By Nicole Etter
Can every agent be a top producer? If all agents in the business were top producers, then there wouldn’t be special skills differentiating them from the rest. Only the top agents stay on top year after year because they do more than just sell homes and help buyers become homeowners – they continually cultivate new clients, build their brand, keep their marketing fresh, invest fearlessly in new web technology and advertising, treat their clients with the utmost care and respect and never stop learning. There is a reason luxury buyers and sellers go directly to the best – because they understand what they will get from them: expertise, connections and finesse that is above and beyond average agents. And the numbers are staggering, even in this economy.
Take top agent Mario Greco, who, in 2011, completed almost $100 million in transactions and is always ranked among the top agents year after year. Or how about top agents Jane Lee or Linda Feinstein, whose numbers were around $70 million in 2011 and who are also consistently at the top of their profession? How do these agents do it? And what can any ambitious and hardworking agent learn from top producers?
It all comes down to finding a process that works for each agent and builds over time, with referrals, branding and a true understanding of everything in your market.
The number one thing top producers say helps them stay at the top of their business is continuously educating themselves about the market, and not just market conditions, such as average list and sell prices and the average time homes are on the market in the area – housing stock, building history and school information should be known details you have readily available. If you ask a top producer anything about building codes, FHA loans, the new principal at the high school in the area, where to get a new HVAC system or the approximate price of any home in the neighborhood, they will know the answers.
But education shouldn’t stop there; top producers are always ahead of the client when it comes to using the newest technology. They utilize iPads to their fullest, have the know-how to use QR codes, and use apps daily that help them stay organized. There’s no returning to the office to print out important documents or contracts, for example – today, top producers have those documents ready to send from their phone or tablet.
In addition, taking classes, attending seminars and participating in webinars and online forums all lend to top producers’ expertise. Clients need their agent to be the expert in the whole real estate process, which means agents often need to be a trusted advisor for them, guiding them through a market they most likely know very little about.
“I read a lot about the business and try to learn as much as I can,” Linda Levin, an agent with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Evanston, said, adding that her brokerage, Jameson, supports continuing education by holding seminars she attends. “I try to expand my horizons, stay on top of the market and work harder. That is a learning process every day. I try to work the fundamentals and change with the economy and market,” she said.
To help with consistent training, staying on top of the markets and helping determine what clients need, setting goals is a major component of a top producer. Agents who set goals for themselves and actively work toward those goals – whether or not they reach the goal itself, but progress and improve year after year – are top producers. Again, hard work is a common denominator within all top producers, especially when it yields reliable information and expert opinions, which leads to referrals and repeat business in the long run. It takes time to build these relationships, and agents who know this have a leading edge at all times.
Getting the client to understand and accept the reality of 2012 pricing is the most challenging part of the agent’s job. Top producers come with credibility, so sellers are more likely to go with their pricing models, offering projected selling time in correlation with the list price and the condition of the home.
“I try to be as honest as I can about the process,” Levin said. “I explain to them step by step what is involved today in either buying or selling a home.”
“You need the cold hard facts; no sugar coating,” said Eudice Fogel of Prudential Rubloff Properties in Chicago. “Be straightforward. Bring the facts. Show them why you came up with the numbers you did.”
Linda Feinstein of ERA Realty in Hinsdale also emphasized the importance in effective pricing. “I run my listing presentation with a lot of information,” she said. “We do virtual tours of my listings. I also leave them with a printed CMA. I spend a lot of time educating them on the differences of their house versus competition. Where the placement of their house should be to maximize impact when it hits the market. I bring a marketing plan for the first 12 weeks of a listing. Sometimes I bring testimonials. Some clients want to speak with people who are actively using me.”
Providing data for accurate pricing analysis is particularly important – CMAs that include average list and sell prices in the neighborhood are a no-brainer to bring to a listing presentation, but top producers will bring along data other agents don’t think of bringing, like average time a home spends on the market after being remodeled vs. not, and maybe even the average time their other clients’ listings stay on the market vs. other agents. Such important data shows you know what you are doing, you know what you are talking about and you are an expert.
Marketing Yourself and Your Brand
Most top producers get to those big sales numbers by representing luxury properties. Luxury customers have heightened expectations of their agents, and prefer to work with someone who understands their wants and needs, as well as exceed their expectations. The days of the outdated photo on a business card or simply handing out the MLS sheet are gone. Top producers know that marketing methods for agents have evolved into a sophisticated array of options. They take full advantage of websites, branded brochures, professional bios and individual logos – with nothing looking less than high-quality. Anything less than professional photography and videos is not something done by top producers.
Most top producers push their brand, or the promise of what to expect if they are hired, through their marketing. Luxury clients, customer service and credible knowledge and advice can be seen and understood in all the marketing pieces. Individual agent branding shows that the top producer is set apart from other agents. The brand extends to ads, signage, photo quality, brochures, websites, blogs, etc. When clients understand and like your brand, they comfortably send referrals and can even become an advocate.
Sharon Friedman, an agent with Coldwell Banker Winnetka, almost solely relies on referrals, although she does go to great strides to not only reach out to new clients, but also recognize the importance of adapting to each market and learning what kind of advertising buyers and clients respond to best.
“I have a very strong referral base from past clients, but we often pick up new clients from our website,” Friedman said. “I am on Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow. Our company is on the Fab Four (a Coldwell Banker-specific program), Realtor.com, Trulia, Zillow and Yahoo! We are enhanced on all of them. Most of our marketing focuses on selling our listings, not on selling ourselves. It’s because we do such a good job selling our listings that we get new business.”
Feinstein, like Friedman, also advertises listings on Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow, and gets several qualified leads a month from each site; however, she also listens to how the client wants to reach other buyers who are less Internet-savvy. Feinstein says that postcard mailings and print advertising bring in leads, as well. Fogel utilizes several of the same methods, including advertising on Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow as well as ChicagoTribune.com and ChicagoSunTimes.com. She also advertises in Ultimate Address Magazine and The New York Times. Regardless of the medium, she always thinks carefully about the best way to portray each of her listings.
The Open House Debate
Linda Levin said she holds an open house for a different client every weekend as an added service, and though it helps, it isn’t always the most effective way to sell a client’s home.
“I’m always happy to do open houses,” Levin said. “I don’t think it’s the way most homes get sold, but it does conjure up interest. I feel like it provides another service to our clients. It creates activity and interest – but it’s not appropriate for every property.”
“When I host an open house, I have a positive attitude,” Feinstein added. “You’d be surprised at how many people call back and ask to work with you. It is totally based on your attitude. Once I get to an open house, you’d think there was nowhere else in the United States that I’d like to be at more than that open house.”
An attitude adjustment is necessary. Not only are open houses a chance to sell the property, but they are also a way to find potential clients.
“We hold open houses on Sundays for the public, and we often meet people who have not hooked up with a Realtor yet,” Friedman said. “In talking, these people usually seem to be pleased and impressed with our knowledge of the marketplace, and sometimes those people take our cards and become a lead.”
Luxury Customer Service
Luxury clients don’t just compare agents against one another when deciding who to hire, but they compare them to other service providers in their life: their luxury car dealer, their restaurant experiences and shopping experiences, for example. Buyers expect their agent, or someone on the agent’s team, to be available all the time, returning calls quickly and always making each client feel that they are the most important client they have.
“I literally work every day. I did not take any time off when I had kids, even,” Levin said. “I take my phone and my iPad when I am on vacation. I try to be available at all times because we are providing a service.”
Feinstein and Fogel echo the same sort of business model, working an average of 70 to 80 hours a week, always working evenings and weekends, and always making themselves available to clients, no matter the day or time. Several top producers have even had to miss Chicago Agent’s annual event for top producers because of last minute calls or requests from clients. Instead of attending a lavish party, top producers cater to their clients – because they know that, while attending CA’s party is an honor, at the end of the day, it’s incredibly important for their clients to feel like they are their number one priority.
Sound too exhausting? Then you might not be cut out to be a top producer. But keep in mind, while some top producers work alone, most have a staff, or at the very least, an assistant or two, in order to not work every second of the day and to help keep them organized and deliver top-notch customer service to their clients.
For example, Fogel might do her own showings and scheduling, but she has a great support staff, she says, and has secretaries for her office and a marketing staff to help input listings. Feinstein has a licensed assistant and two people who help input listings and write descriptions about properties, as well. But she does not have a selling staff, she says. Her clients want her expertise – not her staff’s. While a staff can help with the details, the actual work – talking with clients, arranging showings, organizing and presenting listing presentations – is done by the top producer herself.
“The reason why I work on my own is because when someone hires me, they are hiring my service,” Levin said. “When they want someone to show their house, who better than me? They’ve hired me, right? Lots of people with teams do well, but when I go to a listing and (the other agent) sends a team member, the team member doesn’t always have the in-depth knowledge or the years of experience.”
“This is a very time-intensive job,” says Friedman. “I wouldn’t say it’s a 24-7 job, but it truly is a seven-days-a-week job. We often start very early in the morning communicating with each other and, a lot of times, we are working until 10 or 11 at night. But people need and deserve my undivided attention. I want everyone to get unbelievable service.”
Whether this means working with sellers on a pricing plan for their home or giving buyers a closing gift, like the Tiffany & Co. gifts from Feinstein, or the gift certificates to restaurants in their new neighborhood that Fogel gives clients, customer service is a big component in accruing referrals and becoming a top producer.
In addition, customer service doesn’t just encompass quick response times and open availability – it’s more than that, Friedman added. It’s behaving in an honest and ethical way with everyone and treating others the way you would want to be treated. And that doesn’t just go for clients. With agent professionalism and ethics being among the top complaints agents have about other agents, top producers know the value of relationships not only with clients, but also other agents.
“I think that mentally, you need to decide where you want to be. It’s something I go through every year,” Feinstein said. “When that goal becomes like oxygen to you, and you need it to stay alive, you will achieve it. One of the factors that separate a top producer from an average agent is that mental goal-setting ability.”
Coldwell Banker, Winnetka
Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty, Evanston
Prudential Rubloff Properties
ERA Real Estate, Hinsdale