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Sink or swim: a real estate snorkeling lesson

Letters From the Home Front

My husband and I recently took a vacation, and it was as close to a traditional vacation as two card-carrying members of three real estate associations could possibly be expected to muster.

In the ultimate act of defiance, having committed to a "Just watch! We are going to relax if it kills us!" kind of arrogance, we threw our hearts and bottom line into our evil plan with reckless abandon.

Our eight-day break from work took six months of planning and one final hell week wherein we assigned phones, transaction files, and business management duties to a throng of doe-eyed agents who would only figure out what had hit them once we were safely out of cell phone range.

We engaged auto-responders and secondary voice mail messages to redirect the incoming fire. We alerted all of our clients to our impending absence. And we vowed to leave the laptops behind.

But I took the iPad. The reality is that stuff happens, and totally disconnecting is not viable. Plus, I heard that our temporary home in the British Virgin Islands, one accessible only by watercraft, had free Wi-Fi (it did).

I’ll begin with the end. We had a fabulous time, a fabulous time that ended up costing us approximately double what the actual vacation cost. Agents who have attempted the vacation thing are undoubtedly head-bobbing as I speak.

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You can’t expect people to do your heavy-lifting for free, and a vacation auto-responder is like the starting gun at the 200-meter "buy and sell homes" relay. Past, present and future clients spring into action, manning the phone banks, clamoring to write offers, and demanding listing contracts and photo shoots like a free society depends on going live in the multiple listing service by morning.

My favorite example of this is the short sale I had been working on for 18 months (and I am not embellishing here), the one that decided it was time to implode, resuscitate, and finally close all in one glorious day when I was donning the fashionable snorkel attire.

Such is our business. It’s fast-paced, it is unpredictable, and it is a 24-hours-a-day commitment.

But this isn’t just another story about "paid" vacations in real estate. We’re familiar with that story, and we know it generally ends with a short math exercise in which we multiply several paychecks by 25 percent.

Rather, what my vacation really had me thinking about was business planning. You can take the girl out of the real estate, but everything reminds me of real estate — apparently, even snorkeling.

I long ago accepted that I was not going to be a scuba diver. For starters, I don’t really want to be that close to fish. I like fish, mind you. They’re pretty and all that, but I need my space. I have no strong desire to come within striking distance of anything adorned with suction cups and tentacles.

I arrived at the dock to catch our big boat for the neighboring coral reef.

I am proud to say I had come dressed for the part, wearing enough sunscreen to plug the ozone layer if someone could just give me a boost and a toting beach bag emblazoned with the logo of my favorite title company, a whimsical throwback to the simpler, "pre-RESPA" days.

"The snorkeling life is for me!" I thought. Except when it’s hard. Even snorkeling requires effort, I learned long ago.

You see, to snorkel requires that you engage in aerobic activity — I think they call it "swimming." You need to swim, that is, if you are a purist. I, on the other hand, have learned over time the secret of the "floaty thing."

I believe these might go by a more fancy name, like "buoyancy belts," in serious sporting circles. The idea is that you wrap this flotation device around your waist and, voila! You float!

No need to come in actual contact with the pretty fish, and no need to exert undue energy in suction cup-and-drowning-avoidance maneuvers. It’s a thing of beauty, really.

Yet, as our expedition reached its destination and I asked for the floaty thing, all eyes were upon me. It seems I had committed the cardinal sin of crowd mentality. I had deviated from the norm. I had dared to be different.

Undeterred, I buckled the fashionable foam belt around my waist as best I could find it (my waist), and set about frolicking among the flotsam and jetsam without breaking a sweat.

Here’s the funny thing — the thing my husband and I laughed about later: Within minutes of breaking rank, half of the people in our group, from their treading water purviews, were shouting to the captain through they’re now-labored breathing, "Can we have a floaty thing?"

We had suddenly transformed into a school of bobbing petroleum-based products looking like we were vying for the heavyweight championship, or gearing up to move a lot of pianos.

I went from embarrassing nonconformist to renegade mentor, and it was all quite by accident, because I didn’t give a flip about what was expected or what others might say.

Now, one could argue that I am an innovator, but I am not. I did not invent the floaty thing. I simply considered my objective (to see pretty fish without being becoming the trailer for "Jaws 5") and established the best way accomplish my objective.

And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing floaty things on the Hollywood red carpet, with the word getting out about this new, must-have fashion accessory.

Back to work. Having reclaimed my rightful place as a landlubber, I was thinking about my accidental leadership position as I resumed my less life-threatening real estate adventures.

Not much had changed in my absence. My feed reader and my inbox were brimming with links to articles prescribing the right ways to do my job and with invitations to dozens of webinars and seminars where I might hear how others do things — and, therefore, how I should do them, too.

Social media, search engine optimization, advertising, marketing, lead generation strategies — everybody is talking about the "what," but how many agents pause to boldly ponder the "why"?

You can’t discover one without understanding the other.

The "why," in its simplest form, involves generating business and making a living; that much is obvious. But why we make the choices we do runs deeper.

Are you trying to attract buyers, or sellers? Is your goal to generate new business, or build on relationships you have? Are you attempting to establish a brand, or grow the brand recognition and loyalty you already enjoy?

Or, are you just trying to fit in — along for the ride?

Herd mentality is rampant in our business, and the surest way to stall your own is to spend more than five minutes a day concerned with what other agents and brokers are up to. It starts at the production board in the office, where we are bred to see our work only in the context of how we compare with others.

And it continues with the deafening noise, the how-to’s and the must-do’s so that we might be more like other agents, culminating in a crescendo of exclusionary marketing opportunities that might allow us to empty our bank accounts in a footrace to the sidebar ads — ads that are impossible to tell apart, save the glamour shot.

Yet along the way, lost are three fundamental ideas:

  • You are not competing with other agents, but only with yourself.
  • There can be no prescription for your success, because your skill sets and your "whys" are unique.
  • Success depends on differentiation. Untargeted, unimaginative marketing and business practices serve only to confuse your intended audience by making you virtually indistinguishable.

Years ago we visited Trunk Bay, a popular snorkeling destination in the Virgin Islands. It’s unique in that it is an underwater national monument. Snorkelers follow a guided trail — a series of undersea signs that identify the fish present at each location.

I used to wonder, "How do the fish know to stay by their signs?" I’m pretty sure they can’t read. And yet, the fish depicted on the markers where always the spitting images of the ones gazing at me with their hungry little agent-eating eyes.

The answer, of course, is survival. It’s the same reason they swim in schools. If you have gills, differentiation will kill you. On the other hand, hanging with fish that look like you, and hanging out in places where you blend in with the surroundings, gives you the best chance for survival.

I’m sure, at some point, some poor misguided fellow did venture away from his placard. And then some bigger fish recognized him for what he was: lunch.

Not so in real estate. Sameness is not safer. Our goal is to be extraordinary, and by mimicking and conforming we only ensure that we remain behind the pack, indistinguishable. By definition, followers will never hold the place in front.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great ideas out there, but don’t let insecurity, fear or a desire to ride shotgun in the bandwagon write your business plan. Be brave enough to do what makes sense for you — those things that help you reach your objectives.

Make your choices thoughtfully, and sometimes the best way to do this is in a vacuum. Executing a successful business plan doesn’t have to be hard; it just has to be effective. It has to be purposeful, and it has to be personal.

And if that means you never blog or sign up for a Twitter account while the experts tell you that you must, or if you continue to embrace "old school" tactics while all disapproving eyes in the boat are on you, so be it. Your decisions and your creativity alone will determine whether you sink or swim.

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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