Cooperation: It's Nice to be Nice to the Nice

How do you make yours a brokerage that associates from other companies want to work with?

August 1, 2006

David Howell’s Northern Virginia market is extremely competitive. No residential real estate brokerage there captures more than 30 percent of in-house sales. So Howell’s success lies nearly as much with the relationships his associates build with their colleagues inside and outside his office as it does with attracting customers, says Howell, managing broker of McEnearney Associates in McLean.

“At the risk of overstating it, our industry relationships are a close second in importance to our relationships with buyers and sellers,” says Howell.

Sales associates who get along with others can expect to have their listings shown early and often. And when transaction snags arise, they can count on colleagues’ help in ironing things out. Difficult salespeople see their properties pushed back to the end of showing lists and struggle to close deals, because few of their colleagues want to face problems with them.

How do you make yours a brokerage that associates from other companies want to work with? The key is to be proactively cooperative, such as by sharing commissions in some instances, even when you’re technically not required to. That sort of kindness shouldn’t be thought of as a short-term cost to your company but rather as an investment that leads to future business. Ultimately, you and your clients will sell their homes more quickly and resolve hitches with less stress.

Start by affiliating carefully

Lack of civility can come in many forms, from listing agents who try too hard to keep sales in-house to associates who steal customers from colleagues.

To keep such associates from infecting your business, your first line of defense is not to affiliate them in the first place, say brokers. Howell recruits mostly from the ranks of experienced practitioners—those with a track record of being cooperative. For new associates, he says, check references thoroughly. Personality testing can help, too. The DISC test (DISC stands for dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness) can help you pinpoint whether candidates rate high on conscientiousness, the trait than underlies civility.

And don’t dismiss your own intuition. Difficult associates can be just as aggressive in getting you to affiliate them as they are in their dealmaking. If your gut says no, pay attention.

Lydia Russo, broker-owner of Russo Real Estate in Teaneck, N.J., once made the mistake of affiliating someone who had made repeated overtures to her. Even though she suspected the associate would run roughshod over others, Russo agreed to give the sales associate a try.

“My original feeling that she wouldn’t work well with others was the right one,” says Russo. “I gave her every argument I had—that we were full and didn’t need another associate, that we didn’t have a desk open—but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

The associate worked in Russo’s company for a couple of years, and sure enough, “she didn’t work well with other people,” Russo says. “Everybody disliked her.”

As Russo discovered, she didn’t just take on a person the other associates didn’t like; she placed some of her business at risk because associates dragged their feet before showing the difficult salesperson’s listings.

“When associates have 25 listings to show prospects, it’s human nature that, all things being equal, they’ll first show the properties of associates who will cooperate,” says McEnearney’s Howell. “That way, if a problem comes up, there’s a likelihood of getting it solved.”

Such shunning isn’t something associates always do consciously, says John Rasmussen, broker-owner of Palm Realty of Pensacola, in Pensacola, Fla. “They may rule out a property, saying to themselves the buyers wouldn’t want to see it because of something, but it’s really because they don’t want to deal with that salesperson,” he says.

If associates exclude someone’s listings consciously, says Rasmussen, “it’s unethical, because they’re supposed to put buyers’ interests above their own. But it happens.”

When sales associates do show difficult associates’ listings, says Russo, they grin and bear it. “The buyer may want to see a property, and you have to show it,” she says, “but you’re showing it reluctantly, and you’re hoping the buyer won’t buy it because you know you’ll run into problems during the transaction.”

Rasmussen has an unpopular associate working out of his office right now and sees this problem firsthand as the associate’s listings languish. They “would sell much better if the salesperson were friendlier,” he says.

Being nice saves time

Aside from increasing sales, working well with others can keep your sales associates out of professional standards hearings—a time-consuming and emotionally draining process.

Many complaints that come to hearings could have been resolved earlier had associates been more open with one another while they worked on their deal. “I can tell you with virtual certainty, in nine of 10 cases, there was no need to get to a professional standards hearing,” says Howell, who chairs the professional standards committee for the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS®.

“Some problems can’t be resolved,” he says, “but there’s been many a time when, among our committee members, ‘This didn’t need to get to this point’ is the first phrase out of our mouths.”

A good example is the conflict that arises when a buyers’ rep seeks credit as the procuring cause of a sale after the buyers make an offer on a house their rep didn’t show them. Depending on the nature of the case, it might be appropriate for the buyers’ rep to get a share of the commission, but the issue must be discussed thoroughly with the listing agent early on.

Howell says his committee is hearing more complaints today than in the past. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” he says. “It’s good in the sense that our objective always is to educate, so bringing problems to the association is always a good thing. On the flip side, it’s a little distressing to see how many complaints there are. Our committee is very busy these days.”

When associates and brokers have to resolve complaints before the committee, it takes away from their ability to do what they should be doing—building a profitable business. “Just having to respond [to a complaint] takes a tremendous amount of time,” says Howell. “It’s absolutely a distraction from the day-to-day course of one’s business.”

When we make mistakes, we find it much better to do everything we can to solve them as opposed to letting them get out of hand,” he says.

When your culture’s ignored

No matter how careful you are in your screening, no matter how much you try to resolve problems amicably, you’re bound to wind up with a difficult associate or two in your career. After all, you can’t control for recruits who say they’re cooperative and then turn out to be anything but.

For those who find their way into your company, your best course of action is to make sure your culture is clear at the outset. Should they breach it, let them know you know. “I say things like, ‘There’s no need to be that way,’” says Rasmussen.

But let associates go only so far in their uncooperative behavior before you say it’s time to part ways. “If we have associates who are burning bridges and creating problems, we’ll let them work somewhere else,” says Bryan Fair, operating partner at Keller Williams Realty Atlanta Partners in Atlanta. “Keeping them on isn’t worth the headaches, and it’ll stop other good associates from coming to our company.”

Howell agrees. When he’s asked difficult associates to leave the company, “it’s tended to have a liberating effect in the office,” he says. Associates and staff understand that production is one yardstick to measure by, but the most important one is a willingness to treat others fairly. “The ability to play well with others ultimately serves your client’s best interest,” he says.

Foster a culture of kindness

It’s one thing to say you want your associates to cooperate, both within your office and with associates outside it. But to build a culture of cooperation, you must demonstrate that you value cooperative acts when you see them. In other words, catch your associates in acts of kindness.

Bryan Fair, operating partner at Keller Williams Realty Atlanta Partners in Atlanta, has a storybook case of cooperation he tells. “We had an associate new to the business who asked a lot of questions of the No. 1 person in our office,” he says.

The new associate was working diligently to get a particular listing, but the sellers called to list the property only after he had gone out of town. “The top performer went out and got the listing, and it was sitting on the new associate’s desk when he walked back in,” he says. “That’s a great example of how you should act.”

It’s on top of those kinds of acts that an office culture is created, says Fair, because the new associate never forgot the gesture. “He’s now one of our top associates, and he feels obligated to help other associates as he was helped.”

Lydia Russo has a similar story. “I was taking a buyer out every Saturday to show her houses,” she says. “I must have shown her 40. She called one day and said she’d found a home. She’d gone to an open house, but never told the listing agent she was working with me.”

Russo, broker-owner of Russo Real Estate in Teaneck, N.J., told the buyer it was wonderful that she’d found the perfect house but that she, Russo, couldn’t present the offer and wasn’t entitled to a commission. The buyer, however, said she wouldn’t buy unless Russo participated in the transaction.

At the buyer’s insistence, Russo called the listing broker. “I told her I knew I wasn’t entitled to anything; I just wanted the buyer to go through her to buy the house,” she recalls. “The broker said, ‘You’ve been so honest. You bring that offer in; weput the transaction together.’ And we worked it out.”

Russo’s now on the flip side of that situation. A prospect at one of her associates’ open houses came to see the property without the salesperson she’d been working with. Unfortunately, the prospect never disclosed that she’d been working with another person. “I told my agent that she should call the other broker, who didn’t know that her associate’s customer had gone to the open house,” Russo says. “Now they’re trying to put the transaction together. The selling agent will get his sales commission, and we’ll get the listing commission. That’s what the other broker did for me, and it’s a good thing to do.”

freelance writer

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.