Flashback: What Consumers Wanted and What They Want Now

I got licensed back in the Pleistocene Era, when dinosaurs roamed the earth:  1976.

Consumers had very little information about real estate, and it wasn’t just MLS-type property information they were lacking.  We had five or six television stations (channels in the UHF range – above channel 12 – were just starting to appear) and so what became a major source of information for many was just getting cranked up.  FM radio was mostly college stations and public broadcasting — AM was king — but there was no news or talk radio.  Not only was there no Internet, there were no PCs.  Information traveled at the speed of sludge and John Q Public had a very limited understanding about real estate and about many other things.

REALTORS held the keys to the kingdom:  the MLS.  The only way consumers got to information about property for sale was through us.  And though there were a few FSBOs, most were willing to pay traditional percentage commissions to gain access to the information.   Funny, though:  with an average sale price of $65,000, a commission of $3,600 — though relatively big — didn’t irritate as much as today, when selling the same house for 2013 dollars would probably cost in the neighborhood of $15,000.

Sellers expected us to do everything.  They wanted to sign the listing agreement and disappear back into their lives, letting their agents take over the process and magically produce a ready willing and able buyer.  I spent much of my agent-time keeping my sellers (buyers too) informed about the process:  what’s coming next, what to expect, what problems might come up and how we’d deal with them, etc.  They were so grateful to have my understanding of how real estate worked at their disposal.

You spent a lot of time with buyers just narrowing the field of their wants and needs.  They needed to see lots of houses to get down to the style, size and location of the perfect house for them and so showing 15, 20, 30 houses over the course of several weekends was not unusual.  They had no way of ‘seeing’ property unless you put them in the car, drove them over and escorted them through.  The best buyer was always the transferee, who often came with home buying assistance from their employer and usually had a very limited time to find the perfect home.  With the transferee you had the chance of meeting a buyer on Friday and writing an offer for them on Sunday — and that was reason to celebrate!

Today, consumers have ALL the information at their fingertips.  The listing information they can view online is almost identical to what we can see, and tools like Listingbook, Zillow and Trulia make it possible for them to easily manage their own home search process . . . until they need a door opened.  More than that, consumers today can get information about every step of the home buying and selling process by typing a search string in Google.  The air waves — radio, television and Internet — are loaded with information about property transactions and there are whole television channels devoted to real estate.

Sellers look to us to plug them into the marketing resources that exist:  MLS, our website, syndication to as many other aggregators as possible.  They also look to us to spread the word about their property locally and to promote it to our Sphere of Influence.  The goal is the same as it’s always been:  exposure.  Today, because the paths to exposure are so well developed, the task is more management of marketing than creation of marketing.

More than exposure, Sellers today look to us to solve their property problem.  Whether they’re upside down, facing foreclosure or just trying to hang on to as much of their equity as possible, our role is to help them map a course that gets them as close to their goals as possible.  Today that often means minimizing the pain.  Really:  150 years ago, when I was selling real estate, simply dropping the new listing in MLS and letting the industry find a buyer in a reasonable period of time was fine.  Everybody moved and everybody was happy.  Today it’s much more about using your knowledge to accomplish the best possible outcome for your clients, and your knowledge has to always be growing.  That’s why, as James Brown said, it’s important that we all stay in school!

Buyers want to do much of their searching on their own.  They want to spend hours on the Internet looking at listings, saving and eliminating them.  They want to drive by before deciding whether they want to see the inside.  They don’t want to be held captive in the back seat of your car while you show them house after inappropriate house.  The value we can bring to them is in giving them the best tools to help them do that self-directed searching, making it easy for them to get quick answers when they need them, and in anticipating problems before they occur.  I keep saying this:  Listingbook is your best friend when it comes to doing all of these things.

The job of REALTOR today is very different than it used to be.  It’s not that we DO LESS than we used to do, it’s that our clients DO MORE.  It’s also that the job has become more specialized and focused.  The one thing that hasn’t changed is the way ordinary real estate brokers charge for their services.    That’s still stuck in the Pleistocene Era.  The tough market of the last few years is like an Ice Age and as with all Ice Ages, the end result will be extinction for certain species.  Not to worry.  As the ice recedes, newer, better, stronger, more adaptable species emerge and dominate.  That’s us.

QR KICK!

The first thing I noticed when I went into the bathroom stall was the white card with a QR code on it, sitting on top of the toilet paper dispenser.  I picked it up.  ‘Search for HOMES on the MLS, just like an agent,’ it said.  Of course I pulled out my Android phone, opened Google Goggles and clicked on the QR Code.

I was taken to an agent’s Listingbook sign up page.  It is a standard webpage Listingbook creates for each agent who registers for their program.  This one was pretty good. It had the agent’s picture and contact information, and a crisp bulleted description of Listingbook, how it works and why it is superior to other property search tools.  To the right there were input boxes for First and Last Name, Email Address and Phone (Optional).

Yes, I am in real estate.  I am intrigued by QR codes and I love Listingbook.  But I don’t think my reaction would be all that different from anyone else mildly interested in the local real estate market.  I would have completed the fill-in boxes on the spot (or on the throne as it was) to get access.  Of course, then the agent would have my contact information and as I used Listingbook to search for homes, he/she’d also be able to see what I was looking at.

Here are the lessons in this:

  • Marketing. Superb!  Can you imagine a fully loaded campaign structured around the phrase, ‘Search for HOMES on the MLS, just like an agent?”  Thousands of QR codes like the one described scattered all over town, Blitz signs with the same message and code, Maybe even a mailbox campaign like the one Mike Paholke at Excel is doing for us these days.  Almost everyone interested in real estate in your target market would at least click the code to get more information and many would sign up . . . and each of them would be that much closer to being your clients.
  • The power of Listingbook.  I have been on a real kick the last few weeks to get you guys (you Help-U-Sell brokers) to start selling your websites as the great search tool they are.  Because they receive information every night from the MLS, they are far more up-t0-date than, say, Zillow or Trulia.  However, if your MLS has Listingbook, it’s even better! Listingbook is not an IDX feed that happens overnight.  It’s real time.  So an active listing that goes pending at 1:15 pm will show in Listingbook as pending at 1:16pm.  The IDX feed will take a day to catch up.  More important, the only way a consumer gets a Listingbook account is through an agent and then that agent can see every listing the consumer looks at, can see at a glance when their criteria changes, when their areas change, when their searching activity picks up (usually heralding a more imminent purchase).
  • QR Codes. Have you noticed?  They are everywhere.  And just as DVD marketing was all the rage 7 years ago (we were distributing DVDs because there was a good chance the consumer would view them), QR Codes are the hot ticket today.  One relating to anything of interest to the consumer is likely to produce a click . . . and clicks start the relationship process.

I know I sound like a broken record, but:  Call you MLS and ask if they have Listingbook.  If they do, decide whether you want to signup for the free account for the very moderately priced upgrade.  Then start marketing it!  Everytime anyone signs up for an account through you, you have their contact information and a basis for staying in touch.  Once you get the account take advantage of the free training offered.  There’s a lot to Listingbook and much of it is easy to miss if you don’t take a moment to get up to speed.

I can think of no better local campaign to generate leads today than the one described here.  Drive people to your Listingbook sign up page – which will be perceived as a high-value offer – where their contact information is gathered and then start building a good working relationship!

On Another Note:  I sent each of you an email today about Website Lead Generation and Operational Areas.  I didn’t want to publish that here because, frankly, I don’t want the competition to know what we’re doing.  Please check your Help-U-Sell email and look for that message, read it and make any adjustments you need to make.

Syndication Storm

First, let’s understand what syndication is.  When a real estate broker submits a listing to the MLS, he/she is given the choice whether to share the listing with various Internet property portals:  Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com and many more.  At Help-U-Sell, with the broker’s agreement, we pull all property listings from the MLS via an IDX feed – that’s how we get the Help-U-Sell broker’s listings (along with all the others in the MLS) into helpusell.com.  We also share information with dozens of Internet portals and our brokers can opt in or out of that sharing for their individual listings.  That’s syndication.

These portals – let’s call them what they are:  aggregators – present the listing data on their own sites and use the traffic they generate to sell advertisements.  The advertisers are usually REALTORS who want to be seen as the knowledgable expert in their areas.

I remember Dale Strack railing on about this seven years ago.  ‘First they get you to share your data with them – For Free! – then they turn around and sell the leads your data generates back to you!’ he’d say.  And he was right:  we real estate pros often take the easiest path . . .  I mean:  we could have done the work the aggregators did to get our listings seen and preserve the leads not for advertisers but for the source of the data, but we didn’t.  We had a long and rich history of hoarding information from consumers and the thought of opening up our own treasure trove of data was repugnant to us!  We opted to let someone else do that.

Thank goodness we did.  Now the consumer has almost all the information we used to hoard from them!

But now there is this tempest brewing.  It started a few months ago in Minnesota, where the gigantic Independent firm, Edina, opted out of syndication on their listings.  A few firms followed over the following months and then, last week, Jim Abbott from San Diego pulled his firm out.  Abbott is not near the heavy weight that Edina is, but he understands media and created a very compelling video about his decision.  The video has gone viral in the real estate community and I’m sure will bring this issue to the forefront for many.  Here – give it a look:

Abbott’s frustration is that his listings are generating leads for other brokers.  And he is correct, it is almost impossible to find listing agent information on most of the portals.  The only agents easy to find are those who ponied up the cash for premium accounts – and there is no screening process for agents wanting to advertise in this way.  The consumer is as likely to find a Dud this way as a Star.

Imagine the frustration of a great agent who takes dozens of good property listings and sends them out to the syndicators.  Meanwhile a new agent or a failing one inks an agreement with a syndicator to become a ‘Preferred Agent’  and snares a quality lead on one of those listings.  Because they know nothing about the property (and little about the business), they lean heavily on the listing agent through the showing, offer and acceptance process.  The listing agent feels as if he/she carried the selling agent through the sale and is bothered by the low level of service the buyer client received from their agent.

I think pulling the plug on syndication is a noble thing.  I’m not sure it’s practical.  Truth is, I hear from my brokers every week that the preferred agent programs on Trulia and especially on Zillow work:  they produce leads. And today, it’s a rare broker who pulls the plug on anything producing leads.

Funny:  there’s been an alternative – actually a better program than that of any of the aggregators – out there for years:  ListingBook.  It’s free to agents and brokers, gives consumers real time access to the local MLS and the same listings the aggregators have, and preserves the lead for the agent who brings the prospect into ListingBook.  It’s the consumer centric alternative to the problems Abbott is talking about in his video.  I’ve been pushing ListingBook for years: it’s a wonderful way to give the very best infomation to your clients without giving up control.  If brokers understood its power there would be no need to syndicate to anybody.

I am very curious about where you weigh in on this and would welcome your comments.  We’re also going to spend a little time on the issue on our Wednesday Help-U-Sell Power Hour.  So please plan to attend.

Technology You Need

Realtors, there’s a ton of technological stuff out there vying for your attention these days, much of it pretty good, but most of it not worth the time and effort it would take for a good Broker or Agent to learn and master.  If you are good at selling real estate, it probably means your people skills are outstanding.  That’s where you need to focus:  doing the things that get you out in the field, meeting the people, putting this one together with that one and so on.  All this wonderful technology is just there to support that effort.  It is not the star, you are.

Because most Help-U-Sell offices are small in terms of agent population, we don’t often see the large number of bright young people who come into the business each year, quickly master all the technology, and never sell a thing.  It’s not about technology, it’s about people.

So what do you do?  You need to be up-to-date, and you need to be able to pick out the handful of tools out there that will be worth the time and effort it will take you to master them.  If you’re lucky enough to have some ‘Tweens’ running around, a great course of action is to let them do the investigation, let them organize the database, let them update your website (you stay in charge of content).  Pay them lavishly – what?  $10 an hour plus at least one meal a day (and all the bread and water they want).

If you do not have that biologically built in tech support system, let me give you three – just three – bits of technology I think you need to have today.

1.  A broadband capable Ipad, tablet pc or netbook.  What do they all have in common?  They are small, lightweight, connect to the internet when you are out on the road, and can access your MLS from anywhere.  Honestly, I don’t know how you work buyers today without one.  For example, you’re showing property and your buyer nearly climbs out the window when she spots a brand new sign (on a listing you knew nothing about) on your way to show a property.  With one of these devices, you quickly access the MLS, pull the listing and, bam!  you’ve got it covered.  Or, you’ve just shown the third house she hated.  It’s becoming clear that what she told you she wanted is not actually what she wants.  With mobile device like this, you can quickly stop, search and come up with a set of more appropriate properties to see.

I know you can probably access your MLS with your smartphone, but screen size creates all kinds of problems:  pictures are hard to see, typing is very difficult and despite recent gains, they tend to be slooooowww.

In this category, the Ipad has captured everyone’s imagination – a tribute to the excellent marketing Apple does.  But I like the Samsung Tab.  I know Verizon offers it and others may as well.  It runs on the Android operating system so has great expansion capabilities via numerous free and paid Apps.  Most of all, I like its size.  It’s narrow enough to fit in the palm of one hand so you can type with the other.  The Ipad feels cumbersome by comparison.  Both of these devices are, well, sexy . . . and are bound to turn a few heads if you’re into that sort of thing.  But if you just want something small you can use to access the MLS, check out some of the new NetBooks.  These are more like traditional notebooks with a lot of the power stripped from them.  You’re not going to use them to edit video, but if you get one with a wireless broadband card (or purchase a USB dongle from your provider), they can do the job of surfing the MLS quite well — and you don’t even have to give up the keyboard!

By the way, I didn’t mention the new device that’s getting a lot of buzz right now, the Motorola Xoom.  Sorry, I thought it was clunky and heavy.  Just my opinion.

2.  A notetaking system.  I’d love to give you a menu of options but the first one I tried I loved and I think you will too.  It’s Evernote (www.evernote.com).  You install it on your computer and on your mobile phone.  You can create ‘notes’ on your computer and sync them so they are available on your phone:  to do lists, pictures of your dog, voice memos, house showing itineraries, whatever.  You can also create ‘notes’ on your phone and sync them with your computer.  So you collect data in two places simultaneously (much better chance you’ll find what you want when you want it).

Most good Brokers and Agents I’ve known were a disaster when it came to note taking and organization.  I can’t tell you how many I’ve seen running around with a briefcase full of little scraps of paper each with a name and phone number scrawled on it.  I swear, one lady who worked for me – a good agent – spent 20% of her time just looking for stuff she’d written down . . . somewhere.  With Evernote, you can still write that number down on a scrap of paper, but then you immediately take a photo of it from Evernote on your phone and zingo! it’s stored on your phone and uploaded to your computer all at once.  Best of all, ‘notes’ are searchable.  You can even make voice notes in Evernote.  Push the button on your phone and say, ‘check out the new listing at 123 Elm’ and the reminder will be stored where you can find it.  How about this:  you meet someone who may want to buy.  Rather than writing their contact info down, ask for it, then push the button on your phone and record them giving it to you.  It’s also great for taking photos of business cards, which are automatically converted to searchable text.

Why not download your free copies on your phone and computer, spend a little time getting comfortable and then challenge yourself.  See if you can get through a whole week without hanging on to a single scrap of paper or note.

3.  A buyer incubation/loyalty system.   You know I love Listingbook.  It think it’s the most exciting buyer/agent tool I’ve seen in a long time.  When you give your buyer a Listingbook account, you’re giving them something better than Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com or any other aggregator website.  You’re giving them real time access to the LOCAL MLS.  You’re giving them the ability to search to their hearts content and giving them a means to keep you in the loop in a way that is not intrusive.  They love it and you stay in control.  Not all MLSs have Listingbook, but most have something.  Call your Board and ask:  ‘What tools do we have to help buyers in the search process, that they will perceive as being ‘high value,’ and that will help me maintain contact and control as they incubate?’

As with all technology, each of these three items has a learning curve, but it’s pretty gentle.  Take them one at a time, get comfortable with one before adding another; and see if your efficiency and productivity doesn’t increase as the year unfolds.

This Generation and That One

I was talking to Ken Kopcho, a great Help-U-Sell broker, today about an email I’d sent him.  He hadn’t seen it yet.  ‘You know, I’m a mano a mano kinda guy,’ he said,  ‘I respond well to face to face meetings and conversation.’   I think he was ribbing me about sending an email rather than calling.  And he’s right:  I do resort to electronic communication probably more than I should.  Truth is, I can get 3 or 4 quick business-like text or email messages out in the time I can have one phone conversation.

‘There are people in this world,’ he continued,’who could be sitting at the desk directly across from me who would send me a text if they needed to tell me something!’  This ribbing was turning into a smack-down!

‘Come on, Ken,’ I finally answered, ‘It’s just different kinds of communication for different kinds of people and we should to be able to work with everyone.’

That’s when Ken got excited and started telling me about the sale he just made.  His buyers are a military family:  he’s  in Korea and she’s at home in Texas.  He’ll be stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Ken’s Santa Maria marketplace, so they have been looking at houses online.  They first found Ken on his office website after Googling ‘homes for sale’ in Santa Maria.  Then they found his listings again on Zillow and it was through Zillow that they made contact with him.  He was right back to them and they said (almost on cue), ‘Why, you’re the only broker who’s gotten back to us!’

Though they have been in touch over various listings, Ken has never met this family . . . and here’s the kicker: they are now under contract on a house they have never actually seen (except online).

There are lots of little lessons in this brief saga.  First, if we’re going to be successful, we’re going to have to be sensitive to the communication styles of the people with whom we work.  The shortest distance between your message and the person you want to get it is through their preferred mode of communication (not yours).  Though Ken is a more traditional guy, he was able to communicate so well  with this family electronically that he made a sale.

The story also puts me in mind of the great real estate generation gap.  The average REALTOR is 52 years old.  The average home buyer is 32 years old.  Those twenty years are measured mostly in terms of technology.  Our buyers are often more tech savvy than we are.  They are also impatient with anyone who isn’t up to speed with the new way of doing business.  Here’s where we (more mature) real estate professionals have to really hunker down and learn the new way.  I mean:  you may be the best horse and buggy salesperson in the world, but if most of the world wants a Model T Ford, and you don’t understand those new fangled things at all . . . you better get busy learning.

I talked with another broker a few weeks back who I think illustrates this dilemma.  Like me, he’s . . . um . . . mature.  He’s been in the business for 30 years.  His strength has always been the personal touch.  He gets to know his customers and does the searching for them, showing them only the homes that closely match their criteria.  His marketplace has become trendy and the upwardly mobile early 30s crowd is moving in.  His buyer lead conversion rate has been in decline for awhile and is now frustratingly low.  Truth is:  his style is probably turning off many of the buyers in his marketplace.  He needs a quick masters degree in working with the tech savvy buyer:  how to use Zillow, Trulia, Facebook, Listingbook, Sikku, and websiteSSS to empower consumers in the home search process.

I know that’s harder for some brokers than others, not because they are stupid, but because it’s not enjoyable for them.  They’d rather be meeting the people, showing property and solving problems mano a mano.  This is a perfect situation for a sharp young buyers agent to come in and handle that segment of the market.

Take it from one . . . . um . . . . mature real estate broker:  if electronic communication and marketing is not your thing, it’s probably a problem in your business.  One way or another, you’re going to have to deal with it, either by going back to school or hiring someone who already knows it.