Desperately seeking the listing agent

Reposted with permission

Something occurred to me this morning. I will never make it out of beta. That darn phone just won’t stop ringing, and I’ve got work to do.

It’s the first week of a new month, and that means it’s my own, personal triple witch. I’ve got the usual month-end stuff to contend with — office bills to pay, errors and omissions insurance reports to log, files to close out, and all the other sexy things that go along with being a broker. The first week of the month also means I have a half-dozen different recurring ads to create and approve lest I miss the publication deadlines and slip back into agent anonymity and the soup line.

Finally, the beginning of every week means I have to clean the house, because the housecleaner comes on Tuesdays, and we can’t have her thinking we really live like this between visits. I have nightmares about her arriving one day to find us buried alive under an 80-pound pile of free comparative market analyses, custom brochures, market reports, Web analytics and take-out cartons. So we try to tidy up a bit.

When the most recent Inman News morning edition hit my inbox, I was in the throes of new-month mania, and the headline nearly sent me over the edge. The title of Gahlord Dewald’s article, “39 tech things to test and try,” made me shudder in fear. Thirty-nine things? I can’t even remember where I put my blog this week.

Thirty-nine things? I have to meet a carpet installer at a new listing this morning, meet a photographer at another, and set up a home tour for a buyer client — just after I find the magic key fob that will grant me my one wish to access the multiple listing service. I think I left it at an open house yesterday.

Despite my time constraints, I had to read his article, of course. Because, between my nightmares of seeing my housecleaner on the 10 o’clock news (“They seemed like an ordinary couple — I just hope someone finds the children”), I am also haunted by the thought that I will overlook that next greatest emerging technological trend, that one widget that will take my business to the next level.

“Test the color of the submit form on your contact page” he began simply enough. Um, it’s blue. I like blue. Check!

Things went downhill from there. “Try to write a blog post that contains only two paragraphs,” read No. 22. I skipped over that one. Clearly, he wasn’t talking to me.

“Test paid advertising on the real estate aggregation sites,” and “Use your analytics to find out what search phrases people typed into search engines before coming to your site,” were served up as two separate to-dos. Fortunately, those I have already tackled. Unfortunately, what I am finding is that when you win, you lose.

Do you want to make your business better? If by better, we are talking about making the phone ring, Dewald forgot the all-important No. 40. In fact today, in a big wide world of empowered home shoppers, you can just cross the other 39 things off the list.

Become a listing agent.

It’s becoming an epidemic. “I am calling about (random listing). I would like to see it. Call me back if you are the listing agent,” said the woman to my voice-mail box. I didn’t call her back.

Now, I’m all about analytics, so I can tell you that in the last 72 hours we have received six phone calls and four e-mail inquiries about properties. Wow! That’s almost 10 prospects! What I can also tell you is that every one of them contacted us because they stumbled across a home for which they thought we were the listing agents.

And each time, no sooner than we cleared up the little matter of mistaken identity — having thoughtfully explained broker reciprocity and conceding that while we are very busy, we don’t currently represent all 11,455 home sellers in the county — we found ourselves offering our services to a dial tone.

A couple of things are causing this. Being the good little “search engine optimization” girl I am (and having taken the advice of some very smart purveyors of the Internet Data Exchange solution), all listings in our county are now indexed separately on our site. What this means — and bear with me, because this gets technical — Google likes me a lot. Google likes me so much, in fact, that when someone searches by property address, they will likely find my site returning their longing gaze.

Having checked No. 29 off the list long ago, I know that more people are searching by address these days. And I believe their intent is twofold: Find information on a specific home; and eliminate the middleman. When a search returns several big-name, third-party search sites and little ol’ me, the logical assumption is that I am the one holding the commission bag.

I’ve also dispensed with No. 16 and paid for ad placement on a couple of the more popular real estate aggregation sites. I will tell you it works — this week, at least the e-mail box is humming with inquiries. Too bad I’m not the listing agent.

The first e-mail from the gentleman read, “I was wondering if this home is going to be open on Sunday.” “Uh, I dunno,” I replied, followed by my brief “Intro to Not My Listing” course. “But I would be happy to schedule an appointment for you!” offered my full-service self. He didn’t respond.

The following day, this same man gave it another go. “I would like to see (home with an unfamiliar address) tomorrow” he wrote. “Sure!” I replied three nanoseconds later. “What time would you like to see it? I will make an appointment with the listing agent.” My Johnny-on-the-spot approach to customer care was again met with the soothing sounds of crickets.

I suspect I will be hearing from him again. We are currently representing quite a few sellers; eventually he will hit pay dirt.

What these folks have in common is that they are following the money. The perception is that, as the listing agent charged with selling a home in a more challenging market, I will be so excited by the possibilities of their unrepresented overtures that I will eagerly divvy up the paycheck.

My intent is not to make this about dual agency. I am admittedly a fence-sitter on that debate, believing that it can be both the devil’s workshop and a quite workable practice. It’s situational. What I find really telling is the pervasive buyer perception that a percent — or fraction thereof — of the sale price, offered as a bonus prize, trumps representation. This is the perception that agent representation, absent the hard costs of marketing, holds little to no value.

As early as 2002, when it was clear that the MLS horse was squarely out of the barn, I worried about the death of the buyer’s agent. Maybe I was misguided, or maybe I was just ahead of my time, but I am again seeing the warning signs. Divorcing the commissions? That’s not the answer — not when soft costs of time, knowledge and negotiating expertise are seen as having no worth. Few people will pay for something they consider to be nothing.

The answer is to make our buyer-representation matter, but longstanding perceptions are slow to change. And as I sat at an open house this past weekend (stood, actually — it was vacant), I realized that the script has indeed been rewritten. A couple of years ago, the first two questions we would field — the only two — would be “How long has it been on the market?” and “Why are they moving?” Now, like my visitor, the first thing they ask is, “Are you the listing agent?”

During the course of our 20-minute conversation, in fact, he asked this question a total of four times, just in case I was being disingenuous or was not entirely clear on the whole concept of seller representation. And I learned that he had a friend with a license who would give him a credit, but he wasn’t all that committed to this fellow — at least, not if I could ante up.

At this point, I did what every highly trained, professional agent does when they want to build their business. I proceeded to shoot myself in both of my listing agent feet. I gave him a little speech on the difficulties of dual agency, the value of buyer representation and loyalty, and the importance of having someone you trust in your corner during negotiations. And at the conclusion of my presentation — something about superior representation being far more important to the bottom line than commission rebates — he wandered toward the door looking like he had just been sucker punched, presumably heading off in search of another, more enlightened or hungry seller fiduciary.

So, yep, my online lead-generation machine is working, all right. It’s working a little too well. Boy, is that phone ringing! And when I get through my new-month balancing act, I am going to get cracking on Gahlord Dewald’s list. I think I’ll start with No. 39, “Register your own domain.” I hear “NotTheListingAgent.com” is still available.

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.

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