22 Bold Ideas for 2006

A calculated risk might be the tonic your business needs for a healthier bottom line.

December 1, 2005

December is a time for making resolutions and planning for the coming year, the perfect time to make a bold move that’ll push your business to the next level.

What’s that? Concerned about getting too far out of your comfort zone? Don’t worry. You don’t have to be the real estate equivalent of Capt. Kirk and “boldly go where no man [or woman] has gone before.” However, before you can climb higher, you have to let go and reach for the next rung on the ladder.

We’ve compiled 22 ideas to help you shed your business-as-usual mentality. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re the bungee-jumping type or someone who prefers watching thrills on the big screen.

Work the Web

The Internet’s role as a marketing tool has been discussed, documented, and, quite frankly, decided. Nearly everyone in this business has an online presence, and with good reason: According to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ 2004 Profile of Home Buyers & Sellers, 74 percent of all buyers used the Internet to find their new home. With such a large audience surfing the Web, it’s not surprising that the same report found 72 percent of practitioners incorporate an online component into client marketing plans. One might find those percentages comforting and think there’s safety in numbers, but the data also indicate that there’s a lot of clutter online, so how do you stand out from the crowd?

Optimizing your search engine strategy will help ensure that your site is prominently displayed when consumers enter certain key words or phrases in a search engine such as AOL, Google, or Yahoo. An optimization strategy basically uses a URL, file names, and other tags that incorporate key phrases to generate a higher ranking in search engines, which in turn leads to increased traffic and more leads. You’ll need to spend time periodically to optimize your site, or hire somebody else to do it, but the additional leads you generate could make it worth the investment.

Of course, once consumers find your site they’ll need a reason to stay. If you can offer not only great information but also a sense of your personality, they may be more likely to form a connection with you rather than another practitioner. There are a number of ways to do this. You can start a blog—or Web log—in which you offer commentary on real estate issues or questions. You’ll need to commit to regular content updates and pick your topics carefully so that you can speak with authority and provide substantive information to prospects who receive your posts. Do it well, and your knowledge and style will be on display for all to see.

Zahara Mossman, salesperson at Zahara Properties LLC, a division of Beachfront Realty Inc. in Miami Beach, Fla., has begun using podcasts to infuse her listings with a bit of personality. She’ll walk through a listing and make audio recordings of not only factual information but also her impressions and opinions. The recordings are turned into MP3 audio files and distributed to subscribers using really simple syndication (RSS) technology. She also posts the files, along with photos of the homes, on her Web sites (zaharaproperties.com and www.podcastrealty.com).“People can look at a complete audiovisual description of the property,” says Mossman. “The reaction has been phenomenal.”

Another way to add information and personality is to post video to your Web site. Dave Crockett, president of The Crockett Team Ltd. at Howard Hanna Smythe Cramer in Mentor, Ohio, uses video at his site (www.thecrockettteam.com), to introduce his team members. The initial cost was about $10,000, and Crockett spends another $1,000 when the video needs to be edited to reflect personnel changes. But he says it’s been worth the cost. “It’s my belief that the Internet has isolated salespeople from buyers,” Crockett says. “Video is a way to connect with online buyers because people can see who you are and how you operate.”

Build better relationships

There are other technology tools worth looking into, and for reasons other than greater office efficiency. For all the talk of how technology can perform tasks faster and cheaper, the real benefit lies in its ability to help you do your job better. In real estate, that means engaging your customers, clients, and colleagues in a way that results not only in a successful and satisfying transaction but also in repeat and referral business.

One way is to implement a transaction management system. What you’d need from such a system depends on your perspective. A salesperson might want one that concentrates on lead management; a broker might want something that manages the entire transaction. “A transaction management system inspires confidence that you have your act together. It’s a huge differentiator,” says Mark Lesswing, NAR vice president and director of the Center for REALTOR® Technology. He notes some systems even have a Web-based component that lets clients check on the status of their transaction.

Another way to engage consumers is by letting them drive the demand for information. An interactive voice response (IVR) system enables them to call a property-specific phone number to obtain information on a listing. With voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, consumers can decide how and when they receive information while giving you control of the message. For example, if a consumer sends an e-mail requesting more information on a property, that e-mail also is converted to a voice message that’s sent to your cell phone. You can then select from a menu of response options, such as forwarding the message to a colleague or sending one of several customized replies.

With all of these technologies, you risk being too far out in front of your market; you won’t fully realize the benefits until others catch up to you. “Normally with technology, being the first in town to use an application is a good thing, but that’s not always the case,” says Lesswing. For example, although you might be able to process electronic documents through your transaction management system, the lawyers, lenders, and title companies in your area might not be up to speed, so you’ll still have to provide paper documents. “You’ll have to determine if your market is ready; if so, these technologies are great ways to get consumers involved while keeping practitioners in control of the relationship,” Lesswing says.

Be a know-it-all

All the technology in the world won’t do you any good unless you have the knowledge to go along with it. Your expertise is one characteristic competitors can’t easily copy or replicate; it could be the deciding factor when consumers are choosing a practitioner.

The trick is getting consumers to recognize and appreciate your knowledge. You don’t need to wait for a one-on-one meeting: Teaching a class or seminar on the basics of buying and selling real estate or on building a portfolio of investment properties is a great way to establish your expertise and meet prospects.

Shannon Williams, ABR®, GRI, the broker at TriBella Realty in Austin, Texas, has been offering monthly seminars to first-time buyers and first-time sellers for four years and has taught a class on real estate investing at the University of Texas at Austin for the past three years. She says about 50 percent of her business comes from the sessions. “Going to a class is a low-pressure way for consumers to learn about the process,” says Williams. The students might be comfortable, but Williams feels the heat. Not only does she spend about $450 per seminar, there’s also the risk that nobody will show up. “You have to be consistent, though, and do it every single month, whether one person shows up or 20,” she says.

To supplement your seminars or reach a wider audience, consider writing a book to distribute to prospects. If your book has commercial appeal, you may be able to capture the interest of a traditional publishing company. Otherwise, you can pay to have the book published by a vanity publisher.

There are other ways to put your expertise to work. For example, start a concierge service, providing buyers and sellers with referrals for vendors of home-related products and services. When you’re referring others, your reputation’s on the line, too, so make sure you know a vendor’s work before you make a recommendation. To avoid ethical or legal issues, always provide two or three names for any product or service and disclose any business or personal relationship you have with a vendor.

If you’re a broker or team leader, boost your recruiting efforts by launching an internship program. Or keep your associates and staff happy and productive by offering an educational series covering hot-button topics, such as how to respond to seller objections or how to create better visual tours.

If you want to be truly bold, you can opt to specialize in a property niche and forgo any deals that fall outside your chosen area of expertise. Trae Zipperer, a sales associate with RE/MAX Realty Group in Ft. Myers, Fla., and CEO of BeyondSales LLC, deals only with waterfront property, an approach that appeals to both buyers and sellers. “When you just do waterfront [sales] and people on the waterfront know that, they feel really comfortable listing with you,” he says. “You also become top of mind for buyers.” Zipperer says the key to making his strategy work is picking the right “sweet spot,” which he defines as a niche with a higher than average sales price, lower than average time on the market, high demand, and low supply. He doesn’t mind passing deals outside his sweet spot to other practitioners, and it’s not just because of the referral fees he receives. “It’s not really a risk because there are always waterfront deals coming along,” he says.

Fuel the marketing machine

After you’ve established your expertise, you need to let the world know you’re out there. But if you use the same flyers, postcards, and advertisements that your competition uses, you won’t build the kind of name recognition you want.

One good way to get your name out is by cranking up your public relations activities. Submit articles or columns offering real estate advice and information to your local newspaper, offer to take questions on a local radio program, or make a noteworthy contribution to a civic project. With a little more creativity, and possibly a few more dollars, you can get a word-of-mouth marketing campaign started. The goal of such a campaign is to create buzz, which makes people think of you for their real estate needs. On the Fourth of July, dress up like one of the Founding Fathers and pass out American flags with your business card attached. Or place balloons and a “Welcome Home” sign in the yard to greet new homeowners. The tactic has to be memorable without creating a negative impression of you and your business.

Past clients are always a great source for business referrals. If you’ve never done so, host a customer appreciation event. For the past several years, Harry Cassidy, CRS®, GRI, a selling broker with Real Estate Unlimited Inc. in Allen Park, Mich., has rented out a local theater so that 200 past clients and their immediate families can enjoy some family entertainment. For about $5 per ticket, plus the cost of marketing the event, he says he has a chance to thank people for their business and get to know them on a more personal level. “To have an event like this, you need to have a big enough client base. If you’re just starting out, it might not be financially feasible,” he says. To alleviate some of the financial risk, Cassidy suggests picking a less costly event, such as a barbecue, or inviting fewer people. You can also team up with other practitioners to host the event.

In some cases, it’s a matter of being smarter about how you spend. Coach and mentor Walter Sanford, owner of Sanford Systems and Strategies, in Kankakee, Ill., says salespeople should prospect based on demography, not geography. Rather than setting up a farm area, he says, focus on demographic groups that are more likely to sell, such as out-of-state owners, people with more than one property, or mature people in large homes.

Not every idea requires dipping into your marketing budget. Allison Fishwick, an associate broker with RE/MAX Team 2000 in Dearborn, Mich., recommends networking with top brokers and salespeople in your area. Notify them when you have an attractive listing and solicit their help in finding buyers. Or just let them know how much you admire their success and ask to shadow them for a day.

Enrich your personal life

Some bold moves will not only bring business but also benefit other parts of your life. Learning a second language, for example, enables you to work more effectively with recent immigrants and foreign buyers. But it also may give you the confidence boost to take that overseas vacation you’ve dreamed of. Pursuing a hobby gives you a chance to spend time doing something you love while you’re informally building a new group of prospects.

If you invest in real estate, you’ll reap the financial rewards and become a more credible adviser to your clients, says Tom Cain, broker with RE/MAX Realty Associates in Champaign, Ill. Cain started investing in property for his personal portfolio after attending a seminar five years ago and now owns 32 properties. “Once I understood it, I wanted to share my knowledge with other people,” he says. He held his first investment seminar in 2003 expecting about 10 people to show up. Instead, 81 people attended; 12 from that group eventually bought 22 properties through Cain. His 2004 seminar drew 134 attendees and led to 25 property purchases. “It’s one more way I’ve been able to connect to the marketplace,” Cain says. Although investing does require an initial capital outlay, and no investment is guaranteed, careful analysis significantly mitigates the risk, he says.

Another move that requires some capital commitment is forming a sales team. Creig Northrop, ABR®, president of Creig Northrop & The Northrop Team at Long & Foster Real Estate in Woodstock, Md., divides his 35-person team into five departments, each focusing on a specific part of the business—customer service, listings, marketing, settlements, and sales. He acknowledges there are significant risks to starting a team, such as higher overhead, payroll responsibilities, and personnel management, but the rewards make it worthwhile. “I wouldn’t be able to handle the volume that I do without my team,” says Northrop, who sold $345 million worth of property in 2004 and another $350 million worth in the first nine months of this year.

When you invest time or money in a new pursuit—whether it’s a team, a property, a new technology, or even yourself—you position your business for growth and bring new vitality to your work. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.

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