Making the Most of Downtime in a Soft Market

Slower times mean opportunities to improve your skills and evaluate your business procedures.

November 1, 2007

John Westman has been busy since last summer mastering the finer points of his new Canon EOS camera. The slowing market in the associate broker’s area has been tough on Westman’s bottom line. Houses that in better times had been selling in under 90 days are now languishing for more than a year. But rather than lament the leaner times, he’s determined to find some smart and productive ways to plug the gaps in his formerly hectic daily schedule.

So Westman, CRS®, GRI, of Westman Realty of Grand Rapids, Mich., enrolled in a class offered by a local photographer, hoping to improve his once dismal picture-taking skills.

“I could get something passable for the exterior, but the interior? No way,” he says. “I was famous for shooting the glare off windows and the reflections in mirrors.”

Westman isn’t alone. Other real estate professionals are using today’s market downtime to hone important selling skills, to find ways to drum up new business, and to help existing clients weather the tougher times.

Jim Johnston, ARB®, CRB, of The Home Specialists in Pocatello, Idaho, noticed business was slowing down last fall. He became determined to reinvigorate it by getting back to basics.

“When things are busy, you don’t do the prospecting — all the letter-writing, the thank-you notes — that made you successful,” says Johnston. “I made a concerted effort to call all my friends and remind them that I’m a sales associate.” Johnston also knocked on doors in neighborhoods around his listings, looking for new business.

The result? “It worked,” he says. His business is up 20 percent over last year.

Erica Cuneen, owner of Beyond Properties in Oak Park, Ill., opened her brokerage last February and soon found herself pondering the ins and outs of maintaining productive working relationships with associates. “I wouldn’t have had time to work on this if I’d been as busy as usual,” she says. “I wouldn’t have given it the attention.”

With time on their hands, she and her associates have created individual documents describing their work habits, stressors, warning signs of a bad day, and expectations of everyone else in the office. Cuneen says it’s a way to address potential problems before they escalate into full-bore conflicts.

Like Westman in Grand Rapids, Cuneen has been taking classes. She has become a Certified EcoBroker to solidify her niche. Eventually, says Cuneen, the market will accelerate. “And when that happens, I’ll be really glad I used this slow time to improve some things in our business,” she says.

Paul Critelli, a psychologist also based in Grand Rapids, says taking proactive steps makes handling the stress of a slow market more manageable.

“Assess what you’re doing,” he suggests. “Think about what you’ve always wanted to try but didn’t because you were too busy. Throw out what hasn’t worked in the past. It might not help you sell more houses tomorrow, but over time, it’ll benefit your business.”

Set small goals — Critelli calls them “goalettes” — for each day or week. “You don’t have to set out to be the archetype of all sales associates; just make sure you have something at the end of the day that you can say you accomplished,” he says.

It’s also important to have a financial plan for the inevitable market slump. “It doesn’t matter who you are, multimillion sellers included,” says Guy McCook, GRI, of Hasty Realty in Laurinburg, N.C. “In this business, you’re going to have slow times. There will be times when you have significantly less income than you did last year.” McCook says both veteran and rookie sales associates should be encouraged to take a look at their fiscal soundness. “If you wait until the market changes to prepare, you’ve got problems,” he says.

The Small Business Administration is an often-overlooked resource for business owners needing to adjust to new market realities.

“The best resource for real estate professionals is probably our network of technical assistance providers,” says Joe Folson, SBA district director in Iowa. “They can help you work through adjustments and changes, like when you have to make do with a reduction in income. They can help with ways to restructure debt, make changes to operating expenses, better manage your accounts.”

SCORE Association (Service Corps of Retired Executives) is an SBA partner that also offers help to business owners including real estate professionals. Its online services include confidential counseling and business tools.

New market strategies also can help in a slow market. Dick Fulton, managing broker for Coldwell Banker Bain in Seattle, encourages his salespeople to focus on the current competition in an area, rather than the solds.

“The way to make it happen is to make sure your property is the best value,” he says. “Sales associates need to be on top of the competition because, week-to-week, it’s going to be changing.”

It’s also important to spend more time with sellers, who may need extra coddling in a slow market. Johnston, with The House Specialists, says he lets sellers know up front that their houses might not sell as fast as they’d hoped. “We’ve found that if you continue to talk on a regular basis, they’ll understand,” he says.