don’t want three-squares served up over conversation and bonding. They want sustenance (or as we call it in our house, a doughnut) on the run. Our clients don’t want a dining experience, and they don’t want balanced agents. They want Pop Tarts. We live in a world of now. We have come to enjoy and even expect our gratification, like our videos, on demand. We want our messages in an instant and our service delivered at the drive-through window with no waiting.

We are working with several serious buyers right now. One couple likes to send their e-mails on the morning of the showings, e-mails in which they identify the homes they will be seeing just hours later over their lunch break. Note that these are not homes they would like to see, but homes they will be seeing. And we never know on which day or during which lunch "hour" we will be getting the nod. So we take on the role of personal chef, serving up the fast food at a moment’s notice. Some days, our clients even phone in an add-on order five minutes before arrival consisting of a couple of other homes in the might-as-well category. On these days, they are in the mood for dessert.

In situations like this, the Pop Tart agent springs into action. Calls are made, schedules are rearranged, to-do lists are set afire, and family obligations are scuttled, all in the name of service. Or is it servitude? Our children, the ones who now refer to themselves as The Real Estate Orphans, learned to feign forgiveness long ago. At least, we tell them, we will be able to afford their therapy. But life as a Pop Tart takes a toll on us all. It affects our personal lives, our attitudes and, if we aren’t careful, ultimately our business.

Meanwhile, I am currently manning the cafeteria line for many others. Most recently, I phoned one client with news of a new listing, which I knew she would want to see. She has been waiting for months for a property like this one to rear its beautiful, five-bedroom-with-a-view head. Yet, it was four days later when I finally received the return call. "I want to see it now." Unfortunately, now was a Saturday morning, which found me dressed in full vagabond regalia, by all accounts donning a fright wig, and elbow deep in a rare attempt at a meal requiring more than a can opener and an apology. Again, it was decision time. Do I spring into action, throw on my big-girl work clothes and heed the siren call of potential economic solvency? Or, do I scrap the project at hand, recognizing that briskets rarely pay the mortgage?

We find ourselves facing the same dilemma when wearing our listing-agent hats. Feeling like the on-duty emergency response team, we often receive calls from buyers, which we have come to refer to as the hostage calls. The most recent voicemail message warned us, "I am sitting in front of your home for sale. Call me back in the next 10 minutes." Or? If I am only able to return your call in 11 minutes, will the hostages die? It’s not that we don’t want to be responsive, and it’s not that we don’t want to expose our listings to all interested buyers. It’s just that sometimes we are otherwise indisposed. Sometimes when the switchboard lights up, we are with other clients.

Sometimes, even the Pop Tart agent has to buy groceries or walk the dog — or sleep. To make things even more complicated, I have found that I get very poor cell coverage in the shower.

For the record, the hostages didn’t die. And the brisket was surprisingly edible.

Kris Berg is a real estate broker associate for Prudential California Realty in San Diego. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.

Berg will speak at Real Estate Connect in San Francisco, July 23-25, 2008. Register today .



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