I still remember the McDonald’s signs. They were what you might call fast-food scouting reports for one company. In my younger days, the signs told me that over 100 million hamburgers had been sold.

When the menu expanded and the product offering took on more of a team concept, the signs were modified. "Over (fill in the blank) Billion Served," was the new message. And when the number reached three-digits and could no longer be accommodated by the signs, they simply changed the message again.

I still remember the McDonald’s signs. They were what you might call fast-food scouting reports for one company. In my younger days, the signs told me that over 100 million hamburgers had been sold.

When the menu expanded and the product offering took on more of a team concept, the signs were modified. "Over (fill in the blank) Billion Served," was the new message. And when the number reached three-digits and could no longer be accommodated by the signs, they simply changed the message again.

"Billions served."

Did it make an impression? I suppose. Billions, even millions, sounds like a lot of all-beef patties, any way you dress it. It confirmed what I already held to be true back then: McDonald’s is the bomb. But did I, the consumer, ask for — and demand — the supporting data? Was I even entitled to the data, let alone an independent audit? And what about Burger King? Shouldn’t I have access to its production numbers so that I might make an informed decision when selecting a saturated-fat delivery device?

No. Because when it comes to fast food, the food is the product. Marketing may catch my attention, the pretty packaging and whimsical characters may draw me in, but I will ultimately consume what I like. And if the product is crummy, I won’t go back.

Billions and billions served.

Today they are presumably talking about people, but they could be talking about menu items. I’m not entirely clear on this point, and it doesn’t really matter because the concept is just a marketing device — quantitatively vague as a matter of both practicality and necessity.

In real estate, there seems to be this misguided notion that the house is the product. It is not. The agent is the product. Therein lies the problem with using homes as a metric for the quality of the agent.

Ultimately, it is the agent who is the product, from the perspective of both the broker and the consumer. It is the agent whom the brokerage storefront is peddling, and it is the agent whom the consumer is hiring. Does the homebuyer or seller want to know how many have been served? Undoubtedly, yes. Is it the broker’s obligation and the consumer’s divine right to have this information published in a comprehensive look-up table for cross-comparison in, say, Scouting Reports? In my opinion, it is not.

I am going to set aside perhaps the biggest argument in all of this: that publishing agent production numbers is a blatant misuse of data where many multiple listing services are concerned (mine included). Right or wrong, the MLS is first and foremost an offer of compensation between cooperating brokers, a vehicle for marketing listed properties, and a data set to assist with market valuations and appraisals.

Yes, through Internet Data Exchange and third-party syndication, it has morphed into a front-facing housing data archive for consumers.

But the intent of the MLS isn’t — never was — to be a "1099" repository. And it can’t be. Given the way in which business models vary, there is simply no way to accurately portray the numbers served by individual agents.

Further, anyone who is actually engaged in a real estate career will agree that the numbers are but one measure of success. The bigger issue is that, despite the feel-good rhetoric by self-proclaimed selfless defenders of consumer rights, consumers do have access to this information. All they have to do is ask.

To suggest that our production numbers are rightfully public domain is to suggest that so should be the number of cavities every dentist has filled, or the number of tax returns my accountant and every other licensed certified public accountant have filed. The consumer is clamoring for this information? Only when someone steps forward and very publicly and vocally creates the demand.

All you have to do is ask. Naysayers, of course, will argue that they can’t trust agents to tell the truth. Sadly, they are often right. A local agent in my market regularly runs an ad that reads, "Why have more (community) residents chosen (agent name) over other real estate agents?" They haven’t. But the ad is intentionally short on supporting data. While arguably irresponsible and misleading, it is simply a marketing device. Billions served.

Inna Hardison wrote in a piece at InmanNext, "And if the agent tells me, the consumer, that they’ve successfully closed two dozen transactions in my neighborhood representing sellers, and sold the properties for 99% of market and even saved a few stray kittens in the process, I am supposed to take their word for it."

I give the average consumer more credit than to just take my word for anything today. My own clients don’t believe my opinions of value, my analyses of market trends, or even my representation of the listing inventory without fact-checking across multiple sites and asking 12 friends. Do you really think the majority of consumers are going to retrieve a self-promotional fluff piece from their front porch and give it the full weight of a tablet just delivered from the mountaintop?

Despite all of this, I don’t believe that most agents are opposed to a public screening of their outbox, myself included. I do believe that the larger issues are these:

  • Data integrity. If you can’t get it right (and you can’t), don’t pretend that you can deliver.
  • Medium for message delivery. A competing broker’s site is not the appropriate place to archive the efforts of all agents in the industry. This was an altruistic attempt at raising the bar, I read. Yet it oddly feels like more of an opportunistic marketing ploy wherein information is presented in a way that places the publisher in the most favorable light at the expense of competitors; it’s a self-serving smoothie with a search engine booster.
  • Agents, not the homes, are the product. Agents provide counsel and representation; in short, we provide service, and that can’t be quantified with raw data alone. Our value is measured by our customers, and it is measured quite subjectively.

"Billions Served" does not specify whether we are talking about customers or menu items. It may mean we sold ourselves once to a billion people, none of whom returned, while "Hundreds Served" may represent a host of satisfied, repeat customers. There is no data set sufficiently accurate and comprehensive, nor spreadsheet sufficiently large, to address the variables of our business or the nuances of the perception algorithm.

It is not the data we fear, and if you would like the unadulterated data straight from my MLS to you, just ask. Any responsible agent will provide the customer with performance statistics willingly and without hesitation. If they won’t, they shouldn’t be hired.

You want numbers? Year to date, my husband and I, wearing our agent hats, have represented 28 clients. By Friday, that number will be 33. So what? More importantly, what do those numbers mean? Is it a lot? Not enough? Were our clients happy? Did they want us dead by the time we handed over the keys? Did we have a cast of thousands doing all the heavy lifting while we played golf, or did we act alone?

Does any of this really matter — to the customer? What matters to the customer is really all that matters, and Scouting Reports may never fully answer that question. But, as I brace for the dissenting backlash, I will say that real estate buyers and sellers are not entitled to a comprehensive industry audit of our analytics any more than I am entitled to know exactly how many Quarter Pounders McDonald’s actually fried up last year. Neither has the slightest thing to do with consumer protection; that is the role, in our industry, of the real estate regulators and, dare I say, should be the role of the brokerages.

There are numbers, there is context, and there is perception. Even if I can accurately quantify one of the three, without the other two that one is meaningless. "Billions Served" matters only if the customer left satisfied and plans on returning. Alas, not everyone has the same tastes. Some want haute cuisine, some appreciate plating, and some will always just want a burger off the dollar menu.

The MLS can’t tell you if I am your best choice, nor can another broker — nor even can I — because everyone has a unique palate and will measure the experience differently. So in the end, producing information on agent productivity isn’t about responding to public outcry, delivering transparency or some other noble ambition. What this is really about is marketing — quantitatively misleading as a matter of practicality and necessity — as it will be every time someone attempts to repackage such a product for mass consumption. That’s the meat of it.

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