Size matters?

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Creative Commons License photo credit: collisionality

Transparency is not just a buzz word anymore but something expected, even demanded, by the consumer. The consumer wants information, lots of it, and they want honesty and full-disclosure in its delivery.

And when I am representing a seller, it is my job to give it to them.

I wrote this last January in response to the Zillow’s release of added features to their site. I said then that they are doing it right, and I still believe they are, at least in one important regard. They tend toward States’ rights over Federalism, a ground-up approach to information delivery. As first an agent associated with a large brokerage and now as a small independent, I appreciate an equal playing field. After all, like the consumer, it’s access I want.

In Zillow’s case, the consumer is both the real estate agent and the homeowner (which makes for one crazy-big target market), and Zillow needs two things to succeed. They need data, sales and “for-sale”, and they need eyeballs. You can’t have they latter without the former, but rather than build their reputation and their inventory by taking the more-traveled route, courting the big real estate brokerages, they have reached this point primarily by appealing to the individual agent. It is the individual agent who is online and socially connected – and blogging.

Before become independent brokers, Steve and I watched as a critical shift was occurring in the industry, and it was a shift that had us questioning the value of the big broker in today’s environment. Historically, the large firms have had three major selling points in recruiting agents: Brand recognition; power of size and economy of scale; and training. Sure, they also take the administrative monkey off the agent’s back, so to speak, but the business part of the business is not difficult, just time consuming, and in an industry where we are all in effect our own little businesses, this is not a large hurdle to overcome outside of the big, comfy brokerage environment.

Brand Recognition

This ship has sailed. Agents have been branding themselves within their broker’s brand for years. The problem for us became that we were in a constant thumb war to ensure that our personal brand did not get squished dead by the thousand pound gorilla. Where the broker’s household name once had enormous value, much like my Grandmother would have starved before purchasing a can of soup not named “Campbell” (because the message coming from her RCA Victor told her this was the right thing to do),  new media have afforded the little people the same advertising opportunities which the big boys enjoy. During one of our moves between brokerages a few years ago, Steve and I dutifully sent the big announcement out to our clients. “We’ve moved!” we trumpeted. The overwhelming response? “Where did you work before?” Our clients, it seemed, had become far less concerned with the name on our office monument sign than we had imagined. They just knew us as the Castle People.

Back before the Internet, the big brokerage offered a big network of agents, each of whom was schlepping a five-pound book of listings around. Advertising occurred between and among them, and this was necessary due to the lag time between listing and publication. This competitive advantage has now gone the way of the keypunch machine. Some 14-year-old in Wichita knows about my listing the minute my MLS does. So, we now we start to see the brand struggle as one of company survival. It is a recruiting tool, but it is not meaningful from the standpoint of service delivery. This is why as a managing broker I have vowed to take the States’ rights approach to agent branding. Go be successful; the last thing you want your broker to do is get in your way.

Power of Size and Economy of Scale

Power of size was important to the agent yesterday when big companies were big print advertisers able to negotiate big, fat discounts off the rack rates. But reduced rates on the Sunday Real Estate Section in-line classified ads are now about as useful to me as my first-generation iPod.  Advertising is online, and online is, if not free, downright affordable. Ironically, it has gotten infinitely more affordable now that I am not scurrying around from site to site paying for “enhanced” listing ads to maintain some semblance of control. Most brokers “feed” their office listings to the various listing portals; they can do this because they have a lot of listings, and every Yahoo! and Trulia and FrontDoor out there wants to get their hands on them. This is good for the agent who doesn’t have the knowledge to do it themselves or the interest in spending the time, but it is neither in the interest of the agent who does nor of their clients.

At every turn, I was being trumped. I would send my listing to a site to find it replace the next week with my broker’s ad for the same listing. The result was that buyer inquiries where being redirected to a black cyber-hole. My ads included my own words, a full complement of photos, and links to my web site with the floor plan, virtual tour and other goodies. My broker’s ads, on the other hand, were truncated MLS listings, unattractive and incomplete, and the inquiries on those were directed to my broker’s own site, never to be heard from by me again. One Friday, Steve called the number on one of these listings, our listing, just for giggles. He got a company voice mail box, left a message expressing interest in seeing the home, and never got a response. I understand that the corporate relocation department doesn’t work weekends, but the Internet does. And so do the home buyers. And the agents. How is this in my client’s best interest? It’s not.

On my own, I can be everywhere the big brokers are, either directly (Zillow), through syndication (ListHub), or straight from the MLS (for those sites relying on IDX, or Internet Data Exchange, agreements). It’s simple, and I control the message and the conversation.

I probably could have put these random thoughts into one, concise sentence:  Size really matters little in today’s wired world. In giving the individual equal access, technology has eliminated much if not all of the benefit of the big company model. In my case, when you take away the window dressing (a fancy office, a large administrative staff, and a corporate committee making decisions for me), I reached the point where the modern-day value proposition of the traditional model was lost on me.

Of course, there is the company training, and that is a topic for my next “Changing the World” installment .

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