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Taking a bite-sized chunk out of the market: how this agent found her niche

21 August 2017 Tamikah Bretzke
Catherine Dixon, BresicWhitney, agent

In this episode of Secrets of the Top 100 Agents, BresicWhitney agent Catherine Dixon reveals how she found her niche and became an expert in her field.

While she’s not an agent who sells the most, Catherine’s an agent who knows her community inside and out. Tune in to hear how utilising her educational qualifications, establishing her point of difference and aligning her skillset with the needs of her local community enabled this agent to truly connect with clients.

In this episode, find out:

  • How agents can better resonate with their community
  • Why agents need to stop giving their power away to agencies
  • Catherine's tips on how agents can establish their point of difference


Make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing to us now on iTunes!

Full transcript

Tim Neary: Well g’day everyone. It's Tim Neary here. I am editor of Real Estate Business and host of the Secrets of the Top 100 Agents podcast. Thanks for tuning in. This is a show where we're bringing, and chat, to the very best real estate agents in Australia. Very pleased to welcome on the show today, ranked number 47 in the REB Top 100 Agents ranking for 2017, from Bresic Whitney in Sydney, it's Catherine Dixon. Hello, Catherine, and welcome to the show.

Catherine Dixon: Thanks very much.

Tim Neary: Now, you're a new entrant this year into the Top 100 Ranking. Congratulations on that.

Catherine Dixon: Thank you.

Tim Neary: So obviously you didn't start at the top. I'd like to just go back to the beginning and just get a bit of a general idea of how you got into real estate, and how long you've been doing it.

Catherine Dixon: So this is my eight year. I didn't come in straight after school, obviously. I went to uni, did law, graduated as a lawyer, and then went straight back to uni and graduated as an architect. Worked in both of those fields just for a couple of years and then got into real estate.

Tim Neary: And what was it about real estate that attracted you? How did you find your way there?

Catherine Dixon: Well, I'd always been interested in real estate in terms of renovating houses, and that's what led me into architecture, so then real estate seemed to be a natural progression after that. And I think both of those ... The formal education of law and architecture really helps in real estate.

Tim Neary: I think the two sort of complement one another-

Catherine Dixon: They do.

Tim Neary: ...quite nicely.

Catherine Dixon: Yeah.

Tim Neary: Let's just go back to the beginning. The listeners of the podcast are typically those that are looking to learn the secrets from you guys that are at the top of your game. I think the first thing that is probably quite important is building that database. And when you start out you probably start out with a clean sheet of paper and a pencil. Just going back, how did you go about building your database?

Catherine Dixon: It's interesting because one of the things that people always talk about is the database, but in actual fact I only got a database last year. I worked off basically an Excel spreadsheet right through and only worked with, up until last year when we formalised the system and somebody else did that for me, but I was always working with only about 10 or 20 people, sometimes 50 people at a time. And they were just buyers, sellers, and I was working in a small, small area.

The main way I worked was when I first started I intuitively knew I couldn't just go out there and get listings, so what I did was I got old callback sheets from senior agents in the office that I was working with at the time. They just handed them over and I just went through, and instead of asking people if they had something to sell I asked them if they were looking to buy. And I just began helping people buy properties, whether or not it was off the agency I was working at the time, or alternatively even through other listings, like other agency's listings. That then led, of course, to people saying, "Ah, my friend's got a house to sell." Or, "I have another house that I actually do want to sell." And that's how I started getting listings.

Then the spreadsheet got bigger and bigger to the point where ... By the time I went on to Box+Dice last year I had about a thousand people on this spreadsheet, but they were people that I really did know. I could pick up the phone today and speak to everybody. We may not be best of friends, but we definitely ... I can say, "Hi, it's Catherine," and they'll know who it is.

Tim Neary: There's some kind of connection there.

Catherine Dixon: Yeah.

Tim Neary: It's interesting. There's two things that you said there that came up for me. One was around the size of just ... You said you were starting with talking with very small numbers, because we talked to a lot of agents around what is that optimal number that you should have in that database, in your repertoire. People talk about thousands, and other people talk about hundreds, but there's some number which is kind of your sweet spot. For you it sounds like it was a little bit. The second thing was that there was a personal connection. It sounds like for you it's more about being smaller, more quality rather than quantity around the database-

Catherine Dixon: Yeah, definitely.

Tim Neary: ...and just making that connection with people.

Catherine Dixon: Well, it's particularly pertinent in, and this doesn't go for all areas, but for the area that I work in, Paddington, there's only three and a half thousand houses. To work in a small geographical area I'm going to run into lots more people in that small area over a period of time, a shorter period of time. I'm not driving miles and miles to meet people. So just going to the shop, being a local, that's where I'm going to be meeting people. One person who you know in Paddington Street, Paddington, will know 10 people in Paddington Street, Paddington, and it just fed off that.

And I made a conscious decision when I first started that I wasn't going to be the agent who sold the most, but I just wanted to be the person who was known to be an expert in this area. I just wanted to work predominantly with terraces, and I just didn't want to travel. I'm a bit lazy, I didn't want to travel far from home, and that's why I picked Paddington. I think that for somebody starting out that's a bite size chunk you can take and succeed, rather than thinking in big terms, like just start even in a small patch within a suburb, if you are in a big suburb.

Tim Neary: Bite size chunk, you said?

Catherine Dixon: Yeah.

Tim Neary: That's a lovely way of describing it in terms of getting in and getting started, and taking on something that you can manage, and own, and be important in. Talking about being important, how important is it to be the local in the area, and be known by everybody? You were talking about you meet somebody and then they know 10 people, and they know 10 people, and you get that snowball effect. It's got to start somewhere-

Catherine Dixon: It does.

Tim Neary: ...and being the local probably is where it starts.

Catherine Dixon: Yeah. The local was definitely a factor, but also being able to provide an extra service. I know, and I can think back to my first four or five listings, they were definitely the result, I don't do it anymore, letterbox drops, but it was a letterbox drop aimed at houses that were renovating at the time and me pointing out I was a real estate agent, but also an ex-architect who could help them, perhaps if they were looking to sell in the future, look at ways that they could maximise their renovation so that they could eventually sell. That extra service in addition to just, "I'm a real estate agent, let me sell your property," helped a lot.

Becoming the expert in the area was probably more important than actually being the local, but the local topped it off – only from the point of view of meeting people continuously. So you'd go to their house and you would say to them, "Okay, I don't think you should put the bathroom here, we should have it here," on their plans, "because that's what's going to get you more money when you sell." And then I'd go and get a coffee on a Sunday and they'd be sitting there with their family. So those touchpoints of, "Hi, how's it going? Any problems with what I was talking about? Great. Call me in when you're up to the next stage." That relationships building was very handy as a local.

Tim Neary: And it sounds like it's important to have that, but it's got to be something real, it's got to be something authentic.

Catherine Dixon: It does. I think we're moving more into that. I think the old way, and I thought a lot about this because we're in a really tricky transition period in real estate at the moment. The public's appetite for real estate and real estate agents is diminishing, and it's diminishing fast, so we're seeing lots of people coming into the industry that are offering something else, like Purplebricks. I think the old way of doing real estate in terms of hard work, consistent work, processes, that is still going to be part of the success of real estate agents in the future. But I think what they need to be doing is looking ... or what we all need to be doing, is realising we're saying the same message. Every single real estate agent out there is saying the same message.

So we have to go back and think about how we can deliver the same message differently to different people. Not just amongst ourselves as real estate agents, but to be able to intuitively and authentically, like you said, pick up on who are the people that we're talking to. Who is the audience? And then talking back to them and delivering that same message, but in a way that actually suits that person. Not in a real estate scripted sense, because the appetite for that is definitely going and I don't think that's going to be the way to success in the future. It has been in the past because there hasn't been a lot of people in real estate who can do outside of that, but now we're attracting more people who have more skills. It's like every other industry, very competitive. You need to upskill in any way you can to create a point in difference for yourself.

Tim Neary: Just listening to you speaking now, it sounds like that ... That's almost like the modern real estate agent needs a two phase approach. One is to be the local, and to have the brand in the area, and to be the person that people know, but then also to have a second offering. Something that's unique, something that is that added value that they bring that the other real estate agents in that local area don't have. It's incumbent on real estate agents in the market growing now to find out what it is, coming back to your point about being authentic, what it is that they bring-

Catherine Dixon: That's right.

Tim Neary: ...that is unique, and that nobody else has got that they can be the experts in.

Catherine Dixon: It's a service industry, I think a lot of people forget that, and we have to find solutions to people's problems. There's not one size fits all. People think I just want to sell this house, get on to the next, but there's different reasons why people are selling their properties at different times. Just because you've worked with a client once doesn't mean the second house will be the same reasoning. You don't treat them the same because it could be different, the reasons are different as to why they're selling their property. Yeah, you have to have something extra to service that client with. It's just not going to be enough to go in there and just do the same old same, because otherwise Purplebricks can do that.

Tim Neary: And you mentioned Purplebricks earlier as well. There is that if it's just ... If it's just the vanilla then people are going to look to a Purplebricks, and a similar to Purplebricks, where it's just going to get it a bit cheaper. But if you bring something that is added value, and you talked a little bit earlier about having a look at the drawings and understanding the bathroom outfit better here than it does this, or take this out and move that around. Then it starts to become a value game, and then it starts to not become about price.

Catherine Dixon: Yes, exactly. Not only do you need a point of difference with your own brand, but you need a point of difference with the brand that you're actually working under as well. I would say a lot of agents that I'm starting to see now giving their power away to the agencies that they work under, and I think that's dangerous for the agency as well as the agents. There's two brands here when you are a real estate agent. There's the brand you work under and there's your own brand. You have to push the brand you're working under, and you have to work for an agency that you believe with, that has that added value, has that point of difference.

But first and foremost you have to look after your own brand, because if you don't both the agency and the agents are going to suffer. The agency ends up having just a few little rainmakers and a talent pool loss from the other agents in that agency who just leave, so the agency has to be aware of that and over time they'll lose that great talent to other agencies. But the agents also have to be aware that they need to be able to build their brand under the brand so that they do have the choices to go wherever they want to go to, to build their business how they want to do it, to do it authentically without having to adhere to some of the things of the brand that they work under, if that makes sense.

Tim Neary: It does make sense. It's certainly becoming a much trickier business than it used to be because we talk a lot about this double branding, if you like. That the brand that the agent represents is going to get them noticed, and get them to the front door, but it's their brand, their personal brand, that second brand, that's going to go them into the front door and get them to go on.

Catherine Dixon: Absolutely. I was lucky enough, upon reflection, to start with an agency that had very little brand awareness in the area I was working in, so I really had to do the hard yards in actually building my own brand. Then I went to another brand that had slightly more brand awareness, and now I've moved to Bresic Whitney that has a building brand awareness. They're very good. So I've been able take advantage of that, but the hard yards originally, when I was building my own brand, that stands you in such good stead as you go along, and it just means that ... At the end of the day the vendors who are picking you, the buyers who are buying off you, they know who you work for, but it's a personal transaction between your brand and them. It's not between the bigger brand. If something goes wrong they don't blame Bresic Whitney on the whole, they blame Catherine Dixon.

Tim Neary: Yeah. It's that nuance that is perhaps difficult to understand, but it's probably the trick of understanding in terms of being successful in real estate. We see that with the most successful real estate agents, is that they have this easy alliance between the brand that they represent and their own personal brand, and they work them together. It's where those brands start to become confused and conflict with one another-

Catherine Dixon: That's right.

Tim Neary: ...that progress is retarded, if you like.

Catherine Dixon: Yeah, exactly.

Tim Neary: Now, I'm going to ask you a very difficult question. I don't know whether there is an answer for this question, but in your own personal journey into real estate agent, you started as a lawyer and then you became an architect, and you managed to get those two professions to dovetail and to move into being a real estate agent, and built your personal brand around that, and your point of difference around that. For other real estate agents starting out that may not have the same path into real estate that you've had, how do they do the same thing? How do they look to find their own personal point of difference?

Catherine Dixon: I think you've got to be strategic. I remember when I first started, I actually sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote down the top five agents in the area I wanted to work in in Paddington. I did a graph up with all of what I thought as vendor, so somebody outside of the real estate agent ... out of the area ... Sorry, out of the industry, looking in and working out on a ranking of zero to five exactly what was their positives and minuses. So whether or not I saw them as hardworking, whether or not I saw them as having market share, whether or not I saw them as having empathy, whether ... There were a lot. I put zero out of five, one out of five, four out of five, and where the zeros were, that's where I concentrated on. I knew that I couldn't go in and compete because at that time the top five agents, they'd been there for like 10 years.

Tim Neary: Entrenched.

Catherine Dixon: Exactly. It's interesting to note that now there's only one of those left. All the others have gone or -

Tim Neary: Out of the industry or out of the area?

Catherine Dixon: No. Out of the area or doing less in the area.

Tim Neary: Right, right.

Catherine Dixon: So they've really moved on, career-wise. Then what I did was I looked for the zeroes out of five and I decided that they were the gaps I was going to look to fill. I think that's probably where I would start if I was still starting as a real estate agent, and I think it's even more imperative now because the industry's moving more into, like we said, that authentic, intuitive way of working, rather than ... I know people still find success with that, so I'm not knocking it, but the hundred calls a day, get in and do 50 before 7:30, and all that sort of stuff. That still works…

Tim Neary: And it's that two phase approach. That's the first phase of the approach.

Catherine Dixon: Yeah. But I think intuitively, and strategically, you need to be a little bit smarter now. There's a lot more competition. Work out who your competition is, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Fill the weaknesses with your strengths, and if you can't then go and do a course, or do something to make sure that you're able to fill those weaknesses and then concentrate on that, and market yourself from that position from day one.

Tim Neary: It's great to hear you talk like that, because we talked about those two different approaches. On the one hand it's about doing the fundamentals, and then on the other hand it's about getting that value add, and just listening to how you talked about how you started. It's not just allowing, from what I'm hearing, allowing luck to take its course.

Catherine Dixon: No.

Tim Neary: You had a good look at what you were doing, you had a look at how the market was working, and you had a good look at where the gaps were in terms of where the competition was. I would say that they would be a good, strong piece of advice to those starting out, is do the research, have a look at where the gaps in the market are, and then position yourself to take advantage of those, to fill those gaps.

Catherine Dixon: Yeah. And you know, it's just the first part in, actually, real estate. You have to be strategic with real estate. You can't sell every single property exactly the same way. If you want to be a really good real estate agent, just treat your brand how you would treat a house. You're not getting any traction, what do we do? We have to change the way we're selling it. So you're not getting any traction with your own brand, what do you do? You have to find a way to change the way that you're pushing that brand, you have to look at your competition. Is your guide not as good as the other real estate's guide, and all that sort of stuff. If you treat your brand exactly the same way you would a house that you're selling, I think that's probably a starting point in a good direction. Yeah, to be strategic.

Tim Neary: It's a great analogy. I love the way that you say to treat it like a house. You build it, you get it right, and then you constantly maintain it. And if it needs a bit of a paint job, it needs a bit of a fix up somewhere, then you do that and you always keep it in good shape, and do the same with your brand.

Catherine Dixon: And always looking for ways to improve. I can't say ... in fact, I definitely can't say luck doesn't play a part in successful real estate. It just does. Sometimes, even when you're selling a house a buyer just walks through it that 11th hour and you go, "Thank God! Where did he come from?" That's the same. I think a lot of the time you can be very smart about the way that you build your own brand, but there will be luck, there's no doubt about it. You've just got to make sure that you recognise when that door opens and walk through it, and not get distracted by the other white noise going on in the background.

Tim Neary: Yeah. And that leads into probably a whole another level of questions around making your own luck and being in the right place at the right time when the luck starts to come down. But we've sort of run out of time today.

Catherine Dixon: Good.

Tim Neary: Be great to have you back on the show -

Catherine Dixon: Thank you.

Tim Neary: ...sometime in the future and talk a little bit more about this.

Catherine Dixon: Excellent.

Tim Neary: Fantastic.

Catherine Dixon: Loved it. Thank you.

Tim Neary: Congratulations again. Thank you, Catherine. Thank you. Remember to follow us on all of the social media stuff, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. You can follow me on Twitter @TimothyJNeary if you want to do that. Realestatebusiness.com.au is where you'll find us. There's plenty of stories there on the business of real estate across the whole of Australia and on my guest today, Catherine Dixon. Thanks again for tuning in and we'll see you next week. Goodbye.

Taking a bite-sized chunk out of the market: how this agent found her niche
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