Real estate brokers are cutting office staff and reducing marketing and advertising expenses to survive the downturn, but most have still managed to beef up spending on technology and agent recruitment and training in the past year, according to a broker survey conducted by Inman News.

When it comes to competing for buyers and listings, having experienced, trained agents trumps the size of a company or its brand, real estate brokers surveyed by Inman News say.

Carving out a niche market or area of specialization was also seen as a less important competitive advantage than staying abreast of technology and conducting online marketing.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a five-part series based on an Inman News survey of nearly 200 real estate brokers. Part 1 explored brokers’ views of the government’s role in the industry; Part 2 examined brokers’ attitudes about rules and policies established by the industry itself; Part 3 focused on market segments where brokerages have been gaining or losing business; and Part 4 detailed areas in which brokers have made cutbacks to survive the downturn or maintained or increased investment. In Part 5, below, brokers discuss what they see as their firms’ competitive advantage.

When it comes to competing for buyers and listings, having experienced, trained agents trumps the size of a company or its brand, real estate brokers surveyed by Inman News say.

Carving out a niche market or area of specialization was also seen as a less important competitive advantage than staying abreast of technology and conducting online marketing.

While 73 percent of brokers cited agent training and education as a "highly important" competitive advantage, only 53 percent said the same about their brand.

Similarly, experienced agents were considered a "highly important" competitive advantage by 69 percent of brokers, but only 37 percent rated having a specialization or niche as "highly important" and 24 percent viewed the size of a company as "highly important."

Click here for larger chart

The online survey captured the views of 181 brokers doing business in 37 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada, from Oct. 16, 2009, to Jan. 12, 2010. An average of 96 agents were employed at the brokerages surveyed, with companies employing fewer than 1,000 agents averaging 53 sales associates. …CONTINUED

Brokers not only compete with each other for buyers and sellers, but to attract the most successful agents — or those with the most potential — from a vast pool of licensees.

When it comes to keeping agents happy, real estate brokers again emphasized training over their brand appeal, or even a company’s ability to provide leads and listings.

Brokers think the most important service they perform for agents is advice and training, including the mentoring market expertise they can provide, and the ability to answer questions and resolve issues with contracts, transactions and legal issues.

Among 155 brokers responding to the question, "What do YOU BELIEVE is the most important service that your brokerage provides for its agents/sales associates?" 61 percent said training and expertise.

A broker at a four-agent company in Idaho cited "my knowledge of the industry and my ability to help (agents) through their problematic transactions" as the most important service provided to agents, along with "the ability to help them understand how to use today’s technology tools to make their life easier."

Providing technology, online tools and tech support to agents was the second most often cited "most important service" (12 percent), followed by marketing and advertising (8 percent), providing leads and listings (4 percent), and office space and administrative support (4 percent).

A broker on California’s Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County boasted of providing "free Internet sites for each listing, each agent and paperless transactions."

"Leads and a lot of them," a broker in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, market cited as the most important service to agents..

Although many brokers might not view their brand or the terms of commission splits as a "service," 4 percent of brokers surveyed said their brand was the most important service they provided to agents, and 1 percent cited commission splits. …CONTINUED

Some of the services brokers see as "most important" might seem modest to agents.

A Pittsburgh, Pa.-based broker with 12 agents viewed the provision of a color printer, scanner and fax — "at no cost" — as the most important service provided.

A Phoenix, Ariz.-based broker said the most important service provided to agents was the "freedom to run their business as they deem fit (within legal and ethical guidelines of course)."

"An office to go to," offered a broker in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Among brokers offering training and expertise, many seemed to be referring primarily to the wisdom they could impart to agents directly themselves.

"I am available 24/7 and probably one of the most knowledgeable persons in real estate," said one such response, from a Baltimore, Md.-based broker at a seven-agent company.

"My own personal experience knowing the niches of San Diego communities like I do after 28 years living here," said another broker.

A Rochester, Mass.-based broker offered agents "support for keeping positive in crazy times."

Note: Inman News has launched a new survey: 2020 Re-Envision: The Future of Real Estate brokerage, that asks participants to imagine the real estate industry 10 years from today. Click here to take the survey.

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