Spring Cleaning for Your Business

The buyers are coming. Are you ready? Embrace the season of renewal to get your business house in order. Sales coaches and practitioners share tips for a successful spring and beyond.

March 1, 2010

Just as home owners embrace the annual rite of spring cleaning, you too can harness the season of renewal to get on track for success this spring and beyond.

"Regardless of where in the country you are—whether you’re in a cold-weather climate or somewhere like Phoenix where winter is a busy time for sales, too—almost everybody has a good spring," says real estate trainer and business consultant Bernice Ross. "People are ready to buy."

This spring will be an especially busy one, economists predict. Beyond the usual crop of buyers and sellers using the school year as their timeline, there are thousands more who’ll be motivated to get a deal in writing by April 30 to qualify for the federal home buyer tax credit, which was expanded late last year to include both first-time and repeat buyers (see "Tax Credit Deadline: What You Need to Know").

To make sure that you don’t miss out on any opportunities in your market, take stock of what you’re doing now. "Make sure that you have everything ready to go," advises Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com. Are your print marketing materials and Web site up to date? Are your listings in tip-top condition? Are your processes for lead generation and follow-up working the way you’d like them to?

If you launched a business plan in January, you’ve had time to see if the things you implemented are working or not, Ross says. Now’s your chance to tweak your plans—or get cracking on ideas you haven’t actually implemented. "If you’re not hitting a goal," Ross says, "look at what’s getting in the way and make a plan to change it."

Clean Up Your Web Site

Are you regularly going through your Web site to make sure it’s up to date? If not, you may be surprised at what you find—a broken link here, an outdated article there. For Libby Zorbas, a second-home specialist in upstate South Carolina, little annoyances on her Web site added up to a less-than-ideal experience for prospects looking for a home in her growing vacation market.

"I was getting behind in keeping the site up-dated and dynamic," says Zorbas, e-PRO, of Justin Winter & Associates, REALTORS®, in Sunset, S.C. "I realized I was never going to have the time or interest to do what needed to be done."

Yet, she knew how important it was to have a polished and functional Web site. So Zorbas hired a student from nearby Clemson University to do a thorough evaluation of the site, www.judyandlibby.com, and report back on what he liked and what drove him away. "Having the fresh perspective was so worth it," she says.

The student’s input gave Zorbas the basis to plan a site revamp that would consolidate redundant information, add more images, and make the back end easier to use. She hired a Web developer, who not only made the changes but also brought the site in line with best practices for search-engine optimization.

"Now more of my site is automated," she says. "I’m able to post a new article or blog entry very quickly, which I wasn’t able to do before when everything was hard-coded."

When it comes to Web sites, she advises other practitioners to limit the breadth of work they choose to do on their own.

"The number of things that you can do with your site is overwhelming," she says. "Way too many of us bite off way more than we can chew. Having a good online presence is one of the most important things we can do, so we have to make sure that everything is working the way we intended."

Chappy Adams, broker-owner of Illustrated Properties in Palm Beach, Fla., went through a similar exercise, taking a fresh look at his site in 2009. He opted for major changes to take into account consumers’ growing sophistication on the Web.

"The typical site lets you search only by price, bedrooms, and baths," Adam says. "On our updated Web site, consumers can choose to search by lifestyle to find a home that fits. Are you a boater? An equestrian? Do you want a beachfront condo? This new property search drills down for you in a new way."

If revamping your entire site seems overwhelming, focus your efforts on simplifying your home page, suggests Tom Ferry, a sales coach based in Irvine, Calif. (yourcoach.com).

"Recognize that sellers are asking themselves four questions: What’s for sale? How much is my home worth? How’s the market? And why should I select you over the competition?" So write headlines on your Web site and other marketing materials that answer those four questions. "Become more consumer-centric and less self-promotional," he says.

While you’re touching up your Web site, do away with industry jargon. "Stop saying ‘MLS’ and instead say ‘Free home search,’" Ferry says. "And remember that customers don’t ‘refer’ real estate professionals, they ‘recommend’ them. Change your wording to reflect that."

Give Your Listings Polish

Spring is traditionally a season of optimism and growth. Try to tap into that mentality with buyers and sellers. Take a close look at your listings to ensure they’re coming across as fresh and welcoming. Lingering holiday décor should head off to storage, ideally replaced with bright flowers and greenery. Windows should be clean to let in the light—and fresh plantings placed at the front entrance.

If a property has been on the market for a while, consider taking new photos for marketing materials and meeting with the seller to discuss additional changes that can be made inside the home to appeal to spring buyers.

 "I have an upper-tier client base that’s been hiding in their cocoons since last fall," says Kathe Rafferty, CRS®, GRI, a 26-year veteran with Coldwell Banker Select, REALTORS®, in Erie, Pa. "I’m buying a new Nikon camera and working on rearranging rooms of high-end listings [$495,000 and up] to present the best lighting and detail. I’m selling a lifestyle."

Ree Fritz Cole, CIPS®, GRI, is planning a fresh approach to staging that she hopes will draw extra attention to her listings this spring. The luxury-home specialist plans to cross-market with other businesses that serve her market, such as yacht companies and aviation companies.

"I plan to have the yacht parked at the home’s dock while holding an open house, or offer a helicopter ride to view the surrounding area." says Cole, broker-owner of Skywater Estates Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Cole also is working with a company that provides vacant listings with a live-in property manager who stages the house, takes care of paying utility bills, and manages the pool and lawn services for absentee sellers.

Beyond sprucing up the property and marketing materials, use the spring selling season as an opportunity to address pricing problems. Tell sellers that if their home is overpriced, they may be squandering the chance to reach potential buyers during the heaviest trafficked period of the year.

"Increase your marketing exposure," Rafferty says, "but also make sure you’re priced competitively and that the market is dictating the price, not the seller."

Put Out the Welcome Mat for New Business

According to 2009 research by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, 44 percent of buyers found their practitioner through a referral, and 10 percent were repeat clients. Among sellers, 40 percent used a referral and 24 percent were repeat business.

"Whenever I share those stats with real estate practitioners, most of them miss the real importance of the numbers. They say: ‘Fifty-four percent of buyers came from repeat or referral; that’s great,’" says business coach Dirk Zeller, of Real Estate Champions in Bend, Ore. "But look at the other side of it: That means 46 percent of potential buyers are available for any agent to work with. What are you proactively doing to tap into this group?"

Zeller says most real estate professionals are too reliant on past clients and need to expand their lead generation. "It’s not that I’m antireferral," he says. "But my belief is that it shouldn’t be the only segment of your business."

To reach new customers, Jim Mazziotti, broker-owner of EXIT Realty Bend in Bend, Ore., launched a live Internet talk show—complete with guests—that airs every Wednesday evening at www.ustream.tv. He plans to publicize the real estate show to potential buyers and sellers through a major local television campaign.

"Obviously, you need to create a buzz about the show to get viewership," Zeller advises. "If it’s not getting enough traction, consider changing the topics to be more compelling. Use consumer-friendly headlines, such as ‘Get Property for 25 Cents on the Dollar.’"

In the interest of expanding his customer base, Scott Nelson, CRB, last year attended a Hobbs/Herder seminar, where he got the idea to analyze his client interactions from the past three years. He sought patterns in the types of customers who initiated contact with him and interacted with him most often during transactions.

Nelson discovered that he worked predominantly with college-educated women between 27 and 53 years old—and this spring he’s putting more of his business resources in that direction. "I’ve taken a top-down look at all of my marketing efforts," says Nelson, with Wolfson Cutler Real Estate in Medford, Mass.

Among his major new initiatives is a real estate radio show that he produces for an online network called Diva Toolbox, based in Woburn, Mass. The show, "Real Estate Talk With Scott Nelson," airs on BlogTalkRadio and also is available through iTunes and his Web site.

Nelson also is seeking to appeal to tech-savvy consumers in general. He recently purchased a customized smartphone app through Smarter Agent, which customers can download onto their mobile device from his Web site. The branded app provides a property search and GPS tool and allows customers to easily schedule showings with Nelson.

Feed and Water Your Business Plan

Your business plan should be a living document, not something you update just once a year. And spring, which marks the end of the first quarter, is a logical time to review your plan and make changes.

It’s early enough in the year that changes could make a big impact on your production, Ferry says: "Let go of what didn’t work, learn from your mistakes, and move on."

If you’re putting all of your energy into hitting a particular goal, and after several weeks you feel you’re still not on the right track, consider switching your focus, Ross says. "Don’t stick with a goal just to stick with it—that’s counterproductive," she says. "Instead, expand on what’s working for you. Develop your strengths."

Ross says the best way to pinpoint your most promising growth areas is to look at what you’ve been closing. Where is your income coming from? If your goal at the end of last year was to capture five high-end listings in the first quarter, but you’re doing nothing but $150,000 deals, then perhaps you should embrace the latter and incorporate that into your business plan.

"If you have a geographical farm where you’re successful, expand right next to it," she suggests.

Real estate sales coach Rich Levin, of Rich Levin Success Corps Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., says some practitioners struggle to follow their business plan because it’s overly detailed and comprehensive.

"To improve your focus, reduce measurable goals in your business plan to initial appointments with new clients and stop there," Levin says. "Don’t discriminate between listing and buyer appointments. Count them both."

Why just target initial appointments? Levin says that he’s found that most real estate practitioners will execute a successful transaction with at least half of the new clients with whom they have an initial appointment—that means 40 new appointments for the year may lead to roughly 20 sales.

"The initial appointments are a measure that makes it easy to identify which skills or systems are your greatest weaknesses or strengths," Levin says. "As you make appointments each week, you’ll naturally focus on the best ways to generate the appointments and you’ll get better at turning those into sales."

Scrub Your Data

If your database is full of names but with little indication of who’s actually in the market, one of the best things you can do is to better identify your leads and determine how you plan to follow up, Zeller says.

"Define every lead based on the buyer’s or seller’s time frame and their motivation," Zeller says. "Once you determine those things, you can build your lead conversion strategy in terms of how frequently you’ll be contacting that lead and by what means—snail mail, e-mail, or phone." A coordinated combination of those three is usually most effective, he adds.

Mike Phillips, broker-owner of Century 21 All-Pro in the Kansas City, Mo., area, is working hard to put in place a new lead-management system before the spring rush. Until now, Phillips has handled all of the company’s leads manually—often simply printing out lead information and handing it to the salesperson best suited to follow up.

But that has proven to be cumbersome and hard to track, he says, especially as his business has grown to six offices and 150 practitioners. "Since I’ve expanded, I just can’t do it all on my own anymore," Phillips says.

The new Web-based system, LeadRouter, will consolidate leads from all sources and distribute them to salespeople. Phillips says the software will ensure that prospects get an immediate response, and it will provide reports of what leads have been acted upon.

"It’s completely automated, so there won’t be a delay if I’m at lunch or away from my desk," Phillips says. Just having the system will drastically cut down on follow-up time, he says.

Whether or not you’re using an automated lead-management system, Zeller says, you should have some method of documenting all leads and tracking follow-up. "Develop a measuring system," he says. "Tape your phone calls, set benchmark conversion rates, and have a clear follow-up plan."

Spring Cleaning Tip:  Your Office

"Clear your desk off, set up your files and follow-up systems, clear your calendar, be sure you have a working and accessible coffee machine for customers, fill up your gas tank, have your business clothes cleaned and ready, make sure you have a car charger for your mobile phone, secure a supply of good pens, and most important, answer your phone—or have someone else answer it if you’re not available. When that surge comes, you’ll be ready." —Thomas McCombs, Charles Real Estate, Akron, Ohio

Spring Cleaning Tip: Your Workflow

"I have a firm belief that real estate agents need to KISS (keep it short and simple) when listing, marketing, and selling real estate. The KISS strategy also needs to be included in every step of the real estate process: prospecting your target market, Web site design, office and desk organization, daily planning, and realistic financial goals."  —Jason D. Holmes, ERA Advantage Realty, Logan, Utah

Spring Cleaning Tip:  Your Database

"I’m getting my database in order by calling all of my contacts to update their addresses and e-mail. I’m finding they’re happy to have the phone call!" —Sandy Peckinpah, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Wildomar, Calif.

Spring Cleaning Tip: Your Listings

"Make sure the minute the listing hits the market that multiple photos are in the MLS, the color brochures are ready, agents can gain access without having to track you down, and the home is priced right for the condition and location. If you aren’t ready when the door opens, you’re missing a golden opportunity." —Cindy Jones, RE/MAX Allegiance, Woodbridge, Va.