As I was taking in a panel discussion at the Inman Real Estate Connect conference on the brokerage of the future, I was again struck by the sense that we are still missing the point. Our world is moving pretty quickly now. Someone didn’t just move our cheese; they took it and made nachos. Things are that different, and time may be running out.

During the brokerage reboot session, some very smart and influential CEOs from some very different yet successful companies were charged with designing a blueprint for a new brokerage model. Mission statements, names and logos were served up. Key issues such as office size, profitability, training and esprit de corps among agents and management were discussed. And an organization chart was presented.

The organization chart was an orb, and at the center was the CEO. I get this. Surrounding the CEO were the agents since, as the panelists pointed out, the agents are the most important company asset. And all of those things offered by the broker to bring value to the agent constituted the outer ring.

The idea of the world revolving around the agent feels good on the face, particularly if you are one of those guys. But as they spoke of the upbeat culture committed to excellence — a culture so rich that agents would be moved to bring more agents yet into the fold — that little voice in my head started groaning, "Recruit, retain, recruit some more!"

I’m a big fan of profitability, and I get the whole numbers thing; brokers make money when agents make money, so more agents mean more money.

Yet something was missing. Oh, yes. I remember now. Where did I put that customer?

Marc Davison, wearing his customer hat, wrote about his recent stay at a Four Seasons hotel. He wrote about the nuances, the attention to detail, and an overall customer service experience that left him "inspired." In short, he wrote about how his engagement with this brand made him feel.

While attending Connect last week, I too was inspired by the hospitality industry. A coincidence? I think not. In fact, there is quite a lot we can learn about our own businesses by just hanging out in the lobby of a hotel. My experience, it turns out was quite different than Mr. Davison’s.

Due to unfortunate circumstances involving poor planning and procrastination, every mainstream hotel within commuter flight range of the conference venue was booked on the first night of my stay, leaving me to scour the "B" list for a bed. And when I settled on a quaint little place with a regal sounding name and reasonable online reviews (reviews like, "We thought it would suck worse!"), my expectations were not enormous.

Mr. Davison was greeted at his Four Seasons with reverential tones and intuitive service. When I arrived at my hotel at 5 a.m. (the one located above a deli and next door to a youth hostel), straight off a red eye and asking where I might check my bags, a grumpy little man in sweat pants pointed to the lockers in the back, not bothering to look up from his early edition newspaper.

Fair enough. I’m a gamer and, at this price, I wasn’t expecting the Ritz. I’m pretty forgiving, and I had come prepared, logically anticipating a nexus between cost and quality.

I continued to forgive.

So what if the walls were so thin and the neighboring French visitors so loud that I had to sleep with CNN blaring, CNN being the only station that worked on the 5-inch television with rabbit ears, to drown out their snoring? So what if the bathroom had no light and no mirror, leaving me at severe risk of making my next day conference debut looking like Emmet Kelly? …CONTINUED

This was intended as a one-night stopgap, after all.

Despite the fact that I am quite proud of my Adventure Girl spirit, we all have our limits, and mine was realized the next morning. As I stumbled through the "lobby" (and we are using the term loosely here) pre-dawn on an urgent coffee mission, I dutifully turned in my key as was required for all departures.

"This is a European thing," I thought, preferring that explanation over the more obvious one — that my French "roommates" had been paying by the hour.

And when I explained that I would be back momentarily, as soon as I walked down to the deli and back, the same unshaven night-shift attendant finally acknowledged my patronage and existence.

"Bring me back an orange juice," he directed.

I suppose my "You’re kidding me, right?" look of befuddlement was all too transparent.

"A small one," he explained. "Fresh squeezed."

Being that it was too early to rumble with a New Yorker who had been pointing to lockers all night, bring home the OJ I did. And, after a brief exchange in which he challenged the price tag ("Are you sure it was $1.95?"), I was able to wrangle my room key from his grasp, but only after producing change for two dollars.

So what does this have to do with the brokerage of the future? Plenty. Hotels are in the business of selling beds. But, to the customer, it is not about the beds. It is not even about the ice machine, the art in the lobby or the yummy little chocolates on the pillows — or, in my case, the absence thereof. It is about how you feel during and after your stay.

Had the Four Seasons staff treated Mr. Davison with contempt or even indifference, they would not have received his five-star rating regardless of how impressive the honor bar. And had the staff at my off-brand, discount Palace of Royal Arms Next to the Big Green Dumpster offered to carry my bags to the locker for me or take on the role of morning beverage runner, I would have appreciated the effort.

Real estate brokerages, too, are in the business of selling beds — to the agents. Minimize vacancy, and maximize profitability. Yet, to the customer, none of this matters. Big or small, headliner or off-Broadway, the beds they are really selling are houses, and it is not about what your shop looks like from the inside of your business plan, but how the customer feels at the end of their stay.

Training and tools are great, and they are necessary. Recruitment is as well. But if we are really going to talk about a different and better brokerage of the future — if we are going to truly reboot the dinosaur — putting these things in their proper context is essential.

It is not about helping the agents sell more houses or encouraging the agents to convince more of their licensed buddies to sign up. Rather it is first about providing a better customer experience. Do this — leave the customer feeling good about the service and the brand and not that there was some misrepresented disconnect between the promise and the expectation — and profitability for everyone will follow.

Service is scalable, but only if we remember whom we are ultimately serving.


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