Participating in the Inman News Data Summit and Real Estate Connect last week, with all the hanging out and meeting and greeting and talking, was exhausting. Or maybe exhaustive. Either way, as someone who enjoys being surrounded by knowledge and experience, it was great.

Whenever all of us — technologists, consultants, real estate professionals, company owners, brokers, franchisees and franchisors — get together, I notice that certain questions tend to crop up.

The question I listened to most often throughout the entire week — from Data Summit on Monday and Tuesday through to Friday afternoon waiting for my flight, was this: Who is your customer?

Now that’s a pretty simple little question. Perhaps it should have an obvious two- or three-word answer, and not an entire five days of discussion, presentation and debate. But then again, maybe it’s a little bit more subtle.

Participating in the Inman News Data Summit and Real Estate Connect last week, with all the hanging out and meeting and greeting and talking, was exhausting. Or maybe exhaustive. Either way, as someone who enjoys being surrounded by knowledge and experience, it was great.

Whenever all of us — technologists, consultants, real estate professionals, company owners, brokers, franchisees and franchisors — get together, I notice that certain questions tend to crop up.

The question I listened to most often throughout the entire week — from Data Summit on Monday and Tuesday through to Friday afternoon waiting for my flight, was this: Who is your customer?

Now that’s a pretty simple little question. Perhaps it should have an obvious two- or three-word answer, and not an entire five days of discussion, presentation and debate. But then again, maybe it’s a little bit more subtle.

Chasing down a question

Starting at the Data Summit, I was initially surprised to see how much conversation erupted around the question, "Who is the customer of the multiple listing service?" I heard a wide range of answers from different individuals and organizations:

  • The agents who pay the fees;
  • The brokers who control the association and/or the flow the data
  • "Evil" third-party vendors/syndicators (OK, so no one came right out and said they were evil, but you get the idea).

What got me tuned in to listening to this question throughout the week: the ever-so-slight hesitation most people had before answering.

Throughout the week I probed a bit on this. I asked people outright, or generally started to lean a conversation in that direction to see what would emerge.

The brokers tended to have similar hesitations to the MLS folks, just fewer options: Real estate agents and/or real estate consumers were their customers.

Following this logic, I began to suspect that the number of options for customers at the top of the data food chain is greater, and that there are fewer options as you approach the transaction level.

Perhaps this condition was a form of data-driven myopia, where large data sets create confusion over what’s important. But I was wrong. In fact, it was just the opposite.

At the agent level, the responses to "Who’s your customer?" were astoundingly varied. Sure, some were the simple "Anyone with a pulse and a lot of cash" answers, but just as often the question would instigate lengthy conversations about age, gender and lifestyle demographics.

Reinterpreting questions

No matter which group or type of real estate organization I asked, I heard frequent hesitations and a wide list of potential responses. It was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to find much meaning from this question (not in one week, anyway) given the chaos of the results.

Then I spoke with a broker one night at a party she was hosting to celebrate the upcoming launch of a new site for her brokerage. She had absolutely no hesitation in responding to the question "Who is your customer?" Her customer, she said, is the end consumer.

As I was consolidating some of my notes that evening, I recalled some other conversations in which there were no hesitations in the responses. There weren’t many instances, but there were a few.

Another broker had been just as quick and direct in saying that the agents were his customers. One agent had very quickly rattled off a list of life-change-related characteristics. Another agent had a very specific list of geo-economic sensitivities.

Now I was getting somewhere. I started to realize that there isn’t an answer to the question, "Who is your customer?" Well, not one answer to rule them all, anyway. The real meaning in the question was found in the hesitation at answering.

The question re-examined

If I ignore the content of the answer — "the agents" or "the end consumer" or "my board" or "27-year-old cash buyers who use Facebook, enjoy driving fast cars and are very likely to speak Mandarin," and so on — there are two types of answers:

  • Answer No. 1: Hesitation.
  • Answer No. 2: No hesitation.

The content of the answers is important, but it doesn’t have to be the same across the industry. Cooperation and compensation must be reliable, but the answer to the question about your customer base doesn’t need to remain the same.

I know this because I heard people who are in similar organizations give different answers with no hesitation. These people are successful at what they do, based on the metrics that are important to them.

This is what I learned by listening to this question during the week: Those who have clearly defined the metrics that are important to them also have a clear understanding of who their customer is. I’m not sure which comes first — it could simply be correlation instead of causation (or, as I prefer to say: chicken-and-egg).

Some people and organizations have invested the time to examine and understand the people they want to have as customers. And it’s obvious because they answer, "Who is your customer?" with no hesitation.

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