Cover story: How do agents become top producers?

by Joe Ward

Top producer awards are usually handed out by individual brokerages or local Realtor associations, but standards for these awards vary. The Chicago Association of Realtors, for example, in 2017 recognized those who sold more than $23 million with awards at three levels — platinum, gold and silver — for both individuals and teams. The association maintains categories for overall sales volume as well as number of units sold. [See the sidebar on page 26 for a look at how each Chicagoland organization names top producers.] Meanwhile, brokerages have different standards for recognizing top producers. Some are the top earners of their brokerage nationwide, while some are top producers of certain areas. But for most, being labeled a top producer is a validation of a lot of hard work.

“What it means is someone has succeeded in their endeavor to make it in this business,” says Leslie McDonnell, broker with RE/MAX Suburban and head of the Leslie McDonnell team. Last year, McDonnell logged more than $95 million in sales. “It’s someone who treats this as a business. You have to run it like a business, continually educating yourself.”

Getting started

While the top producer label is used to denote success and status, everyone’s path to becoming a top producer is different.

In her first year in the business, McDonnell won rookie of the year at Coldwell Banker. “Starting out, my goal was just to pay some bills,” she says.

“When I got a taste of how well things could go, I thought, this is something I want to do and get better at, because this is a lifestyle I could not dream was possible. Then I made the decision that I needed to take this business to the next level.”

To reach that next level, McDonnell began educating herself. She went to the Star Power conferences, where nationwide top producers talked about their processes, and McDonnell said she was humbled by what she learned.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’m doing it all wrong,’” she says. “I listened to people who had made it and what they were doing, and I came back and implemented that.”

In doing so, McDonnell took her business from about $20 million a year to $58 million in one year alone. Thirty-plus years later, she’s a consistent top producer who now does her own share of speaking and mentoring.

Jennifer Mills Klatt, leader of the Home Discovery Team with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty, got her start in real estate when she opened a rental signing service company in her 20s. She said it took about 10 years of hard work to make it to top producer status. “I always felt like the underdog because I was so young,” she says. “They’d look at me and say, ‘Well, you’re not old enough to be in the business.’”

Mills Klatt decided to expand her business into a full-service brokerage. She found a niche in the market and worked her client base until she reached the level of success she desired. Mills Klatt knew she was destined for top producer stats when, 10 years into her career, she successfully converted a rental building into condos in the Gold Coast neighborhood.

“I cultivated a landlord base,” Mills Klatt says. “I had a lot of renters converting to buyers and a lot of landlords looking to sell their properties. For me, it’s all about maintaining a level of service where my clients can come to me with everything.”

Leigh Marcus, a broker for @properties and one of the area’s leading top producers with $136 million in total sales volume last year, said it took him about five years to break into the upper echelon of the real estate business. He said he attributed his success to a background in sales and a lot of “focused work.”

“In sales, you understand how to work with clients and meet their expectations,” Marcus says of his sales background. “I had coaching. I’m a big advocate on having a mentor and not really reinventing the wheel.”

What changes when you become a top producer?

New clients, confidence and career opportunities can come with being labeled a top producer, but if an agent isn’t prepared for the newfound success, then it won’t take long to lose the status.

Success can begat success, but that doesn’t mean the work will be any easier. “Most serious clients are only going to work with the people that are the best, or have the best reputation,” Marcus says. “It makes it much more enjoyable day in and day out. I think I work harder than I ever have because it’s much more enjoyable.”

By that, Marcus means that being a top producer can free one to focus on their favorite aspects of the job, whether it’s showing homes and finding their clients that dream house or managing a team of equally successful agents. “You have help — trained professionals on your team that take care of things like paperwork,” he says. “I’m doing the things I want to do and not the things I don’t want to do.”

McDonnell agrees. “It gives me more freedom to do what I want to do,” she says. “I can meet a client and if it isn’t a good fit, I can walk away. Twenty-five years ago? No way could I do that.

“For some people, being a top producer is an ego thing,” McDonnell says. “I look at it as a vehicle to do the things I want to do.”

Marketing yourself becomes easier, because clients are drawn to the most successful agents in their area. Rather than say they are a top producer, many agents tout their sales numbers to say they are the biggest sellers in a given area. Of course, there is no standard for who is the top producer of a given area, and some agents game the system by being selective with their sales records.

These marketing tactics work nonetheless, and being able to mention impressive sales figures doesn’t hurt when working to snag a client, McDonnell says. “Do I use my status to get business? Yes,” she says. “If I go on an appointment and I’m being compared to someone else? I use those statistics. I think it brings a different level of respect.”

Getting to top producer status might seem like a daunting task, but the hard work is worth it. “Be grateful for how hard it is, because if it wasn’t hard, everyone else would do it,” Marcus says. “When you push through that, then all of the benefits are on the other side of that.”

Traits of a top producer

Being a top producer can afford one freedom to focus on the aspects on the job they love. It turns out, however, that doing the grunt work can actually be helpful in getting to the next level.

Mills Klatt said she has expanded her client base by sitting open houses in her early days in the business. In one case, a husband and wife stopped in her Gold Coast open house while jogging. Since then, she has completed four deals with the couple.

“I’ve met so many pivotal people in my client base from sitting open houses,” she says. “It’s how you meet people. Funny enough, I’ve met people that have worked for me at open houses. It’s about connecting with a client and maintaining a relationship.”

Meeting potential clients is key, but you need to know how to work them. “Having a database is an absolute must,” McDonnell says. “And you need to work the system, have a plan for everyone in your database, categorize them and work the database.”

Doing so requires some hands-on training, and no level of knowledge is too much in this business, she says. And you must be humble enough to enact the new lessons you’ve received. In other words, know what you don’t know.

“One of the first things is to get educated,” she says. “Ninety-six percent of the people I meet with aren’t going to implement what I tell them. It’s a painful process. When you’ve been doing business a certain way for 10 to 12 years and wake up one day and say, ‘Oh boy, I’m doing this all wrong,’ there’s not a lot of people that are willing to get up and make that change.”