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Why real estate agents don’t answer the phone

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The entire time I have been a real estate agent I have been hearing stories about how we don’t answer the phone.

Last night I read a heart-wrenching account written by someone who was house hunting and was not getting his phone calls returned.

We get a bad rap from the experts for not answering our phones. In spite of all the coaching and complaining, it doesn’t seem to get any better. There will always be agents who do not return phone calls, and we deserve all of the criticism we get — even when the calls are not actually going to us because of the way we market ourselves.

As an industry, we need to do some heavy-duty consumer education on what it is that real estate agents do, and how to work with one. Sometimes when people think they are calling an agent, they are not. Other times they are calling the wrong agent. Consumers have trouble telling a lead aggregator apart from a real estate company. They don’t understand agency, and they don’t know the difference between a broker and an agent.

Here are some of the reasons that good, diligent agents may not be answering the phone:

1. The consumer is calling a number on a for-sale sign, thinking that it’s an agent’s number. It’s really the number for the front desk, and the receptionist is at lunch. Or the receptionist is a voice mailbox. Some real estate companies don’t let agents put their own number on the sign — probably for fear the agent won’t answer the phone, and a lead will be lost.

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2. The number the consumer is dialing is a call center, or belongs to an office manager who needs to choose an agent to handle the call, which takes time. There will also be a referral fee to be paid by the agent over and above the regular split.

3. The phone number displayed with the property on the Internet is a general number for the office. After being put on hold, the caller gets an agent who just got her license last week, and who knows nothing about the property. This is only slightly better — and sometimes worse — than not getting the call answered at all. But this certainly isn’t unique to the real estate industry — I have similar experiences when I call other businesses.

4. The phone number is the agent’s cell phone, but it’s 11 p.m. and, for some reason, the agent isn’t picking up. She must not need the business. A real "go getter" would be on it.

5. The caller got the agent’s voice mail and left a message, but never got a callback, because he was inquiring about a $10,000 piece of land 50 miles away, and the agent had no interest in the business. The caller ends up calling six agents before he gets help.

6. The buyer was sitting in front of the house and called the agent. The agent was out with buyers showing them a house and did not pick up the phone so the buyer drove away.

7. The broker has decided to use his cell phone number as the main number for the brokerage. Then the broker gets very busy and starts ignoring the "leads" instead of passing them along to agents (true story).

When I read about agents not returning phone calls, I usually hear only part of the story. It’s just the part where the agent doesn’t answer the call or return a message.

Most of us give our clients better service than we give the people who call us out of the blue. We could educate consumers on how to find the right agent, and work with that person instead of calling random strangers at odd hours.

Cultivating a relationship with a real estate agent is a good thing to do. If the caller who was interested in the $10,000 piece of land 50 miles away had been one of my clients, or a friend or neighbor, I would have moved heaven and earth to help him or her.

We could also educate them as to how to leave a message and to check to see if they are actually calling a real estate agent. Consumers need to understand how third-party websites work, and that the agent pictured next to the $10,000 piece of land may actually work in a different county and may not even be able to find the lot.

In an effort to cast the widest possible net, we (agents and brokerages and third-party websites) deliberately invite phone calls and clients that we cannot serve.

If consumers really understood agency laws in the states that have them, they would know that calling the listing agent isn’t always the best course of action, because the listing agent represents the seller, not the buyer. We don’t want consumers to understand agency. We want them to call us. 

An educated consumer does some research on agents and asks for recommendations, introductions and references, instead of calling the number on the for-sale sign.

One of the first things I do when I meet with a new client is talk about various options for communication. It has been years since a client has told me that she prefers to talk on the phone. It is usually emails for discussions about properties or for answering questions, and text messages when she is going to be late or needs to reach me right away.

I am not blaming consumers, and I do answer my own phone. We relentlessly market to consumers that we want them to call us or contact us. Our for-sale signs have phone numbers but do not have information about agency.

To us, callers are "leads" and they are treated accordingly. Consumers would be better served if we did a better job educating them on how to find the perfect agent and how to work with an agent, instead of marketing the idea that they need to call us now — unless we are prepared to answer the phone now.

Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.

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