A view from the top: Top producers share the secrets to their success

by Melanie Kalmar

Top producers are just like you. They start the new year off with a clean slate and work from the get-go to keep their numbers up in a business that, these days, at least, never seems to slow down.

Despite knowing that the first two months of the year are almost always slow, they find the lull in business nags at them. Still, they use the time to set goals for the year, develop new marketing strategies and carve out a little free time for themselves.

Excited about the year ahead, top producers in the city and suburbs opened up to Chicago Agent about the strategies they’re using to navigate the current real estate market, how they plan to boost sales in the next 12 months and how they’ll try to stay top of mind if face-to-face communication is not an option. With enthusiasm and generosity, they explain how they rose to the top of a highly competitive industry, the mistakes they made, the lessons they learned and, if they could turn back time, the advice they’d give their younger selves.

The secret sauce

After two decades of hard work, Julie Busby says she’s experienced every twist and turn in the Chicagoland real estate market and learned countless lessons along the way. “When you provide the best service possible, your business will grow organically,” said Busby, broker/owner of Busby Group at Compass in Chicago. “I’ve always grounded my career on ethics, morals and treating others as you wish to be treated. That’s how word gets out and we continue to grow.”

The key to her success: keeping her finger on the pulse of the marketplace and quickly adapting to changes. Her skilled use of technology, for example, enables Busby to switch gears and position a condo listing as an investment property if the marketplace suddenly turns in that direction.

John Morrison, team lead of Morrison Home Team of @properties in Barrington, built a business within his brokerage by identifying each teammate’s strengths and weaknesses and dividing duties accordingly. Plus, it helps that he focuses on things he enjoys doing every day, he said. “I’ve seen a lot of agents who have grown a team almost remove themselves from the day-to-day activities,” he said. “For me, I still enjoy negotiating deals, getting interviewed for listings and seeing transactions through to a successful closing.”

Morrison credits his success to his personal discipline and constant analysis of the industry. “Each year we strategize, set our goals, do business planning and break it all down on how to implement it and do our best, even during busy times,” he said.

He also advertises heavily on social media and meets regularly with his team to share ideas and discuss how they will approach a variety of scenarios. What’s more, his team of eight agents and licensed administrative staff has gotten to know one another outside of work, which helps build a supportive culture within the brokerage. He also surrounds himself with other top producers — including a mentor in the city whom he meets with twice a year to exchange ideas.

Penny O’Brien wows clients with her services, which include professional photography with drone shots, complementary staging and a two-minute video that shows off the property. “One reason to use an agent who is doing a lot of business is they can afford to market your home,” said O’Brien, a broker with Baird & Warner. “I don’t spare any expense when I list a home.”

Navigating the current marketplace

O’Brien uses three strategies, which she’s aptly named, to navigate the low-inventory seller’s market:

Sell it and rent it back — A client sells their home but remains living there and rents it back for an agreed-upon length of time in order to purchase a home without a home-to-close contingency, which practically guarantees a loss in a multiple bidding war.

Get the heck out and go — She advises sellers moving out of state to popular regions like Florida, Texas, Georgia or the Carolinas to rent an Airbnb or short-term apartment so clients are ready to buy the first day a home goes on the market. If you fly there the next day, you lose out.

The long goodbye — A seller gets multiple offers and a great price for their home but asks for a closing date two to three months out so they will have ample time to find a home they want to buy and are not rushed into anything.

Morrison encourages buyers to move sooner rather than later. “I remind buyers, right now even if a house meets 80% of your criteria, strongly consider it,” Morrison said. “You’re not only buying a home; you’re buying an interest rate. If interest rates get close to 4%, it will change the overall cost of a home, depending on the amortization schedule.”

He has come up with several different short-term rental options for sellers who want to move but are hesitant because low inventory has given them no options to buy locally. “They can successfully sell their place, take advantage of higher home values in the seller’s market and park themselves so they don’t have to feel pressured to buy something they don’t need,” he explained.

Staying top of mind

Instead of holding big networking-type meetings during the pandemic, Morrison hosted small gatherings outside like ice cream socials and fundraisers in the community for nonprofit organizations. Most recently, the brokerage donated money to Good Shepherd Hospital to help pay for a da Vinci Surgical System. He stays in touch with his core clients by hosting monthly events and give-backs in the community.

Busby keeps in touch with clients by sending them gifts or calling them on their birthdays. She builds relationships in the community by supporting local businesses, front-line workers and nonprofit organizations. Last year, The Busby group donated over 50,000 meals to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

O’Brien does a fall mum giveaway for clients and hires kids in the neighborhood to make deliveries. In her own neighborhood, she gives out Molly’s cupcakes at Halloween and donates to numerous local charities.

To boost sales this year, Morrison hired a consultant. “We sat down with them and analyzed the business outside of what we’re looking at, because we’re in it every day with blinders on,” he explained. “They say, ‘Why are you doing this? You should delegate that and get another person here.’”

He believes it’s crucial to have systems in place that are successful, organized and continually improved over time. “What I avoid is a seller or buyer coming to me asking questions,” Morrison said. “We try to figure out what is to be expected and give them the heads-up — ‘Here’s the next thing coming down the pipeline, so you know.’” In client testimonials, they always say they never had any questions because they always knew the next step in the process, he noted.

O’Brien hired a marketing firm to develop a website and handle social media on demand. She also advertises in print publications and on social media, contributes columns as an industry blogger for Glancer magazine, sponsors community newsletters and is a premier agent on Zillow.

Mistakes as lessons in disguise

Never afraid to take on difficult transactions, Busby took on short sales in 2005, the beginning of her career. “They were a big thing, and I became one of the top short-sale brokers in southern California,” she said, noting that she spent a lot of money marketing the listings, which took longer than she anticipated to close. “It ended up being a detriment to my bottom line.”

Busby, who moved to Chicago in 2011, said it took a good two to three years to filter out those short sales, switch to traditional properties and flourish by focusing her marketing efforts on growing her sphere of influence. “You have to look at your brand whenever there’s changes in the marketplace, or you’re going to shift your expertise, pause and pick a direction that matches your brand and the experience you want to create for your clients,” she said.

Morrison regrets not taking time early on in his career to recharge and relax a bit during the naturally slow holiday season, when all of his business planning for the new year was already done. “Once you reach a certain level, carve out time for yourself, because this can be an all-consuming business. And don’t sweat the small stuff,” he advised.

Mentors help shape careers

When Busby started her career 20 years ago in San Diego, she spent a year working for a top producer for free, just to learn the business. “I learned early on the work ethic it took [to become a top producer] and how to take good care of your clients,” she said, noting that her mentor worked seven days a week in a business that was 90% based on repeat and referral customers. She also learned about the sacrifices brokers sometimes have to make. “If you want to be a top broker, it’s intermixed with your personal life,” Busby said. “It’s not a career; it’s part of your lifestyle.”

O’Brien started out by holding open houses and taking floor calls [picking up the phone at a brokerage to answer callers’ questions about listings]. “It’s always beneficial to hitch a wagon to a seasoned veteran,” she said. “If you do a good job at their open house or they have a buyer they cannot work with and turn over to you, it’s a good way to start. Work with an agent who’s doing a lot of volume.”

If O’Brien could turn back time, she’d tell her neophyte self, “If you have a bad transaction or difficult client, just finish it up and move onto the next and don’t dwell on it. The more business you do, the odds are your next client could be the best client you’ve ever worked with.”

Morrison would remind himself not to spend unnecessary marketing dollars on leads that don’t pan out during the slow season just because he felt a bit nervous. His advice to fellow agents: “Anything new that you do to try to grow your business, you cannot try for a month and see what happens. You have to give it enough time.”

Expert Sources

Julie Busby
Busby Group at Compass

John Morrison
Team lead
Morrison Home Team of @properties

Penny O’Brien
Baird & Warner

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