Just like any real estate agent preparing for a vacation, he handed my husband two slips of paper. They each held a name.

"This woman is waiting for a two-bedroom unit with a view," he said as he began making his referrals. "The other wants to sell. I have known him for years. Good man."

Just like any real estate agent preparing for a vacation, he handed my husband two slips of paper. They each held a name.

"This woman is waiting for a two-bedroom unit with a view," he said as he began making his referrals. "The other wants to sell. I have known him for years. Good man."

My father-in-law was the sort of agent that you might see depicted on one of the National Association of Realtors’ public awareness campaign ads. He was proud, he was dedicated, and he considered his a people business.

While other agents worried about things like prospects and leads, he spent his days forging relationships that would last a lifetime.

I was summarizing the results of the National Association of Realtors’ 2011 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers for our upcoming year-end office meeting when I found myself thinking of my father-in-law, Murray. The things that are important to people today were no less so when he first got his real estate license four decades ago.

Trustworthiness, honesty and reputation rank high among buyers and sellers as an agent’s most important attributes. Yet these things are perceptions. Word of mouth, and referrals from friends and family, are today and always have been king.

It’s what we call "sphere of influence," and it is this sphere of influence that represents the way in which most agents are selected, according to the study.

Murray didn’t need a survey to tell him this. In fact, I don’t truly believe he intentionally set out each day to build his sphere. Rather, he worked hard and he cared about his clients. He cared so much that he could never retire; they wouldn’t let him.

He began his career late in life, a retired full-bird army colonel. I suppose he found real estate to be a better hobby than planting rose bushes.

While in his 70s he began declaring each year to be the year he would start winding down. But those darn past clients kept calling. They trusted no one else, and he trusted no one else to help them. They were his friends.

Later, in his 80s, we would be seated around his dining room table for Sunday brunch and, when Murray skipped the onion on his bagel, we knew. Minutes later, he would briefly disappear only to re-emerge in full "Class A" uniform — suit, tie, and broker-branded name badge. He had an open house.

My father-in-law rarely spent money marketing himself. He had a little mailer that he sent each month to the building in which he lived, but that was mostly just a note to his "friends." And when I read that real estate is no longer a relationship business, I shake my head. It is mostly a relationship business.

It is mostly a relationship business, but not the kind that we tend to try to manufacture today through online social platforms. "Likes," "follows" and digital "friends" do not represent relationships; real-life interactions do.

I was reviewing our company production, as I do every year around this time, and my thoughts drifted back to last December’s meeting with our agents. My husband looked around the room and said, "There is no reason why every one of you shouldn’t make a six-figure income next year."

Afterward, one of the agents cornered him to explain how this didn’t apply to him. He was winding down. He was planning on retiring in a couple of years. My husband knew the truth; his clients wouldn’t let him.

The "agent who couldn’t," it turns out, is an agent who doesn’t engage in any social media, who doesn’t have a website, who spends nothing on marketing himself, who not only made well into the six figures this year but more than doubled his last year’s income.

That’s what happens when you care about your clients and they consequently care about you. That’s his secret; that was Murray’s secret.

Our agent takes his clients to lunch regularly — not because it’s part of a grand conversion scheme, but because he genuinely enjoys their company. He checks in on them regularly with old-fashioned phone calls, not because he "hearts" referrals, but because he cares about his clients.

And he works hard. This agent accepts referrals that other agents decline — referrals at lower price points or in remote areas — because he feels an obligation to treat the needs of all buyers and sellers with equal import and respect.

He often says, "I don’t want people to think that our company is too ‘good’ to handle small transactions. That is not what we are about." Not inconsequentially, it was one of these transactions, smaller than small, that forged a relationship that blossomed into two others for the family this year.

My father-in-law was 54 when he started his second career as a real estate agent. He was 82 when he handed my husband those two slips of paper. He wasn’t leaving for vacation, though. He was in a hospital room with Stage 4 cancer.

There were a few other things he might have been worrying about at that moment, but what was mostly on his mind was making sure that his clients were taken care of.

One of the last things Murray said to me was, "I don’t think I will mail the building this month." I laughed; he was serious. Some time during his golden years he had gotten his broker’s license, and it had always been his dream to open up a little one-man shop where he could, as he put it, "hang my own shingle."

He never saw that day, but my husband and I are proud that we have fulfilled that dream for him. More importantly, we are proud that we honor him every day with our company philosophy, "The customer is always at the center of our business."

As we turn the corner on a new year, so many of you are looking forward and contemplating how you might build your business. It’s really not so complicated, this real estate thing. Sure, we have new ways of communicating and whiz-bang technology that my father-in-law didn’t.

But the fundamentals haven’t changed. Regardless of what you may hear, this is a relationship business, and you can’t have relationships without caring about the people first. Do that and the income will follow — I promise.

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