"What makes you different from the other agents?" asked my would-be suitor.

Now, I totally get this question. It is the "money question" and, to the home seller, the answer is of secondary import only to that other question. ("Will you do it for $12 and a goat, because I know this guy at the office who got his license last Tuesday and he owes me a favor …") So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, except I had spent the previous hour at the kitchen table talking a very impressive blue streak about market trends, FHA loan guideline changes, mortgage-backed securities buybacks, and homebuyer tax credits. I talked about the future of interest rates, the pathetically sparse local inventory of homes for sale, and buyer wants and expectations from my feet-on-the-ground perspective.

"What makes you different from the other agents?" asked my would-be suitor.

Now, I totally get this question. It is the "money question" and, to the home seller, the answer is of secondary import only to that other question. ("Will you do it for $12 and a goat, because I know this guy at the office who got his license last Tuesday and he owes me a favor …") So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, except I had spent the previous hour at the kitchen table talking a very impressive blue streak about market trends, FHA loan guideline changes, mortgage-backed securities buybacks, and homebuyer tax credits. I talked about the future of interest rates, the pathetically sparse local inventory of homes for sale, and buyer wants and expectations from my feet-on-the-ground perspective.

We talked about my company’s customer service philosophy and our business model. We waxed philosophical about contracts, staging, market times, and marketing. And by the time I was done, it looked like a Madison Avenue ad agency had just thrown up all over the seller’s living room rug (a rich, neutral Berber which perfectly complemented the custom-color walls).

"OK, fine. How do you compare yourself to other agents?" she probed in her relentless quest for the truth, proceeding to rattle off a list of other "neighborhood specialists."

In other words, I was being asked to name names. And, I carefully considered my possible responses. "Craig doesn’t return his calls, Jenny likes Brussels sprouts and hates puppies, and Jeff uses an ugly font in his property brochures," sounded a little too negative — even if I’m pretty sure it’s mostly true.

Refusing to trash-talk my "competitors," considering this both poor form and ethically questionable, I proceeded to rephrase and restate what I am about, as an agent and a brokerage. Rather than make direct comparisons, I attempted to communicate the difference by inference, clinging to the notion that the high road was littered with bonus points.

Maybe it is; maybe it is not. The jury is still out. But the distinction conundrum is one that haunts every agent who occasionally finds himself responding to the cold listing call. And then it occurred to me that this customer didn’t really want a Ben Franklin approach to solving her dilemma. No fancy comparison table was going to give her clarity. What she was missing was that feeling — that sense of knowing bad agent from good and good from better.

My brand had failed me.

The reality is that our uniqueness can’t be quantified. Sure, I can bury my audience in client testimonials, but I am fairly sure that other agents of all calibers can do the same. I can hurl statistics at them showing that my listings sell for more, assuming I specialize in the higher-end neighborhoods, sell sooner, assuming all of my clients are perfectly realistic about pricing or aren’t selling short, or sell at a higher price per square foot, assuming I primarily list smaller properties.

But the fixer home I listed last week, which is priced accordingly and for which the buyer pool is approximately one, can put an ugly scar on my otherwise glorious spreadsheet.

Saying my marketing is better, broader, or more effective — this is generally received as a lot of yammer, as is the notion that I am more experienced, knowledgeable or passionate. Until we are in a relationship, these things are unproven intangibles. We are asking the customer to take it on faith, and only an effective brand can inspire them to believe. …CONTINUED

The fact that I was even invited to the table is yet another example that brokerage size doesn’t matter. I was competing with agents from some very big brokerages, and I know this because of the names that were flying as she tried to engage me in the smack-down lightening round. So, one could argue that I have achieved some name recognition.

But, until I am able to establish brand recognition, at either the agent or the brokerage level, my listing interviews will remain a series of pop quizzes for which there are no right answers.

Marc Davison drew analogy from the record industry, saying that once-great record labels lost their vision along the way, and their brand stopped mattering, which in turn presented opportunity for innovators to fill the void.

He wrote, "Conventional thinking recognizes independent agents as the only brands that matter while dogmatic brokerages tied to the ball and chain of tradition have brand identities void of meaning. I could cite 10 brokerages right now that matter. But even if I couldn’t name one, I would argue vehemently that this is the condition of an industry that has lost its soul and made the choice not to matter."

"99 red balloons floating in the summer sky. Panic bells, it’s red alert. There’s something here from somewhere else" (From the song "99 Red Balloons," by "Nena").

As our traditional real estate world has been turned on its head, I have seen the panic from the industry. First, the knee-jerk reaction from the traditionalists was to fight change, declaring war on the unfamiliar in a case of mistaken identity. Slowly, though, I am seeing change, if only in attitude — a general acceptance that our old mindset may just be flawed, even as the big vs. small market share war wages on.

Marc went on, "I’d hammer my value proposition on my shingle — my Web site. And bring on talent that shares my vision. I’d send a skywriter up and etch it into the heavens. I’d reward agents who delivered on our promise and behead those who didn’t."

"99 dreams I have had. In every one a red balloon."

Dreams are the easy part. Embracing innovation and hanging a shingle with a different message can be accomplished quickly. Establishing a remarkable brand takes much longer. Communicating differentiation so that it becomes intuitive in the mind of the customer is a process, but it can be accomplished on any scale with enough passion and commitment.

When we are able to achieve this, it might not be so crowded at the kitchen table. My most recent outing reminded me that I am not there yet. But I keep the dream.

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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