Where Jay Thompson's right about iBuyers plus my 2 cents

Don't misread Jay's last article into a too-comfortable, nothing-will-change, lullaby of pretty lies

This article has been reposted with permission from Rob Hahn. 

Over at Inman News, Jay Thompson, one of the original RE.net bloggerati, has returned to blogging in triumph with his post “Are iBuyers going to ruin everything for agents.” Read the whole thing.

Jay has been busy with other things, like being the face of Zillow to the real estate industry the last several years, and it really is good to see him bring his unique voice and perspective back.

I think his first post for Inman (at least in a while) is classic Jay that debunks a lot of the unreasonable fears and points the way forward for the day-to-day practitioners in the trenches. But I did want to write this post, first as a hearty “Welcome Back, Kotter” moment to Jay, and second, to warn against misreading Jay into a too-comfortable, nothing-will-change, lullaby of pretty lies.

Let me explain.

Not all-or-nothing, but it’s still a thing

Jay writes:

After all, in listening to some of the prognosticators, you’d think that soon (maybe even next week!) there will only be iBuyers. That soon no one will use the more traditional approach to buying and selling a home, you know, with a real estate agent, one that works for a broker. The same way that 90(ish) percent of homes are bought and sold today.

I can’t help but feel like he might be obliquely referring to me in some way. Seeing as how while I haven’t said that, I have said that I think things are going to change, and dramatically, and fairly soon:

Now, I don’t think Jay and I actually disagree in any fundamental way. Not everyone is going to use iBuyers, not every property is appropriate for it and not everything is doomed.

So yes, iBuyer is not an all-or-nothing proposition. As Jay writes:

Why is iBuying an all-or-nothing deal? Why can’t there be different ways, different paths to purchasing or selling a home? After all, Walmart and Nordstrom manage to co-exist. Heck, there are even travel agents making a great living right alongside a bazillion travel sites. Travel agents! Want to buy stock? You can do it online, or call a stock broker.

Consumers want options. Real estate needs options. IBuyers provide options. Portals provide options. “Discount” brokerages provide options. Options are good. Good for the consumer, and good for the real estate practitioner. Options promote competition and innovation, both of which are good — for everyone.

He’s 100-percent correct, of course. Consumers want options. Different companies in real estate provide options. And options are good.

However, there are options and then there are options. iBuyer might not be an all-or-nothing deal, but it’s not nothing-is-gonna-change deal either, any more than the rise of Zillow was a nothing’s-gonna-change deal.

I don’t believe that’s what Jay was saying, but just to be crystal clear, I wanted to add on to and amplify on Jay’s recommendation for brokers and agents.

Thinking about competition

Jay writes:

Put the consumer first. Make everything about them and their needs. The consumer should be your absolute focus — not you, not your commission, not your broker — the consumer.

It’s all about the consumer. And if some of those consumers want, or even just think they want, an iBuyer experience, then be there for them. Give them the facts (the real facts, not made-up fantasies of the way you wish it was). Help them

Guess what happens when you unselfishly help others? They tell their family and friends about you. Then you get to help them too, and they say good things about you to their friends and family. That’s called word-of-mouth marketing, and it’s the best marketing available. Do more of that.

I could not agree more. It’s a bit of a drum I’ve been beating for a while now on this blog and elsewhere, that real estate talks a great game about being consumer-centric, but often fall short of actually putting the consumer as the North Star. So I’m all-in with Jay on the focus on consumers.

Here’s the thing, though. I know for a fact that so many of the agents who read Jay’s article (and are reading this now) said and are saying, “Well, I’ve always put the consumer first, and provided ridiculously great service, and unselfishly helped others, so nothing needs to change!”

Sorry, but no. Something needs to change. The status quo will not do.

Ridiculously great service that is focused first and foremost on consumers includes the ability to offer them the full range of service options.

Jay used the example of buying stock: you can do it online, or call a stockbroker. But when you’re the stockbroker, you have to be able to offer the consumer everything he can do online (and then some). If I can buy options online, you as the stockbroker can’t be like, “Oh, you want to buy options? I can’t help you then.” That’s not ridiculously great service.

What’s even worse is when you start trying to talk me out of buying options and into buying stock, because you can make money selling me stock but not options. That’s actually really shitty service and the opposite of “unselfishly helping” me.

What I said in the video above, and hold to today, is that the real estate agent of the future has to have iBuying as an option for clients. You have to. It’s not an option for you, the real estate agent, because that has to be an option for the consumer.

This is where competition is headed, and why I thought Realogy’s entry into iBuyer was such a big deal. Regina Maximus could be an amazing agent, completely focused on consumers, anticipating their needs, great at communicating, who cares deeply about what’s best for her clients.

Colleen Banker could be exactly the same as Regina in terms of consumer focus, friendliness, communication, caring, etc., but she can also give consumers the option to sell their home to her company via iBuyer services.

That competition is no longer close. In fact, if Regina truly cared about her clients, she should refer them to Colleen who can offer them more options.

Options = service

So think about this exchange:

Frank Michael D’Angelo

Spot on Jay Thompson. Let the masses chase the 10% of iBuyers. We’ll continue working with the people who love us, need us and trust us.

Jay Thompson

EXACTLY. Focus on the 90%!

Sure, focus on the 90 percent. But in what universe is not offering the 90 percent who love you, need you and trust you the option (and that’s all it is — an option, not a requirement) to elect convenience at the cost of some money some kind of exemplary customer service?

Jay said that Walmart coexists with Nordstrom. That’s true. But they occupy two very different segments of retail, with very different promises to the consumer. And while I’ve never worked at Nordstrom, I have worked at Bergdorf Goodman. So I can talk a little bit about this idea of options as service.

It wasn’t often, but once in a while, I’d have a customer walk in to Bergdorf Goodman looking for something that we did not carry. Maybe it was a particular designer. Maybe a specialty item that we didn’t carry, or if we did, the customer didn’t like what we had on offer.

I was trained to try my best to direct that customer to the best store in town who did carry that designer or that item. I went “shopping” at competitors like Barneys New York, Charivari, Saks Fifth Avenue and others, just to meet salespeople who I thought were good so that I could refer customers to them: “Oh, you’re looking for a Yohji Yamamoto jacket? Well, we don’t have a lot of that here, but my friend Trevor at Barneys is fantastic, and he may be able to help you, sir. Let me get you his number.”

Bergdorf Goodman trained us to think and behave this way because the company’s culture was to provide the highest level of service possible. That meant providing options, and if we couldn’t, it meant pointing the customer to where those options could be found.

Now, if said customer asked my opinion on whether Yohji Yamamoto was the best for his body type, well, that’s a different conversation.

Similarly, I expect that the good real estate agents will either offer iBuyer as a service to consumers, or get to know people who can, and take the same approach. I expect that they will focus on the people who love them, need them and trust them, which means offering those people the full range of options and providing the best advice they can.

I expect that most consumers will work with a trusted adviser for all of the reasons Jay laid out, and that many of them will take the pain-free option that is iBuyer through that trusted adviser or agent.

And that’s how you remain the trusted, needed and beloved adviser.

Consequently, the iBuyer phenomenon does require you to change. It does require you to have capabilities you do not have today, because the consumer needs to have options. If you can’t offer those options, then someone else surely will.

That’s competition, which Jay says is good for everyone. I agree. But I would point out that competition means change. It most definitely does not mean burying your head in the sand and staying with the status quo.

Robert Hahn is the Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. Check out his personal blog, The Notorious R.O.B. or find him on Twitter: @robhahn.