Erica Christoffer is a multimedia journalist and contributing editor with REALTOR® Magazine.
Thriving in a Reputation-Based Economy
In an online sharing culture, consumers and agents demand a high level of transparency from brokerages. Here’s how brokers are fostering openness and trust in their business practices.
January 18, 2017
On the first Tuesday of each month, the speaker system is powered up, the music starts thumping, and the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Go Realty team in North Carolina takes to the microphone for the start of its “Go Show.” Picture a company meeting crossed with a variety show, where sales and the good works of agents are celebrated and brokerage news is freely shared. The confab rotates around the company’s four Raleigh-Durham area offices, and each gathering is framed around a seasonal or team-building theme. “We feel very strongly at the company that it’s our job to make the meetings compelling,” says AnnMarie Janni, the broker-in-charge who’s playfully referred to as “boss lady” at Go’s Holly Springs office.
Apparently, it’s working. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of the company’s agents attend every meeting. Broker-owner Jim Garman rounds out each Go Show with a presentation—in October, he shared the company’s new compensation structure; in November, he rolled out new transaction management software; and in December, he reviewed goals for 2017. All topics are open to discussion.
Since founding his company in 2009, Garman has built a culture of transparency and inclusion. “It’s not like we wake up every day and decide it’s something to work on. It’s just who we are,” he says. Even the office design emphasizes openness, projecting the feel of an Apple Store combined with a Starbucks. The brokers in charge don’t hide in a fancy office in the back; they’re on the main floor with everyone else. And when Garman is in the office, he works in the main room, too. “We welcome agents and clients to come as they are,” Janni says. “We have a saying: ‘Who you are, where you are, how you are.’ ”
In today’s so-called reputation economy, fueled by unprecedented consumer engagement through social media and immediate, visible online feedback, transparency has practically become an office mandate. For brokerage owners, it’s a twofold objective: to present the best of what your company stands for and to attract both customers and agents. Brokers need a strongly defined value proposition that works both online and off-line, allowing everyone to know who you are and what they can expect you to deliver. The office environment and culture is just one way to accomplish that. Here are more ideas for building transparency into your business.
In September, Sue Yannaccone spent four days driving 600 miles across Wyoming in order to visit every ERA Real Estate office in the state. Local franchise owners had never received a visit from the brand’s CEO before, but Yannaccone was ushering in a new era. “I’m on the road visiting with everyone—big, small, and in between,” says Yannaccone, who was named ERA’s new president and CEO in the fall. The trip was a critical tactic in addressing her top priorities: fostering greater transparency and collaboration to increase franchisee engagement, satisfaction, and growth. “I’m a big believer that you have to be out in the field,” she says. “Being as open and connected as you can be is vital to your success.”
Yannaccone’s listening tour is helping shape ERA’s business development and platform requirements by enabling company leaders to understand market and consumer needs at the local level. Corporate managers are now hosting regional conference calls with brokers and are encouraged to share updates and ideas. “Transparency is a component of my leadership style. It helps get everyone on board, excited, and aligned with where you want to go and what you want to accomplish,” Yannaccone says. She conducts group planning exercises and tries to be as direct as possible. She sets clear goals that are measurable so people on her team can see what’s expected, including how often field service team members are expected to call or visit with brokers. Then they have monthly and weekly updates on where they are in meeting those goals. “People want to be led by someone who will bring them into the fold, tell them what’s going on,” Yannaccone says.
Presenting Your Business Online
Transparency today extends beyond the office walls and into the online space. Savvy brokers understand how consumer trends are affecting their business. They know consumers start their buying and selling process online long before ever reaching out to an agent. That means real estate companies and their agents need to ensure that their online identity is polished, clear, and honest—because if they’re not truthful, clients will immediately complain to their entire social media sphere and beyond.
Bruce Gardner, real estate trainer and founder of Elite Agent Systems Inc., says your first interview with clients is online when they search Google for your agent or brand. Consumers want to understand both your professional and personal identities. “In the past, our industry was not transparent; everyone said they were number one,” he says. “But today—and even more so in the future—you’re either good or you’re gone.”
He recommends writing your story and publishing it on your website and encourages agents to do the same. Include your background, likes, and hobbies, and what your business is about. Give your name and your brand an identity that individual consumers can connect with, Gardner says. “If I were a broker today, one of the top things I’d be working on with my agents is how they present their personal identity online,” Gardner says.
A simple first step is to make sure your profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, online review sites, and listing sites—including realtor.com—are up-to-date. Online reviews are also important reputation builders, so if your company doesn’t already have a system for capturing reviews from satisfied clients, start today, Gardner says. Agents could ask clients to fill out a form after their offer has been accepted or get them speaking on video with the keys in their hand after closing.
“Online reviews are like word of mouth, only better because they talk for you 24-7-365,” Gardner says.
But it’s paramount that your offline behavior matches your online identity. Establish a value proposition that agents and clients clearly understand and start living that identity every day at your brokerage, whether it’s “problem solvers,” “negotiation experts,” “advocates,” or “gladiators.” “If you’re turning the impossible into the possible, share it with the world,” Gardner says.
Ensuring Agents Do Their Homework
While today’s consumers demand transparency in their business dealings, some aspects of a real estate transaction require caution. Chicago-based real estate attorney Michelle Laiss-Lipner says listing agents should always err on the side of transparency when it comes to a seller’s disclosure statement. However, if an agent is privy to hearsay regarding a problem with the property from a third party, such as from a tenant or neighbor, then the agent should not disclose the information unless it’s verified. “I’m of the opinion [that] if you know something and you’re not sure if you have to disclose it, go to your managing broker or talk to an attorney,” Laiss-Lipner says. “You don’t want to be called into question later, especially if it’s based on hearsay and not verified.”
Agents should sit down with their clients and walk them through disclosure forms. “Sometimes there’s a momentum in a transaction, and no one understands the importance of the document,” Laiss-Lipner says. If a property falls within a homeowners association or condo association, she recommends that the agent call the management office or treasurer to verify fees and find out if there are any special assessments. If a client is selling a multiunit dwelling, then the agent should verify with the city that the property falls within zoning compliance. If a property is marketed to have three units but zoning rules indicate just two, there’s going to be a problem, Laiss-Lipner says. It’s best to check out such claims to avoid potential litigation, she says. “You look more credible if you’ve done your homework. That’s another level of transparency.”
It’s the broker’s job to teach agents how to minimize risks and disseminate information on real estate laws and relevant changes. One proactive step brokers can take is to invite a lawyer to an upcoming sales meeting to talk about common legal issues or changes to state law. “Education is the best way [brokers] can facilitate a good mode of transparency,” Laiss-Lipner says.
Speaking in Plain English
The complexities in a real estate transaction—both legal and emotional—can be a significant source of stress. One of the greatest values an agent offers is the ability to alleviate some of that stress for clients. However, if the agent-client relationship doesn’t start out with a foundation of transparency, it will be tough for trust to follow. That’s why Garman worked with real estate attorneys to rewrite traditional buyer’s agent and listing agreement forms in plain English.
“What we learned is, our agents would build these great relationships with people in their network and sphere, and then when they’d sit down to sign a buyer agency or listing agreement, there was a record scratch,” Garman says. So they came up with language that spells out exactly what agents at Go will do for the client and what will be expected of the clients in the transaction.
In terms of transparency, “they’re signing something they understand,” Janni says. Go also has a breakup policy. “We don’t want to work with anyone who isn’t happy with us.” The company’s commitment includes elements such as responsiveness, positive attitude, and little touches like making sure every client has the contact information for managers in each office.
Admitting When Something Isn’t Working
Janni says that fear is a common workplace barrier, even in brokerages. The fear of looking unintelligent or of being judged may cause people to sweep problems under the rug. But at Go, they strive for the opposite whenever possible. “When we think something isn’t working, we’re the first to stand up and say it,” she says.
For instance, Garman says that his company’s previous commission structure worked for agents in their first or second year, but it wasn’t working for the longtime stars on their team. “Being honest about that and calling it what it is was important,” he says. Then, in November when he presented a new transaction management software during a Go Show, he conceded there would be challenges that the company would have to work through. “Some people thanked me for acknowledging that,” he says.
Sometimes, when brokers are presenting to their team, it’s easy to point out all the positives of a situation and paint a rosy picture so everyone feels good, Garman says. But the reality is, nothing is all good or all bad. You must remain accountable to your agents and staff. The last thing brokers should do is sugarcoat a situation, he says, because at best it leads to unrealistic expectations—and at worst it damages trust and transparency.