Putting the teeth back into the REALTOR® Brand

by Marilyn Wilson on November 21, 2011

Real estate agents in our industry spend millions of dollars as a group annually to become a REALTOR® and to stay a member of the REALTOR® family. As someone who cut their teeth working with some of the most highly trusted brands in the world like Fisher-Price, Sesame Street and others, I have a few observations of the real estate industry’s branding efforts.

First, when I ask most REALTORS® what makes them different than non-REALTORS® they say “the code of ethics”. While I appreciate the fact that those that live to the letter of the code of ethics may treat their customers differently, I would beg to differ that the code of ethics is a strong brand differentiator. Consumers expect every licensed real estate agent to live by a standard of service that includes integrity, honesty and above board practices. Wouldn’t you lose your license if you demonstrated unethical or even unprofessional business methods? I don’t believe the code of ethics “cuts it” as a key brand differentiator.

Now let’s look at some of the strongest brands in America today like Apple, Trader Joe’s, Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom’s and others.  What do they have in common? Do they simply offer the promise that “we won’t rip you off”?  I would say no. They promise a lot more than that.

Service Consistency

Each of these high quality brands delivers a consistent level of service. When you walk into an Apple Store or purchase equipment you know you will enter an environment that is fun and full of positive energy. You know you will work with someone who is knowledgeable and respectful regardless of your level of product knowledge or technology expertise. You will not need to leave the environment until your question has been answered or you have found the product that works best for you.

Have you ever walked out of a Nordstrom’s store feeling you didn’t get the service you deserved?  Has Trader Joe’s disappointed you without providing a great sample from a warm and friendly “crew” member? Did you ever walk out of an Apple store with buyer’s remorse because you didn’t feel the product you purchased was up to snuff or the sales rep wasn’t completely helpful or respectful of your time?

This is what great brands do. They set an expectation of service quality and then deliver on it EVERY time you interface with the brand.

Can the real estate industry claim this level of service consistency?  Do we set expectations with the consumer and then meet it with EVERY REALTOR® experience? Do we consistently monitor service satisfaction levels and then eliminate those that do not provide the service quality we know consumers deserve?

I would say definitely not. The Consumer experience in real estate is inconsistent at best. In my own experience I have satisfying customer service experiences and absolute DISASTERS! I’m sure I’m not alone on that. We wonder why our profession doesn’t have higher satisfaction ratings with consumers, yet we do nothing to ensure a consistent service experience.

For the most part, it is highly unlikely that a consumer will have the same service experience with two agents in the same brokerage, not to mention with agents across the country.  How can we expect to build a meaningful brand that is not based on accountability to a standard of service quality like every other strong brand in America delivers?

Measurement of Service Quality

The industry uses the excuse that agents are all independent contractors and thus we cannot require a certain level of service quality. I would beg to differ with that cop-out too.  Have you ever purchased carpeting or other types of contracted services from Lowe’s or Home Depot? They use a network of independent contractors to provide services under their brand. Those contractors are carefully vetted and chosen. After they complete a project at your home you receive a feedback form asking you to rate the experience of those contractors at your home.  If a contractor gets known for being too messy, disrespectful of the homeowner or doesn’t show up on time, guess that happens to them? They get fired, of course! The same thing that happens to employees at Trader Joe’s, Enterprise Rent-a-car and other great brands known for their service quality.

If we’re going to change this industry we’re going to have to put “REAL” service quality standards in place and when an agent doesn’t meet the standards we need to clear them out! The industry also needs to promote what the REALTOR® brand stands for and show a genuine interest and commitment to improving the customer experience with REALTORS®. Why are we having such a hard time adopting the concept of consumer feedback and ratings transparency? EVERY other industry in America, even doctors and lawyers now participate in consumer feedback programs, yet somehow the purchase of a consumer’s largest asset continues to be unregulated.  I’m amazed there haven’t been more lawsuits given the gravity of the purchase coupled with such poorly managed service delivery.

So what can be done to change this weakness in the REALTOR® brand?

Outline Service Quality Standards

As the stewards of the REALTOR® brand, NAR can outline service quality standards based on input from consumers about what a satisfying consumer experience looks like. Service quality standards should NOT be outlined solely by agents or brokers. The standards need to conduct the highest level of service quality, NOT just a compliance-driven mindset that so many industries use. For example, I was asked to complete a satisfaction survey in a hospital after my mother had spent several weeks there. The questions were ridiculous and had nothing to do with service quality. The questions at the hospital centered around things like “were you told about your insurance requirements”, not about things like “Did your family member receive the respectful care they expected”. These questions were actually insulting because they did not give me a chance to provide the feedback I wanted to give. I wanted to tell them about the nurse who went totally above and beyond the call of duty and provided us with an amazing experience. I wanted to tell them about the woman in the bed next to my mother who called for over an hour for someone to help her out of bed so she could urinate. Nobody ever came and sadly, she wet the bed.

Our industry at some level has adopted somewhat of a “blind eye” to what consumers are looking for. Of course, there are many amazing agents out there who go well beyond the call of duty. Many times, they are just amazing people who have taken it upon themselves to deliver an amazing customer experience. There are no standards of service that have required or even encouraged them to achieve this level of service quality.

The industry needs to define service quality standards by what it takes to delight consumers, not just by whether the disclosure documents were completed properly or the inspection was completed on time.

Adhering to Service Quality Standards

We have an industry that is based on membership. NAR is incentivized to include even sub-par agents in their ranks so that it has the political power on Capital Hill with the largest trade association in America. Local Associations and MLSs need the membership revenue to support the programs they would like to deliver. Brokerages need to maintain their lowest producers so they can continue to receive technology fees and marketing fees. Real estate industry is an industry with an extremely low cost of entry. Maybe it’s time to change that and think about adhering to quality standards and see what happens?

I have heard many top-producing agents that would be happy to pay more for their monthly subscriptions and fees if it would help eliminate the agents that are unprepared and deliver poor service to their agents. Maybe it’s time to overtly demonstrate to consumers and the U.S. Government that we are serious about stepping up the levels of professionalism and have outlined strong recommendations to brokers and Associations about putting programs to place to improve the customer experience.  Maybe, as an industry we could actually put a meaningful service quality monitoring program in place that is run by the industry and not by third parties.

Zillow.com, for example, now includes 70,000 consumer ratings on their site in just a few months. Consumers are desperate for this information and because we are not providing it to them they are, yet again, going to third parties for answers.

It’s time for real estate to wake up and realize that the needs of consumers really do drive the industry. Just because it’s not convenient for us to provide meaningful methods for managing service quality doesn’t mean they don’t want it. They will find it somehow, some way. I would really like the solution to come from the real estate industry – before it’s too late.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

rsaxon November 22, 2011 at 5:53 am

We will not raise the bar of professionalism in our industry until we push our states to require a degree to get a license. We want to be paid like attorneys, accountants, and other professionals, but we take advantage of coursework that is less than that required to cut hair. And I’m a prelicensure teacher! I always hope that MY students will take to heart the high standards exhibited in classroom examples and exhortations, but that population is a drop in the bucket, even if that worked.

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kevinmcqueen November 22, 2011 at 9:41 am

Keep up the good work Marilyn! This is the right message for the times, no question. I can feel the movement building right now.

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ldromito December 8, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Very well said Marilyn!
The key to improving service quality and customer satisfaction is measurement, feedback, transparency and accountability. With rare exception, none of these variables are embedded into service delivery as it is currently practiced. We are an industry almost entirely focused on prospecting, customer capture, making sales and productivity – service is almost undefined and irrelevant.
Change will come, however – most likely from the outside because insiders are very happy with things just the way they are. Consumers are creating an opportunity for outsiders to reinvent the business and when they do consumers will follow never to return.

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