Creative Prospecting: Building Relationships

It’s tough for a hard-working agent to prospect these days.

October 1, 2007

Antisolicitation laws have hampered the ability to reach prospective clients by e-mail and phone. Even when you’re free to e-mail prospects, with today’s souped-up spam filters you can’t be sure your e-mails will get through.

The good news is that since real estate is still grounded in relationships, you can always be creative in marketing to new clients. Savvy agents are using two techniques to do just that.

They’re going directly to consumers by making regular, face-to-face contact, and they’re getting consumers to come to them by establishing themselves as community icons. You can learn from their success.

Walk Your Real estate Beat

Marc Nicholson, ABR®, CRS®, associate broker at Keller Williams Buckhead in Atlanta, is a recent convert to knocking on doors to build his name in his farm. When his coach at Keller Williams told Nicholson in early 2006 that door knocking was the key to generating business, Nicholson thought the technique was beneath him. “Do you know who I think I am?” he jokingly asked the coach.

But Nicholson put on his walking shoes and started strolling his farming area. “There was a hidden surprise,” he says. “When you get out and walk, you see things about yards, houses, and cars, and it increases your level of connection with a community.” Typically on the streets each Friday morning for three hours, Nicholson hands out high-quality pens that cost him $2 each, and he leaves less-expensive key chains at houses where nobody answers. Each gift bears his motto: “reMarcable Real Estate Services.”

The combination of personal contact reinforced by the catchy tagline works. “I come up to houses, and there may be people I’d have been scared to talk to five years ago,” explains Nicholson. “I say, ‘Hi, I’m Marc,’ and they say, ‘Remarkable Marc?’ It’s the most satisfying thing.”

Build Rapport as the Expert

Having a tagline is critical to building name recognition so that prospects already are familiar with you when you show up at their doors, says Tim Baker, an agent at RE/MAX All Executives in Tucson, Ariz. “Decide on a tagline, or a memory tag, that really helps you, and be consistent with it,” he says.

Baker speaks from experience. Before heading to Arizona, he was an agent in Naperville, Ill., where his tagline was, “Your Baker in real estate.” He tied door knocking into his tagline by delivering fresh-baked bread to every home in his farming area before Christmas. Baker started small, with his wife baking 40 loaves, and ended up delivering 6,500 loaves each year. To accomplish that feat, Baker hired neighborhood bakers, provided all the supplies, and paid $1 for each loaf they baked.

Baker’s success wasn’t that the residents loved the bread (the coconut loaf was most requested) but that Baker delivered it himself, though he had to hire neighborhood kids to help as the operation became gargantuan.

“Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d go out every night with freshly baked bread still warm in the wrapper and introduce myself,” says Baker. “We had tremendous responses. One night, it was 15 degrees below zero, and the wind was howling, and I had only three more loaves to deliver before my cutoff time of 9 p.m. A guy came to the door and said over the shoulder to his wife, ‘I told you it’d be Tim Baker. He’s the only one who’d be out in this weather.’ ”

The key to door knocking is reinforcing in an understated way that you sell real estate. For example,
Nicholson doesn’t put prospects on the spot by asking for business; he simply asks if they know anybody who’s thinking of buying or selling a home. As Baker delivered the bread, he’d tell prospects, “I just want you to remember that Baker, bread, and real estate go together.”

Nicholson says he’s learned more about his farm than he’d ever have known if he hadn’t started walking the beat. “People give me a lot of history. I met this wonderful man who’d been in the neighborhood since he built the house, and he told me the neighborhood was once a 400-acre dairy farm,” says Nicholson. “They’ll also tell me a house is for rent or that an owner is crazy.”

About 10 percent of Nicholson’s business now comes from door-to-door prospecting. Personal contacts were also hot leads for Baker. “At least 30 families would tell me they called because of the bread,” he says. “Thirty out of 180 transactions annually doesn’t seem like much, but when you look at the dollar-to-dollar return, it was $9–$10 per dollar spent. That’s a very high return ratio.”

Today, because he has a business partner, Baker can’t use only his name in marketing, so the bread-baker tie has been retired. But he still believes in creative door knocking. He regularly delivers notepads that cost 14 cents each, and once a year, he delivers a dry-erase calendar with a magnetic pen that costs about $1. “The more residents see you, the more they recognize you’re doing something different than most agents do,” he says. “In their mind, you’re the most significant agent in your market.”

“It’s about relationship building,” says Nicholson of his weekly walks. “I’m making a name as the expert of this area, and a lot of people respect me because they don’t think agents work very hard. People hold me in a different light.”

Achieve Icon Status

Other agents have found they can generate business indirectly by becoming so involved in community work that they build credibility — and draw consumers — without ever selling themselves as real estate agents.

Emily Rivera, an agent at Realty One in Vermillion, Ohio, has always been involved in her community, but organizing a peace rally in 2006 confirmed for residents that she’s not going anywhere. The idea arose after her husband, a musician and poet, was the target of gunfire as he drove home one evening. “There were bullet holes on his Jeep,” says Rivera. “We had to do something.”

The couple decided to sponsor a peace rally. Rivera’s husband and other local talent provided entertainment, and she provided the food and sound equipment, which cost about $400. The message — that residents must come together and act as a community — resonated. Nearly 100 people, including staff from a local radio station, attended, and her firm placed an ad in the local newspaper recognizing her community involvement.

Two home owners later listed with Rivera, telling her they were impressed with the rally. “But I didn’t do the rally for the income,” she says. “When anybody needs help, I try to help. In real estate, that repays you financially because once people see you care about people, they’ll be more likely to remember you.”

That lesson rings true for Kathy Overfelt, an associate broker at First Realty in Auburn, Ala. As president of her local board in 2005, she became involved in a community effort to help elderly and disabled residents by making necessary repairs to their homes. After her term ended, she remained committed. In May, Overfelt corralled local businesses to contribute money and workers to overhaul an 80-year-old woman’s home. They painted, did electrical work, landscaped, installed safety bars, and much more.

“I don’t volunteer because I want to capitalize on the effort,” says Overfelt, “but over the years I’ve received many listings, sales, and referrals because folks see me in the community. It’s publicity you can’t pay for, and it’s a chance to network and build relationships.”

Overfelt says volunteering builds lasting bonds. “People want to do business with someone who values the same things they do—a safe and healthy hometown,” she says. “Volunteering demonstrates generosity, integrity, and knowledge about the community. The only downfall is that you can’t walk through a store without someone asking you about real estate!”

That’s a lesson Mary Wallace knows all too well. Since she was elected in 2005 as a commissioner on the Oak Lawn Park District Board, the salesperson at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Oak Lawn, Ill., has solidified her image as a community leader. Her most famous — and controversial — achievement? The creation of the town’s first dog park.

“Most people recognize me through the park district board, and they’ll talk to me about real estate.” But becoming “a public person,” she says, has its own stresses. “Everywhere I go, I have to always be professional. I’m known as an expert on real estate, and I have to be educated so that I can give people good information.”

Wallace isn’t complaining, though. She estimates that 30 percent to 50 percent of her clients and customers heard of her through politics and her dog park advocacy. She’s also proud that she’s standing up for her beliefs.

“I’m a different voice on the board, and my opinions aren’t in line with the rest of the board,” she says. “I’ve had so many editorials written about my positions that I’m getting a reputation as a fiscal watchdog.”

Like Rivera and Overfelt, Wallace didn’t get involved in her community to build her real estate business. In fact, she thinks that sort of calculation leads inevitably to failure.

“Make sure you’re in it for the right reasons,” she cautions. “If you’re not in it for the community, people will see right through you.”

freelance writer

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.