They Believe!

Many salespeople credit gurus with turning their career around, but could a guru make a believer out of you?

March 1, 2001

There’s a buzz in the air as the crowd stands shoulder to shoulder.

Suddenly the lights dim, music blares, and the crowd goes wild. Thousands of people jump up and down, high-five one another, and clap their hands.

At last the star players run onstage through a tunnel of frenzied fans.

A Lakers game? A Rolling Stones concert? No, it’s just another day on the job for the Mike Ferry Organization, which runs two superstar retreats and 15--20 other seminars each year.

The riotous atmosphere gets the crowd pumped up, says Carolyn Franks, GRI, salesperson at RE/MAX Premier Realty Inc., Ocala, Fla. “It gives me incentive to [leave here and] do a little more work."

There’s no field quite like real estate for taking dynamic sales trainers and elevating them to the status of celebrated guru. Few have the following of Ferry--who says 600,000 students have attended his seminars and workshops--but these ubertrainers are sought after for everything from their motivational speaking styles to their career coaching programs.

In real estate sales, where commissions can be sporadic and rejections swift, the need for a regular dose of motivation is high. Thousands of practitioners each year flock to seminars and retreats, hoping to increase their productivity, get inspired, change their personal lives, and, most of all, make more money.

From legendary sales trainer Tom Hopkins to a roll call of well-respected real estate pros turned trainer--Dave Beson, David Knox, Ed Hatch, Pat Zaby, and others--the gurus of real estate occupy a hallowed place in the hearts of their fans.

So how do you know whether a sales guru can help you? We did some research on four well-known national speakers, Mike Ferry, Floyd Wickman, Danielle Kennedy, and Howard Brinton. And we spoke with a newer face on the circuit, Brian Buffini, whose seminars on relationship selling are drawing big crowds. Their stories will help you determine whether a guru is your ticket to a more successful real estate career.

A Ferry tale

Salespeople either love his style or loathe it. But in the business of transforming salespeople’s lives, there’s no one quite like Mike Ferry.

Ferry’s company offers training and coaching in productivity, sales, and management. To devoted followers, however, that’s just the start.

“Mike Ferry changed my life,” says Peggy Rothenberg, a salesperson at ERA Professional Real Estate Services, Clermont, Fla. “I’ve lost 30 pounds and become organized, and my numbers keep getting better.”

Tim Wood, broker-owner of Coldwell Banker Mountain Gallery, REALTORS®, in Big Bear Lake, Calif., is a coach for Ferry’s organization.

“There are people out there who’ve made a lot of money, but they haven’t changed who they are,” Wood says. “Mike teaches you to become the person you want to be. It’s like, a funny thing happened on the way to making $1 million--I became a $1 million person.”

Rothenberg attended her first Mike Ferry retreat in 1996 after trying other seminar leaders. “I went to Tony Robbins, Floyd Wickman, and other workshops, but when I left,” she says, “that was it--there was no follow-up.”

At first, she decided Ferry’s ongoing program was way too expensive, but she returned the next year at a friend’s urging.

“I heard [salesperson] Karen Bernardi speak about coming out of debt and drug addiction to be healthy and a top salesperson. I thought if she could overcome tough obstacles, so could I,” Rothenberg says. “I entered the business-planning program and got my life together.”

Rothenberg realized she, like many salespeople who turn to gurus, needed someone to hold her accountable for her daily actions.

Indeed, Ferry built his organization on the concept of accountability.

“I’m pretty disciplined,” says Carolyn Franks, who entered the real estate business two years ago after relocating with her husband. “But it’s harder to make it in this business than I thought it would be.”

She says the program has helped her stay focused on her goals and daily tasks. “It’s hard for me to call expireds. The program helps me do things I’m supposed to do but I don’t want to do.”

Franks, who describes herself as somewhat timid, had a hard time getting used to Ferry’s style. “He’s kind of abrupt,” she says. “But his advice helps me stay focused.”

Says Ferry: “We’re not afraid to tell people exactly what to say and what to do. We’re not afraid to look people in the eye and address their profitability, what they’re doing right, and what they’re doing wrong.”

Ferry is brash, and his fans eat it up. Some say his biting humor on stage evokes late-night talk show host David Letterman. But under the comic facade lies the Truth According to Mike Ferry--and he prides himself on that.

“People tell me they don’t always like what I say, but they know it’s the truth,” Ferry says. “If I stand up there and placate them, they’ll go somewhere else.”

Ferry started his truth-telling mission 21 years ago after several successful years selling. The Mike Ferry Organization now has 60 employees, and it contracts with 70 coaches, who are paid a percentage of MFO’s coaching fee. Products and programs range from $95 for a four-cassette package to $1,500 for 20 videos; $995 for a three-day, one-on-one retreat; and $12,000 or more per year for personal coaching.

The hefty prices can be a stumbling block, especially with wary family members.

“Mine weren’t even happy I was in real estate,” says Rothenberg. “I was so busy working I didn’t have time for them. And they didn’t like the idea of my spending all that money on some program.”

But Rothenberg says her $12,000-a-year investment has paid off. “Now my family and I are closer than ever, because I’ve learned to make time for my children and grandchildren.”

When Franks realized how much the coaching would cost, she thought, “Wow, what am I going to tell my husband?”

But she says the one-on-one guidance has helped her gain business.

“Last year I did $1 million in volume. This year I was just short of my goal of $3 million,” she says. “As long as I’m getting fulfillment out of the program, I’ll stick with it.”

After 20 years of cracking the whip on salespeople, Ferry has slowed his pace. His two sons, Matt and Tom, now run the organization. Although their style isn’t quite so in-your-face, they say they understand and have adapted their father’s secret to success. Ferry’s charisma and wit are apparent in his sons’ teaching and coaching styles. Yet salespeople who are turned off by Ferry’s methods may be more at ease with his sons. “Our clients can choose,” says Tom. “If they don’t like my dad’s style, maybe they’ll like Matt’s or mine.”

Still, both defend their father’s ways. “Underneath that curt exterior is a heart of gold,” says Matt. “He genuinely wants to help people.”

Warm and fuzzy

Not every salesperson comes away from Ferry’s seminars with that feeling.

“The Mike Ferry seminar was like a cult following--drink this, do that,” says Allison Fishwick, a salesperson at RE/MAX Team 2000, Dearborn, Mich. “They weren’t my type of people, and I didn’t believe his message.”

Fishwick felt otherwise when she saw trainer Floyd Wickman.

“I heard his message ‘I get by giving,’ and thought, ‘That’s how I live my life,’” she says. “I like Floyd’s warmth.”

Wickman, founder of Floyd Wickman Courses International, says he lives by the company’s motto, We Get by Giving. He learned it from his parents; now every salesperson who follows his system learns the phrase as a mantra.

Like Ferry, Wickman offers products ranging from tapes to individual coaching. But perhaps his biggest claim to fame is his “Sweathogs” course, which gives salespeople a jump start in the business. His program centers on the idea that success is a result of making clients’ and customers’ goals a top priority.

“We appeal to the warm, fuzzy crowd. We don’t talk all about money, money, money,” Wickman says. “And we attract people who think the same way we do.”

Wickman started the company in 1980 after 14 years as a salesperson, manager, and national trainer. He sold Floyd Wickman Courses International in 1999 to RealNet Learning Services, but he still acts as a consultant and keynote speaker for the organization. The company boasts clients from every major real estate franchise and 80 percent of the top independents in North America.

“My message is unique. I specialize in serving people who want help, not just people who are looking for ideas,” he says. “Sometimes I feel as if I were the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor . . .’ “

Wickman admits his Sweathogs training program isn’t for everyone, and he even credits other trainers for their unique strengths. “Mike Ferry and Danielle Kennedy are phenomenal--nobody else is better at doing what they do,” Wickman says. “But people go to whom they like, and you can’t tell them whom to like.”

Salespeople do like Wickman. His organization says it has served more than 100,000 students in 20 years.

Fishwick says the program helped her increase her sales from $5.7 million in 1994 to $35 million, with the help of a partner, in 2000. She still attends two Wickman seminars a year and says she doesn’t mind spending the money. “It pays for itself with one closing,” she says.

There’s no secret sauce

Unlike Ferry and Wickman, motivational speaker Danielle Kennedy says she doesn’t want to be responsible for salespeople’s accountability.

“I refuse to treat real estate salespeople like children,” she says, “and I won’t take money to try to make them accountable--they’re adults.”

Some salespeople, says Kennedy, are looking for a “secret sauce.”

“They think if they throw all sorts of money at a guru, they’ll be successful,” she says. “But to me it’s about doing the basics. When successful salespeople get away from basics, they come back to me to relearn them.”

Kennedy spent seven years selling real estate and teaching certification classes--while raising a family. She started working with Tom Hopkins in 1979 and sold her real estate company in 1982 to speak full-time.

Kennedy says her followers are drawn to her because she’s one of them. “There’s no doubt I have a following of women who say, ‘If Danny can do it, so can I,’” she says.

When Kennedy isn’t writing books that help motivate salespeople (she’s written seven to date), she’s speaking at seminars, conventions, and companies around the country. Major real estate companies like her enough to pay $5,500--$7,500 for her half- to full-day seminars; she gives a break to nonprofits.

Theresa Souers, a salesperson at Century 21 at Tahoe Paradise, Tahoe, Calif., found Kennedy through a series of coincidences.

“I was brand-new in real estate, and I went to a Mike Ferry seminar. I didn’t like his message about taking control of people,” she says.

The seminar almost turned her off to real estate: “I thought, ‘If this is what it’s about, I don’t know whether I want to be part of it.’”

About that time, though, a friend invited Souers to sit in on a communications lecture she was giving at Kennedy’s home.

“I talked with Danielle all night. We really connected,” Souers says. “I read her book, and it was so right on for me. She talks about giving equal attention to all things and paying attention to people. “

Souers says she followed Kennedy’s advice to a T and it paid off.

“I’ve received the quality service award every year for positive surveys from my customers,” she says. In addition, her sales leapt from $1.5 million to $20 million, and Souers now trains others with Kennedy’s program.

“I went to hear Danielle speak at the November [National Association of REALTORS®] convention, and I left almost in tears,” she says. “Not to be corny, but it was like going to a church revival.”

Learning from the best

If Kennedy appeals to salespeople with her personal passion, Howard Brinton appeals to them by tapping into the passion of others--top producers, that is.

Through the Howard Brinton Star Power Systems, salespeople learn by listening to top producers talk about how they made it big.

Brinton started his business in 1978, after almost 10 years selling real estate, by tape-recording interviews with top producers and then selling the tapes. Brinton says he has done 14,000 hours of interviews with 115 leading producers.

In addition, he offers courses on buying, listing, and team training, all featuring top producers. Devotees pay $2,000--$3,250 for a three-day course to hear his star performers speak.

“We teach the it’s-my-pleasure approach to selling, teach them to give people Ritz-Carlton-type service,” he says. “Our goal is to have a profound impact on people’s business and personal lives. More than 120 people speak at our annual conference and share what they do. People can take that back and put it to use.”

Brinton agrees with Kennedy that some salespeople are looking for a single answer to solve all their problems. But despite the popularity of the Star Power Systems, he says, it’s no panacea for poor sales.

“There’s no one answer,” he says. “If salespeople are motivated, my program can take them to new heights, but they must take action.

“We attract people who want to grow, but some people get to a certain point and stop using the methods we teach,” he says. “I can’t help people at that point.”

Respecting prospects’ privacy

Sixteen years after Brinton first turned on his tape recorder, Brian Buffini entered the scene with a referral-building system that involves intensive contact with a narrowly focused prospect list.

Buffini says his methods are in step with consumer attitudes today. “Cold calling and door knocking are good for some salespeople, but homeowners today are cocooning. They have answering machines, voice mail, and caller ID to keep people out of their lives,” Buffini says. “Our system is based on one principle: Why would we want to do something to people that we don’t want done to us?”

Buffini started his training company, Providence Seminars, in 1995, after nine years selling real estate. Now he’s reaching about 90,000 real estate professionals each year, he says. Providence offers free half-day workshops and two-day retreats for $295.

Jan Prendergast, senior vice president of Century 21 All Professional, Folsom, Calif., swears by Buffini’s system.

“It’s not a hard sell; it’s just talking to people,” she says. “I liked the idea of having a working system to keep in touch with clients.”

After going to the seminar, Prendergast says, she felt more self-assured. “It gave me confidence to implement ideas I had,” she says. “Five years ago, I was doing so-so. Now my sales go up every year.”

In fact, Prendergast has steadily climbed the Century 21 ladder, and in 2000 her sales hit a whopping $180 million.

Prendergast still attends Buffini’s seminars when they’re held nearby. She says the seminars more than pay for themselves.

“This business is hard. We have to be self-starters and make calls, which can be difficult,” says Prendergast. “The seminars are a good energizer. They help you take your business to the next level, because when energy flows, business comes in.”

Leslie Cummings is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.

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