Is HouseValues really gaining traction or are they just churning agents?

I don’t know how many of you on this site have dealt with HouseValues as one of their subscribers but I saw some recent postings on the RE/MAX International message board (RE/MAX agents only) where they were getting hammered by agents for what they saw as predatory practices, lies, and now combative collections processes. Having written them off some time ago I am curious what others in the industry think of them and their business plan. I get their concept but I think their execution is heavily flawed – particularly when they hire lots of folks without training them on what life as an agent is like – particularly as it applies to how an agent is compensated.

[photopress:684401_buy_a_house.jpg,full,alignright]I’ll give you an example of a pitch I was given a couple of years ago, I’ll paraphrase it for brevity:

(salesperson) We don’t have the territory that you’re interested in available at this time but the whole Eastside has recently opened up.

(me) Oh, really, how many areas?

(salesperson) There are about 9 areas that one person had but he’s dropped all of them as of a few days ago.

(me) Hmm. That’s interesting. Do you know why he dropped them all? Oh, and how much were you charging him per zip code?

(salesperson) [she gives me the numbers but I’ll tell you they added up to over $5000 per month] I don’t know WHY he dropped them all because he made around $100,000 in commissions on these territories in the past year. However, he was using about 15 credit cards to pay for them all.

(me) Do you know what firm he was with and how long he’d been an agent?

(salesperson) Yes. [she tells me the firm] He was a new agent, maybe one or two years in the business.

(me) Ok. I can probably tell you why he dropped them all. He’s likely gone bankrupt.

(salesperson laughs)

(me) No. It’s not funny – if the guy owns a house he’s probably being foreclosed on now.

(salesperson is now very quiet and listening intently)

(me) The firm this guy works for likely has him on a split commission schedule. For our purposes let’s say he’s on the high side of a new agent split and he’s got a 60/40 going on. You say he’s made $100k on his leads from HV so if he is giving $40k to his broker and he’s only got $60k and he’s got to pay your firm for roughly $60k in lead generation he’s not got $0. And we haven’t even accounted for his quarterly taxes that need paying, his other out of pocket expenses or the cost of interest on those credit cards he’s using to pay for all of this. That poor SOB has probably lost everything or is about to.

(salesperson) Wow. I didn’t realize that’s how agent pay works.

(me) Well, it’s not the same in all cases but it’s common with new agents. Your firm should be training you on the various models so you guys (meaning salespeople) understand what you’re dealing with when you talk to agents and so you can have an intelligent conversation with them about what the long term contracts mean to them. I also HIGHLY recommend you never tell that story again – this poor guy is not a success story for using your program.

This was a REAL CALL I had with a HV salesperson in summer of 2003 before they went public. I had an investment firm contact me several times asking me what it was like to work with HV (I did use the service briefly and dropped it after realizing it was still too early to adopt the program because of kinks in it and the service/leads wasn’t great for what you pay), I told them what I thought about the service and I told them this story. I don’t believe in complaining for the sake of complaining. When me and the VC guy talked I gave him feedback that was clear and had good business basics behind it and how I related that to HV’s model. Basically, I told him that they’ll just churn through agents as long as there are lots of newbies in the industry that aren’t told to steer clear of them and there are plenty of those. With over 1,000,000 REALTORS(R) alone you’ve got a big pool to go after.

[photopress:leach.jpg,thumb,alignleft]Most stockholders (meaning the public) don’t know much about the inner workings of real estate compensation either so they’ll think there’s plenty of blood to suck so they’ll buy into it regardless of market highs or lows. Heck, they’ll likely get sold on the idea of HV because they’ll think that in a hot market we’ll need leads to compete and in a slow market we’ll need leads to survive. Whatever. While a few have done okay with the HV program (and good for them!) overall I consider it a less than adequate lead provider to agents on whom whose back they ride on and depend since the service is free to the public who uses it.

Mark is Radically Re-thinking “Lead Management

Mark Lesswing just published an interesting article on thinking through how to treat online customers. Here’s a highlight:

In person-to-person interactions, negative intentions are easy detect. People leave long lines at the bank in disgust and dislike “pushy” sales clerks. The challenge of detecting gestures on the web lies in the anonymity of the medium. We fall into the bombardment mentality because we are trying to identify the consumer.

For those interested in the direction of online marketing, the whole thing is definitely worth a read…

It may be broken, but here's a plan to fix it!

Ah, finally get to catch up on reading some RCG posts. What a prolific group this is! Makes you wonder just how important a degree in creative writing might become to the average agent in the future. I’ve been busy cuz I’ve been doing alot of recruiting these days.  So, when Eric, in a recent post  wonders about the mega agent model works I can’t help but commenting that it works great for the mega agent and not so great for the mini agents on the team and especially not so great for the customers of said Mega Agent who may not want to be foisted off on a newbie. Ardell says that the industry is broken because agents don’t help train newbies anymore. Couldn’t agree more. Fact is, there are agent training programs within offices, called Mentor Programs, but they cost the newbie a lot. I just heard about one such program that offers the mentoring agent 70% of the commission! No wonder its broken, but I have an idea of house to fix at least a part of it.

I wonder if people outside of this industry know that 85% of all new agents have left the business within 2 years and that average agent income is around $32,000 below the average household income of $34,000! When we talk about the industry being broken, how could it not be when out of every 100 agents, 85 of them have under 2 years of experience practicing in an industry that demands a high level of legal education and an equally high and complicated knowledge base. I’ve blogged before about the need to raise the bar for new agents. But I don’t see it happening unless I want to get on the Real Estate Commission which I don’t want to do. Untrained agents are like driving over a train track with the train coming. Shoot, I once had a seller move out a month early because his agent misread the financing deadline for closing of the transaction! Like Ardell, I could tell thousands of other stories. Isn’t the fact that there are so many newbies who are inadequately trained but allowed to handle any kind of transaction greatly affecting the quality of service to the clients? Doesn’t this create most of the problems with transactions?

So, now I’m in a position to make a difference. I can’t affect the other agents but I can sure affect the ones at LTD. There is a huge fault with the traditional business model for a real estate company, starting with recruiting.  When recruiting, brokers use the same practices to recruit new agents that you find in multi level marketing. They point to the super agent making all kinds of money and driving the ego car and hold them as the example of what the newbie can become. It’s enticing and makes the mouth water. The newbie can hardly wait to get a piece of that fortune and so eagerly joins the firm with all the zeal and ambition that should make them succeed. They are given the standard goals: take forms classes, establish a farm, knock on doors, do open houses, develop a sphere and take floor time.  But sadly, they don’t usually succeed with this advice. At least not 85% of the time.

Part of the problem is the upside down business model in the traditional company. This model and the model taught in broker training, is that once an agent has earned enough, typically $50,000 and splits this 50/50 with the brokerage, then that agent no longer earns money for the company, and is, in fact, a drain on the office, supples, training, etc.  Instead of being tied to the ongoing success of the agent, the office does just the opposite and depends instead on recruiting new agents instead of developing what talents they already have. Why, because their model is make $25,000 from as many agents as they can. Thus the revolving door.  Agents that carry heavy listing farms are also recruited but not for the reasons many might think. The heavy listing agent is sought after by almost all companies because they get the companies name on the streets with signage and have listings advertised to get the phones to ring. Do sellers know that their home isn’t advertised in the paper to necessarily get it sold as much as it is to take up print space and serve as image marketing? Plus the phone rings at the office to give the ‘up’ agents leads thereby providing a way for a new agent to get business.The newbies often do the open houses, not to sell the home, but to develope clients.

But what I think is an even greater cause of this failure are the many, many hats an agents wears, all requiring a different personality, skill and intelligence level. They must understand and implement all of the forms used in listings, sales, Federal forms and laws (asbestos, lead paint, fair housing) without which they can look at jail time and/or fines, disclosure subleties, etc. A typical agent must also learn how to read people, how to know just when to push and when to hold back. They must be strong enough in a listing presentation to sell themselves as the best while empathetic enough to work with buyers and understand their points of view. A good buyer’s agent must know how to perform a buyer consultation.and know how to find the exact right house out of the many thousands that are on the market, and not have buyer’s remorse.   A typical agent must know geography, house styles, demographic trends, know how to price, employer information, school information, church and communtiy information, transit information, structure and design.  Additionally, this practice requires a high level of negotiating skills, assistance during the inspection where many deals take a nose dive, plus the ability to stay on good terms with other agents in the market place without which they are doomed.   Agents are asked for advice on mortgage progrmas, title issues, need to understand and explain builder addendum (if that’s possible) and warranties, understand the escrow process and data base management, etc.

This is but a small list of the knowledge and skills an agent must have or fail. But, as if that weren’t enough, they have to be able to wear a marketers hat, as well. What is the best way to attract clients? How do you ever set up those lucrative programs aimed at building a referral base. Do you advertise in magazines, newspapers, online, do you buy lead sources like House Values, do you blog, do massive mailings, do you establish a farm?  Who will build a web site and teach how to make it a useful lead source. And on and on.

Do you see why it is ludacrous to ask all these skills of one person? How could any well balanced individual know all of this stuff and still have a life. Even the mega agents who scale as Eric has suggested might be a good real estate model, these agents must be even more talented since now they must also be managers, and, worse, they are ultimately responsible for errors made at any level by the team, any lawsuits, ommissions or mistakes by the assistant will be born also by the mega agent.

What we see in other companies in America are several different departments with different specialties and responsiblities.  When I owned two restaurants, a nightclub and a boatyard and marina, as you might imagine that I had 10-12 departments reporting to me at any one time. And I certainly didn’t know how to repair a twin screw diesel engine nor could I entertain as well as the All Male Revue! I contracted out marketing, I hired bookkeepers, I paid well for department heads that were specialists in their fields. Why not have a real estate company set up the same way, i.e., with different departments doing what they each do best. The agent should be the person who is face to face with the clients, not the person who is mailing out postcards or doing the research on the different lead generator sources. Even deciding how to outsource the different parts of the job is time consuming.  Each agent should work with the PART of the business that best suits his or her personality style, and you determine this with a personality assessment and lots of coaching, i.e., if you want to work at night and you are not shy and have a commanding presence, you’d probably like being a listing agent. If you get your kicks out of assisting someone in finding their dream house, you’d probably love working with buyers. If numbers fascinate you and you love the work of high finance, you’d probably prefer investment real estate and if you can’t tear yourself away from watching a home get built, you’d probably love new construction. For the well connected, whether by church, networking groups, family, and all kinds of social groups, and you love to give parties, then a referral based practice might work best for you.

Agents need to know themselves and find their own best fit in the business, then I firmly believe that they will succeed at a much higher level and make it through the first two years better than if they follow the typical one size fits all advice of their broker. Or, worse yet, take every referral coming from the relocation department and only make about 30% and lose belief in themselves.  As the agent grows, learn the ropes and learn what they love to do best, then migrate throughout the different departments within the company and take on more challenges.

We need a new model. We need to create companies where the agents are treated as individuals and trained as such. Where it’s acknowledged that they can not wear all the hats at once.  We need to have all the effective marketing in place and offer assistance with implementing it. We need to provide FREE leads to our agents. We need to create an economic model where the agents continuing success is directly tied to the continuing success of the office.  We need to give agents the reason to stay loyal to the company and to take away all the stumbling blocks to success.

It’s a huge order, but doable. I know and it works. Start out with bright, likeable and agressive people, have programs set up in the different fields within real estate so there is enough diversity, have the marketing materials and programs researched and implemented so that the agent can be with the client and do what they do best.  Have the negotiation, legal and transactional support to augment the knowledge base of the agent, and mentor and coach as long as necessry. This is no Walmart model, nor is it a Costco model. It’s not the super agent model where only the super agent makes a good living, it’s a Super Office model where all can do well, all are supported, teamwork is highly regarded and there is incentive to grow the company, too. A happy and successful and nutured agent will cure this industry of what ails it. 

Here’s How I REALLY Feel…

[photopress:bow.jpg,thumb,alignright]Let’s hit this nail right on the head.

Truth is I’m not taking any bows for kudos and props on my blogging efforts to date, because I haven’t yet said what really needs to be said.

Zillow is “good enough” because agents aren’t.

Redfin is “good enough” because agents aren’t.

Inspectors and Disclosure Forms aren’t “good enough” because agents aren’t demanding better service from these areas for their clients. Don’t get me started on the lead based paint debacle…CYA is the order of the day.

Lead generators are needed because agents aren’t “good enough” to attract clients based on their own merits.

Agents aren’t “good enough” because all of the education is about how to cover your butt, thanks to the lawyers, and all of the education classes are about how to “get more leads” and not about how to “deserve” them or what to do with them after you’ve got them.

“Lower the price, lower the price, lower the price”…is NOT how you sell a house.

“Sign this huge pile of disclosures” so that if you get ripped off you can’t sue me, is not how you represent a buyer client.

If your clients think they are paying you too much, they are probably right.

Consumer: The answer isn’t to find someone who will charge you less, the answer is to find someone who will cover YOUR butt instead of their own.

Now I’ll take that freakin’ bow. Thank you Sellsius and Dustin and Bloodhound Blog and Uberator and Kate and…I don’t know, maybe Dave Letterman.

2nd Day @ Inman

For many, “Pressing the Flesh” (talking with potential clients/competitors/vendors/media/etc) is the most valuable part of any conference, and for better or worse, the most valuable part of my day yesterday was spent connecting up with others.

I can’t say that any of the presentations I attended yesterday were particularly interesting (i.e. worth blogging about) including the one that I participated on as a panelist. Then again, I was really the wrong person to be speaking on a lead conversion panel as my contribution to the 2-hour discussion was about 5 minutes where I stated my experience was that blogging provides leads that are easier to convert than typical internet leads because you’ve already built up a relationship with the person when the contact you. Beyond that, I couldn’t offer much to the discussion, so the two hours were dominated by the panel’s sponsor discussing their (very cool) product. All things considered, I’ve met tons of people from Top Producer who would have done a much better job than me speaking about the ways that agents are using internet tools to convert leads. It’s too bad none of them were asked to be on the panel (especially since their top marketer product was nominated for an Innovation Award).

I’m always interested in controversy and being relatively new to the industry, I’ve found it interesting the extent to which major industry players boycott these conferences because of the way that Brad Inman has been known to push his own agenda. While pressing the flesh at the conference has been very interesting (and almost definitely a valuable long-term experience), I’m left with the strange feeling that I’m taking part in a massive dance orchestrated by Brad.

Apply to refinance online and get 50 calls a day for months

I called a prospect whose name I purchased from a lead vendor. This is something we do regularly in the mortgage business. Rather than word of mouth, mailing, cold-calling, or some other marketing means, we can purchase the names, phone numbers, and other relevant information from a lead vendor. These leads come in various qualities and prices. You can get thousands of random names and phone numbers for pennies apiece or you can get interested, very specific parameter, live transfer calls directly to your phone for $150 or more each. Of course, there are leads for everywhere in between as well.

One of the most difficult factors in buying leads is the “exclusive