Much ado about the professionalism of real estate agents.

Soap Bo

One of my favorite real estate agents and people, Daniel Rothamel, wrote recently about how he believes professionalism in real estate is becoming an overrated, tired mantra. My immediate reaction was one of disagreement – still is, in fact – but I wasn’t immediately inclined to write a dissenting opinion here.

Since then, one of my other favorite people chimed in. Dustin Luther and I share a common background in traffic engineering, so I particularly liked his analogy. And given that I have spent much of the past month beating my head against the wall as I attempt to deal with an unchecked army of cooperating agents on our many escrows, I finally felt a little group therapy coming on.

First, I’ll dispense with the disclaimer. There are throngs of really professional, exceptional agents out there. We work with them every day. This is not about them. Rather it is about the others who may, in fact, be a minority (or may not), and it is the weakest, least competent, least ethical who tend to paint the picture for an entire industry.

Daniel writes:

Clients don’t care about your professionalism. Well at least, not in the way that you think they do. Sure, they want you to be honest, truthful, respectful, dependable, etc. They want you to be all of those things. They also assume that you are going to be all of those things. They are going to assume, and then demand, a certain level of competence. Your responsibility is simply to meet and (hopefully) exceed their expectations.

Here’s the problem. Typically, each transaction has two agents involved. The customer “experience” is defined not only by how I perform, but by how the other side conducts their business. And when the other side generally makes a mess of things, it becomes personal. It is hard to exceed expectations when you spend thirty high-profile days on your client’s behalf playing damage control. Too often, we become guilty by association.

I popped in at a new home project on behalf of a client this week. The door was locked, despite the big sign showing the hours of operation that suggested it shouldn’t be. As I knocked, making eye contact with the agent on duty, she commenced first ignoring me then frantically waving me off. Finally, she relented and opened the door a crack, enough to tell me that she was going home sick. Can I just register my clients since I am here? No. Can you tell me when the next phase release is? Come back another time, she barked.

The point here is that I didn’t just leave with a poor impression of this agent who was apparently feeling under the weather; I left with a very negative impression of the home builder. They might be the best builder in the lower 48, but one agent’s actions reflect on the many.

Dustin wrote of a “real estate industry where the barriers to entry are so much lower and the quality reviews so much more infrequent.” We know about the ridiculously simple licensing requirements, and we know that those requirements won’t change any time soon, if ever. It’s the last part of his remark that nails it. Who’s in charge?

In the original Superman movie, as Superman is giving Lois Lane the grand aerial tour, he assures her, “I’ve got you.” At this point, she asks, “But who’s got you?” And that is so much of the problem with our industry. Millions of independent contractors are flying solo, too often without any oversight.

I have seen more ethical breaches and mismanaged transactions this past month than I can count (and I can count pretty high). The duplication, waste and a general lack of understanding of the basic contracts on the part of cooperating brokers I have seen defy logic. So, they did the sexy part well  — they “sold” the house – to which their brokers likely responded with the big office meeting high fives. Only, there is a bunch of stuff that came before and comes next that often gets relegated to the B list of importance.

And it is not enough for the agent who has their act together to just say, “I’m different – So there!” because, while your client may be able to make the distinction between your performance and the cooperating agent’s, they may just as easily choose not to. It’s the “experience” that they will most often remember, and we all suffer from one agent’s bad outing.

The right answer has less to do with lax licensing requirements and a whole lot more to do with agent oversight. This challenge is no less daunting however. Big brokerages are confronted with large and arguably unmanageable numbers of agents, and where brokers of any size are concerned, there is no way to ensure they are each minding their shops.

This is not to say the raising the roof on professionalism is a worthless undertaking. On the contrary, the only way to improve public perception as well as the client experience is to continue to be vocal in demanding more, in demanding better.

Our real estate world has been turned on its head over the past decade, and mostly for the better I think. The customer is learning that there are differences and that he does have choices. With transparency comes some accountability, and it is harder for stupid “agent tricks” to go unnoticed. I will lay odds that future changes will be coming more rapidly yet. “Status quo” mentality has put our industry miles behind where technology is concerned, and this same everything-is-ducky approach will do us no favors if we want a role in the home buying and selling process in the future.

As Dustin put it, “I would argue that the real danger is consumers, especially consumers who don’t already have a trusted advisor, will be more than happy to seek out and use alternative business models that differentiate themselves only on price.”

Yeah, that.

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