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Reopening to the Possibilities

With the rise of virtual operations, brokerages are tuned into enhancing connections with agents and consumers.

July - August
2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many familiar routines, including the way people buy and sell homes. Thoughtful brokerage owners have spent the past four months adjusting to a new normal, exploring ways to meet agents’ and clients’ changing needs that will serve them well into the future.

Real estate is not going back to what it was before the pandemic, as brokers and agents reshape their processes for viewing properties and interacting with prospects and clients. But with the transition to running largely virtual operations, the industry is renewing its emphasis on the human connections underlying every transaction. For many companies, this has also been a time to amp up productivity by learning new skills, digging into innovative tools, and setting big goals.

Jill Butler, broker-owner of RedKey Realty in the St. Louis metro area, doubled down to keep her long-standing plan to open a third office on track. Opening day is set for Aug. 1. “Growth is part of our vision for the future, and I know with hard work and flexibility, we will keep growing and come out of this stronger,” she says. Seeing how important quality video learning has become, Butler and her team are adding an “agent video studio” in their new office, with professional grade video equipment, enabling RedKey agents to produce high-quality marketing videos and home tours. “There is a lesson or a gift in each situation if we have eyes to see it. I am grateful for all we are learning,” Butler says.

Go Forward With Creativity

Brokers should assess whether they are offering the type of support that agents need most these days. Deb Boelkes, author of the book Heartfelt Leader-ship: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring, suggests getting agents involved in finding solutions. “Offer team members opportunities to participate in special, newly created webinars to aid in reducing stress, team building, or professional coaching, paid for by the firm,” she says. “It is your leadership that will determine your company’s success over the coming months and into the future.”

Companies are focusing on business-building strategies to meet agents’ immediate and future needs. Jeff Campbell, broker-owner of San Diego Estates, has asked his agents to take turns leading their virtual sales meetings. In May, Coldwell Banker Global Luxury held its first-ever virtual Global Luxury certification course, which had a record-breaking attendance of nearly 1,200 agents. Butler’s firm started a concierge service to helps agents with tasks like putting up or removing yard signs.

Broker-supplied face masks have turned into a calling card of sorts as well as a safety measure. RE/MAX Integra, a Canadian-based franchise with offices in the U.S., started offering reusable RE/MAX-branded face masks to all North American brokerages. Mike Jones, broker-owner of RE/MAX At The Crossing in Indianapolis, says he’s thrilled with the company’s clever take on masks, dubbed “RE/MASKS.” His agents have been wearing the masks at showings, staging appointments, and listing meetings. “It’s refreshing to be able to be face-to-face with our clients again in a safe and compliant manner,” he says.

Branded masks have become indispensable for Rocky Balsamo, group leader at Weidel Real Estate in Princeton, N.J. He ordered inexpensive decals of his team logo, which he irons on to bright red masks sewn by his mother and niece. “I give them to both buyer and seller clients and they love them,” he says.

No matter what steps your brokerage is taking to help agents prosper, frequent and authentic communication is vital, says Dawn Miller, a real estate practitioner in Virginia Beach, Va., and coach with the John Maxwell Team. “Keep them up-to-date not only on real estate market trends but also on ways the company is there for the agents,” she says. A high “touch” rate can reinforce the sense of community and help agents feel their office leaders are supporting them, Miller says.

Jennifer Archambeault, broker-owner of Urban Provision, REALTORS®, a strictly virtual company based in Austin, Texas, has counseled her agents to halt drip campaigns for now and go back to old-school connecting. Archambeault advises picking up the phone, swinging by clients’ homes to say hello while keeping social distance, and sending handwritten cards. “Ask how you can help. Be visible and be very genuine. Those who deeply connect on a human level during these difficult times will be the ones who prevail when we bounce back,” she says.

DeAnn Golden, senior vice president and managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway -HomeServices Georgia Properties, says her company is also working to deepen relationships with agents. They’ve been providing two to four Zoom training sessions a day for the company’s 1,500 agents, covering everything from motivation to mortgages to best business practices.“ We anticipate continuing to offer virtual sessions even when we’re able to safely return to in-person group settings.”

The “virtual caravans” they started in mid-March have also been a hit, Golden says. At least a dozen salespeople join each Zoom call to present their listings. “Those aren’t going away,” she says. “Virtual tours, virtual showings, and virtual open houses aren’t going away. We’re giving consumers more options for how they want to be served.”

Taking a new approach to outreach will help brokers and their agents serve clients’ needs, says Kaci (Brown) Bellenie, principal broker of B&A Realty Investments in Columbus, Ohio. She suggests using Instagram Live, IGTV, or Facebook Live to hold a daily story time and reach clients who have young kids at home or offering Zoom tutorials for clients in your network who are unfamiliar with the technology to help them connect with their families.

Bellenie’s company specializes in property management, and since the pandemic hit, they’ve been taking the time to call, rather than email, clients and tenants to see how they’re doing. They’ve also been sending out handwritten notes to longtime residents expressing how much they appreciate them. “Let’s get back to our initial sales training, update it for the COVID-19 era, and make an impact on the lives around us,” Bellenie says.

Reopen With Care

In May, despite the persistence of the coronavirus across the country, brokers began overseeing careful reopenings of their offices, offering safety guidance for their agents and staff.

Butler’s reopening strategy included limiting the number of entrances at her two offices, which enabled her staff to maintain a running log of people inside the buildings. The log could help with contact tracing in case someone in the office tests positive for COVID-19. Staff members alternate between working from home and being in the office, with staggered arrival and departure times. Agents have been going into the office only when they need to and must wear masks.

Large signs explain the new office guidelines, and floor markings help promote social distancing. In addition to a written daily cleaning schedule, the company has a system for sanitizing pens and workstations. Hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, and gloves will be available for the foreseeable future. “The most important thing for us is simple, clear boundaries,” she says. “If you are sick, don’t come in.” Training and coaching will continue to be virtual for now.

In early May, as California’s reopening was underway, Campbell took his tape measure and rearranged the furniture in both of his offices so that desks are at least 9 feet apart—going beyond the CDC’s guidance of 6 feet. He’s also personally handling the daily cleanings of the common areas and surfaces at his offices. “We’ll be forever conscious of sanitation and health practices, and we’ll refine our methods to be more efficient,” he says.

One way Campbell has been able to handle office visitors is by setting up a kiosk greeting stand outside of the front door with rules for occupying communal spaces, mask requirements, and instructions for how to reach the person they’re looking for. He points out that a kiosk can simply be written instructions on a whiteboard or a tablet displaying a digital greeting and other information.

The detailed safety standards Campbell devised for showing properties early in the pandemic are here to stay, he says. Sellers and pets vacate during the showing. The listing agent goes inside to open every door, blind, drape, drawer, and shower curtain, so that nothing has to be touched—leaving masks, gloves, and alcohol wipes for prospective buyers and their agent. Only then are buyers and agents allowed inside the home.

Responsible Recruiting

Even in these unsettled times, agent recruitment continues, and real estate professionals in your community may be noticing what outreach tactics are being used. Anything that looks like “stealing” can harm your brand’s reputation. “The appropriate way to recruit is to get to know agents. Get to know what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and what makes them uneasy about their current situation, and then offer a solution to make a positive change moving forward,” Archambeault says.

Campbell, for example, started inviting agents from other companies to attend his team’s weekly sales meetings virtually—without pressure to join his brokerage. His goal is to encourage the ideals of collaboration and camaraderie, and he reports that three to 10 outside agents typically attend each meeting. “Brokers are the top of the ladder, and we must uplift our agents to be strong, empower others, and learn new ways to comply with ever-changing regulations,” he says.

Now’s the time to tune into “return on relationships” and “return on community” rather than return on investment, says Golden. She’s recently received five unsolicited texts from one recruiter in her Atlanta market, not a positive first impression, she says. “It hurts recruiters when they’re cold-calling or robo-texting. It’s not authentic. I’m more focused on how my agents are doing now.” And keeping those priorities straight may well be the key to growing a brokerage over the long term.

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