Why don’t we think about clients’ specific needs?

The real estate industry needs to change its mindset about its relationship with customers. It’s all about service — not just closing the transaction

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Let’s play “fill-in-the-blank.”

You ready?

OK, just write down the first word that comes to mind when you read this sentence:

“I just started working with a new client, and she needs a lot of help, because she’s a first-time home________________.”

You fill in that blank? OK, great!

So what’d you put?

You put “buyer,” didn’t you? As in “first-time homebuyer”?

Of course you did! It’s OK. That’s what everyone puts. I’ve done this exercise with lots of agents over the years, and they all answer “first-time homebuyer.”

No one ever says “first-time homeseller.” It’s not a term that we use in the real estate industry. It even sounds a little strange when you say it out loud, like your mouth just can’t get around the words.

“First-time homeseller.”

“First-time homeseller.”

“First-time homeseller.”

It just sounds wrong.

Why is that? Why do we have like a zillion marketing pieces and programs and systems designed for first-time homebuyers, and nothing for first-time homesellers?

Why do we think of first-time homebuyers as these timid little birds that we have to coddle and pamper with all this handholding, and we think of first-time homesellers as … well … sellers. Just like every other seller.

Part of it is that we just wrongly think that anyone who owns a home is an experienced client. After all, homeowners obviously went through the transactional process when they bought the house, so they’re no longer a “first-timer.” They already lost their virginity. But is that really true?

You go through the transactional process every day — is it the same process for buyers as for sellers? Is the act of searching, going on showings and getting a mortgage the same as pricing, staging and marketing your home? Do buyers and sellers have the same set of expectations, hopes, fears or anxieties?

Of course not! Buying and selling are totally different experiences. So someone who has already bought a home knows virtually nothing about the challenges of selling that home. And yet, we have no specialized concept of a first-time homeseller as someone who needs a higher degree of care than an experienced seller, who might need more education about the process, more guidance about staging, more handholding through the showings.

In other words, we basically treat our sellers like they’re all the same. Other than that narrow exception we make for first-time homebuyers, we don’t think of our clients as having specialized needs that require customized solutions. Instead, we provide a cookie-cutter approach to standardized service with the same scripts, the same materials, the same programs.

Take, for example, the standard one-size-fits-all listing presentation that we’ve taught agents to give to sellers. They visit the home, they take a tour, and then they start giving their prepared set of scripts and dialogues designed to convince the seller to list with them. It’s the same presentation every time. Every time.

But if you’ve been in the business for a while, you know every seller is different. Some of them are afraid, some are enthusiastic. Some want to be involved in decision-making, some want to defer to their agent. Some want constant attention, and some don’t want to be bothered until you get an offer.

Some know what to expect from the process, and some are complete neophytes. But you’re never going to discover what makes a particular client unique if you take a one-size-fits-all approach to servicing them.

And that’s the real problem: our mindset. The fact that we’ve never even identified the concept of a “first-time homeseller” is a red flag that, as an industry, we’re thinking too narrowly about what our clients need from us.

We’ve already seen this in how we thought too narrowly about a homeowner’s need to know how much her home was worth, leaving an opening for Zillow to service that need and supplant our role as the authority on home values.

And we thought too narrowly about our clients’ needs for vendor referrals, opening the door to companies like Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor to take over that category.

Again and again, when I look at the real estate industry, I see missed opportunities where we’ve neglected the needs of our clients, or the people we wish would be our clients. Take, for example, all our real estate websites.

Real estate came to the internet over 20 years ago, when we first started putting inventory online and allowing people to search for homes on their own. Over the years, we’ve collectively invested millions of dollars into those websites and seen third-party companies like Zillow and Trulia put millions more into their portals.

And all our sites get better every year, with bells and whistles like high-resolution photos, videos, 3D walkthroughs, mapping, school reports, community information and all the rest.

But those sites are not built around the needs of our actual clients. They’re not built for our sellers or our active buyers or even non-transactional clients like homeowners. Rather, our sites are optimized for shoppers, people who are thinking about buying but aren’t yet working with an agent.

They’re designed almost exclusively to attract shoppers with all the bells and whistles, and then induce them to click on the “Find out More!” button to convert them to a lead. As usual, we put our energies and creativity into generating leads, not servicing the needs of our clients. Leads, not needs.

For example, we don’t build our websites for listed sellers. Yes, we do provide a valuable service for sellers on our sites, just by listing their property online so the shoppers can see it. But why would a seller even go onto one of our real estate sites herself, other than to look to see whether her listing is up (and heaven help you if it isn’t)?

We don’t have any tools for her there, no services, no information. Indeed, when you initiate a relationship with a company – shopping sites, banks, airlines, etc. — the first thing you usually get is an account on their website with a login and a password.

But not in real estate. Not for sellers.  They don’t need a login for their broker’s website because the site doesn’t have any tools that are customized for their listing.

What if we built our websites for our actual clients: video and tutorial explainers about the process, dynamic property traffic reports, market updates about what’s happening in their micro-market, a live comparative market analysis (CMA) or automated valuation model (AVM), showing feedback, a document repository, all of that. Imagine that you had that type of website or an app that did the same thing.

Wouldn’t that do a lot more for our business than more low-percentage online leads? Wouldn’t you have a tremendous advantage in every listing presentation when you showed sellers all the ways you’d be servicing their needs with your website?

Wouldn’t you provide a better experience, which would generate evangelical clients who would rave about you to all their friends?

And wouldn’t your job be a lot easier if all that information was provided automatically, rather than requiring you to do everything yourself, freeing up time to do even more client development work?

That’s the whole point: Doing good work for the client and providing a better experience. It’s not just good for the client. It’s good for the agent.

Joe Rand is the author of How to be a Great Real Estate Agent and  Disruptors, Discounters, and DoubtersHe is the chief creative officer of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate | Rand Realty in New York and New Jersey, a contributor to Inman News, and a regular blogger at joerand.com.

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