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The Shibboleth of Real Estate

Can You Be Referred To?

Recently my wife asked for some insight into referring a current client who was looking for a specialty property. The client is considered high-end for the market segment they were looking in and was looking in several states. My wife is very protective of her clients and strives to do what’s best. In the rare occasion that we don’t have a connection in an area, she researches agents before referring. Sure her franchise has a referral program, but by the time it gets put through that system, the poor receiver of the buyer referral is looking at a 40-50% referral fee. Most good agents will not take clients with that high of a referral fee; so we’ve always referred directly.

Believe it or not, she had a hard time finding an agent who appeared to have their act together enough, on-line to refer to. It took a lot of research before deciding.

Secret Handshake

In contemplation of what to look for in an agent, we of course, went to the internet and started with Twitter friends, than Google, than the franchise pages, than RealSeekr, etc… and lastly (you’ll love this) ActiveRain. Why? Activerain would let us “hear” the voice of the practitioner, find their websites and sorted it by location. We decided that there was a secret handshake – a combination of clues to look for that weren’t foolproof, but certainly may help us sort through who might be a good agent to refer to in the future.

The Combination

There is a story in the Bible, in Judges, of a situation where after a battle a people group were trying to separate those who were friend and foe. The group used the word “Shibboleth” as a pass phrase, as it was unique to their culture. Those who said the word incorrectly, were killed as enemies. Real Estate has it’s own “Shibboleth.”

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This is what we considered while pouring over lists of agents:

1. Did they have a Website and (preferably) a blog

They HAD to have a website, and we preferred to see a blog. What were we looking for? Was it relevant, was it up-to-date, was it professional…. Since we were looking at ActiveRain, the points weren’t important because those could be generated by “Great Posts”, rather we were looking for recent posts and how well written the agent was. If they had their own blog, than we looked there.

2. Presentation

We saw countless agent pictures (many company listings without photos). Do agents need to pretty? No, but they need to look professional. If we saw the typical mug-shot against a wall in the office, we moved on. If the agent can’t spend at least $30 at JC Penny’s for a professional picture, than they aren’t going to take the career seriously enough.

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3. Did the web presence endue a sense of professionalism, experience etc… ?

When I look for agents to trust, I don’t care that they have 30 years experience (that generally tells me they are of the old guard and not with current trends) but rather look for someone that has shown in their online presence that they “get it” and have closed enough transactions to be sure they can close another. Seeing an agent with 5-10 years experience with an up to date webpage, that is more about the consumer than themselves and provides local information and IDX is a great clue that the agent has a sense for current trends and services.

4. Resume versus Services

The death nail in any agent advertisement, for me, is the “Million Dollar Producer” line. In most markets you only need to sell three houses to be a million dollar producer. As both a consumer and someone in the industry, I want to know what you can do for “ME” not what you’ve done for you. Knowing that you made some money last year doesn’t impress me. If you’re selling so much, do you really have time for me as a client? Do you have teams and systems in place to help you with your “high” client base? As a referring agent and/or consumer I want to know about your knowledge base and ability to serve a consumer.

5. Agency

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Believe it or not, there were some agents who eluded to the fact that they preferred to care for “all clients in the transaction, equally.” Putting it into context with other things from some agents and reading their blog post on the subject’ they were supporters of Dual Agency. Yeah, right… As if I would ever refer a client to an agent who wanted to provide them less service so that the agent could make twice the money. Moral of that story – be cautious of what you blog about. (Especially if it were your first and last post for 8 months ago)

Ok, So It’s Not All About Me

I know, I know… I’m a Yuppie Elitist. I’m OK with that. Yes, I know that there are some very promising agents who haven’t embraced a good web presence or been around enough to establish themselves. However, I don’t think that what we were looking for in a referral agent was beyond reason. Referring a client properly can ensure future business from the friends and family that they left behind, but more so it’s about serving the current client here and now. Your referral for services to another agent or vendor reflects on you. Be careful…

I am sure that there are other things to look for in an agent than the five I’ve listed, but these were my hot buttons. Agents need to be more careful about their on-line presence. It could make you money – but it could also cost you money. The possible commission from this referral could be up to $75,000 – does your web presence convince me that you deserve this?

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Written By

Matthew Rathbun is a Virginia Licensed Broker and Director of Professional Development for Coldwell Banker Elite, in Fredericksburg Virginia. He has opened and managed real estate firms, as well as coached and mentored agents and Brokers. As a Residential REALTOR®, Matthew was a high volume agent and past REALTOR® Rookie of the Year & Virginia Association Instructor of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter as "MattRathbun" and on Facebook. Matthew's blog is



  1. Gia & Grant Freer

    July 2, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Shibboleth is one of those wonderful words that instinctively wants to make you open an encyclopedia or research it further in Wikipedia and other online resources. I can still recall it from Synagogue sermons and Sunday school, and more recently watching re-runs of the West Wing (Gia and I have every series on DVD and it’s always been one of my favorite episodes). The analogy to Real Estate is so well suited, especially now that the internet and social media have opened up new ways for us to engage, interact and demonstrate our expertise. It doesn’t take a lot of money to present oneself in a professional manner online. Everyone should take reference to this post by Matt and see if your online presence follows his checklist.

    p.s. we were wondering what to do tonight – ice cream and West Wing it is 🙂

  2. Dan Green

    July 2, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Terrific perspective of how one class of home buyers starts their home search.

    Web sites (and blogs) are “always-on marketing”. Many agents still don’t realize that their unprofessional and outdated web presence is actually causing them to lose business for which they didn’t even realize they were competing.

    This post is the EXACT reason why I update my blog every business day.

  3. Matt Stigliano

    July 2, 2008 at 9:08 am

    I guess I better get to work on my website then! Haha.

    As a relatively new agent, I really liked this post, for several reasons. One, it helps me think of what I would look for in an agent when referring a client, but two (and maybe more importantly), its got me thinking of what I should do to make myself into an agent that someone would refer their clients to. So thanks on both ends! I also appreciate hearing from an agent that “million dollar producer” doesn’t mean much (I’ve been thinking that for years, especially since I lived in Los Angeles for 8 years) and that although experience is great, its not the be all end all of real estate. As a new agent, we sometimes feel beat down by other agents with a gazillion years under their belts, all because we are “new” and haven’t closed a bazillion transactions. I’ll get their someday, just give me some time.

    As for me, I’m actually very excited this morning. I’ve been reading agentgenius for about three months and using both the site and a feed reader to read the various articles that pop up. I’ve been warned to death that feed readers are bad for my health and finally, I’ve found something that I felt ready to comment on. I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve done it. I’m in the game now. So look out agentgenius readers, here I come. Once I start, I may not stop.

    I would like to take a moment to thank everyone here at agentgenius, as everything I have read so far has been great. My head is swimming with ideas and tips from the three months I’ve been floating about, being the ever present voyeur.

    See you all soon…


  4. Jennifer Rathbun

    July 2, 2008 at 9:17 am

    It’s amazing to see in print our thought process when picking an agent. Thanks!

  5. Marc Grossman

    July 2, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Matt, I have the same issues when searching for an agent to refer business to. I also have a referral website & when choosing agents go through a very similar process that you do. I also understand your frustration. It’s amazing what you come across.

  6. Matthew Rathbun

    July 2, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Gia / Grant – I really like RealSeekr and hope that more agents will join. That will be a great site to find agents in the future.

    Dan – Glad I could re-enforce your efforts to keep up to date

    Matt – I have been teaching Real Estate courses for many years, but the materials I have found in the have been very valuable. I have learned a great deal by not being a lurker but participant in the social media aspect of blogs such as AG. I am really fond of new agents. Typically they are more inclined to try new things and learn things that will help them and their clients. Don’t let the more experienced agents keep ya down!

    Jennifer – I’ll say nice things to you later 😉

    Marc – I am getting leary of referral sites, becuase it’s just one more group taking chunks out of an already dwindling income and there is a better way… Maintaining your own referral site and list of reputable agents is a great idea!

  7. Ken Smith

    July 2, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    I always have the hardest time referring a client when I don’t already have a relationship with the person. The agent you refer reflects upon you and can either help or hurt your reputation.

  8. Jonathan Dalton

    July 2, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    > As if I would ever refer a client to an agent who wanted to provide them less service so that the agent could make twice the money.

    I’ve practiced Dual Agency when appropriate (and not collected twice the commission, incidentally). By your logic, this means I’m a bad agent?

    I’m also going to channel the BawldGuy regarding agent experience/web presence and say it’s about skinning cats. Having a slick-looking website doesn’t mean that the agent is selling any homes.

  9. Matthew Rathbun

    July 2, 2008 at 9:40 pm


    I apologize, I was not intending to offend you, but I personally do not believe in single agency dual agency. In the Virginia statutes outlining fiduciary responsibilities, there are basically eight statutory requirements. Of those eight, if taken as literal only about two of them can be done while in a Dual Agency relationship. I can’t trust most agents to do Dual Agency well. Here is what the top legal authority from Virginia has to say:

    Dual Agency is ALWAYS a conflict of interest. Virginia law merely permits you to engage in it with the informed consent of the parties provided you act accordingly. Their informed consent, once obtained, does not mean the conflict ceases to exist, merely that the clients consent to your acting as a dual agent notwithstanding the existence of the conflict. This is an important point to remember: the conflict does not go away just because you get the requisite consent. You still must act in a manner consistent with the conflicting interests of your clients.
    Lem Marshall, VAR General Counsel
    March/April 2004 issue of “Commonwealth” Magazine has articles on the issue and there are very few agents who don’t think that Dual Agency should be illegal for single agents.

    As far as the “slick” webpage, I fully agree that folks can buy a great webpage and that it is not the end all be all, however using the totality of the circumstances it’s the one of many indications that I can find on my own. It’s a matter of looking at the overall presence of the agent and using the hits given at the time.

  10. Jeremy Hart

    July 3, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Matt (the other one, not the author), welcome! Matt (the author, not the other one) was right when he said that some of the best education you can receive in this business will be from the folks on these – and many, many other – pages.

  11. Paula Henry

    July 3, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    One of the greatest compliments I can receive is the referral from another agent who has checked me out online. I know this sounds like the tagline so many agents put on the back of their cards (which I don’t have) but, I’m serious.

    This week I received confirmation that I am the agent of choice for a referral from an agent in North Carolina. I’ll be selling her mother’s home….and she interviewed three agents.

    I can’t say with certainty if my website or blog are appealing, it’s a matter of preference, I’m sure.
    It helps they felt they already knew me and the quality of marketing I do online.

  12. Eric Blackwell

    July 4, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Expanding a bit on what Ken said…

    I either need to KNOW you or KNOW ABOUT you from someone I know before I will refer….that having been said a blog that has your authentic voice and where you are coming from does allow me to KNOW you.

    Great post.

  13. Jennifer in Louisville

    July 4, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    For me whenever I have a referral to send out, I don’t mess with those social networking sites (activerain, etc) when deciding whom to send it to. It has been my experience, that some of those persons are SO OBSESSED with doing hanging out chatting, that they’d rather do that than work.

    I go straight to google, and see who has the strongest web presence for a variety of main keywords appropriate for my clients in that particular area. Then, I go through and hit the rest of your 5 point checklist. 🙂

    If they don’t show up in search results for google for me, I don’t care if they are #1 on Activerain.

  14. Karen Goodman

    July 6, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    I just made a referral a week ago for one of my listing clients that is moving out of state. Since my website is currently through Point 2 (soon to be moved to WordPress), I started with their system and narrowed the list to agents that were requesting referrals for the town that my clients want to purchase in. Since the town is actually a short drive from a major city, the list wasn’t all that long.

    Then I checked out the agent’s websites and hoped to find a decent blog. I wasn’t necessarily looking for the custom high priced website, but I did want to see someone that did more than slap up the standard template without even editing the text.

    But, the most crucial step was to follow up with a phone call to the agent that I thought was the best match. I want to have a conversation with anyone I’m going to refer to before I hand over a phone number to my client. I agree with Ken’s comment (#7) that my choice of referrals reflect back on me. If the agent I suggest is incompetant, why whould they ever trust me again.

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