I’m feeling a little like a crash-test dummy today — again. Sadly, it is a feeling that has become all too familiar. Perceptions and misconceptions, emotions run amok, too much information and misinformation, and a less than merry market are the vehicles of my battery.
People — and by people, I mean, us — like to compare real estate agents to doctors and lawyers, to the friendly salesperson at Nordstrom and to the Starbucks barista. We are in a service industry, darn it, and if we can only provide exceptional service with a double pump of knowledge and professionalism, we will personally shine and collectively transport an industry unto the land of respect.
Those of us who are passionate about this business of helping people with a purchase slightly more significant than a double-shot latte have been known to proselytize about our higher calling. Our dream is to gain respect where we have been disrespected and to prove our value to a world that is increasingly questioning whether we have value at all, save a lockbox key and access to the standard contracts.
Some days it feels like an uphill battle. This is not to say that our cause is not noble, nor is our enthusiasm for raising the bar misguided. And I don’t believe for a second that we can’t smooth out some dents in our battered image armor; we can. Rather, it’s just that sometimes none of it matters.
There are two issues at play, really. First, everyone wants to call the shots. The Internet has done that, for better or worse. We are becoming a populace of control-freakish do-it-yourselfers; a new "me" generation that expects everything from our news to our social outlets delivered on our schedule and on our terms.
The second issue is arguably much larger and is related to our current financial environment. We aren’t exactly living a "Happy Days" episode, and when the general mood darkens, so do people’s behaviors and attitudes toward those around them.
Years ago, during my first career, I did time as a city traffic engineer, and among my most thankless duties was appearing before our City Council to deliver reports on long-range traffic projections. Although the work itself was highly complex and technical, my mission was relatively simple: predict the traffic, then size the roads. Do this properly, and one could argue that it was a job well done. Of course everyone tended to forget that I wasn’t the only one generating the traffic. Gridlock is evil, and I was its poster child.
There were two camps. In one corner, there were the elected officials who were mostly concerned with establishing their place in the pecking order and controlling the conversation; in the other, there were the citizens in attendance throwing their speaker slips into the tar-and-feather-Kris box who were interested only in how my message might affect them, personally. The idea of increased commute times was as welcome as a bursting real estate bubble, so everyone showed up in a pretty bad mood and looking for someone to blame.
People get goofy when they are unhappy. Otherwise nice people become ornery, and otherwise sane people tend toward the irrational. And since it is hard to reason with the irrational, our exchanges would go something like this:
ME: We considered the existing and proposed development for the entire county on a parcel-by-parcel basis, ran a complex gravity model to project traffic on every street in five, 10 and 20 years, and then concluded that Main Street should be expanded to four lanes. …CONTINUED
COUNCILMEMBER ONE: Ms. Berg, what is the distance between the earth and the moon?
COUNCILMEMBER 2: It would appear that staff failed to consider the shoe size of Millard Fillmore in her analysis. Plus, I had a tuna melt for lunch, and she doesn’t know the distance between the earth and the moon. Isn’t that right, Ms. Berg?
The citizens, on the other hand, tended to get right to the point.
CITIZEN: "I hate traffic. You suck."
Combine my two camps of yore and you have a fairly good profile of the real estate customer today.
It’s not their fault. The economy is bad, and predictions for the future are all over the map. They trusted industry professionals once, and now they have lost equity or worse — they are losing their homes. Couple that with the abundance of information at their disposal, and it is hard for those same people to trust again.
We are encountering the take-charge client more often these days. We promote the whole partnering concept heavily from our first meeting knowing that we can’t, nor should we, go about the business of helping them buy or sell a home in a vacuum. But, the wealth of information at the customer’s disposal, coupled with the lack of trust and the prevailing deep blue funk, has inspired them to take micromanagement to a new level.
This is not your grandmother’s real estate market, yet buyers and sellers have perceptions born from past experiences when things were far different. They share their own stories. "We sold our home in 2005 in one hour with multiple offers for $1.2 million over list price and closed in three days!" they say. Sometimes it is the story recounted by Uncle Bob — the one about the time he bought his home for 150 percent below market and the seller threw in a speedboat. And when we dutifully attempt to prepare them for today’s realities, cautioning that things are a wee bit more challenging now, our exchange becomes about a much fun as a council meeting with gridlock on the docket.
The truth is that every transactional dive we take these days feels like a triple pike performed in chainmail. But while our clients read about the greater degree of difficulty involved in closing a real estate transaction today, they think we are talking about the other guy.
It doesn’t matter how much time we spend preparing our client’s for all the possibilities, such as an appraisal that misses by a factor of 50; a loan approved and then rescinded at the 11th hour; a bank that doesn’t share our same sense of urgency where the time frames are concerned; declining prices; and fickle buyers, to name a few. When these glitches rear their ugly heads, we have more cases of amnesia on our hands than "General Hospital." Much like every seller considers his home special, every buyer and seller expects their transactions will be the easy ones. That other stuff just doesn’t happen to them. But in this market, it often does. …CONTINUED
I am willing to concede that I might spend even more time than I already do early in the process on the "what if" scenarios. Unfortunately, I know it generally won’t matter that I have conducted a four-hour seminar on the potential pitfalls of an otherwise glorious transaction or, once in escrow, performed like a maestro despite the fact that the orchestra I was assigned didn’t know which ends of their instruments were up. The buck stops here.
Like the council members, there is a lack of understanding about the process among our clients, and it cannot be any other way unless they have personally overseen a few hundred escrows. But the Internet has appointed them to office, and they will continue to set the agenda and call the shots.
And as with the constituents, in the end it doesn’t matter who really generated the traffic. All they know is that "traffic sucks," and someone must be held accountable. Had the topic of my council report involved puppies and bunnies — or had it been delivered in a better real estate market — I am certain more people would have left with an appreciation for my work.
At times like this, when we know we have done our very best yet our clients’ perceptions are different, we like to take a step back and do a self-critique. And suddenly we became impressed with a couple of ironies.
First, the reality is that 99 times out of 100 I can tell you at the first meeting at the kitchen table whether it will have a happy ending. Sometimes we get blindsided by friendly fire; that much is unavoidable. But when I look back at our less successful relationships, more often than not I saw it coming yet chose to put the blinders on in the name of solvency.
The second irony is that most of us are not shy about espousing the evils of brokers who will hire any agent with a pulse, yet too often we are willing to take on any client who will hire us. In my own brokerage, we grill would-be agents as if we are about to seat a Supreme Court Justice. "Be slow to hire and quick to fire" goes the saying. Sometimes I still forget that one when I am wearing my agent hat.
A real estate agent’s career is equal parts getting the business and doing the business, one being predicated on the other. Sometimes the promise of a paycheck is a little too tempting, and we make bad business decisions as a result. Other times, we simply refuse to set boundaries for fear that we might ruffle feathers and be replaced.
This is a hard lesson for the veteran agent to learn; it is a far harder one for the newer, hungrier licensee. It is painful to pass on business, particularly in an environment where business is limited. So we tend to sign up when we know that expectations are unrealistic, or we agree to work with someone who has little respect for us.
Sometimes we simply enter into a relationship knowing the personalities don’t jibe. We’re tough; we can take it, we argue, and we justify our weakness by a need to pay the bills. But 99 times out of 100, the real costs are far greater than any paycheck.
The level of difficulty in our business continues to increase, and there is no looking back. Our clients will continue to expect to oversee a process they know a whole lot less about than they think and, at least for the foreseeable future, our business opportunities will be fewer. No job is a laugh riot 24-7, but that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to being human punching bags. Sometimes, it is as simple as reconsidering who is doing the hiring.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor.