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Op/Ed

Agent ratings: trust, Captain Obvious, and inadvertent COE violations

Agent ratings aren’t going away, so it’s time to take a look at how they’ve tempted Realtors to inadvertently violate the Realtor Code of Ethics.

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agent ratings and reviews

Consumer ratings are not going away. Today, consumers are rating nearly everything and are looking for ratings before making purchase decisions as a way to accelerate their evaluation process and validate their choice of products or services based on the experiences of others who have used those products and services.

Time is a scarce resource and with all of the information available on the internet today, it is difficult for an individual to understand and evaluate all of the options, especially in areas where purchases are infrequent, complex or of great importance. Few would argue that a real estate transaction does not encompass all three of these factors. Reliable ratings help consumers make informed choices in less time. This is a good thing.

But what happens when the information is not reliable, or worse, is simply marketing disguised as objective information? It has been generally said that technology increases efficiency, making things faster and more convenient, but if the underlying process is flawed, technology can actually facilitate bad decisions or compound problems.

Agent ratings: enter temptation

A recent NAR study found that trust is the number one factor for buyers when selecting a REALTOR® and number two with sellers, after agent reputation (2014 National Association of REALTORS®- Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends).

The temptation to improve your reputation by encouraging (often begging) happy customers to say nice things about you on the numerous open ratings and review sites is understandable. Many unfortunately take this practice to the next level by inviting friends and family who have not actually received service to leave a positive review. Today you can even hire a “Reputation Management” company or freelancers on Craigslist or Fiverr.com to write positive reviews for you (or negative reviews for your competitors), legal or not.

Marketing companies have created testimonial gathering systems where agents invite only happy clients and/or can delete any feedback that is less than flattering, and then package these testimonials as “validated reviews” for agents to share with prospects. However they justify these actions to themselves, agents that embrace these systems do so at their own peril. Once it is realized that the results have been “scrubbed,” manipulated, or gamed, there is little chance to establish the trust buyers and seller demand from their REALTOR® and may cause irreparable harm to that agent’s reputation while further damaging the consumer perception of our industry in general. Everyone loses, with the possible exception of those selling the snake oil.

Come on, consumers aren’t stupid

Consumers are on to the fact that many ratings systems are gamed, and the higher the stakes ($$$$), the greater likelihood and lengths some will go to to manipulate the results. Consumers understand the difference between testimonials and reviews; as a business person and as an industry it is difficult and dangerous for us to pretend that we thought the terms were interchangeable (but that is a topic for a future article).

Let me introduce you to Captain Obvious:

More and more we are seeing evidence of consumer demand for reliable ratings and reviews. Angie’s List is clearly taking a shot at the most popular review site, Yelp with her new tag line “Reviews you can Trust.” Putting aside the accusations and litigation regarding extortion-like practices claimed by small businesses against Yelp, that their “review filtering” is connected with advertising spend (or not spending), the fact that you can anonymously rate any REALTOR in the country right now highlights the problem.

Angie “solves” this by charging for her list via credit card, the assumption being that a real credit card equates to a real person. Better, but how does this ensure that only real clients provide feedback? In fact, “paid reviewers” charge a premium for writing reviews on Angie’s list, friends and family can still stack the deck, and clients of the agent on the other side of the transaction are able to tarnish reputations because they didn’t get everything they wanted.

California is changing the game

On August 1st, 2014 the California Association of REALTORS began publishing names and photos of those found to have violated the REALTOR Code of Ethics on a members-only section of their website. The information will not be available to the public, at least for now. They are the first state association to do so, but they are also regarded as a trend setter for REALTOR organizations nationwide.

This brings us to the critical question: Does using and marketing results from a review platform that allows or even encourages agent manipulation open you up to a COE violation? It depends, but NAR does state that most violations are related to advertising.

From the NAR Code of Ethics, Duties to the Public, Article 12 reads:

“REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations.”

Clearly, many are actively soliciting reviews from friends and family, blocking or deleting reviews from actual clients that may be unflattering, and some are flat out buying or creating their own reviews. For those agents “gaming” these systems, the game may have just gotten real!

Should you invest your dollars in shady corners of the web?

Even if you personally are not engaged in any of the bad behavior outlined above, is it in your best interest to invest your time, energy and maybe even dollars on platforms where manipulation is likely or even accepted? You need to decide that for yourself, but I can offer two thoughts you might add to the con side of your pros vs. cons analysis:

  1. How will consumers know who is and is not manipulating the data to their advantage?
  2. How do you expect to compete against those that are willing to game these systems?

Conclusions:

  • Trust is hard to build, and once lost even harder or maybe impossible to regain.
  • Consumers don’t need Captain Obvious to explain that anonymous reviews are unreliable.
  • Honesty is still the best policy.

So how do you build trust and protect your reputation at the same time? That’s another editorial for another day…

Kevin is a Co-Founder, President & COO of Quality Service Certification, Inc. (QSC) and earned an MBA from The University of California – Irvine. With over 20 years of Real Estate experience, his primary focus is on consumer research, developing better service management systems, and sharing the importance of consumer-centric service standards, transparency and accountability to create measurable and meaningful differentiation and long term advantage for those professionals that put customer needs first.

Op/Ed

8 lessons on how to keep work-life balance in your real estate career

(EDITORIAL) Your real estate practice can be overly consuming if you let it. With discipline, you can have a good work/life balance.

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Real estate agent shaking hands with clients over a For Sale sign marked sold.

8In your real estate practice, you have a plate, and you can only put so much onto that plate before things begin to fall off into the cracks. These cracks are what I call “fires” – you know, those things that become emergencies because simply put, you let them.

What I am about to share with you at first glance may come off as cold, however, I believe that with a little thought, some practice, and your own tweaks, you can realize the income you want and afford time with your family – all while elevating the respect you deserve from your real estate clients.

Balancing work and life in real estate is no easy feat.

At no point in my real estate career have I ever allowed myself to appear too eager or desperate for a client, and my clients always felt special and cared for, even though I observed a strict daily schedule. The following is how this can be accomplished:

Lesson one: You know your threshold of how many clients you can handle at once. Your pipeline should be full, and the next client in line for your services should know you’re worth waiting for, and be assured that the same care and attention will be shown to them as soon as they are “next” (never answer a client call while with another client, or this will not work for you). A client became “next” when an offer was accepted on one of my existing transactions. My threshold was originally four clients. If my pipeline was expanding quickly, I brought on agent assistants. As they waited their turn, my assistant held their hand and kept them busy with pre-qualification, buyers agreements, and the like.

Lesson two: When I took on the next client, clear rules of the road were established. I do not leave the house (home office) until 10. I have better things to do with my time than to sit in rush hour needlessly. Some like this time for phone time, however, your undivided attention is not always given, and the possibility of missing vital details while driving and negotiating grows exponentially (as do safety risks). My phone calls were made from 8am to 10am before I left my office.

Lesson three: All of my appointments were set on the half-hour – I’m not sure why, but it worked and I was always on time, as were my clients. The same went for phone calls. Schedule them on the half-hour. You will find, for example, that if you grab lunch at noon, you’re ready for business again at 12:30.

Lesson four: Be home either before or after rush hour. I preferred before. The implied impression of my work hours with my clients worked in my favor nearly 100% of the time. Why? Because I skipped the salesman b.s. of showing them more expensive homes first – I actually took them to the home described in the range they wanted. I set the proper expectations in the first place. I listened to my clients, and they appreciated it. The day they may have waited for my undivided attention gave them immediate results, and they loved it.

Lesson five: If you cannot show your buyers their next home within five showings, either you’re deaf to their needs and wants, or they don’t intend to buy – if you’re experienced, you know it when you see it, and they’re wasting time for the next customer in your pipeline. Place them on a drip campaign with a buyer’s agreement in place, or refer them.

Lesson six: Decide when your workday ends. Mine was at 5:30. However, from 8:30pm to 10pm I would work on offers, faxes, enter listings, answer texts, and emails.

Lesson seven: Not every client was right for me. For example, I have a zone of travel. The markets I work in. Working outside of that zone takes up time from my clients in travel, and time from my family. Refer them, or if you’ve tapped into a further away zone, build your team. Teams can grow and shrink as needed.

Lesson eight: You are a business. Real estate is a business. You have business hours, and you have you time. My you time was with my family, but I love marketing, so I added a 6th half-day for my marketing, blogging, and the like.

As my business grew, my referral network grew. I utilized an assistant until an indie brokerage was established. We had a clear code of how we conducted business, encouraged our buyer’s agents to adapt their business model as I’ve described, and never allowed an unseasoned agent to handle more transactions than their limit. Inevitably my threshold grew to six, but it took time.

With the technologies we have today with instantaneous communication, it’s very easy to allow things to creep onto your plate. So my final lesson is to utilize an assistant frequently.

It is possible to work and live but it takes discipline and a set of business rules for yourself that you’re accountable to besides just the Code of Ethics. It’s about being honest with yourself, and never being so desperate that something can’t wait a minute.

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Op/Ed

Tips to become one of those people who is good with their money

(EDITORIAL) In real estate, it’s difficult to anticipate which years will be the busy ones and which will be eerily empty. So how do you manage money?

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money for transactions

I’m a firm believer in making mistakes. Specifically, the all-out, crash-and-burn kind. You know those people who say “own it” – yeah, that’s definitely me. That’s the sort of high-risk, high-reward mentality that leads to really thrilling moments onstage and in life. And when the reward is that intense, so is the loss. It’s the same with money.

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My formal background is as a professional opera singer. The level of training for a full-time career in the field includes Olympic-level physical, emotional, and intellectual training. Opera singers don’t use microphones, which means they must use their bodies in a perfect, practiced physiological balance to become a human megaphone.

They learn several languages, with enough facility to jump into rehearsals with colleagues who are relative strangers, singing about passionate love, and infuriating politics while maintaining that physical balance in a foreign tongue.

Unlike the Olympics, regular opera singers don’t get endorsement deals. (Okay, famous tenor Plácido Domingo is sponsored by Rolex, but that’s a particularly singular example.) So despite its extreme training, opera is a medium that requires its artists to manage themselves as freelancers. Freelancers and be-your-own-boss types, I know you feel me:

It’s difficult to anticipate which years will be the busy ones and which will be eerily empty.

Preparing for financial uncertainty

So how do you manage finances with so much up and down?

Invest time instead of money. I rethink how I’m approaching my everyday needs. I’m talking about what methods of transportation I use and how often; I’m talking about regular doctor’s visits or self-care; I’m talking about any payments that you owe regularly. Is there any way to reassess seemingly non-negotiable expenses? Can you refinance a mortgage? Can you drop the gym altogether and commit to really learning and developing an exercise routine? Find something convenient you can replace with a free education; the Internet is an insanely abundant resource and should be milked for information.

Develop multiple interests and invest in them. I am a professional singer, but I also love to cook and am serious about it. I write frequently and across a wide spectrum of interests. I read avidly. When you invest in other ideas and interests, you make yourself a more powerful candidate for the workforce, and you give yourself more ability to seize opportunities. Who knows – you might find yourself pivoting careers.

Design a financial contingency plan before you need it (but go broke at least once). Do you have a place to crash if you can’t afford your own place? How much money do you really need to get through the month? How far can you stretch $50? If you can’t define your limits, you’ll never be able to develop a plan with thoughtful security.

What’s life without risk?

The freelancers who truly succeed are the ones who failed. It’s that Oscar Wilde quote, right? “Experience is merely the name men give to their mistakes.” And so have I before, and so will I again. The only way forward is up. I’m going to take my experience along with me for the next chapter. I hope mine will help color yours a little, even if with a passing thought. Dare to lose it all — and see where it leads.

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Op/Ed

Tips to combat lack of participation in virtual meetings or online events

(EDITORIAL) Even after the pandemic, virtual meetings and online events have no end in sight. But how do we get people to participate?

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Online conference call on skype, without Meet Cam widgets.

Online meetings are here to stay and increasing participation is key to making them fun and inviting for everyone involved. Those little icons of our faces and initials showcasing the fact that cameras are off-strike dread in the heart of the presenter. Or even worse, the camera-on view of the ceiling fan or mic-on sound of the smoke detector that needs a new battery.

Instead of leaving the success of an online meeting to chance, presenters can help make their meetings more fun for everyone with a few easy practices.

Send out an agenda with meeting expectations early. If attendees know the time investment, expectations, and what will be covered, it’s easier for them to be involved. Do you want cameras on? Share that. Be specific with what that means. If you don’t make that expectation clear, be prepared for bookcases instead of people, ceiling fans instead of people, and other distractions. Do you know specific questions you will be asking? Include those in the agenda so people can be thinking about them ahead of time. Often people don’t talk because they don’t understand what you want them to say or they’re not sure you really want them to participate.

Ask participants to help create the agenda ahead of time. What questions do they want answered? What do they need from you?

Let people know you will be asking questions regularly and answers are appreciated either on the mic or in the chat. If you can, include when you will be taking questions or opening up for conversation in the agenda. The chat feature can run seamlessly throughout the meeting. Allowing and encouraging the use of the chat feature regularly increases participation and leads to a more conversational feel for the session. If you can have a co-facilitator who can answer questions on the chat so they don’t get lost, that helps. If you don’t have one, consider asking an attendee to watch to help make sure questions are answered throughout the meeting.

Break the meeting up into sections. Don’t throw all the information out at once. Instead, make sure you pause regularly for feedback and questions and answers. If the group is large consider breakout rooms where smaller groups can answer questions, work through agenda items or participate in roundtable discussions, then come back to the large group with their ideas and answers.

Know your end destination. What’s the purpose of the meeting? What do you want or need to accomplish? Make sure everyone involved knows what that is and why. That helps keep everyone focused.

Set a time limit for responses if needed.

Be prepared. It’s even more important to be prepared for your online meeting than in-person meetings where you have multiple resources at hand and the energy of the crowd to bounce off of.

If these online meetings are a regular occurrence, consider adding a fun element like bringing your pet or plant to the meeting day. If it’s a brainstorming session, consider creativity ice breakers. And again make sure attendees know the expectations.

Use the poll feature to help encourage participation. Then follow up with participants to go deeper with those answers.

Instead of asking are there any questions at the end, ask everyone to either tell at least two things they learned or share two things they still have questions about. Again utilize the chat feature here. Some people are more comfortable chatting than speaking on the mic.

Consider offering prizes and give-aways to those participating. It’s not always necessary, but it’s fun when you can.

If you can, run the meetings live instead of recorded presentations with the leader in front of a slideshow. The sit and get PowerPoint and speaker presentation leads to bored participants who aren’t invested in the content. However, if that’s not possible, make sure you have a real-time chat session available for participants who are watching and make sure your slides are light on text. That chat session can change “sit and get” boredom to excitement, fun, and learning for all.

As always remember the meeting needs to last long enough to cover what’s essential but should be short enough to keep people engaged. Use surveys to gather meaningful feedback throughout the meeting and at the end. You can’t get better without feedback from your participants.

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