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In Which I Disagree With My Hero



skill and importance II by Will Lion Courtesy of

skill and importance II by Will Lion Courtesy of

I like Seth Godin

I really do. I think much of what he has written about marketing is nothing short of genius. And I think his ideas about permission based marketing are right on the on the money. But even our heroes can make mistakes, and I think Seth has made one recently.

In a recent post, Seth wrote;

Travel agents… gone.
Stock brokers… gone.
Real estate brokers… in trouble. Photographer’s agents, too.
Literary agents?

The problem with being a helpful, efficient but largely anonymous middleman is pretty obvious. Someone can come along who is cheaper, faster and more efficient. And that someone might be the customer aided by a computer.

Not sure I agree with him here. Real Estate agents may be in trouble, but that’s more the result of the economy and the lack of credit liquidity than the function of our job. Our job is not to be “a helpful, efficient but largely anonymous middleman” but to fulfill a number of functions for the consumer, only one of which involves sifting through data on the computer.

Seth Doesn’t “Get Us”

Some house sellers hesitate to pay real estate brokers because they don’t believe the 6% payment is an opportunity, they see it as a tax.

I might agree with him here, but this is more a function of the seller’s lack of knowledge than anything else, and certainly has not changed in the last 101 years. It has always been a challenge to explain to the seller the value that is added by our services, and many agents have a tough time articulating exactly what they bring to the process as well. In fact, I believe that the main reason some agents have a tough time negotiating commission is because they don’t fully understand what they bring to the table. That’s a subject that is deep enough and complex enough for another post, so I’ll ask that you take my word for it here, and just remember that properties that are sold by agents generally sell for more money than homes that are not listed by an agent. So let’s assume that the increased sales price,reduction of risk, third party negotiating, and navigation through a complicated legal process are sufficient value for the sake of this post.

We Know Who We Are

Key point: anonymous agents are interchangeable and virtually worthless. Agents that don’t do anything but help one side find the other side in a human approximation of Google aren’t so helpful any more.

Think about how anonymous the typical real estate broker is. He will sell almost any house or represent almost any buyer. When selling a house, he has a fiduciary responsibility to represent that house to the best of his ability. Just like every other broker. The great real estate brokers do far more than this.

OK Seth, here’s is where I really get some heartburn. The fact that our skills are transportable from one buyer or seller to the next, and are not defined by the property (with the exception of specialized disciplines) does not mean we are anonymous. Nor does it mean that we do the same thing over and over again or that we are interchangeable.

We Know What We Do

We don’t represent house. We represent people. We determine their needs and then we do what needs to be done to help them meet those needs. Its not our fiduciary responsibility to represent the client, it is our professional obligation. Doing that means different things to different people. And while the line “The great real estate brokers do far more than this” sounds good, it doesn’t make any sense to me. How do you do more than the best you’re able to do? We don’t all finish the race at the same time, even if we all start together, but that’s a function of our talent, training, skills, and effort, not the market or the technology.

To thrive in a world of self-service, agents have to hyperspecialize, have to stand for something, have to have the guts to say no far more than they say yes. No, you can’t publish this book. No I won’t represent you. No, don’t take that flight. No, I won’t sell this house, it’s overpriced, list it yourself.

Again Seth, this was always the case in our business. We have been training agents for years not to take the overpriced listing, to provide the right advice when its what the client needs to hear even if its not what the client wants to hear.Again, like some many others, Seth doesn’t fully understand the job of the real estate agent, and thinks its just a matter of putting the property in the MLS and then taking a nap until the property is sold.

Finally We can Agree Again

When markets change, agents can lead the way, not follow along grudgingly.

At last we can agree. Though I don’t think our expertise is going to eliminated by technology, it is important that as agents we lead the way. That we stay educated, understand the challenges facing our consumers. Guide them through the process in the smoothest way possible. Minimize their costs, and their legal exposure, while assisting them in obtaining terms that are preferential to them. All things that are easy for the do it yourself person to achieve, even with an awesome computer and a lightning fast interface to the largest database of properties in their market.

Bill is an unusual blend of Old & New - The CEO Century 21 Advantage Gold (Philadelphia's Largest Century 21 company and BuzzBuilderz (a Social Media Marketing Company), He is a Ninja CEO, blending the Web 1 and 2.0 world together in a fashion that stretches the fabric of the universe. You can follow him on twitter @Billlublin or Facebook or LinkedIn.

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  1. Ken Montville - The MD Suburbs of DC

    April 8, 2009 at 11:33 am

    It seems that people outside of the real estate profession take great pride in diminishing our work. Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do?) also devotes a lot of ink in his book about the seemingly trivial and minuscule role Realtors play in the real estate transaction.

    My take on this is that because of our desire to provide an experience as stress-free as possible for our clients we tend to make a lot of what we do invisible to them. They simply don’t know all that goes into representing them and providing them with a relatively smooth path to achieving their objectives.

  2. Seth Godin

    April 8, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for reading.

    Great real estate agents will never go away. Mechanical form pushers, of course, will. No need to defend them. They are a pox on your profession, the same way people who merely own a Mac are a pox on truly gifted graphic designers.

    As for representing people, at least where I live, by law the selling agent represents the seller, not the buyer, and the seller is virtually invisible in my experience. Thus, as far as the purchaser is concerned (and by law) you represent getting the best price for the house, right?

    Anyway, my real point is that one after another, the internet is eliminating mediocre middlemen. If all you have is a license and a business card with your photo on it, you’re doomed.

  3. Brandie Young

    April 8, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    E tu, Seth?

    Interesting, the comparative models given. I understand his perspective, as technology enables supply chain disruption it’s the middleman that is typically eliminated in order to reduce costs.

    In hypothesis, that could be applied to patients and pharmaceutical companies – eliminate the doctor as the middle man. Oh, wait, a doctor is a necessary, expert party in the process.

    I like Ken’s comment above. Being good at your job means making it look easy, which can also lead to a lack of value placed on your efforts.

  4. ken brand

    April 8, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Correct Sirs (Bill & Ken). As you point out, part of the problem is that consumers overestimate what they think they know about our bussines and they understimate what they don’t know. It’s not their fault.

    One of the reasons for this it is that a sharp agent hides all the bloody work. The goal is to prevent fires, emotional meltdown, missed dealines, inaccuracies, etc. The more successful the agent is at prevention, leaderhsip and managment, the less it looks like they’ve done. What does blair is when a poor agent does nothing and fit hits the shan. Therefore, to the untrained eye or inexperienced, it looks easy or as if the fees are way too high.

    I don’t know exactly how to change this, except to continue to deliver value that is recognized as remarkably better than expected or percived or average.

  5. Mary Beth Grasso

    April 8, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    I also really respect Seth Godin. When I originally read the post you speak of, I thought…ugh oh,my favorite Marketer thinks the middleman might become obsolete unless we specialize. As I read your observation/position regarding the post, I do agree, we ARE smarter & we work harder than what we are given credit for. Seth knows this. Seth just wants us (REALTORs) to know it and make sure we protect it. We alone can be the keepers of our value position and knowledge position in the market. We might need to retool somehow to be different, better or even “specialize.”

  6. Russell Shaw

    April 8, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Anybody anytime is always either making something out of nothing or making nothing out of something.

    For example, we see Greg Swann endlessly make something out of nothing on the subject of vendors. He will take very little things and make them into very large things. Naturally these issues are quite important – or else Greg wouldn’t have taken the time to write about them at great length.

    The fact that someone is “smart” with regard to analytical computation ability does not necessarily make them smart in the “practical intelligence” department. There are many moron geniuses in the world.

    There have been people – really “smart” and those not quite so smart – working on making nothing of real estate salespeople way before I got in the business in 1978. I have never seen a time that some “smart” person wasn’t working on making nothing of Realtors and predicting their demise (as a profession).

    Not a thing I am writing here has anything to do with how good or great a great agent is or what they bring to the table or why they deserve the commission they charge. The fact is, anyone predicting the end of agents due to the internet is simply demonstrating their own inability to think clearly on the subject. Not only will great agents survive, so will the mediocre ones.

  7. Bill Lublin

    April 8, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    Thanks so much for stopping by and reading. Actually the agent in all states represents the party with whom they have a contract. and that can be either the seller or the buyer.

    We use the terminology “listing agent” or “seller’s agent” to indicate the agent who represents the seller, and who is, by virtue of their agency relationship, bound to get the highest price and best terms for their client. The selling agent in many instances (though not necessarily) is the representative of the buyer, working to get the house for the lowest price and the best terms (from the buyer’s perspective).
    Almost never in today’s world is the selling agent a sub-agent (representing the seller under the listing agent’s contract) , though that was the dominant relationship in the industry 25 or more years ago.

    And though I agree with you when you point out that mediocrity is not the acceptable standard, but I believe that technology will not in and of itself eliminate the need for the agent since the expertise the agent provides with or without the technology is the key to the agent’s utility to the consumer, and the post you wrote seemed to ignore the complexity of our job, and some of the points you made in your post about the potential disintermediation of the real estate agent just seemed to lack a deeper knowledge of our industry.

    That having been said, thank you for helping me in achieving my own marketing paradigm shift as well providing me with a lot of material to ponder – Whether I agreed with you or not, you have always helped me challenge my assumptions and grow.

    Perhaps one day we’ll meet and continue the discussion outside of our computers.

  8. Bill Lublin

    April 8, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Ken, Brandie, Ken & Russell – Thanks so much for reading and commenting. And for validating some of the thought process around this post. As experienced and above average professionals, you all bring more to the party then just anonymity or efficiency – you bring expertise, advice, interpretation, and guidance that the consumer not only needs, they desire.

    And Russell, you are right – there will probably be folks of all competencies, whether we want them or not!

  9. Matt Stigliano

    April 9, 2009 at 11:43 am


    As you know I love to compare things to rock ‘n roll. The problem I have always seen with both real estate and the music business is that the consumer (fans and buyers/sellers) don’t see the back end. They don’t always know what goes on and have a certain set of pre-conceived notions about it all.

    As a guitar player, everyone assumed things about me. The assumption was that my life was one endless party. I was rich beyond my wildest dreams. I drove a Bentley. My life was nothing more then endless strippers, cocaine, and booze.

    What those same fans didn’t see were the hours spent on our website. Days spent on rehearsals. Hours spent backstage staring at the same 13 people I saw everyday. Flights at 6AM to play a show, then to get on another flight that afternoon to get to a show by 10PM. Massive tours (sold out tour of Germany 10,000-15,000 a night) that owed more money than they made.

    I’m not complaining, I did have a blast, but because of the misconceptions fans saw a different world than I did. I often said in interviews, I’d like to be able to take every fan on tour for a week. Let them see the real deal.

    In real estate, there are some common threads. TV commercials showing people how to get rich in real estate. Shows about flipping that show millionaire investors who probably don’t make near as much as we believe. Agents with flashy cars and Rolexes. And that’s just the imagery. There are agents that work hard and do their jobs well, but they are not the heroes depicted in the movies.

    What consumers don’t see is the 10PM phone call from a upset seller. The bills for E&O insurance that protect them and us. The MLS quarterly fees. The negotiations back and forth. The marketing budgets, the hours spent thinking of how to get this home sold or find that buyer a house they can afford.

    We do get those transactions that fall into our laps and are a “piece of cake” and those are always nice to have. Good pay for what they are. But we get the countless transactions that take our blood, sweat, and tears to keep together and make sure they don’t unravel. We get the emotional highs and lows and we keep a calm demeanor.

    I love that consumers can leverage the internet to find what they’re looking for and there are some out there that I think can handle a real estate transaction on their own – much like I can book a airline ticket on my own…but I still use a travel agent (based in Philly I might add). Having a trusted guide, an advisor, and a friend all rolled into one – in addition to being protected from much of the legal wranglings of a possible mistake; I’ll pay for that anyday.

    I think you said it well with this:

    We don’t represent house. We represent people. We determine their needs and then we do what needs to be done to help them meet those needs.

    I’m there for my clients and they recognize and appreciate it. They know that my skills (in real estate) are only a small piece of the puzzle.

  10. Mark Eckenrode

    April 9, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    when you say “we know what we do” that’s great. but does the public?

    as pointed out a number of times, so much of what a realtor does is behind the scenes and virtually invisible to one or both parties.

    this is the root in so many of the debates – commissions, technology, online brokerages, etc.

    you may believe you’re invaluable. but does the public? if not, then, well…

  11. Bill Lublin

    April 10, 2009 at 8:46 am

    As far as your question about the belief of the public, I send you to the graphic at the top of this post –

    People don’t value jobs that they don’t understand or do well themselve. And that’s why we need to explain our value proposition to them. However the complexity of the job, or its importance is not diminished by that lack of understandind.

  12. Mark Eckenrode

    April 10, 2009 at 10:04 am

    i respectfully disagree, bill. i don’t understand the complexities and science behind firefighting or flyig a plane or even driving an 18 wheeler, but i find them valuable. i know how they benefit me.

    a job may be complex – even important – but if it’s not found valuable then it’s a job that will disappear as consumers look elsewhere to get their needs met (or to pay less). service providers of all shapes and sizes pop up to scratch the itch. that’s the point i see seth making and the truth of the situation.

    yes, you want to be a good advocate for your clients. but as important (if not more) is the promotion of the value you provide.

    now, i don’t believe the role of realtor will go away but i do believe realtors who don’t show their value will go away (and that’s a lot).

    agents can say “they don’t get us” all day long but ultimately it’s their responsibility to make sure that folks “get them” and their value… can’t be hush-hush about it

  13. real estate syracuse,

    April 11, 2009 at 4:31 am

    Can we get more about this “Real Estate agents may be in trouble, but that’s more the result of the economy and the lack of credit liquidity than the function of our job.”?

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