Technology-based brokerage ZipRealty has revamped its handling of consumer reviews of its agents, and is now allowing registered users to post unfiltered ratings and reviews of the company’s agents nearly instantaneously.

ZipRealty has collected client reviews of its agents since 2001, which are also being posted on participating agent’s profile pages. The Emeryville, Calif.-based brokerage began providing public access to agent ratings in 2008, but those were based on surveys administered by a third-party vendor.

Technology-based brokerage ZipRealty has revamped its handling of consumer reviews of its agents, and is now allowing registered users to post unfiltered ratings and reviews of the company’s agents nearly instantaneously.

ZipRealty has collected client reviews of its agents since 2001, which are also being posted on participating agent’s profile pages. The Emeryville, Calif.-based brokerage began providing public access to agent ratings in 2008, but those were based on surveys administered by a third-party vendor.

ZipRealty CEO Lanny Baker said consumer attitudes have "changed pretty dramatically in the last three or four years" with the rise of Facebook and other social media sites. Focus groups with consumers who’d worked with ZipRealty and other brokerages showed consumers wanted a rating system like they have on Yelp and TripAdvisor, he said.

"This is something consumers asked for loud and clear — and asked for over and over again," Baker said of the ability to post and read unfiltered reviews.

"We had reviews that were displayed, but we’d collected them centrally and worked with agents to prioritize them," Baker said. "Consumers viewed those as testimonials — it was hard to see the authenticity. They didn’t doubt they were authentic, but they didn’t have instant credibility."

The new rating system has been in development for about seven months, Baker said.

"This step doesn’t come out of a conference room in Emeryville, or from a programmer or developer, but (from) what we are hearing from consumers," he said. "We tried our best to build the review system they’re telling us they want."

Last year, ZipRealty eliminated the buyer rebates that helped the company make its name and grow its market share, saying it would emphasize the experience and expertise of its agents in marketing to consumers.

ZipRealty says surveys of clients who have closed a deal show 96 percent were satisfied with the service they received from their agent.

In the Seattle market, where consumer ratings and reviews were available for 85 percent of the company’s 78 agents on Friday, none scored lower than 4.0 overall on a 5-star rating system. Many had nearly perfect scores, and a few had nothing but 5-star reviews.

Asked if such consistently high scores could backfire — by undermining the credibility of the ratings, or making it hard to differentiate between agents — Baker said the goal is "to market our agents without spin, and put the presentation of agents in the hands of consumers."

Baker said the company’s sophisticated customer relationship management tools allow its agents to provide "almost anticipatory levels of service" to clients that result in high customer satisfaction scores.

"I think there is that skepticism — (consumers will say) ‘How can I believe you? Have you edited this?’" Baker said. "That’s what we are trying to move beyond. The consumer posts it, it’s live on our site. There’s nothing else."

Reviews can be submitted only "by real, registered users — not a buddy of an agent, or an ex-girlfriend — it’s active clients leaving this info."

Consumers viewing ratings can see the neighborhood, price range and property type the reviewer was looking to buy or sell.

"It’s not like a diner, where (receiving the) most ratings gets them at the top," Baker said. "What consumers want is for other consumers to tell them, ‘I worked successfully on a short sale with this agent,’" for example.

If unfiltered agent reviews are appealing to consumers, Baker acknowledged that there can be "a lot of anxiety and trepidation among agents."

But as agents see that reviews are helping "early adopters" land new business, "I think pretty quickly we’ll have the vast majority on board."

There will be some holdouts, he said — as of last week, 47 percent of ZipRealty agents had opted in to fully transparent ratings and reviews — but "the word that’s spreading through the ranks is that consumers are calling," and saying they picked up the phone after reading reviews of the agent.

Agents have the opportunity to post one response to a review. Although both consumers and agents can update their original posts, there’s no conversation "thread."

Baker said research shows a 1- or 2-star customer review that receives "a thoughtful and reasoned response" from the person being reviewed can actually enhance the agent’s credibility, particularly when it’s seen in the context of other, more favorable reviews.

Although there are circumstances in which a "completely inappropriate" review might be removed from the site, Baker said he knew of none that have been so far.

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