First we had Black Friday, and then Cyber Monday revealed itself in all of its glory. Sandwiched in between were enough Saturday and Sunday limited-time offers to choke a poor girl’s inbox, each promising discounts more awesome than the next — but only if I acted by midnight.

On Tuesday morning, at least six of the same retailers who had been courting me since I was carving the turkey were promoting better offers yet. Last Chance Tuesday, it turns out, blows the doors off of Cyber Monday.

Hurry though, I am told, because these prices won’t last. Oh, and discounts don’t apply to previous purchases.

Suddenly, I feel a little like a buyer trying to time the bottom of the market, but it is too late for me. The problem is that I trusted you on Friday, and I even hung in there with you through the weekend because we had a "relationship."

As my reward, I was sucker-punched with the news that I had left 5 to 10 percent on the table. You made a deal, and you filched.

To all of my retailers-formerly-known-as-favorites, I don’t believe you anymore. And take it from me: When your customers stop believing in you, it’s hard to regain their confidence.

It may seem like a minor beef, this business of sending mixed messages — particularly when we are talking about trivial things like fall fashions and fragrances, but trust is important.

Trust is one of those intangibles. It is earned over years, even decades, yet can unravel entirely in a moment. And trust may be the most important component of a brand. Without it, brand loyalty will not exist.

This morning, nearly lost among the e-mails with escalating discounts for all varieties of non-consumable goods, was a link to an article by a prominent online real estate publication. "Now that the first-time homebuyer tax credit has been renewed and improved, it’s time for you to pick up some of this low-lying fruit and to profit from it" they chirped.

Low-lying fruit? Are you talking about my customers? Wait — I’m a customer, and this doesn’t exactly make me feel valued.

Someone, it seems, forgot to wear a thinking cap. (They were half-price with free shipping on Sunday.) How else could you explain the fact that the author thought it was a good idea to paint me into this stereotypical, opportunistic corner yet again? You want to help my business? Quit stomping on my brand. My customers are reading this stuff.

"We’re going to give you some pointers on where you can find prospects and develop them into buyers," the article went on. OK, so I clicked through. Think car wreck. …CONTINUED

Somewhere along the way we decided that "prospect" and "lead" are suitable synonyms for the people who hire us to represent them in a six- or seven-figure transaction.

And, if it’s not enough that we have become comfortably transparent about our shooting-fish-in-a-barrel approach to business development, now we are proudly and publicly confessing that we will just manufacture the business when the going gets tough.

This is nothing new, of course. In my local community newsletter this month, there were the familiar calls to action. "It’s a great time to buy," according to one agent. "It’s a great time to sell," shouted another.

One agent went all in with, "It’s a great time to buy and sell!" No longer enough to offer our services to people with a need, we feel compelled to light a fire to the old latent demand. "Move, dammit!"

Brian Boero wrote recently about the mystery of the agent and broker brand. He called it "Stardust" — that thing you can’t quite quantify; a feeling that brings meaning to a company and allows a connection with the customer.

Not surprisingly, Apple was his example. I wonder how Apple loyalists would respond if they saw the company brass yakking it up online about ways to capture the discretionary dollar of the low-lying fruit?

Teresa Boardman questioned the value of branding in real estate, suggesting that people don’t do business with brands. I understand her argument, but I disagree.

"Brands are impersonal, yet we talk about personal branding," she wrote. "I don’t feel connected to McDonald’s, and I can’t see myself lurking on their Facebook page. To me it is just one of many mindless, money-grubbing corporations that I really don’t care about."

There are a couple of points here. First, I will venture a guess that Teresa doesn’t relate to the McDonald’s brand because she is no longer in their niche market. Absent toddlers in tow, their message is not for her.

Today, I tend to associate McDonald’s with "time to buy bigger britches," but it wasn’t too long ago I felt a connection. McDonald’s was more than food; it was personal.

The golden arches symbolized "happy" — the diapered ones were happy to eat surrounded by grinning characters, I was happy that they were throwing up in Ronald’s Playland and not my own living room, and the plumber was happy when he was later called to dislodge the Happy Meal action figures from the bathroom pipes.

But, let’s talk about money-grubbing corporations. Like it or not, that has become the real estate agent’s brand. And every time we demean the client, or each other, we continue down the path of relinquishing the customer’s trust. …CONTINUED

Another of the ads in my local newsletter ad showed a picture of what the agent called the "old-school agent."

The visual was one of a slick snake-oil salesman dressed in a sloppy, outdated suit — the kind of guy you want to hide your children from. The message was that the agent running the ad was different. Good message, hideous execution.

At the heart, a fast-food restaurant may be a money-grubbing (read: for-profit) corporation, but I have yet to see a fast-food chain’s ad campaign bashing the entire industry. "Burgers and fries make you fat and clog your arteries, but our burgers taste better!" seems like a pretty bad approach to branding, yet agents use this approach every day.

That’s not to say that low-lying, or more correctly, low-hanging fruit does not present an opportunity for agents. Seth Godin spoke of low-hanging fruit, but in a different context. As businesses, which we all are, we have choices.

We can take something pretty good and make it a little better yet, or we can focus on the truly dismal, which offers the potential for a whole lot of improvement. The latter is much easier to reach and is ripe for the pickin’. It’s smarter to go for the highest return.

Seth refers to it as raising the floor rather than focusing on the ceiling. For our industry, it’s time. For our industry, the floor is how we do our work, not how we get it. So to all of the coaches and trainers, mentors and member associations advising us on six or 16 steps to greatness, we are pretty good at viewing our customers as marks.

We’ve been beating that horse for years, and offering us yet another twist on the old lead-generation angle may prove lucrative for our seasonal business but will cost us our customers in the long term.

And to the agents who believe that they can differentiate themselves by portraying the industry poorly, think again. That’s like saying we’re all serving junk food, only yours is better.

The customer wants respect, professionalism and honesty. Give customers these things and we may earn their loyalty. Leave them feeling targeted, manipulated — used — and we will find ourselves where we are, with a broken brand.

When we start seeing our customers not as a means to an end but as the end, we may find our stardust.

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.


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