I know you may find this hard to believe, but mortgage loan originators, as that eminent economist Donna Summer said, "work hard for the money."

Actually, they work harder than you might guess, because this has been a shrinking field. Loan production, which has been on a decline through this recession, is still dropping, from $1.4 trillion in 2010 to less than an estimated $1 trillion for 2011.

If you as a loan originator survived the crisis — and many didn’t — the competition to handle a shrinking piece of the mortgage business has become intense, which is partly why Mortgage Success Source, the Holmdel, N.J., provider of client acquisition and retention solutions for mortgage banking and financial institutions, undertook a landmark study on the best practices of loan originators.

It’s understandable that you might not have any sympathy for mortgage brokers and their ilk, as some of them certainly had a swinging time of it from about 2000-07. All they had to do was open their doors and clients came in like the hordes of Attila. Money flowed and mortgage specialists cashed in.

All this came to a crashing halt with the mortgage/housing crisis, Wall Street carnage and the ongoing recession.

When I talked to David Fournier, CEO of Mortgage Success Source, he explained to me that over the past five years there has been a kind of cleansing in the mortgage origination industry, with the parvenus dropping out leaving behind a hardcore group of veterans.

"One of the things we found out," he said, "is that we now have a very tenured, mature group of originators. Ninety-three percent of the originators have been in the industry for more than five years. A decade ago a lot of people came into the industry who were relatively new and, when things turned down, left."

There have been other changes, as well. Six years ago, the mortgage origination industry was all about the broker: 65 percent to 70 percent of originations came out of the broker channel. Subsequently, 65 percent to 70 percent of the originators were in that channel.

That’s not the case today, said Fournier. "Less than 15 percent to 20 percent of originations come through the broker channel. Now the business is dominated by correspondent lenders and depository banks."

The biggest change has been the nature of the business.

"There was so much origination business going on, originators did not proactively seek clients," Fournier said. "Phones were ringing off the hook. With interest rates so low and home values rising, you could refinance anything. In addition, underwriting standards were lax and commensurate with mortgage products available.

"The originator did not have to go out and make rain, which is a skill they had to learn again over the last three years."

Some have relearned quickly, and some haven’t.

Mortgage Success Source’s study, called "Mortgage Loan Origination: Reaching Peak Performance During Challenging Times," was conducted by a third party, FirstUSA Data, which surveyed 3,600 individual loan originators via the Internet and a follow-up phone interview with 657 originators.

According to the survey, the top one-third of loan originators generated production sales volume averaging in excess of $30 million in the 12 months prior to the survey — three times more than the $10 million produced during the same period by the average loan originator.

"The best of the best — the top 15 percent of all originators — actually performed at almost seven times the volume than that of the lower tier of originators," Fournier said. "The top 15 percent did $150 million to $200 million in loan production. The bottom tier: $10 million to $15 million."

Interestingly, the survey noted, the top-performing loan originators are not better trained or more experienced than the average performers. Where one worked didn’t make a difference either, as originators who were brokers or worked at a correspondent lender or depository bank all performed similar tasks.

What was the difference between the best and the worst originators? The short answer: work ethic.

The best of the best spend a vast majority of their time involved in almost three times or four times as many acquisition strategies, meaning they are out doing seminars for first-time homebuyers, seminars for retirees, meeting people at settings like Rotary Club meetings, writing articles, and getting their name in the local press. In short, they are marketing more and maintaining a client "interface."

Secondly, the organizations behind the top performers have alleviated one of the most time-consuming headaches — the vast amount of paperwork that has to be completed for mortgages — using underling staff members to handle the mundane administrative duties.

Top-tier performers are focused on keeping their clients happy and let the back office manage the loan process, assembling the paperwork, gathering proof of employment and similar time-intensive duties.

Why is this important? According to a Mortgage Bankers Association study, 50 percent of the consumers surveyed, after 180 days, didn’t remember the names of their loan originators, and 68 percent end up doing their next loan with someone else.

"It is very important that originators stay in front of their current client base to get that next loan," Fournier says.

Before I let all this go, I should add that the No. 1 marketing strategy across the board for all loan originators is trying to court the top Realtors in the marketplace. Think about it: Every market has three or four top performers and every originator wants to develop a relationship with those men or women.

It’s extremely important then for the originator to set himself or herself apart from all the other originators.

Fournier concluded that originators can do that by bringing to the Realtor value and information that would be of value to their clients.

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