Inman Connect is a study in particle acceleration. Physicians use particle accelerators to supercharge elementary particles to levels of high energy. Then, being scientists, they pop a cold one, sit back, and watch the magic happen. Collisions occur, but it’s not the collisions they are interested in so much as the byproducts of the exercise.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Connect conferences are about — atom smashing. The atoms in this case are a potpourri of vendors, brokers, multiple listing service executives, and agents. Each group has its own agenda, of course, but the common thread is a desire to network, learn and realize the byproduct of bettering their business.

In our industry chamber of chaos, sometimes it’s easy to forget that other important common thread: the real estate consumer. Because without them, we can just pack it up and go home.

In his opening remarks, Inman News founder and owner Brad Inman spoke about the new "cottage economy," an environment in which "small is beautiful." In our business, we think of this as the power of being hyperlocal. It’s not a new concept, but it is one that all but those at the bottom of the food chain tend to forget.

Make no mistake: Real estate agents are at the bottom of the food chain. Our MLSs consolidate and deliver the data we need, the vendors develop the business and marketing solutions we might adopt and employ, and our brokers take care of the storefront. In the end, however, the agents are the industry ambassadors. That’s a lot of responsibility for the plankton in our ecosystem.

Inman said, "There is no one between the customer and yourself." When he said this, he wasn’t speaking only to the agents in the room. He was speaking to an entire industry. And from my feet-on-the-pavement vantage, that quote should be laminated and prominently displayed on the wall of every vendor, MLS and brokerage office in the country.

There is no one between the customer and yourself. Sure, there is an institutional pecking order. MLSs report to member associations that report to the brokerages that, in turn, sponsor the agents. And, of course, the vendors’ customers span the hierarchy. But if you consider the real byproduct of all of the efforts of all of these players, it is the homebuyer and seller who are truly — and always — the target audience, whether we tend to remember that or not.

A theme repeated at the conference was this idea that technology has become too complex and confusing for the agents. To some extent, that’s true. And it is becoming increasingly incumbent on the brokers to research and deploy innovative tools and train their agents on the use of those tools. Because agent recruitment and retention is central to the brokerage model, brokers must also be always actively engaged in finding ways to promote their brand.

To brokers, I will argue that you need to think small.

Today’s consumers want approachable. They want a personalized service and kid-glove care. They want a sense of exclusivity in the delivery of service, and a brand promise delivered. Whether you boast 12 or 12,000 agents under your brand banner is immaterial. You can still act small. Ask Apple.

If you don’t put the customers’ needs ahead of all else, none of this matters. Without consistency and excellence on the agent front line, your brand will stand for nothing but a revolving door of recruiting, attrition and recruiting some more. You have nothing to lose — and, in the long run — nothing to gain in a cottage economy environment. If, on the other hand, you think small, or in fact are small, everything is at stake with every customer interaction.

I happen to be both a working agent and a brokerage owner. That gives me a somewhat unique perspective, because I can relate to the challenges of both. As a small independent brokerage, we are not heavily capitalized, as are our big-name counterparts. Our advantage, however, is that thinking small comes naturally. I am not three degrees removed from the customer; I am at their kitchen table or they are in the backseat of my car every day. I am not three degrees removed from our agents — they are my colleagues.

I can test-drive wacky new ideas in the field before spending valuable resources delivering tools to the agents that don’t work. Every day I am running my own little focus group, and I am able to share the results and develop strategies thoughtfully before bringing an idea to market. Not every brainchild is a winner, of course, but I know that by focusing on what the customer wants, I am also focusing on what the agents and our brokerage needs, because the reality is that we share a customer in common.

To vendors and MLSs, think small. It’s the bottom of that funnel of service delivery that ultimately matters. Ask the agents what they need, because they are the ones who truly know the customer. And these are not conversations that can be effectively held through a committee system or in a vacuum. Communication with a large member population, I know, is hard. I understand that the population is diverse; they may even seem apathetic at times. But what they really are is distracted — distracted with doing the real business of the industry.

So find a way to have these conversations while resisting the urge to subscribe to a populist approach that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Our customers demand much, yet they have no patience for mediocrity.

To agents, think small. The byproduct of all of those highly energized collisions between players who fuel our business is the customer experience, and the customer experience rests solely in your hands. You already know what your clients want. They want speed, in their search experience and in their communication. They want access to information across multiple devices in multiple media. And by the time they get to you, they want personalized, hyperlocal knowledge and service from an agent who understands their technologies, their languages and their neighborhood.

You are the last stop on the service delivery train — the ambassadors of an industry — and it is ultimately your brand that matters most in our cottage economy. That is both your challenge and your opportunity. Build that brand on a small scale, because it is the small scale that matters today. You have unlimited access to technology, tools and ideas, much of it free.

But the atom-smasher environment in which we reside has admittedly become much more complex, so align yourself with a brokerage that understands this and can deliver tools that your customer wants — tools that build your brand. Because the smart brokers know that this is the only way they can ultimately build their own.

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