Special Report: How to build (or find) the ideal agent training program

Not only are new agents needing more support in training, those at the mid level tier and upper tiers need to put up their hands for help with running and building their businesses.
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  • Brokerages can offer to help new agents by providing a mentor, lead generation training, tech training and a boot camp to kick things off.
  • Social media training and coaching can also be very helpful to a cross-section of agents.
  • The most challenging business areas for experienced agents -- and, therefore, where they need training -- is in running and managing a real estate business.
  • The training seen as most important to general agent success is time management and lead generation.

“Most Realtors don’t have experience being the CEO of themselves. But they think that it is something that everyone can do naturally.”

That’s what one experienced broker from a New Jersey team had to say in Inman’s latest special report survey*, which asked respondents about the training and education that real estate agents need to be successful.

Agents would like to have better education and support in the real estate industry at every level, according to the survey.

From newbies to veterans

Respondents provided a laundry list of how to improve training for agents across the board, digging deeper into what — or who — the most vulnerable new agents need, as well as the areas of training and coaching that those midway and nearing the top of their careers still need.

In order to give new agents more support, the suggestion of a new agent bootcamp received an enthusiastic response from agents and brokers in this survey — with the proviso that there be good follow-up mentoring or coaching.

The results from this training survey stressed the need for training at all levels — there was a criticism that attention on training tended to focus on new agents and the star agents in brokerages. Respondents stated that training is necessary across the board, especially for those agents enjoying good production and wondering what their next step might be.

One comment that came through loud and clear: Training in managing and running a business is something many successful agents could use.

Although the biggest challenges for new agents involved acquiring a wide spread of new skills, from transaction management to customer service, rising agents who might be enjoying growth and wanting to expand were desperately in need of business training.

The sooner this business training can happen, the better, added one respondent.

“Growing a business is hard when you are the only one to answer to. I think there should be tangible business training for an agent. Like an MBA for our industry,” suggested an established Orange County, California, agent.

“I think there should be tangible business training for an agent. Like an MBA for our industry.”

And a Greenville, South Carolina, agent said training running and managing a business was something every agent could use education on from the start.

“This hasn’t been broken down in any of my training, and it would have been extremely helpful to learn even what best practices are out there, from email inbox organization to personal tax prep to best recording/document practice for the long haul with client files.”

What training do new agents need to thrive?

It is harder to build a long-lasting real estate business if there were gaps in your training as a new agent in the first place, said one respondent.

So what sorts of training do new agents need to give them the best start in their real estate lives?

Respondents — almost 60 percent of them with more than 10 years in the business — said brokerages should prioritize providing a mentor for new agents (78.55 percent) provide lead generation training for agents (77.89 percent), tech training for new agents (74.26 percent), and thought a new agent bootcamp (72.61 percent) was a good idea.

Offering marketing and social media training for new agents (68.32 percent), coaching (66.67 percent) and customer service training (61.06 percent) were also recommended by those surveyed.

Lead generation remains key for new agents who, once they have exhausted their immediate sphere of influence, remain in need of guidance about what to do next.

As one experienced broker from Boulder, Colorado, said: “Without lead generation any new agent will wither on the vine and won’t be successful. Lead generation includes many things such as customer satisfaction, an increasing knowledge base, developing a skill set of total dedication to the client and development of a business plan to be proactive in the marketplace rather than reactive. Real estate is a contact sport.”

Respondents explained the value of a good mentor.

“Being exposed to the actual day-to-day operations of a real estate business via a mentor is some of the best training an agent can get. Real life situations rather than an idea in a training manual,” said a seasoned L.A. broker.

A good mentor will help them make money straight away, pointed out a broker from Michigan.

“And if they don’t feel they can make money in this business, they will quit. As a broker/owner, I look at how to get them producing right away, getting them cash flow. That way they can afford to grow their business outside of company-provided leads.”

Coaching was another invaluable tool for new agents, said respondents. An experienced agent on a team in Athens, Georgia, said she would put coaching over putting a new agent on a team because it nurtured them more.

“They need real estate ‘moms’ to help them and then push them out of the nest.”

“They need real estate ‘moms’ to help them and then push them out of the nest. Coaching provides individual care and feeding of new agents. Putting them on a team can sometimes be overwhelming and they can get forgotten or taken advantage of.”

Bootcamps done right

A new agent bootcamp was a popular suggestion put forward by respondents and something already happening in a number of brokerages across the country.

They have to be done right, though, stressed our survey respondents.

“A bootcamp would be immersive and cover all the bases — running a business, managing contracts, generating leads, customer service, following the law, using technology and so on — prior to an agent experimenting with a real client’s transaction,” said an Atlanta, Georgia, broker.

And any bootcamps should be followed up with weekly coaching check-ins with the broker, respondents stressed.

An experienced broker from Fort Collins, Colorado, agreed. “When you combine that bootcamp training with even the most minimal of coaching, agents will find greater success in shorter order. Providing leads does not make for good prospecting habits.”

The baptism-by-fire approach of a bootcamp with other beginners can be just the thing to support new agents, said an experienced coach/trainer from St. Louis, Missouri.

“It enables them to see their new career as a business and understand how to set up the systems that will lead to their success. It also pushes them out of their comfort zone into new activities. It provides a place where they don’t feel isolated and everyone is going through the same things.”

Bootcamps could be provided by local associations rather than individual brokerages, suggested a Fort Collins broker. “That creates a basis for working with brokers from other offices from the get-go. That’s the heart and soul of real estate; knowing your clients and knowing your colleagues.”

An experienced agent from Charlotte North Carolina, likes what her firm’s bootcamp accomplishes: providing a great skills foundation, teaching work/life balance and encouraging agents to be lifelong learners who “continually enrich themselves with classes and experiences that go well beyond the [continuing education] requirements imposed by our state,” she said.

“I truly believe our new agent training program and a culture of continual learning, support and personal growth is one of the things that makes our privately owned company no. 1 in both of the 2 states in which they have firms.”

Bootcamps don’t work for everyone, however.

Carol Ludtke Prigan, director of training and professional development at the large independent Ohio-based brokerage HER Realtors, said she tried it a couple of years ago at the company and found that agents were overwhelmed by this condensed form of training, and that their response was paralysis.

She finds a more regular form of ongoing training gives new agents time to digest and try things out in the field.

At the same time at HER Realtors, new agents are working with a manager to work through any questions, have support from administrative staff on basic procedure and the input from two “hybrid” agent/trainers as well.

“The notion of a bootcamp is nice, but I find that most people want to go and do something versus being in a classroom,” she said.

What more experienced agents need in their training

As for busy, seasoned agents, they may find the pressure of continued education a pain at times — but chances are, however successful, they will continue to need help as they grow in their careers.

Whether they will find the answers within their brokerage or at their local association is another matter.

We found in our research that the most challenging business areas for experienced agents were running and managing a real estate business (26.73 percent), lead generation (19.14 percent) and building a saleable business (13.20 percent).

Other challenges mentioned in responses were keeping up with technology, achieving scalability with their business, time management/balance and building their brand.

One Miami, Florida, rookie agent, watching her superiors struggling to stay on top of things, put it well:

“The experienced agent needs to be capable of juggling, prioritizing and — if they are on a team or have assistants working for them — properly delegating and being pragmatic. This can pose for some experienced agents an entirely different set of skills they need to acquire in order for their income or business to grow, or at the very least maintain, without having to do all the work on their own.”

A lack of effective new agent training and a successful onboarding process about real estate will hurt new agents in the future, argued this New Hampshire agent:

“Most were never taught properly, and as they progress as agents, team leaders or brokers, poor training compounds the situation, leaving gaps in the fundamentals they need to succeed.”

Successful agents in particular need training or coaching when they are ready to scale up, said one seasoned player. Someone who is there to ask the tricky questions.

“There will always be a point with a high-producing agent where they need to decide how they want to scale their business. Does that involve moving to the broker level, building a team, or being content with current volume?”

Most top-producing agents have some difficulty shifting to the managerial side as the skill set is completely different, said one respondent. “They don’t want to lose their baby and end up micro-managing or pushing away amazing team members. To be completely scalable you need to be okay delegating to others and letting others shine while you take a step back and enjoy collecting splits.”

So how can training be useful for the fast-growing more established agent?

This Indiana agent found what they needed to help them run their business at a recent Re/Max training session: “I went to a financial business session at a Re/Max agent day and it was the best class I have ever taken. I learned so much that no one had ever told me or taught me about how to distribute and budget money for business expenses, taxes, retirement, savings and personal expenses.”

What savvy agents will know by now is that they want to try and build a saleable business if they want to exit the industry with some money in their pocket — and they may well need some help with this.

“Experienced agents get so bogged down in day-to-day transactions that they fail to see the big picture of business development and the eventual selling of their business,” said this veteran Athens, Georgia agent.

“And it takes skill to build and maintain a business that has actual worth. Most agents keep working too long because they are living transaction to transaction and don’t know how to transfer their business as an asset that will provide a retirement,” added an experienced San Francisco agent.

One California respondent noted that people so often work in the business rather than on it — it’s difficult to pass on these tasks to others, and often you have nothing to sell when you are leaving the business because it was all driven by you.

This successful Texas agent had a light-bulb moment in the last year: “In my personal experience the part that I missed for years was the management of my business, from a numbers standpoint. I have been learning to treat my business as a business and really dialing down to tracking my numbers on a constant basis to make sure I know where I am and my progress toward the goals in my business plan.”

If your brokerage can’t help you, sometimes you have to go out and find the resources you need, suggested this high flyer from Georgia.

“Successful agents typically hit road blocks or ceilings where growth requires major business decisions. From being solo, then having an assistant, to growing a team to opening a brokerage. Building systems, tools and processes to scale a business helps make growth possible, but most agents don’t learn this from the industry or their broker, they have to figure it out on their own or self-learn by reading content outside the real estate industry, from the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company or Simon Sinek.”

The single piece of training most important for new agents (and all agents)

There is no denying new agents are embracing a plethora of new information when they first start out — but what can they simply not do without when it comes to training?

We tried to bring it down to one thing.

Finding a mentor (32.67 percent) won the no. 1 spot, followed by coaching (19.80 percent), providing lead generation training for agents (19.47 percent) and a new agent bootcamp (13.53 percent).

The mentor, if a good one, can give new agents the best start possible, said a successful Iowa agent.

“Having a mentor who already functions at a high level in the business and exhibits integrity in their business through their principled, professional behavior is a huge contributor to the success of new agents because it gives them a reference point for asking questions in a business that can be quite overwhelming for new agents.”

A mentor also provides some built-in accountability to keep the new agent on track and working on productive activities.

Working alongside them, the new agent is learning to minimize legal exposure and maximize the customer service experience for buyer and seller clients.

Unfortunately, not every mentor is perfect — so brokerages need to select the mentors they offer carefully.

According to this Alaska agent in the business for three years: “Mentors should be carefully selected, as my first one was great at networking but knew nothing of business despite his business degree. He didn’t pay taxes the first four years of his career.”

For all agents, the training seen as the most important to agent success were time management (33.33 percent), lead generation (32.67 percent) and customer service (11.22 percent).

A relatively new agent based in Washington expanded on this. “I came into real estate as my fourth career. I have been self-employed in another industry. I see a lot of agents, new and experienced, who really need help in time management, deal management and financial management,” she said.

With lead generation still perceived as a key area for training both new and experienced agents, respondents tried to articulate its importance.

“Without the ability to lead gen, you have no business. Coaching agents on how to effectively lead gen is the only way for them to survive long term,” said an established Philadelpia agent.

Lead generation and being able to run a business are the two top training priorities for one seasoned coach/trainer based in Austin, Texas.

“New agents quickly realize that they are in a lead gen business first, a real estate service business second. Without the first, you do not have the second. Pretty much most licensure training programs do not cover lead gen or ‘Business 101,’ and new agents need these two things the most. And support to make it all happen once they have clients.”

The training on lead generation, meanwhile, is by no means perfect, said this frustrated new agent in Florida.

“Can we have actual lead generation training? Most ‘lead generation workshops’ are a sales hook which agents attend and get baited into subscribing to or purchasing a service or coach who will then tell them the secrets of building and maintaining inventory.”

And if they don’t get the training they need?

So what happens if the training isn’t happening? We asked what new agents are wasting their time on if they were going without support.

Respondents felt that new agents spend too much time managing their transactions (13.86 percent), marketing (11.22 percent) — and a number felt it was spending time in front of a computer on social media instead of being out meeting people.

As this successful agent said: “They are busy on social media that gobbles up their time versus building relationships that lead to trust and then transactions.”

“Without proper guidance, new agents for the most part spend their time and energy on the wrong areas,” added a newly minted Florida agent from experience.

“Most have a lack of focus and no plan — they bounce from thing to thing until they crash,” said one respondent.

But it’s not just the new agents. Experienced agents are guilty of spending too much time on certain non-producing areas.

According to our survey, experienced agents were inefficient at managing transactions (31.35 percent), running/managing a real estate business (14.52 percent) and managing clients (13.86 percent).

Experienced agents can end up going off in too many different directions for lack of a business plan, said an established Florida agent.

“If an experienced agent has grown their business enough, I truly believe the next step is to hire an assistant or form a team so they can focus purely on high-gain activities and let their lower-paid staff take care of the necessary grunt work, like paperwork and transaction management,” advised this successful North Carolina team member.

What can be done to improve the current training environment?

Comments throughout the survey made it clear that there was plenty of room for improvement in the current training environment. And that the bulk of these real estate professionals were looking for new areas to learn or had topics that they were especially interested in.

There seems to be a good appetite for training, with 84.16 percent of respondents taking continuing education classes beyond the minimum required, and the majority taking them every two years.

The most popular continuing education courses are ethics (85.15 percent), Fair Housing laws (68.98 percent), contracts (68.65 percent), tech in real estate (64.36 percent), marketing (61.39 percent), negotiating (59.41 percent) — and social media and lead generation were tied with 53.80 percent each.

Our research found that 36.63 percent of respondents were taking classes from their brokerages, another 28.38 percent from a real estate school, 16.17 percent from their MLS or association, and 13.86 percent from a mentor or fellow professional.

Respondents were spending anything from $5 to $16,000 on training every year — which might include conferences or conventions.

Agents and brokers surveyed wanted to see a broader range of training for all levels of agents.

For some more experienced agents and brokers, the topics were getting old — and they felt more effort should be made to interest those real estate professionals at the middle levels.

“New agents and top agents get all of the attention. More attention needs to be paid to mid-level agents.”

“New agents and top agents get all of the attention. More attention needs to be paid to mid-level agents,” said an experienced New Jersey broker.

There should be different courses for different horses, argued some.

“I think there should be a DISC analysis for each person coming into this business to see where they need to be placed before deciding on a program for them,” said one respondent.

Survey the agents to find out what it is they want and need in regards to training — don’t assume everyone is at the same level, added another.

Another suggestion involved expanding training topics to include more business training and not focusing so much on real estate training.

“The same [continuing education] courses are offered year after year. I would like additional training that isn’t necessarily [continuing education]. I am okay with just spending some time learning how to work smarter, not harder,” said this Missouri broker.

The quality of trainers in the industry could be improved on, said a number of respondents.

A New Hampshire agent of two years pleaded: “We need better trainers! I come from a training background, and in my experience as a Realtor, most trainers in this profession don’t have a clue how to train adults. It’s pervasive through the industry. They all need to take some classes on how to deliver training.”

Instructors should ideally be working in the business still, too, so they have relevant, up-to-date stories, commented others.

How can brokerages improve their training?

Respondents in this survey had plenty of suggestions for their brokerages to improve what support they are giving their agents of all levels.

Some of them were quite simple, just asking them to follow through.

“No false promises, please: When you say you’re going to provide X amount of hours or days of training, do it. It seems too often it’s not the broker’s focus,” said one respondent.

They need to have tiered training of new agents, modest producers and top producers, said another.

If you use a mentoring program, have the coaches be top producers, not has-beens. And respondents also suggested putting together a training program that is exciting, proactive and has accountability for performance.

It’s about having the right attitude, said this broker from Knoxville, Tennessee: “As a broker trying to attract agents, your job is to be about the agent. Make them the hero of the story, not you or the company. Too many companies spend their time waving their own flag when in reality all anyone wants to know is: ‘Am I important to you?’”

Training is a balance of asking them what they want to know and making sure you’re teaching them what they need to know, he added.

A number of respondents suggested making training mandatory to improve standards.

Some suggested that the industry require all firms to provide a certain minimum amount of training or mentoring of some sort in practical skills to new agents.

It’s how the training is done in brokerages, added an experienced Colorado broker: “There is too much training and not enough coaching. We show them how to do it and don’t follow through with their implementation. There should be more accountability in the training process.”

This Keller Williams respondent has an idea for brokerages: “General business training coupled with a required apprenticeship program where new agents must train under an experienced agent that does a certain dollar value and unit volume each year. That will weed out a lot of the poorly trained agents in the business that give our industry a bad name. It will also help teach agents that the only way to be truly successful in this business is to treat it like a full-time business.”

Meanwhile, a number of those surveyed felt regular meetings to follow up on training were a good idea, especially for new agents — meetings where agents could regroup, ask questions, share experiences and encourage each other.

“There has to be some platform in brokerages where agents can meet regularly and sincerely exchange their views and experiences. Such events can be monitored by the broker of record which then in turn invites the most successful agent to part with his/her experience and achievements,” said a Canadian respondent.

It’s simple, said an established New Jersey broker: “Focus on agent-centricity and everything else will follow. Great companies don’t make great agents. Great agents make great companies.”

Spare a thought for smaller brokerages who don’t have the capacity for an in-house training department.

“Many smaller brokerages rely on local and state associations to provide training, and this leads to holes in their agents’ knowledge base. There are training solutions in the market that could bridge the gaps, but brokers need to understand that their agents need help and pay to provide more training,” said one company coach.

For the sake of agent retention and good quality agents, it pays to throw more money at the training budget.

“Hire a professional coach on staff and make them available to every new agent. Also offer a program for experienced agents wanting to start teams so they can be custom coached to develop a team structure that aligns with the brokerage’s culture and desire to be collaborative,” suggested a coach from Omaha, Nebraska.

A good external coach, on the other hand, will coach agents on the most impactful things they can do with their business, argued a seasoned Hawaii agent.

“My experience is that with a brokerage, they want you to do things that are good for them first, and then good for the agent second and sometimes third.”

How one small brokerage is approaching their training

As one who took her team and left a large franchise operation, ERA Sunrise Realty, Becky Babcock, co-founder of Path & Post Real Estate in Atlanta, Georgia, has put a lot of thought into how she wants to do her agent training.

It is crucial to keep it custom and localized as that training is the best fit and best way to achieve success, plus keep your agent to mentor/broker ratios reasonable, she says.

Bi-weekly coaching and check-ins can transform an agent’s success, she added.

“In our metro Atlanta market we have some brokers responsible for hundreds of agents at a time. There is no way to guide and mentor that many agents and do it well.”

When running a team at ERA, Babcock set up an information knowledge base on WordPress for her agents, which covers frequently asked questions and some tips on how to handle odd situations.

She continues to do it at her own firm and every time she gets a question, she writes an article with the question and answer.

“Nobody is teaching the finance of real estate, only the mechanics,” she said.

Babcock sympathizes with mid-level players who don’t feel inspired by the training topics out there that they may find repetitive. She took courses at ERA for seven or eight years then started teaching herself — which was helpful, she said.

“At that point I started going to tech conferences, and that’s where I met with higher level performers. I went to (the real estate tech event in Atlanta) RETSO for six or seven years where I got a lot of ideas; I started a mastermind group with other top agents, and shared and collaborated with them.”

Attending conferences, she has met a lot of like-minded ambitious agents. She also did a lot of business reading in her search for ideas, which has culminated in her setting up shop with business partner Brad Nix.

Think long-term

Long & Foster Real Estate director of professional development, Rich Fino, has a solution for improving the sometimes patchy training standards in real estate.

“It is less about giving them information and more about guiding them through their own learning and development journey,” he said.

The no. 1 measurement of success of a good training session should be production and the activities that lead to production, he argues.

“Training programs need to be designed to get agents into production quickly and for the long term. Forget training programs and start thinking coaching programs,” he said.

“Forget one week crammed in fast start programs and think one-, two-, three-month programs going two hours a day, every other day. Set the expectation that agents are to do income-producing activities between each session so that we can all debrief and learn from their actions.

“Training is not an event, it is a lifestyle,” he added.

*Editor’s note: Inman conducted the survey between Jan. 10 and 23, 2017. There were 303 respondents: 123 agents, 116 brokers, 26 coaches or trainers and 38 respondents who identified as “other.”

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