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Nurturing the Roots of Success

From Update Magazine - November 2008

Billy Joel’s hit song from the 1970s said, “I took the good times. I’ll take the bad times. I’ll take you just the way you are.”
 
Realtors® riding out the lean years must take those lyrics to heart, adapting their business practices to handle a slow market and building a referral base for an improving market.
Dotty Abt, an associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate in McLean, has been in the real estate business for 33 years. She says the best thing a Realtor® can do in any market is to establish a good name.
 
“Build a good reputation with your customers, with other agents, with title companies, lenders, everyone,” says Abt. “Don’t do anything to tarnish your reputation.”
 
Realtors® with decades of experience and those with just a few years of real estate knowledge may approach their businesses in different ways, but the tried-and-true practices of working hard, providing good service and reaching out to customers and potential customers serve both groups well.
 
Janet Ball, a Realtor® with Prudential Carruthers Realtors® in Oakton, has been in real estate for 27 years.
 
“Those agents who survive this market will certainly thrive in the next,” says Ball. “Real estate is harder now. You need to work hard at getting buyers qualified, especially if they are first-time buyers. When you are working with sellers, you need to do more counseling to make sure they understand how important it is to price the home right, get it in the right condition and stage it to show off the assets of the property. Agents need to be patient and to be ready to be a teacher for their clients.”
 
Maude Dixon, a Realtor® with Long & Foster Real Estate in Old Town Alexandria for seven years, says during the recent frenzied market, real estate agents practically became “order takers.” The slower market allows agents to build their relationships and their knowledge of the market.
 
“Realtors® need to really know their client and the market,” says Dixon. “Realtors® bring experience and knowledge to their clients, and they should provide as much information as possible so their clients can make informed decisions. It’s critical for agents to keep open lines of communication with other agents so they understand what is happening with the market and with individual properties.”
 
Spending extra time with clients to make sure that they understand the function of a Realtor® has helped build a referral list for Dixon. “It’s important to establish what I bring to the table and to take the extra steps to lay the groundwork for a good experience,” she says.

Back to Basics

While Realtors® who have been around for many years often have a solid referral base, every agent has had to start bolstering that base in order to stay in business.
 
Abt says, “New agents usually have contact lists from previous jobs or schools they attended or the schools their kids attend. Everyone has contacts someplace. They need to use them to build a business.”
 
Ed Moore, a Realtor® with Weichert Realtors® in Vienna/Tysons Corner, has been in real estate for 16 years and recommends the “back-to-basics” approach for agents during the slow market.
 
“Agents have to be more aggressive about contacting people to see if they want to buy or sell a home right now,” says Moore.
 
In addition to contacting everyone they know, Moore suggests that new agents should work at open houses and meet other agents.
 
“New agents should start building a referral list by figuring out who they know and asking if they need help with real estate,” says Ball. “They also need to know the market. You can’t just sit in the office. You need to look at different neighborhoods, see homes and meet other agents.”
 
Staying active in a slow market takes discipline for all agents no matter how long they have been in business. Ball says the broker in her office functions as a coach, which helps keep everyone motivated.

Sustaining Your Business in a Slower Market

“You need to keep track of how many phone calls you made and how many letters you mailed, and it helps to brainstorm with other agents,” says Ball. “When you sit with other people and share what you are doing, this can give everyone great ideas of ways to keep your business going.”
 
Brian Block, an associate broker with Re/Max Allegiance in Alexandria for more than six years, recommends that during a slow market agents should turn back to the basics, understanding that some things that they do will have an effect in a few months, not necessarily immediately.
 
“This is a self-motivated business, and what people need to do is make a schedule of tasks and stick to it, such as making a certain number of calls or sending out postcards,” says Block. “More education helps, too, so while the market is slower, this is a perfect time to improve your knowledge.”

Mix It Up: Online, In Person, On Paper

Block, who has a blog, recommends a mix of traditional and online marketing, such as keeping in touch with past clients and asking for referrals by phone, email and postcards.
“I’ve spoken to local community groups such as the Kiwanis Club about real estate, answering questions and getting to know people, then handing out my card so they can reach me if they have real estate needs in the future,” he said.
 
Block has been hosting homebuyer seminars in recent years, usually resulting in at least one closed deal per seminar.
 
“The key to holding a homebuyer seminar is not to make it a sales pitch,” says Block. “You need to make it more educational for first-time buyers and hold it as an informal, question-and-answer type session rather than about how many sales awards you have earned.”
 
Block says his Internet presence draws in buyers even in this slower market.
 
“For the past year, I’ve been blogging, which brings in a lot of search engine traffic and buyers,” says Block. “My background is as an attorney, so I market myself as an expert on what can go wrong in a transaction, which seems to appeal to clients.”
 
Dixon also uses a mix of traditional and high-tech ways to build her business. She has drastically reduced her print advertising budget and creates an individual Web site for each listing with multiple photos. She stays in close touch with her sphere of influence by sending out newsletters with pertinent information.
 
“I market online more than I used to, and I think every Realtor® should be doing this,” says Dixon. “You need as much presence online as possible.”
 
Jeff Royce, a Realtor® with Re/Max Choice in Fairfax, who has been in real estate for 15 years, uses technology to reach out to his clients, but, he says, “Real estate is all about people. The Web’s great, but you can’t learn everything about someone just from the Web.”
 
Royce uses his blog to enhance his referral base. “I use my blog to support my clients rather than to directly get new clients,” says Royce. “I post articles [about topics that] I think my clients will find useful, such as whether to buy first or sell first when you want to move up in the market.”
 
Royce sends mailings to about 100 of his best clients and stays in close touch with those who have sent the most referrals. Those clients tend to be the ones with whom he has a relationship, including seeing them on the golf course.
 
Abt says she now has more time to call past clients and mail a newsletter and cards asking for referrals. Her newsletter provides information that her clients can use, such as up-to-date market reports and information on IRS rulings that may affect their taxes.
 
Abt does not use text messaging or have a blog, but she is computer savvy and can be reached by cell phone.
 
“My listings go up on seven or eight Web sites, and I use email all the time,” says Abt. “But people need to understand this is a people business. You can see what a place looks like and learn the price online, but you don’t know how it smells or feels until you go there in person.”

Farming: Cultivate Your Business

While Abt does not farm a particular neighborhood and is licensed throughout the Washington Metro area, some Realtors® still follow this path to assemble a strong client base.
 
Moore farms several neighborhoods and says that the key to successful farming is to pick a neighborhood that looks good, with homes that are in good condition and with plenty of turnover.
 
“You need to know everything about the neighborhood, including the different home styles and understand the pricing in that area, too,” says Moore. “Then you can [consult] the ‘Do Not Call Registry’ and start calling people who do not mind being called.
 
The Internet can be used for farming too, if you put information about a particular area online; you can [also] put an ad in the homeowner’s association newsletter or Web site.”
While Block does not farm a particular subdivision in the traditional sense, he lives and works in Alexandria and targets his blog posts to the Alexandria area.
 
“If you want to target a specific area, you need to become an expert on what is happening with current sales so you understand how much negotiating room you have,” says Block. “It’s especially important to look at the sales price versus the list price. You should also know about community amenities and what people like about living in the neighborhood.”
 
Royce uses his blog to focus on building his business in Fairfax City. “I write reviews of homes in the area and have considerable knowledge about that market. For instance, I posted a profile on the Barristers Keepe neighborhood including pictures of the community so people can see it,” says Royce.
 
Royce says agents who want to farm a particular neighborhood need to know what sold last year, where the listings are and all pertinent market information. He interviews residents to get as much detail as possible on living in that area.
 
For buyer clients, Royce sets up a private blog accessible only to the clients. “It’s a challenge to remember all the homes customers have visited, so I create a blog and add a post with a link for each listing,” says Royce. “I’ll add 20 to 30 photos, too, which I take while we are visiting the listing. That way the buyers have quick access to review the listings and photos when they are ready to make a decision.”

Using technology in support of clients has been successful for many Northern Virginia agents, who recognize the high level of education among local consumers and their expectations of tech-savvy communications.
 
But Moore, who has several Web sites and frequently emails his clients, says, “You should use technology to reach out to people, but in order to sustain your business you have to make sure people like the way you provide service. Real estate is a word-of-mouth business and if you have provided good customer service, then people will come back.”

Article published in November 2008 issue of Update Magazine.

Michele Lerner, a freelance writer based in the Washington area, has been writing about real estate and personal finance for more than twenty years for print and online publications for consumers, Realtors® and investors. You can read more articles by Michele here.

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