by Dan Provost
If you visit Catherine Dugan LaBelle’s profile on agent-rating site Quality Service Certification, you’ll find a string of positive comments from her past clients.
“Catherine was an excellent agent,” writes one client.
“Catherine was very professional and not too aggressive.”
“Catherine went out of her way to help us through our first home purchase. I will definitely work with her again in the future.”
But there’s one client comment that stands apart from the rest. It’s the only one that gives a negative rating to Dugan LaBelle, a real estate agent with the LaGrange office of Prime Property Partners.
This customer wrote that Dugan LaBelle came to the closing with another agent and “gossiped” throughout it. The customer also wrote that Dugan LaBelle should have sat in an adjoining room and waited for her check.
This encapsulates the positives and negatives of agent ratings. In an Internet age where consumers rush to their computers to complain at sites like Yelp when a waiter at a gourmet restaurant messes up their order, it’s no surprise that consumers are turning more frequently to ratings sites such as Quality Service Certification to provide their opinions on the real estate agents they work with.
Agents may not always like what their clients write on these sites. But there’s little doubt that online rating systems — not just for real estate agents but for everything from movers, plumbers and contractors to restaurants and dentists – aren’t going anywhere. Consumers have found their voices, and it’s clear that they like playing the part of critic.
Dugan LaBelle is one of the many real estate agents who is encouraging this trend. She says that as long as she provides top service to her buyers and sellers, the positive comments on such ratings sites will far outnumber the negative. And at Quality Service Certification, she’s right: the negative comment is outnumbered.
“I have all my clients survey me,” Dugan LaBelle said. “That way, when new clients are interviewing me, they can see what my past clients have said about my service quality. The benefit to my clients is the transparency. And the knowledge that I will be rated by my clients gives me even more motivation to provide the highest level of service. My clients have a voice in the process. That benefits everyone.”
How do agents navigate a world in which customers aren’t shy about rating their performances? To Dugan LaBelle and other supporters of agent-rating systems, there is no real secret; to ensure the fairest reviews, agents just need to do what they should always have been doing, provide top-notch customer service.
Russ Bergeron, chief executive officer of Midwest Real Estate Data, LLC. (MRED), the Chicago area’s Multiple Listing Service, has no doubt that ratings systems for agents will continue to grow in popularity. Consumers aren’t afraid to rate the most insignificant of their experiences – such as buying a morning coffee at the local Starbucks – so why wouldn’t they want to provide a rating for buying or selling a home, one of the most important business transactions consumers will complete during their lives?
Because of this, Bergeron and other MRED officials are in the very early discussions of creating their own agent-rating system. Bergeron, though, is quick to note that this doesn’t make MRED at all unusual.
“These days, everybody is probably thinking about one,” he said. “We have been reviewing several different models to see if something at the MRED level could be valuable to members. It’s a tough area. You hear the argument that if we don’t do it, someone else will. Well, others are already doing this. Some are just more popular than others. Look at Yelp. That is a popular site.”
MRED officials are looking closely at the ratings system created in 2006 by the Houston Association of Realtors. Under this system, every time an agent completes a sale, that agent’s clients receive a rating form. The clients then have the opportunity to rate how well the agent performed during the transaction. The results are posted online for all potential clients to see.
Bergeron said that the Houston system example is a good model for all associations or Multiple Listing Services. The service has grown to become a popular one among Houston-area buyers and sellers.
Bergeron said that there are arguments for and against an MLS starting its own ratings system. But the way he sees it, it’s actually a logical move: once a sale closes, the MLS can easily send a confidential survey to both the buyers and sellers in a transaction, and the MLS can then post the results of these confidential surveys online if it chooses, Bergeron said.
More importantly, the MLS can act as a neutral third party in any system that rates the performance of real estate agents. Consumers might have doubts about the veracity of a brokerage publishing the customer ratings of its own agents online; consumers might think that these brokerages publish only the positive ratings while hiding the negative ones.
The MLS, though, would have no incentive to do this, Bergeron said. “This is certainly a trend that’s only getting stronger,” Bergeron said of online ratings systems. “Look at sites like Zillow and Yelp. They are popular. People are comfortable getting a recommendation from a stranger on the Internet. They’re used to it. I know that if I am out buying a piece of equipment, I’ll take the time to read online reviews. Why wouldn’t people do the same thing when they’re looking for a Realtor?”
Ray Zabielski, managing broker of Charles Rutenberg Realty in Naperville, agrees that agent rating systems aren’t going to disappear. His brokerage has hired Quality Service Certification to survey the clients who work with his agents at Charles Rutenberg Realty. Overall, the brokerage’s agents have received a score of 4.91 on a scale of one to five for the service that they provide their customers.
But Zabielski would be a fan of rating systems even if his brokerage’s agents scored lower.
“It’s important for us to bring a high quality of service to our clients even though our agents work remotely,” Zabielski said. “Our tagline is ‘The standard of excellence.’ That is something that we take seriously. Our agents can run their businesses however they see fit, as long as what they are doing is moral, legal, ethical and doesn’t jeopardize the good name of our business. By rating our agents we make sure that they are operating within those requirements.”
Do you think prospective clients use agent ratings systems to help choose their agent?
- Yes (50%, 10 Votes)
- No (50%, 10 Votes)
Total Voters: 20
Dugan LaBelle has long been committed to agent ratings. That’s why she explains to all of her new clients that once they buy or sell a home, they’ll receive a 14-question survey focusing on the quality of her service after closing.
Clients are asked, for example, whether Dugan LaBelle provided them with a written and detailed comparable market analysis before they made their offer. The survey also asks them how satisfied they were with her knowledge of the area and market and how satisfied they were with the help she provided in negotiating the price and terms of their purchase. The survey also gives clients the opportunity to write in their own comments about Dugan LaBelle’s service.
Completed surveys are then uploaded to Dugan LaBelle’s public site at Quality Service Certification, where all potential future clients can read the results.
“Have I gotten a perfect score every time? No, but that’s okay,” Dugan LaBelle said. “I don’t hide the negative results. I have committed to posting the survey results from all clients. And secondly, there is always something that you can learn, even from a negative review.”
Dugan LaBelle also says that because she does provide top customer service, the majority of her online reviews are good ones. Most clients will determine when looking at her rankings that the rare negative review is an outlier and not indicative of her service.
Consider the one negative review of Dugan LaBelle that was online at Quality Service Certification at the time of this writing. Dugan LaBelle said that she nabbed 34 showings in 35 days for the couple’s home. The home sold 35 days after hitting the market. That’s fast. But the clients did not like Dugan LaBelle’s actions at the closing table where, they wrote, the agent spent too much time talking with a fellow Realtor.
Dugan LaBelle says that she learned a lesson from this criticism.
“I learned that the client determines the temperature of the closing,” Dugan LaBelle said. “I learned that I should be quiet at the closing until I know what that temperature of the client is during it.”
This is an important message: agents shouldn’t be offended by less-than-stellar reviews. They should examine them to determine if the criticisms contained in them are valid. If they are, agents should take steps to change their behavior or service.
“Our rating is really high. But if we had a perfect 5.0 rating, I’d know that there was something wrong. You can’t be perfect to everybody all the time,” Zabielski said. “If clients can see that you don’t have any negative comments or rankings, the ratings become suspect in their mind. They lose validity. A perfect example in the marketplace of how this is supposed to work is Yelp. You see good ratings and bad ones on there. The companies can’t control it, and that lends it validity. It’s the same thing with agent ratings.”
Bergeron said that it’s not surprising that some agents are leery of online rating systems. They worry that they’ll receive negative ratings that aren’t fair. As an example, a client may not have been happy that market conditions have changed, forcing her to sell her home for less than she had anticipated. Angry, this client might write a negative review of her agent, even if this agent did everything possible to market and sell her home for a fair price.
But this shouldn’t detract from the positive benefits that agents can receive from negative reviews that are fair, Bergeron said. “Even bad ratings can be helpful if they help you find a particular weakness in your business model,” Bergeron said. “You might discover that if you make a change, you might not bump into this problem again. Or you could have one bad rating and nine other good ones. People will look at that and see that the one bad rating looks like it’s not the norm.”
Agent-rating systems, despite their many benefits, are far from perfect, and some agents worry that consumers will rely too heavily on them when choosing agents with whom to work.
Sheryl Marsella, an agent with RE/MAX of Barrington, has worked in the real estate business for more than 30 years. Her positive reviews on sites such as Trulia and Zillow far outnumber any negative ones.
But even a small number of negative reviews can unfairly tarnish an agent’s reputation, she said. Sometimes there are reasons outside of an agent’s control for why a real estate deal either fell apart or did not proceed as smoothly as possible.
Problem is, the readers of negative reviews don’t see the big picture in some cases. They only see what disappointed clients write
For instance, Marsella points to a negative review she received from a young couple eager to move into a high-priced area. One of the buyer’s mothers was supposed to co-sign for an FHA loan to help the couple, whose dual income on their own was not high, qualify for a mortgage loan for a higher-priced home.
Unfortunately, the mother backed out before closing. The couple’s eligible annual income dropped from $150,000 to $70,000. This then made it impossible for the couple to qualify for a mortgage loan large enough to finance any of the homes in which they were interested.
“I couldn’t help them find the house they wanted,” Marsella said. “I know what really happened in this deal. The rest of the world, though, doesn’t. The rest of the world has to rely on what the couple wrote in their review of me. I know the frustration that these poor kids felt. They were angry at someone else and were upset that I couldn’t pull a miracle out of my hat.”
Experiences like this have taught Marsella to look at online ratings with a skeptical eye. She knows that these ratings are often skewed, and that there are times when agents unfairly receive a negative ranking from their past clients.
Because of this, she hopes that buyers and sellers don’t rely solely on customer rankings while searching for an agent. She’d rather customers look at an agent’s experience, sales numbers and education.
“Do these rankings give you a true perspective of the type of agent with which you’ll be working? Not really,” Marsella said. “Do I think that people should put a lot of weight in these systems? Absolutely not.”
Bergeron and MRED are treading carefully when it comes to a rating system because they, too, are worried about possible negative consequences.
Ratings systems work best for agents who do several transactions a year, Bergeron said. Top-producing agents who provide quality service will receive enough positive ratings that this number will more than counterbalance the few negative reviews they get.
Those agents who do a smaller number of transactions each year, though, might see their overall results skewed by one or two bad ratings, whether these ratings were deserved or not, Bergeron said.
“Today, these ratings systems are geared more for the top producers,” he said. “The agents who don’t do as much business every year don’t get as good a survey pool to choose from.”
Despite these concerns, Zabielski predicts that real estate agents will have to get used to customer ratings. The practice is simply too entrenched today to disappear any time soon, he said.
“Younger people are coming into the industry. Every young person wants to see reviews of what they are buying. If you are buying a car today, you’re not buying it because the ad for it looks great. Instead, you go online to see what Consumer Reports says,” Zabielski said. “That is what will influence the decisions of consumers. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Technology has changed the entire way we live our lives right now. If you fight it, you’ll be in trouble.” C.A.
Catherine Dugan Labelle
Prime Property Partners
Charles Rutenberg Realty
Midwest Real Estate Data, LLC
RE/MAX of Barrington