Should You Be Assisting Rather Than Selling?

January 1, 1996

As far as career development goes, it's the opposite of what you'd expect. But making the transition from salesperson to assistant may make good business sense.

"Assisting real estate salespeople is becoming a profession unto itself," says Linda Rosen, head of the National Organization of Real Estate Assistants (NORA), based in Minneapolis. Assistants aren't just secretaries, she notes. "Today they can grow in their careers and not hit a glass ceiling. Many specialize, for instance, by working with buyers or by taking over marketing and business manage-ment for their salespeople."

In fact, Rosen hopes to replace the industry term personal assistant with licensed business manager. "After all," she asks, "would Lee Iacocca have a personal assistant in his boardroom?"

And there are practical matters to consider: Megaproducers with their teams of assistants are accumulating bigger market shares, which may mean less business for you. Some industry insiders even suspect that the 80/20 rule--20 percent of practitioners doing 80 percent of the business--is conservative.

Real estate writer and speaker Steve Stewart, based in Claremont, Calif., believes the figure may be closer to 92/8. "That top producers are doing more of the business is an unrelenting trend." They've managed to shatter productivity limits with mastermind groups, technology, promotion, and assistants. In short, they're producing like gangbusters.

To capitalize on this trend, think about using your skills and license to join a megaproducer's team. If the idea seems far-fetched, meet two former salespeople who've found career and financial fulfillment as assistants.

Mickie Cioccia: A Sure Bet

Anyone who has ever changed occupations knows the stress level is right up there with walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. The last thing you need is people taking bets--not on whether you'll make it but on how long before you don't. However, that's just what happened when Mickie Cioccia left her salesperson position with Century 21--Western Realty, Katy, Texas, to become the administrative assistant to Liz Carter, that office's top producer.

"The entire office was betting that I wouldn't last," laughs Cioccia, adding that no one was openly derisive. "They just couldn't believe I'd be happy working for someone who used to be a peer. I'd say 'puzzled' pretty much describes their reaction."

A year later all bets are off. Cioccia has not only survived but downright prospered. "I wanted to make a decent living but still have time for my family. Now I make more than twice what I used to and work fewer hours."

Sixty-hour weeks earned Cioccia $22,000 as a salesperson. Now she clocks 40 hours and pulls down more than $50,000, the bulk of which is commissions based on Carter's sales. "I have no business expenses," Cioccia gloats. "And customers and clients aren't calling me at all hours, day and night."

But don't think she doesn't earn every penny. Since Cioccia came aboard, Carter's sales are up 57 percent over the previous year, to roughly $10 million. The previous assistant primarily answered the phone, but Cioccia drafts letters, designs ads, reviews contracts, plans strategies, converses knowledgeably with customers and clients, and generally frees Carter to prospect, secure listings, and negotiate contracts. "I do those, too, when Liz takes time off," Cioccia says.

Her two-and-a-half-year stint as a salesperson was training enough for her current position. "What more could I learn?" she asks. "I've done it all. I've completed just about every form, put out last-minute fires, and scheduled showings, inspections, and closings. That experience enables me to assist Liz in ways a secretary or salesperson wanna-be can't."

Cioccia stays busy making sure her boss stays busy closing transactions. She foresees a day, however, when she'll be managing a staff of assistants for Carter.

"The only drawback to this job is that I see how much more money Liz makes than I do," Cioccia says half jokingly. "But the way we're going, I'll be making that much before too long."

Sound like wishful thinking? Want to bet?

Hendrie Grant: The Best of Both Worlds

For Hendrie Grant, the job of real estate salesperson wasn't all it was cracked up to be. "There are a lot of disappointments. Transactions fall apart, customers and clients become scarce, days are long, and sure things aren't." What salesperson can't hum that tune?

Then again, he loved the challenges of selling real estate--the need to be organized, the thrill of the chase, and the feel of the victor's brass ring.

When Grant learned that John Otteson, a salesperson at Burnet Realty's Crocus Hill office in St. Paul, Minn., was looking for an assistant, he thought, "I can do that!" He pitched himself to Otteson and started working for him three weeks later, in the summer of 1995.

To Grant's way of thinking, the decision to do it simply made good business sense. "You have someone who's really good at getting listings and closing transactions," he says, "and someone, like me, who's highly efficient and experienced at handling all the other tasks it takes to run a successful real estate business. Team them up, and the sky's the limit!"

More like pie in the sky, some would say. "Yeah, there are naysayers, people who think you're nuts to work for someone else," Grant says. Some of his colleagues have been downright rude. "It's almost as if you went from being one of them to being an outsider. They're going to have to see the success before they buy into the salesperson-turned-assistant concept."

To make the pooh-poohers eat their words, Grant and Otteson have set a goal of increasing Otteson's production 50 percent to 100 percent during the first full year of Grant's tenure. That could double Otteson's $5 million annual production. On top of a $24,000 annual salary, Grant gets roughly 20 percent of the increase in Otteson's commissions over the same period the previous year. He expects to make $50,000 in 1996.

For now, "I'm grossing less than I used to as a salesperson selling $1.5 million a year," he says. "But I take home more because I have no expenses."

Along with his real estate expertise, Grant brought his computer system to Otteson and the techno-savvy to put it to good use. "John's office was a shambles when I started--piles of paper, no real filing system, logs and reports that hadn't been updated in months. The help he needed was exactly what I like to do," Grant says. "It's a win-win situation."

Now that's a sweet song to every real estate professional's ears.

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