Earning the Right to Answer the Phone

150 years ago, I was working for a great broker. Brilliant man. I learned so much.

Anyway, like most great brokers, he had an extraordinary office manager. She knew the business like the back of her hand, had all of the systems organized and functioning. She was almost devoid of personality, but that wasn’t part of the job.

In those days, buyer inquiries always came in via telephone (today they are as apt to come in via email or internet). My broker did a very smart thing: he put the office manager’s desk in the same space as the ‘Up’ desk.

Oh, you remember the ‘Up’ desk, don’t you? That’s where an agent, on ‘Floor Time’ sat to take incoming calls. I know, I know: today there’s no such thing. Agent’s who are on duty are usually out in the field or at home, taking calls that are forwarded to them. In really good offices, incoming calls (and web inquiries) are handled by a specialist whose whole job is to capture contact information on the buyer lead. Nonetheless, the tale I am about to tell still has implications even in today’s real estate universe.

So, I had just joined the office. I’d been in the business for several years and was considered a seasoned professional. I supposedly knew what I was doing. My first Floor Duty day came around and I took my seat at the Up Desk, right next to . . . Godzilla the office manager. I tried to strike up a conversation but her monosyllabic answers to my questions and seeming refusal to lift her gaze from the paperwork on her desk told me loud and clear to leave her alone.

The phone rang. It was a buyer wanting information about one of the office listings. I cheerfully gave it to them, they thanked me and hung up. Godzilla almost came unglued! She didn’t raise her voice, but like most mothers, she knew how to strike terror with a low monotone. ‘What the hell was that?’ she growled.

What followed was a refresher course on my role at the UP Desk, what the broker was spending to produce the phone call that I just blew, and how I’d better handle the next call. When the phone rang again, I was actually nervous. I knew she was listening and was afraid I might say the wrong thing . . . which I did. What followed was another instructive butt chewing. And another. And another. By the end of the day I was a wreck.

I slumped back to the Bull Pen (that’s what we called the large open area where the agents’ desks were located) and collapsed in my chair. There was a handful of old timers chatting at the back of the room – some of the top agents in the office. I felt so awful. And though I didn’t want anyone to know how badly I had failed, I needed reassurance, and turned around. ‘Does Godzilla really hate me? Or is she just . . . a b***h?’ I asked.

Instantly, the little crowd burst into laughter. Turns out they’d all felt the same way when they were new. And while Godzilla was still chilly to, well, everyone, there was a little appreciation from her towards those who got better under her tutelage. One of the agents – I believe she was number two in the office in production – insisted that I work with her to perfect my phone dialogues. She sat with me for half an hour a day for a week and role played inquiries. At the same time, I had regular hot seat sessions with Godzilla.

Within a week I was damn good on the phone. I was able to communicate value and charm when the phone rang and it was rare that I didn’t get contact information. I got so good that one day, as I hung up the phone and completed my notes on yet another secured lead, Godzilla (without ever raising her head from her work) mumbled, ‘You silver tongued devil!’ It was the best compliment I ever got from her.

Here’s the point: as a broker, you are spending major bucks to cause inquiries to come into your office. Whether you have one person handling the calls or they are handled on a rotation basis among the agents, you must take control of that process. You must start to track the effectiveness of the people responding to inquiries in getting contact information and you must start to ‘listen in’ so you know where the problems are.

I’ve said this before, but as a business consultant to real estate companies, I can almost always increase the office bottom line significantly, simply by working with the incoming lead handling and dialogues. Really. It’s absolutely the arena in a real estate office, where marketing meets sales. The whole game is either won or lost on how well we convert inquiries into leads (with contact information).

You, or someone you designate, needs to take on the role of Godzilla, running quality control and constant training on how your team interacts with the public. Oh, you don’t have to be as icy as Godzilla . . . though I have to tell you: once I realized how vital her tough love was to the success of the office and to each of us individually, I came to really appreciate her. Everyone did.

Understand this: nobody in your office really cares how much it costs you to create an inquiry. Left to their own devices they will usually create rationales for their own shortcomings, putting the blame outside themselves. This ‘arena’ is one you have to manage. You have to create the procedures, the tools and the scripts; then you have to install them into the psyche of everyone on staff; and finally, you have to inspect, inspect, inspect . . . and hold people accountable. It’s the only way inquiry conversion ever improves.

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