The Challenge of Justification
As useful as membership to the MLS is for Realtors, it does place a burden of justification on the Realtor associations, says Tonya Corder, the 2012-2013 president of MORe and the managing broker of Keller Williams Preferred Realty in Orland Park. After all, if the MLS is an indispensable component to being an effective real estate professional, and association membership is required to access the MLS, how can associations provide programming and benefits that go beyond that initial incentive?
How can associations become more than mere gateways to the MLS?
“That’s our challenge every year,” she says. “What services are we providing to the membership outside of the MLS?”
Specific to MORe, Corder points to the association’s new “Custom Built” program, a new initiative in education and communication that just launched on Jan. 7, as the perfect example of that.
The Custom Built program, explains MORe CEO Pam Krieter, grew out of the association’s strategic planning session last summer, when it allocated $25,000 of its 2012-2013 budget to “extra communication information” and “extra communication content.”
I have a very good rapport with our members, which is a huge perk to having a smaller association…it’s like a family atmosphere, which you can’t have when you have a huge association.”
Gerri Keating, the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors
The reason for the initiative, Krieter says, came from two sources: two years’ worth of word-of-mouth communications, and surveys the association conducted in early 2012. Through both, members reported they were receiving far too much information from the association that was incompatible with their specific real estate business, and the association began considering ways to better focus its communication with its members – and thus, Custom Built was conceived.
Here’s how Custom Built works: first, members are divided into three categories based on their experiences and interests. Members in the “Optimize” group, for instance, are newer real estate professionals who are not necessarily pursuing leadership positions, but are nonetheless looking to improve upon their business techniques and become more productive in their brokerage; by contrast, members in the “Lead” group are aspiring leaders or current leaders who are aiming to move forward in the industry; and finally, members of “Enrich” are seasoned, experienced professionals who want to both modernize their business and mentor up-and-coming agents and brokers. Once a member joins one of the categories, Krieter explains, MORe is then able to send them communications that are more in tune with their interests and aspirations.
“So this way,” she says, “we’re hoping that our staff will now look at everything we do through the eyes of the member who may want to see that, and then we can define it, structure it and send it to them based on the fact that that’s the kind of information they’re looking for, and hopefully when they receive it, now it is more specific to address their member needs.”
In addition to Custom Built, Krieter says there are two additional programs MORe is working on: “Listen 360,” a customer feedback management system that will seek member input on MORe staff performance; and the “Realtor Excellence” program, a partnership between MORe, the National Association of Realtors and Quality Service Certification that will provide members with a platform for their clients to provide feedback. Listen 360 will launch in February, but the association is still discussing Realtor Excellence on an office-by-office basis with managing brokers. Realtor Excellence, Krieter explains, will be free for all participating offices its first year, during which time NAR and MORe will handle the costs of the program (MORe’s share, she says, comes out to 50 cents a member).
For members of NSBAR, Penza says the association offers an on-site tech department to assist in all computer-related matters. Members are not only entitled to free phone support, but they can also bring their system to NSBAR’s headquarters in Northbrook for hands-on assistance – though as Penza explains, “hands-on” is an ironic phrase, given the billing structure for the tech department. Members are charged $60 an hour for the department’s services, but only when an employee of the tech staff is physically touching the keyboard; there are numerous programs that the department will run on member computers, Penza says, so while those programs are cycling, and the employee’s hands are not touching the keyboard, no fees will be accrued.
CAR, also, has numerous complementary programs and groups to engage the membership, with one of its most notable being its Young Professionals Network (YPN), a member-driven organization that is free for CAR members.
As Erin Mandel, the current chairman of CAR YPN and a broker associate with @properties in Chicago, explains it, CAR YPN is based on positivity, on acknowledging the achievements of successful entrepreneurs through various social events, education forums and philanthropic endeavors in a manner that is encouraging and supportive.
“It’s essentially a brotherhood of people,” Mandel says, “who are all moving towards the same goal, which is to sell real estate, celebrate each other, celebrate each other’s successes [and] share stories so we can better serve our clients and communicate appropriately with all parties.”
And the network has reported a number of successes in recent years. In 2009, the year that Mandel first joined CAR YPN, it was named “Network of the Year” among the national YPN organizations, and in 2011, the Illinois YPN received the same honors. And since Mandel joined, its membership has tripled to its current 379 members.
Ginger Downs, the CEO of CAR, said YPN is one part of anticipating the needs of the association’s members.
“At CAR, we see our role as staying ahead of our members and anticipating what tools and services they will need to thrive as top-notch Realtors,” Downs says. “Our board of directors is committed to maintaining our standing as a model association by serving members with special events and affinity groups, like the YPN and CommercialForum, that connect like-minded professionals for networking and business building.”
Of course, beyond programs specific to MORe, CAR and NSBAR, there are other offerings to Realtors that all the associations offer, such as assistance in arbitration and ethical complaints.
The process for MORe members, Corder explains, is quite straightforward – agents fill out the necessary paperwork through MORe’s website; they submit that paperwork to the association’s Professional Standards department; a grievance committee reviews the complaints, and judges whether there is any merit to the case; if they decide there is, the complaint goes to a hearing, and the hearing panel (which features members chosen by peers) listens to both sides of the complaint, very much like any conventional courtroom setting. According to information provided by MORe, in 2012, there were 119 ethics/arbitration requests and 21 mediation requests.
Should MORe rule in favor of the plaintiff, Corder says one of two things happen: the other agent either pays a fine of various amounts – NAR permits sanctions of up to $5,000, though each panel decides upon the amount of the sanction – or they take a “penalty” class, one that does not count towards his or her continuing education but, rather, shore’s up his or her understanding of the issue at hand.
Again, Corder was speaking to how arbitration and ethical complaints function for MORe members, but both Penza and Gerri Keating, the CEO of OPAAR, say the process is very much the same across Chicagoland’s associations for two main reasons: first, all Realtor associations are obligated to uphold NAR’s Code of Ethics, which form the backbone of the ethical standards that association members are held to; and second, the seven local boards all signed a “Multi-board Professional Standards Agreement” in 2002, which, for the sake of continuity in any multi-board complaint, synthesized the process across the boards and established new protocols for hearings; for instance, should a multi-board complaint reach a hearing, Penza says the panel will be composed of members from different associations.