Competition may be fierce in your neck of the woods, but becoming the agent of choice in your area is possible – and it doesn’t necessarily mean being the biggest operator in town. Real Estate Business’ Simon Parker reports
Salespeople, by nature, can often become obsessed with beating the competition. In many ways it makes perfect sense: being number one is a very significant benefit to any agent’s business. But it can also mean that in their efforts to trounce
their competitors, agents forget about the very people they’re supposed to be serving – their customers.
So says John Percudani, principal and managing director of Perth-based real estate agency Realmark. According to Mr Percudani, it is wrong to be focused excessively on what your competitors are doing. Neither is it a good idea to stake your market presence on your own personality.
Instead, if you really want to get ahead in your territory you need to begin by ensuring you understand the consumers with whom you deal.
“‘Personality-based’ agents are less relevant to today’s consumer,” Mr Percudani says. “But it’s so much more challenging understanding consumers, and getting a handle on how they want you to communicate with them.”
Industry veteran Peter Sissons, managing director and principal of Sissons Estate Agents in Brisbane, says this task becomes yet more challenging when you consider how little loyalty the modern consumer has. Mr Sissons, who has won several Real Estate Institute of Queensland awards and, along with his wife Pauline, is an inductee into the REIA Hall of Fame, says he is amazed how lax agents can be when it comes to communication.
When both do their call backs, they are often amazed by how many buyers say they are one of the few agents to actually follow up.
“Good and professional relationships are built on maintaining regular and honest communication with people,” he says. “And, of course, by remembering to contact them.”
Generating the highest sales volumes can also become an unhealthy obsession for agents, and many question whether this is really the best way to judge success in a specific territory.
Smaller, independent real estate agency operators can never hope to match the financial clout that the larger groups can wield. So, how can they aim to become ‘number one’ in their territory?
What does ‘number one’ really mean?
It all depends on how you define being ‘number one’.
“It’s not about the size of your business, in my eyes, but what you do and how you run your business,” says No Bull Real Estate co-owner, Edith Byrne.
Located in West Wallsend, in semi-rural NSW near Newcastle, the small independent agency was set up by Mrs Byrne and
her husband in 2004. In 2010, No Bull Real Estate won the REINSW excellence award for a small residential agency and has been a finalist for property management awards in 2007 and 2009. So, in one sense, ‘small’ can actually be ‘big’.
“We never have and never will be interested in what other companies or franchises are doing in the marketplace,” Mrs Byrne continues. “We are only focused on what No Bull Real Estate is doing or needs to be doing.”
This approach comes despite a sharp increase in competition in recent years, following the development of new estates, along with commercial and industrial areas. A key part of her approach is ensuring No Bull is thought of as the number one agent in terms of ethical standards, practices and professionalism.
“Is it really about the quantity or the quality of service that is provided? I feel our clients are more appreciative and grateful for the service we provide in all areas of real estate, rather than classifying us as the number one agent,” she says. “I feel this is why we have so much repeat business.”
The ‘new’ consumer
The days of simply ‘shouting the loudest’ to gain attention are long gone, according to Mr Percudani. Today’s consumers are much more interested in developing a relationship with an agent.
“Real estate agents should become the solution expert consumers can turn to, based on the trust in the relationship,” he says.
The real estate agent must therefore provide a broader array of expertise and information than they might have done in the past.
“In the old days it was the office that had the most signs on the streets that attracted the most buyers,” says Mr Sissons. “But with the advent of the internet, that has all changed. Buyers tend to be extremely ‘un-loyal’ to agents, and they can now easily pick what properties they want to inspect. In most cases, the first time an agent meets a buyer is at an open house.”
Anthony Toop, principal of Toop&Toop in Adelaide, says as the internet continues to give consumers the knowledge they once obtained from an agent, it will be imperative that agents provide value in other ways. Having and sharing a well-educated opinion about what’s happening in the marketplace is one example.
“Consumers are taking control,” he says. “No longer can agents simply tell them what they want to hear.”
“Consumers are also seeking out leadership,” he adds, “finding professionals they can trust – and who operate within their local area.”
The message consumers are interested in hearing has also changed.
“When selling, it’s no longer about bedrooms and bathrooms,” Mr Percudani says. “Rather, it’s about selling lifestyle and taking a more holistic approach.” That approach, he claims, sets his company apart from many of its competitors.
Mrs Byrne suggests that the REINSW’s new ‘Accreditation’ program may enhance No Bull Real Estate’s local standing. She is in the process of applying for an accreditation in property management while her husband is looking to apply for an accreditation in sales. They are also seeking accreditation for their office overall. Di Pitchford of Ray White Mt Lawley in Perth says that even though she and her fellow owners already had a strong presence in their local area through a previous
business, they believed they needed a reputable and well-known brand name to enhance it. The three partners therefore made the switch to Ray White early this year.
“We really wanted to go with a recognised brand,” Ms Pitchford says.
Since then she’s had numerous vendors say the move gave them more confidence to send business her way. Mr Toop says consumers are only going to want more transparency in their dealings with professionals in the future. Agents who make promises they can’t deliver, or engage in spin doctoring of information, will be found out, he says.
“Personal integrity will be everything,” he says.
Becoming a local expert
Credibility and integrity give real estate agents a platform on which they can build their profile in their own territory. One way to leverage off this platform is to set yourself up as the local property expert with local ‘know how’.
According to RP Data, this is a key reason why some agents are more successful than others in the same territory. The group has urged agents to use social media, along with RP Data property statistics, as a means of generating and maintaining contact with prospective clients. A Facebook page and a blog are easy ways for agents to engage with potential home buyers.
“Keep it varied,” an RP Data source says. “Include local issues and community events as well as property information. You still want to give a reason for people to contact you, so offer some free opinions and reports to your contacts in your pages and updates. The most important thing here is to update regularly and keep changing the content.”
According to Ms Pitchford, ensuring a strong presence at the grassroots level can be a key point of market differentiation.
“We’re very big on giving back to the community,” she says.
Most recently, the agency ran an ‘Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea’ event at the local bowling club for the National Cancer Council which raised around $4,700.
Fellow business owners Peta Kron and Helen Bond also regularly attend school fetes and quiz nights.
“You girls are just everywhere,” was one person’s comment when seeing them at a recent fete.
Attending this kind of event gives locals the opportunity to ask about property-related issues, helping to establish an agent as the real estate ‘expert’ they can turn to. Ms Pitchford believes this is a key reason why Ray White Mt Lawley has established such a strong presence in its area.
Even wearing her name tag when out shopping prompts complete strangers to come up and ask her questions, she adds. Agents generally have two attributes – an outgoing personality and being comfortable talking in front of a crowd – that are highly sought after by charity event organisers, adds Anthony Toop. This means they are well suited to run events such as quiz nights and charity auctions.
Small operators can develop a significant presence in their territory by following this community-focused approach, Mr Toop says, adding that time and passion are the key ingredients to achieving success.
No Bull Real Estate takes the same approach:
“Social networking plays a major part in marketing your product and ‘getting your face out there’,” says Edith Byrne. “Engage yourself within the community – we support both West Wallsend Primary and High School with financial donations, student work experience, career advice talks and interviews as well as medals, trophies and shields for students within both schools.”
No Bull even goes the extra mile for the agency’s landlords, mowing lawns and cleaning properties at no charge when necessary, she adds.
A common mistake that agents make is to directly tout for business at a community event.
“Never ask for anything,” Mr Toop says. “It’s not appropriate to ask for business at the event itself. The business flows afterwards.”
If, however, the community-based component is too passive for your standard sales approach, it may be better to target local forums that are explicitly commercial in focus, such as local chambers of commerce. You’re expected to network and tout your wares at these events; if you don’t, you may even find yourself at odds with the organisers.
The services that your agency offers are important, although as with sales volume, the best or most profitable strategy is not necessarily to have the largest number. Positioning yourself in the eyes of the consumer, however, is critical. Smaller operators often have no choice but to focus on the smaller parts of the market, and this is the case for No Bull Real Estate. An office with just two people can really only take the specialist route, Mrs Byrne says.
Toop&Toop, while much larger than No Bull Real Estate, also doesn’t try to be all things to all people.
Recently, the company reviewed its target markets and now focuses only on the ‘best’ houses – not necessarily the most
expensive – in 200 suburbs. The refocus aims to give Toop&Toop’s largely aspirational buyers a clear understanding of what the company represents: that is, quality housing.
In one suburb, for example, the agency is now selling 18 per cent of the area’s properties, a figure with which Mr Toop is quite satisfied. He also hopes the company’s recent efforts to ‘decorporatise’ itself will give customers the feeling they are dealing with a smaller company, albeit with big-company resources in the background on which they can easily draw.
There are now fewer managers at Toop&Toop, and the new structure means the company is less bureaucratic and internally focused, allowing it to be more f lexible and responsive to client needs. Mr Toop stresses, however, that the move towards a more informal workplace structure has not come at the expense of professionalism.
Small operators frequently have an important advantage over their larger counterparts in being able to offer clients a more personal level of attention, he adds, and customers generally think highly of a principal who takes time to attend to their needs. Di Pitchford agrees, noting that an investor who was planning to use her company’s property management services was blown away when they realised the co-owner of the business, Ms Kron, was there to meet her in person.
Ms Pitchford believes having a ‘one-stop shop’ is important for her clients. Providing property management services and having a Loan Market mortgage broker in the same location adds real value to her business, she says.
For others, which don’t have the resources to offer more than a few key services, it’s important to have strong links with other professionals who can in turn help their clients. These may include mortgage brokers, bank managers, accountants and solicitors.
Walking the walk
At the end of the day, personal attention and one-stop shops aside, properties need to be sold.
“Nothing is recognised quicker by the market than listed properties getting sold,” says Mr Sissons. “As we tell our clients, we don’t need to be the biggest office, just the best. Sellers are interested in getting their property sold and are happy to deal with a specialist, no matter how large or small their office is.”
Mr Sissons says when he and his wife set up Sissons Estate Agents in 1991, the core focus was project marketing. While this resulted in the company’s growing to a staff of 28, a dramatic shift in the market, which saw developers employing in house marketers, forced the agency to refocus as an inner city brokerage.
This change saw staff levels reduced to around 10, while a renewed commitment to service and professionalism saw conversions of listings to settled sales skyrocket to an average of 95 per cent.
It’s this figure that separates Sissons from its competitors, he says.
“It did take a bit of time, but now when people see our signs go up, they expect to see a ‘Sold’ sign appear fairly quickly. Last year, our averages showed that only three out of every 100 properties we listed ended up being listed by our competition if we were unsuccessful in getting them sold.”
Mr Sissons also believes the company has established a strong office “culture of excellence”, with each employee having a clear understanding of how important clients are.
“In our office, there is only one way to do each job and task, and that is perfectly,” he says. “So many people today seem to be prepared to accept second best or an average effort. To be the best, that just won’t cut it. Everything has to be done with 100 per cent commitment and effort.
“We believe we can always expect perfection.”
Dedication to the job will continue to separate the good agents from the average, he says.
“It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years as we have now moved into a strong buyers’ market, where sales skills and 100 per cent commitment are again a pre-requisite for success.”