The professionalism problem: Raising the bar in real estate

by Deanna Kane

More than 20 years ago, Laurie Ruble’s grandmother passed away. As the family gathered at her home in mourning — days before the funeral even took place — the doorbell rang. It was a real estate agent trying to drum up new business by capitalizing on the family’s loss. Even though it happened several decades ago, the experience stayed with Ruble. While this overtly aggressive behavior may not occur anymore, one of the most common peer-to-peer complaints from brokers is that some of their peers don’t hold ethics and professional respectability in the high regard that they should.

Professional standards have evolved over the past several decades, due to the professional guidelines set forth by Illinois REALTORS®; the Real Estate License Act, which falls under the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) – Division of Real Estate; and managing brokers who pride themselves on being the stewards of the industry.

Also in this issue

Updates and changes to the Real Estate License Act

Why professionalism is more important than ever during a pandemic

Bad reputation: How professionalism can help, or hurt, your brand

Survey: Real estate agents and brokers on professionalism

 Not all brokers are Realtors, and the ones who do hold the Realtor designation “live by it and hold it up very proudly,” says Jeff Baker, deputy chief executive officer of Illinois REALTORS®.

In fact, the members of Illinois REALTORS® were the ones who advocated for more intense training dedicated to professionalism. Under the new Real Estate License Act, new licensees have a post-license education requirement of 45 hours dedicated to professionalism.

“The Real Estate License Act is consumer protection-oriented,” says Baker. “However, REALTORS® advocated for professionalism to be built into the state law. It’s rare for industry-led groups to impose professionalism to state law. The Real Estate License Act provides the consumer with the highest level of trust possible, and when a consumer partners with a Realtor, they get to work with the best.”

The IDFPR – Division of Real Estate is a regulatory agency licensing our state’s real estate professionals, including brokers, leasing agents, home inspectors, appraisers, auctioneers and community association managers.

“The Real Estate License Act was recently updated to advance our real estate professionals to thrive in a competitive and fair marketplace, while ensuring strong consumer protections are in place through effective enforcement and regulatory activities,” says Mario Treto Jr., director at the IDFPR ­— Division of Real Estate.

“As a regulatory agency, we are charged with maintaining strong consumer protections while moving the real estate industry forward,” says Treto Jr. “We receive complaints and initiate legal action in order to enforce the Real Estate License Act in ways that provide meaningful protections to the public.

Baker says that choosing to earn a Realtor designation means, by default, that Realtors are already professionally minded.
“As Realtors, we pride ourselves that we’re held to a higher standard,” says Baker. “We advocated for changes to the Real Estate License act, and we voluntarily chose to be bound by a code of ethics. In the Realtor world, professionalism is built into our training and education, and it is what we live by.”

Setting client expectations

There’s a half-joking adage in real estate that it’s best to be the firstborn child, second spouse and third real estate agent. The idea behind this is that clients finally have a realistic view of the market by the time they’ve rejected two other agents. But maybe it’s brokers who need to become better at setting client expectations, rather than expecting clients to learn this the hard way.

As a broker, seeing yourself in a service role is a mindset that can help set these expectations when building client relationships.

“We build our business to service our clients. Finding out who your clients are will make a huge difference in your career,” says Amy Duong Kim, founding agent, senior broker and international advisor at Compass Real Estate. “For example, our team has international clients who celebrate the Lunar New Year. This year we’re planning on celebrating it virtually.”

Stressing the partnership aspect of a broker/client relationship can also outline the framework of the relationship.
Viewing the broker/client relationship as a partnership is a valuable mindset brokers can adopt to better set client expectations.

“We’re in a partnership; it’s a collaboration with each other. Yes, you hired us, but we’re working together,” says Kim. “Communicating what is going on in the market is better than painting a different picture and then not scheduling showings. For example, Chicago is currently dealing with a lot of inventory that isn’t moving. When I go into listing presentations, I set expectations by telling them the market is extremely slow.”

As with any relationship, communication is the most important building block in developing a professional broker/client partnership.

“Communication is key,” says Stefanie Lavelle, principal of The Lavelle Group. “I think so many agents just want the deal and focus on the transaction, versus the relationships.”

Another mistake that some brokers make during the sales process is letting their emotions overshadow the process itself.
“One common bad behavior is that some brokers can become super emotional about the sale,” says Lavelle. “They forget that our job is to put the deal together and block our clients from the behind-the-scenes chaos.”

Marketing lead generation and follow-up

From calling up expired listings in a moment of crisis to blasting the same listing description out on social media repeatedly, real estate marketing and new-business generation techniques may need an overhaul. The plethora of real estate tech solutions and adaptability are both answers to retiring tired and redundant marketing strategies.

“Realtors are leaders at adapting and adopting new ways to market and showcase themselves,” says Baker. “The tech and tools available to them are innumerable. Our perspective is to embrace all changes as they come along and approach all new tools in a way that is compliant and not misleading to consumers.”

The updates the IDFPR has made to the Real Estate License Act include further consumer protection against bad marketing practices.

“Since the Act has been updated in the past year, the Division requires that all real estate professionals update and conform their practices to the requirements set forth in the newly revised Act. The revised Act has enhanced marketing and advertising requirements to better protect the public,” says Treto Jr.

Kim has several must-have steps in her marketing strategy. “Everyone should have virtual tours, and professional photos should be mandatory,” says Kim. “Same with providing a timeline and explaining expectations to buyers and sellers. I over-communicate and distill the message.”

If specific marketing tactics aren’t working, a shift in mindset may help brokers who are struggling with building new business.

“Real estate is a sales business. To have inventory to sell, we need to market ourselves and our services,” says Kim. “As you progress in your career, you will eventually have a pipeline and sphere of influence.”

And with any sales business, building a pipeline is best accomplished through developing relationships.

“I know some agents’ businesses rely solely on cold leads, but imagine what they could do if they spent the time with the people they know and foster those relationships, versus cold-calling for the small percentage of payoff,” says Lavelle.

Best communication practices

From not offering client feedback on listings to not calling potential clients back to not picking up the phone when colleagues and affiliates call with urgent questions, real estate agents are often faulted for not having the best communication practices. However, basic manners are the first step in improving communication with both peers and clients.

“There is still a lot to be said for an old-fashioned phone call. It is the first piece of advice I give my team members,” says Lavelle. “Our reliance on text and email tends to create misunderstandings and too much back-and-forth.”

The biggest communication no-no is non-responsiveness. Not responding entirely is nonnegotiable.

“Agent non-responsiveness is my pet peeve. It’s our job to communicate,” says Kim. “I was working with an agent recently who wouldn’t respond to texts or phone calls to work on deals. We all need to work together, even though we were hired for different parts of the transaction. It all goes down to time management.”

Ultimately, it’s essential to stay top of mind, and gratitude can go a long way when doing this.

“Show gratitude to clients, especially with the holidays coming up. I dropped off flowers to a past client the other day,” says Kim. “Do it in your own way.”

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