Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent over six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
It’s a bright sunny morning. You open your front door and hear birds chirping, a gentle breeze wafting through the trees, shadows dancing on your front lawn. You stroll toward the street to drag in the trash can before the HOA can send you a nastygram for leaving it at the curb.
“Wow, what a beautiful day this is!” you say out loud.
Then you see it.
A for-sale sign, planted right in your next door neighbors’ yard. Yeah, those same neighbors who have known for a decade that you’re a real estate agent — and a darn good one. The neighbors you’ve kept abreast of the real estate market, done a home value analysis for, helped fight their property tax assessment — for years.
“What the f**k?” is probably your initial reaction. That is followed swiftly by, “I just talked to them yesterday, and they didn’t say a word about selling.” Then you remember a dozen conversations over the years that included, “If we ever sell our home, you’ll be the first person we call!”
You stand there staring at the sign, swaying gently in the now not-so-lovely morning breeze. “I should cut that sign down,” you mumble, turning back inside, head shaking, forgetting why you even walked out the door.
What happened? Don’t they trust you? Of course they do; you’ve watched each other’s children. Did they forget you are an agent? No way. Every time you cross paths, “How’s the market looking?” is the first thing out of their mouth. They are always so warm and friendly.
It just doesn’t make sense. By now, you really want to know why that’s not your sign in their yard. What were they thinking? What did you do wrong? Why? Why!
The awkward conversation
You should find out why they chose not to list with you. Sure, you could let it go, and take the high road. Act like nothing has changed. But you’re a business person, and real estate is a relationship business. Because you have a very well-established relationship with your neighbor, it’s important to understand why someone else’s sign is in their yard.
Yes, it will be an awkward conversation. It’s important to remember — no one owes you their business. There may be a valid reason they chose another agent (though the possibility of that completely escapes you at the moment). Or they could have a completely irrational reason. You won’t know if you don’t ask, so ask. Find out.
It would be best not to immediately pick up the phone while your emotions are churning, and you’re this close to “accidentally” backing the car over that sign with the agent’s smiling face on it. Relax, calm down. Take deep breaths. What’s done is done, and though it’s important to dig deeper, doing that today won’t change anything.
In difficult situations, I always favor talking face-to-face via over the phone. It’s the only way to read body language. It’s harder because they can be reading your body language at the same time. If you just can’t stomach an in-person chat, go ahead and call them. This is not the conversation to have via text or instant message.
It will be far less confrontational if you can have the conversation in a casual, random encounter versus stomping across the lawn and banging on their door. If you see your neighbor outside frequently, that provides an opportunity to bring it up.
If this is more of a you just found out your sister across town listed with someone else, now is the time to invite her over for coffee. Even that will be awkward, almost certainly for both of you. Just call them, and say something like, “Can you come over sometime? There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” They’ll know.
You may get an immediate dismissal. A refusal to talk about it. That’s a common defense mechanism. You need to know, not for your bruised ego, for your business. So tell them exactly that. “Look, sis. I’m not mad. Confused a little, but not mad. I need to understand some things to help my business improve. Please help me do that.”
You’re probably going to get a litany of excuses. Prepare for the conversation. Think about what you may hear and how you can respond.
What you may hear
- “I knew you’d be upset, but I also knew you would understand. I’ve known Jane for decades, and she would be devastated if we didn’t use her as our agent. We’re best friends for life. I adore you, but we’re neighbors, not super-close friends.”
- “She’s John’s sister. It’s hard to say no to family.”
- “We’re friends, I have a hard time sharing my financial information with friends.”
- “Sally is new to real estate. She needs the business. I know you’re very successful, and one listing won’t really change your life, this could change hers.”
- “I’m sorry, we should have used you. Still friends?”
How to respond
Don’t take it personally, which will be extremely difficult. It’s business, and it’s time to separate business from personal. Losing a listing is tough, but it’s not the end of the world. Keep your professionalism front and center, learn from this experience, and incorporate that learning so it’s less likely to happen in the future.
Should you try to get your neighbor, friend, sister to change their minds? Not really, and you need to be extremely careful. If there’s a sign in their yard, there is a listing agreement, and you certainly don’t want to interfere in an existing agency relationship. That could be far more career-limiting than losing a listing.
Absolutely, unequivocally, do not ever coach anyone on how to break a listing agreement. That’s asking for trouble. Lawsuit or license revocation-level trouble. No listing is worth that.
This would be a good time to note that you didn’t actually lose a listing — you can’t lose what you never had. Just because you feel like you should have gotten the listing doesn’t matter. You didn’t. Learn, and move on.
What you can do — very carefully — is point out some things that may make your neighbor/sister/friend think about changing paths, but if this is a situation where the listing agreement is signed, taking a different path needs to be on them, not you. All on them.
If there isn’t a listing agreement (or buyer agency) in place
What about situations where you don’t walk outside only to see a sign in a yard, but you’re approached by a friend, neighbor or relative who is expressing doubt about using your services?
You’re likely to get some form of one of the responses above. You can prepare yourself so you’re not caught off guard.
Working with your bestie
Here’s a simple fact: your best friend has a biased perspective. You’re close, you know what you both like and don’t like. It’s very hard to set that natural bias aside, no matter how experienced an agent may be.
Is your best friend going to tell you that your front yard is a disaster and the curb appeal of your home is awful? That the cat’s litter box stinks and must be addressed? That no one wants to see all the photos of Aunt Sally and Uncle Steve?
Unconscious bias is virtually impossible to eliminate. Your best friend can eliminate potential homes based on what they know about you (or think they know). The line between what you want and what they want for you is cloudy, and it can certainly cause issues you might not even know you have.
Working with family
This is similar to working with a best friend, only with more things thrown in the mix. Families talk, and they’ll be talking about you, and some intimate details about your life. Who wants to be the subject of discussion at family reunions or holiday gatherings?
Sharing financial information
This is a difficult objection to overcome. It’s understandable that one might not want a friend or family member knowing intimate details about their financial situation. About all you can do is discuss your obligations of confidentiality and try to explain that you’re a professional and understanding of their apprehension.
This may be one of those instances where it’s best to offer to help them find an “independent” agent. Explain how referrals work. Be honest that you will get some compensation. That may actually relieve some of the pressure and make them feel better about not using you directly.
Working with a new/starving agent
Hopefully it’s obvious that you should not throw another agent under the bus. What you should do is help your friends understand how important and complicated a real estate transaction is. They should be the center of focus, and choosing an agent because he or she needs the business simply does not provide them the attention they deserve.
The only response to the questions, “still friends?” is, “of course we are!” Friends and family matter, far more than a transaction. I’ve seen comments in real estate social groups like, “My brother listed with another agent. I can’t even look at him any more.” Or, “A good friend chose another agent to list with. I haven’t spoken to them since.”
That’s really sad. Don’t wreck a friendship or relationship over a sale. There will be other sales. Sure, it hurts when you get passed over. You know what hurts more in the long run? Losing a friend or a lifetime relationship.
You’re a real estate professional. You should, and you can, separate business from friendship. The sting of “losing” a listing will get better. Anyone who’s been in this business long enough has gone through it. Have a good cry, buckle up, and get out there and own it.
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree living in the Texas Coastal Bend, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.