The real estate industry is divided between those agents who focus only on sales volume and those who are dedicated to providing the best level of service.

The real estate industry is divided between those agents who focus only on sales volume and those who are dedicated to providing the best customer service.

It cannot be ignored that sales are central to the real estate business, and because agents are independent contractors, finding customers is critical to their success. And, of course, there are enormously successful agents who provide great service.

But two vastly different cultures seem to be shaping up in the real estate business. Sales versus service. Leads or customers. Quality versus volume.

This may seem like a tired debate that has been going on for too long. But it is hyperinflated by the advent of digital marketing, which often touts authenticity but is merely a cover for saturating consumers with pitches for houses and services.

Indeed, agents who provide the best client care are often overshadowed by wheeler dealers or by the sheer number of amateurs stumbling in and out of the business — many who are easily enabled by the internet. And too often the industry continues to celebrate franchises and broker owners who have the most agents and hail top producers who close the most sales or agents who best game the online systems. This news service is not immune from reporting the hype.

Glass trophies, diamonds and winning

Oddly, personal referrals are the biggest and most certain source of an agent’s business, which happen because of good service, not by who takes the prize for a full pipeline of Internet email addresses.

“Frankly, I’m not interested in trips to [Cancun], glass trophies, diamond pins or other awards that I see agents ‘winning’ everyday and posting on Facebook,” said Texas-based Realtor Joel Gabrelow.

In a recent article on Inman, contributor Hank Miller casts the “always be closing doctrine” as a virus on the industry. His article prompted hundreds of comments and 7,000 shares, showing the frustration many agents have with the industry’s double whammy — the rock star agent phenomenon and the hapless agent plague.

Too often on social media and at sales meetings and conferences, agents discuss how to drum up new business with very little chatter about how to help clients through a transaction. The products they spend the most money on are about acquiring and managing leads from online ads to auto-dialers to lead-conversion services.

‘The green will follow’

The industry often dehumanizes and trivializes actual people, reducing them to “leads” and “opportunities,” like kids dunking for apples.

The best agents aren’t necessarily the ones who respond the fastest to strangers from the internet. Nor are they always the ones who plaster their faces on billboards and Facebook, hawk home sale guarantees on the radio or in email campaigns, or crow about sales volume on TV and on YouTube.

The star agents are are the ones who help their customers solve problems, focusing on a client’s best interests, not the bottom line or their digital fame.

They spend most of their resources on serving clients, not self-promotion. They often do not receive top producer accolades but they are loved by their clients. But neither are they broke and struggling because what they do, they do well.

“Chase excellence and at some point, the green [money] will follow,” said Wilmington, Delaware-based Realtor Carol Stillwell-Receveur, who said she works “diligently and quietly” for her clients.

Amateur hour

On one end of the spectrum are the lead machine monsters, at the other end are poorly trained agents. A report commissioned by NAR concluded that “untrained, unethical and incompetent agents” are the No. 1 threat to the industry.

Jay Holland, a Greenwood Village, Colorado-based broker, lamented that 7 out of 10 real estate licensees in his market closed three deals or less in the last year and only one out of 33 posted more than 30 deals.

The real estate brokerage model is fueling the volatile combo of high-producing hustlers and the amateurs who have no business helping people buy and sell homes. The worst of both worlds.

“Agents are evaluated by companies on volume and units,” said San Clemente, California-based broker-owner David Silver-Westrick. “Which can mean the most celebrated agents are in the signature business, not the real estate [service] profession.”

Rosalie Klein, a Beverly Hills, California-based associate broker, grumbled that modern brokerages “became ‘bucket’ shops filling desks with the hope that sooner or later every newby will make a deal and they get their cut.” She said she’s often “shocked when I hear what buyers are told by their agent walking through a home.”

It’s a broken model that hurts the reputation of the entire industry, like someone who abuses drugs and drags down the reputation of his entire family.

From momentum to movement

Solutions?

Raise the regulatory bar for entry — passing tougher licensing requirements. Makes sense, but it closes the door on a profession that for decades allowed people to readily get up and going to start their own business.

Another regulatory change is to make agents fiduciaries so they are liable for giving flimsy advice or poorly guiding their clients through transactions. Some state laws assign fiduciary obligations to agents but it is a hit or miss maze of weak local rules.

Another path, but now an old song, is reclassifying agents as employees so that brokerages would be held more accountable for the customer service of their agents.

Yes, but isn’t this really just a money grab by the IRS and doesn’t it limit the freedom of the individual agent to control their own destiny and reap their just rewards? Survival of the fittest has some merit.

Some of the best and brightest in the industry are pushing for a requirement that new agents work as apprentices under brokers before they can operate independently.

“To think that someone coming out of a few weeks of [real estate] school represents themselves as a Realtor is astonishing,” said Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based broker-owner Rick Carr.

Whatever the next step may be, it must channel the energy, emotion and attention of the 30,000 Inman readers who cheered Miller’s tribute to real estate’s unsung heroes. Now, let’s turn their vocal momentum into action.

Email Brad Inman

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