Monthly Archives: January 2009

Dealing With Negative Comments That Are True

One of the “risks” of having a company blog or company social media operation of any kind is that someone will come on your blog, your Facebook page, or whatever, and just trash you.

Most of the advice on dealing with negativity is to “address it”.

For example, here’s a post from MarketingProfsDaily on handling negative blog/site comments:

If you see negative comments on a blog/site, especially those based on inaccurate information, you need to address those comments. (Emphasis in original)

And the post continues with some good general suggestions:

As I told Allison, as soon as she joined the conversation and encouraged interaction, the tone of the dialogue changed from people throwing negative comments AT the company, to the commenters talking WITH Allison. And then Allison later blogged about the article on HA’s own blog.

What can you learn from how Allison handled this situation?

1 – If someone is leaving negative comments about your company, respond.

2 – Be thankful and polite. Nothing escalates a negative comment into a full-bore flamewar faster than an ‘Oh yeah?!?’ reply from the company.

3 – If commenters are jumping to the wrong conclusion about your company, kindly correct them with the proper information.

4 – Thank them for their feedback, and encourage them to provide more. Leave your email address so they can contact you off the blog, if they choose.

If you are thankful and respectful toward commenters, even those that are attacking your company, the end result will almost always be a positive experience. Allison’s experience isn’t the exception, it’s the norm.

Now, I think this is solid advice… but note that the underlying theme is that the criticism leveled at the company is erroneous.  The commenters are jumping to wrong conclusions.  They don’t have the facts.  They’re mistaken.

But what if they’re not?  What if they’re right?

There’s plenty of good advice out there.  I think this one from Ogilvy360 is particularly nice.  In part, they recommend:

  • Address The Issue. Acknowledge the comment, and admit when you are wrong.  Your readers will respond better and respect you more if you can admit mistakes.  Everyone can make a typo, forget to say something important or just be plain wrong.

But frankly, courtesy and saying thank you isn’t always appropriate either. Sometimes, the commenter is just a prick, adding nothing to the conversation.  Or he just has an axe to grind or something.  What then?

I personally like this handy chart I recently found (via Twitter, I believe, but the h/t goes to Web Strategist).  It’s from an organization that knows a thing or two about “handling conflict”: The United States Air Force.

Go to DEFCON-1! DEFCON-1 people!

Go to DEFCON-1! DEFCON-1 people!

In particular, I like this advice about dealing with “RAGER”:

“RAGER”

Is the post a rant, rage, joke, ridicule or satirical in nature? –>

MONITOR ONLY

Avoid responding to specific posts, monitor the site for relevant information and comments.

Now, when the USAF says “monitor the site”, I’m pretty sure they don’t mean with this or this.  But then, you never know, do you?

On a more serious note, I think the ideal of transparency cuts in multiple ways here, when the criticism is correct, is based on truth, and is neither a Troll nor a Rager who can be ignored.

My first thought is that your company really shouldn’t be doing things it is afraid to defend in a public forum.  Bribing elected officials with special “Friends of the CEO” type of deals?  Not only don’t talk about it, but seriously, don’t do it in the first place.  Adding cheap fillers into baby food?  Blog flames should be the least of your concerns.

Do not defend the indefensible.  If asked to defend the indefensible, quit the job.  You can find other jobs; you can never get back your credibility, and “I was just doing my job” is a poor excuse.

Second, if you are being criticized for something true that you do feel comfortable defending, then by all means, defend away.  Don’t do the “ignore it and it’ll go away” thing.  That leads to disaster.  Be polite, but be firm.  You feel you’re in the right — why be defensive?  Keep an open mind, sure, but defend yourself.

Third, be transparent as to your thinking.  You’re not necessarily looking for agreement from the negative commenter; you’re looking to explain your decision/article/whatever.  I find disagreement and debate tremendously useful, as long as both sides are disclosing their reasoning.  I can evaluate for myself which side I agree with, but end up with respect for both sides for being transparent in their analysis.

When you realize you were wrong, or when you realize you were mistaken, just admit it.  Blogging/communications isn’t a competition with winners and losers.  It’s a discussion.

I know this is a big topic, with a lot of different angles.  But the rules of thumb seem to be:

  • If they’re mistaken, correct them.
  • If they’re trolls or ragers, ignore them (and ban them).
  • If they’re right, and you’re up to no good, then cut it the hell out. Then apologize.
  • If they’re right, and you’re up to good, then by all means, defend away.  Be direct, be firm, but be polite.
  • Explain your reasoning in disagreement.  Let your audience make up their own mind; even in disagreement, they’ll respect you.

What have I left out?

-rsh

On Business Darwinism

Hi, Can I List Your Home for Sale?

Hi, Can I List Your Home for Sale?

First of all, let me give a shout-out to Hey Amaretto, aka, Diane Guercio, whose blog I just read for the first time.  She’s got an amazing voice for the web: personable, yet relevant, with useful information mixed in with humor and an overall fun voice.  Really, check her out for one example of how realtor blogging should sound.  (She is also now blogrolled here.)  Here’s a taste:

So, okay, I can’t see how they would have signed an Exclusive Buyer’s Agency contract, let alone a MA Mandatory Agency Disclosure form. And handing out my lockbox codes to buyers doesn’t exactly constitute representation. Just thinking about the things that could happen made me really upset. Suppose the buyers had slipped on the ice, or had fallen down the cellar stairs, or SAID they had fallen down the cellar stairs? I am just getting over the headache that had started after I was handed this little nugget of information.

See what I mean?  Useful info, but with a really nice, personable, human-sounding voice.

Her latest post — which I found out via Twitter (which is, in and of itself, some sort of testament to social media) — is also interesting: Business Darwinism, Success, and Laundry.  Her point appears to be that to survive in a Darwinist environment, one needs to become a “Shortcut” — a superior specimen par excellence that becomes the ‘automatic choice’ for any given task.  And to become a “Shortcut”, one needs plenty of elbow grease:

And that is the point, in summary- by working harder and better than others, you become indispensable. Not much of a surprise that I scored well on the online test, given the rigorous training sessions I had been through with the little cherubs. I guess you want to be the best you can be, in business, in your personal relationships, in life. That’s how you create job security, and really, it’s the only way to go, regardless of the rewards. (Emphasis added.)

Now, here’s the thing: I have a passing interest in the application of Darwinist theories to other subject areas.  Indeed, it’s fascinating what happens when you apply evolution to something like computer programming.  There’s a whole institute, called the Santa Fe Institute, that focuses on things like chaos theory and evolution as applied to areas like economics, physics, chemistry, and so forth.

[By no means do I know more than the tiniest of the tiny bit about any of this stuff.  So it is quite likely that I'm going to sound like an idjit in the next few paragraphs, since a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Caveat lector. -- ED: And this would be different from your other posts how?]

Evolution and Effort

But at the heart of evolutionary theory is the notion of competition.  Evolution is not, as popular usage of the phrase has come to mean, a peaceful, gradual change from one state to another.  It is a violent conflict, with winners and losers, and the losers in evolutionary struggle almost always die.

Im Evolving, Dammit!

I'm Evolving, Dammit!

The interesting thing to note, from a theory standpoint, is that the winners and losers are not differentiated by a level of effort.  In other words, there is no suggestion (and no evidence) that species which go extinct did not work at survival.  The dodo bird quite likely worked hard at finding food, reproducing, and so on given its environment.  It just couldn’t adapt fast enough, or adjust quickly enough, when its environment changed dramatically with the arrival of humans — and more importantly, their livestock:

However, when humans first arrived on Mauritius, they also brought with them other animals that had not existed on the island before, including dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and Crab-eating Macaques, which plundered the dodo nests, while humans destroyed the forests where the birds made their homes;[20] currently, the impact these animals – especially the pigs and macaques – had on the dodo population is considered to have been more severe than that of hunting.

Applied to business, then, the lesson frankly is not to work harder but to adapt to changing conditions faster.

If you’re a buggy whip manufacturer, no amount of hard work, no amount of superhuman effort, no amount of being the go-to guy when it comes to horse buggy whips is going to save you from extinction when automobiles replace the horse-drawn carriage.  That is an environmental change, driven by technology: your only choices are to adapt or perish.

Which makes Diane’s observations correct, but only in part.  Working harder and better than others to become indispensable is the key to survival, but only if the hard work and better work is suited to the environment in which they are happening.

Being a mom, frankly, is the wrong analogy here, because no matter how lazy you are, no matter how neglectful you are of your kids, you are still indispensable to them.  Conversely, Diane might be the best mom in the entire world; she could be the “Shortcut”, the go-to mom, for all things momlike.  That does no good for my kids who don’t have Diane as her mom; they’ll have to settle for their own mom (who, incidentally, is pretty kickass too).

Evolution in Real Estate

Which brings us back to real estate, evolution, competition, and Darwinism.  The situation we face today is not simply a “market downturn” — although there is no doubt that the market downturn is part of the environment.  The situation, frankly, is that the environment itself has changed irrevocably, as disruptive technology tends to make happen.

Brokercentric? Agentcentric? Consumercentric?

Brokercentric? Agentcentric? Consumercentric?

I just don’t see how it pays to work your tail off doing the outdated things that worked prior to the Internet era.  You might become the go-to gal when it comes to making property flyers, but when 80% of consumers are finding homes online, does that hard work matter much?

I know this is obvious to most of the folks who are reading this (after all, this is a blog….)  But the challenge the industry faces as a whole is one of evolutionary adaptation.  Given fundamental changes in the environment, does it make sense to keep doing what one has been doing? At the same time, change for change’s sake isn’t necessarily going to lead to success either.  Just because ‘social media’ is the in-thing today doesn’t mean that it makes sense for you or your company to do.  On the other hand, maybe it does.

All depends on your assessment of the environment, and what efforts will lead to success in your environment.  Once you have some idea, then and only then will all that hard work and better work pay off.

A Modest Suggestion

So allow me to make one modest suggestion for the various real estate companies.  I know the trendy thing to do right now is to hire various positions like “Director of Social Media” and “Chief Blogger” and such.  Those things, in and of themselves, are just fine.

But you really need to have a “Chief Evolutionary Officer” whose job is to continually look at the environment and assess whether the strategies you have in place are the right ones right now.  (And yes, that should be the CEO in most cases.  The acronym is fully intentional.)  We are undergoing significant environmental disruption; now is the time to pay very close attention to the environment to ensure that all that hard work is actually accomplishing something.

-rsh

From Cowboys to Consultants

Something to consider from the world of commercial real estate, Brokerages Retool Rainmakers:

With office leasing and investment sales volume reaching new lows across the country, big brokerages are retraining idled dealmakers to become service providers rather than cowboys intent on roping the next mega deal. Brokerages have enormous fixed costs and in this challenging economy they are under pressure to provide tailored client services, such as mortgage workout programs.

And:

Betsy Peck, chief administrative officer for brokerage in the Americas with Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle, oversees the company’s training programs. “Understanding the multiple levels of service that can be provided beyond the transaction is clearly something that clients are looking for as they look into outsourcing and expanding their reliance on some of our professionals,” says Peck. “We try to anticipate the next client need. You’re not selling a service unless you’re listening to the client.”

Now, as I’ve pointed out before, on the whole, commercial real estate is to residential real estate as investment banking is to used car sales: totally and completely different industries in many respects.  There are indeed services in the CRE world that does not exist (yet) in residential world, such as portfolio management and capital markets work.

However, as residential real estate practitioners begin to talk more and more about professionalism, about need for local expertise, and how such expertise can be turned into money, I think the worlds are getting closer together.

First point to note is that even CRE firms cannot transform cowboys into consultants.  The personality type demanded of a rainmaking deal originator is so different from the personality type demanded of a consultant that “retooling” one to become the other is futile:

Rather than focus on training individual brokers, Lipsey has identified training that works best in team environments. “Let’s say a broker sold a property two years ago and now the mortgage is greater than fair market value. That broker can go back and say, ‘We’ve got some services for a fee that we can provide you until things get better.’ The broker brings the work in and the work is performed by the junior broker and the technician [researcher/analyst], and the bill gets submitted.”

So the cowboy remains a cowboy: he’s just roping different kinds o’ steer.  Rather than trying to sell properties or lease space, the cowboy-rainmaker is still out there beating the bushes for services deals.  The work itself, however, is to be done by the “junior broker” and the “technician”.  Not much retooling here; more of a change in the offerings menu.

The second point to note is that this can, and probably does, work in residential real estate as well.  Highly relevant is this post by Chris Johnson at Bloodhound Blog, especialy this part:

But I said I am a rake.  I cared about my clients–to a point.  To the point that they didn’t trouble me, expect anything, or need sympathy, I really cared.   I’d return phone calls, and the noisy ones could compel me to make a flyer or whatever.  I looked around and the sheer volume of work that other agents were doing astonished me.  I figured–deliberately–that a higher churn was acceptable if I didn’t have to mess around with e-neighborhoods and stuff like that. The path, then, was to burn through people.

Now: at some point, I’ll post how to use a Rake to be part of a team.  Best use of me would have been to join a mega agent and prospect more.  If that had fed a team somewhere, or if I’d built service people…the love of prospecting is a lethal way to sell.

Is this not the ideal rainmaker personality you would want?  Why burden such a pure cowboy mentality with the need to ‘make a flyer or whatever’?  Just have “technicians” do that, especially since some of them take the same attitude towards making flyers, marketing listings, or staging houses that Chris takes to making phone calls, and unleash both parts to do what each likes to do.

Individuals cannot be ‘retooled’ quite so easily, as if they were a piece of machinery.  There are skills, experiences, and personalities that suit one person to a particular kind of work, while making him unsuited for a different type of work.  But firms, teams, and organizations can and should be retooled constantly to adapt to changing market conditions and changing consumer expectations.

-rsh

Lessons from Barbershops

Just a little above the ears, Sam.

Just a little above the ears, Sam.

Marc Davison’s newest post is, as is normal for him, a wonderful read filled with cool and interesting insights.  Go read it in full.

The key passage, I think, is this:

But over the decades, the love waned. As new competitors grew into the marketplace, these establishments remained still in their own murky waters of services, anchored to old ways and failing to navigate their brands to the new currents of change.

Over time, despite the full array of services they offered, they drifted from the fabric of our culture, replaced by TRESemme, Paul Mitchell, Fantastic Sams, CVS and Starbucks — “interlopers.”

The older institutions suffered at the hands of their own neglect, compounded by their inability to convey the value they offered, the full services they provided and the personal attention they gave. They believed that being moored to an historic tradition is good enough to insure their place in the future. Or perhaps they believed in nothing and let fear of some unknown guide their complacency.

I haven’t researched the how & why of the decline of barber shops in the United States, but much of this does ring true.

At the same time, I find myself differing with Marc on this:

Today’s broker — you might be a barbershop.
You cut hair better than anyone.
You service the customer better than anyone.
And what you deliver is uncommon.

But you’ve created ambiguity around yourselves and these benefits.

Believe that as things get tougher, as money gets tighter, people need what you have but will never find it if you and your agents are sharpening your scissors behind closed doors.

Believe that so much has changed in real estate and in the way consumers interact with it that your message, your brand, your entire marketing campaign is likely dangerously antique.

I don’t think the problem is marketing.  I think the problem is the actual services being offered, and the ways those services are being delivered.  Marketing campaign is the least of a real estate broker’s concerns.

[To be fair, I don't think we have real disagreement here.  I think Marc would actually agree with my analysis here, because the steps he recommends under the name of "Davison Realty Group" have less to do with marketing and advertising and much more to do with actual operations.]

On Barber Shops, Old and New

Marc is right that the old barber shop was a part of the American cultural fabric.  It was just something that American men did. However, why did barber shops decline and fall out of the cultural mainstream?  Was it because of a failure of marketing?

This article I found on the Web is actually a pretty nice summary of the history of barber shops.  Key points:

From the 1880′s to the 1940′s, men tended to hang out in unisex, all-male establishments from country clubs to saloons to barbershops.  Going to the barbershop, then, was a weekly — even daily — ritual for men.

During this period, barbershops are not the cheezy plastic-chair and old geezer affair most of us remember or see around the neighborhood.  They were luxurious, classy places:

Marble counters were lined with colorful glass blown tonic bottles. The barber chairs were elaborately carved from oak and walnut, and fitted with fine leather upholstery. Everything from the shaving mugs to the advertising signs were rendered with an artistic flourish. The best shops even had crystal chandeliers hanging from fresco painted ceilings.

The decline of barbershops had quite a bit to do with technological change – sound familiar, brokers?

The first blow to barbershops came in 1904 when Gillette began mass marketing the safety razor. Their advertisements touted the razor as more economical and convenient than visiting the barbershop….  Companies like Sears began selling at-home haircutting kits, and mom began cutting Junior’s and Pop’s hair. Then the Depression hit, and people cut back on discretionary spending like barber shaves.

Then in the 1960’s Beatlemania and the hippie culture seized the country, and hairstyles began to change. Men started to grow their hair longer and shaggier, and their visits to the barber became infrequent or non-existent.

Let’s also note that the 60′s was a period marked by rebellion against everything old and familiar: family, church, government, schools… and yes, that extended to barbershops.

Even when short hair came back into style during the 1980’s, men did not return en masse to the barbershop. Instead, a new type of hairdresser siphoned off the barbers’ former customers: the unisex salon. Places like “SuperCuts” which were neither beauty salons nor barbershops, catered to both men and women.

Part of this change, I believe, has to do with how our society and culture have changed.  Men no longer tend to hang out in unisex environments, only with other men.  In some cases, there have been lawsuits to force those types of changes.  In other cases, it was the cultural norm that changed.

Furthermore, our workplace has changed. Gone are the days of long, leisurely lunches.  Gone are the days when men can work till 3pm, then head to the club, or to the barbershop to fraternize with other men.  We now work in 24/7 cycles, from early in the morning with barely time to grab breakfast, till late at night, commuting ever-longer distances from our jobs.  I know I personally have trouble even getting to some place to get my hair cut regularly; being able to go to a classic, traditional barbershop for a leisurely hour or two of chatting with other guys about the Jets and Yankees, while getting my hair cut seems luxury difficult to imagine.

Just get me in and out, as fast as possible, at as low a cost as possible.  That seems to be the modern mantra of the working male.

The Relative Uselessness of Marketing

If the decline of the barbershop was driven by technological change (e.g., introduction of the safety razor) and by society-wide cultural change (e.g., Age of Aquarius, feminism, etc.) and by fundamental change in lifestyle, then honestly, how much would have a new marketing campaign helped?

I just can’t imagine a barbershop able to market its way out of a decline, when all of those forces are arrayed against it.  When everyone wants to grow their hair out long, and thinks barbershops are part of the ‘authority’ they are supposed to question, positioning the same set of services in a different light makes no difference.

The customer simply does not want the services being offered.

The Product First, Marketing Second

And yet, in recent years, we are beginning to see a resurgence of the old barbershop in dramatically different form, offering a whole new set of services that at least a segment of the customer does want.

Companies like Miles & Lyle and Truman’s are offering an updated barbershop concept that reaches back into the golden age of barbershops on the one hand, while offering services that the barber of the 1930′s wouldn’t have imagined.  For example, Truman’s offers pedicures and “Deep Cleaning Skin Treatments” to its “members”.

And they do it in a luxury surrounding, evocative of the original classy appeal of the barbershop.

These changes are not merely marketing; they are fundamental changes to the service offering itself.  And they are aimed at a particular kind of consumer who doesn’t mind paying a ton of money to be pampered.

Lessons for Real Estate

As I’ve noted above, I think Marc would actually agree here, that what real estate brokers need to do today isn’t simply a new marketing campaign.  His suggestions are operational in nature more than they are promotional.  For example:

I would take a hard look at my backend system. Does it have lead management? Does it have lead routing? Does it offer my agents the ability to run comparative market analyses on the fly? Does it allow me to distribute incoming inquiries to my agents via text messages and supply them with the tools to respond immediately and properly rather than with canned nonsense?

Backend systems are marketing, of course, since everything can be traced to marketing one way or another.  But note that having things like lead management, lead routing, and ability to run CMA’s on the fly are productivity enhancers that enables a brokerage to offer services it could not before.

These types of changes are, in fact, precisely the kind of changes that many of us realestistas have been advocating for some time.  Improving agent quality is a common battlecry; I’ve pointed out that “your brand is in the hands of your worst agent.”  Improving the website to be more consumer-friendly is something every broker and agent should be thinking about.

But note the similarities here.  Real estate brokerage is being challenged by technological changes.  The web is to brokerage what safety razors were to barbershops.  In some cases, there are societal and cultural changes as well.  As hippies did not want to go to Dear Old Dad’s barbershop, the Gen-X and Gen-Y consumers don’t want to call some agent before having researched neighborhoods, houses, prices, and mortgages thoroughly.

If barbershops declined from the 1940′s till today, it was not because of a failure of marketing.  It was because they failed to adapt their core service offering to the new environment.  The same holds true for real estate brokerage.

No amount of brilliant marketing, no amount of TV advertising, no amount of social media, or blogging, or video, or whatever clever marketing scheme can get around the core service offering.

Reinvention

So it is that as barbershops are reinventing themselves as a new kind of social-club for men, perhaps brokerages will need to reinvent themselves as a new kind of real-estate services firm.  Marketing is important, of course — critical, even.  But even as a marketer myself, I do think that the lesson to be drawn from the decline of barbershops is that changes must be dealt with first at a core operations level, and then from a marketing and messaging standpoint.

In the meantime… Marc’s post reminds me that I very badly need a haircut….

-rsh

Best American Band of the Last 20 Years

As some of you know, I’ve been getting more and more into Blip (www.blip.fm) — a really cool social-media music community play.  I’m NotoriousROB on Blip, in case you’re interested. :)

And walking to the office this morning, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do a poll/contest type of thing on the topic of “Best American Band of the Last Twenty Years”.

So here’s how I propose it work.

Nominate the band. Explain briefly why you think they are the best American band of the past 20 years.

Put in a link to a blip or YouTube or some other place where readers can go check out the works by that band.

You can do this either in comments to this post, or on your blog, and put the link in the comments.

I will collect all of the submissions and post it up in a poll.

We vote.  Simple, eh?

Some rules:

- Band must be American.  Doesn’t mean that every member must be an American citizen or any such thing.  It does mean that the band had to have been started in the U.S., and is actively mostly in the U.S.

- It must be a band: more than a single artist.  So Norah Jones won’t qualify, sorry.

I’ll put my nomination in the comments to this post.

Because while talking about heavy topics in real estate and marketing is fun, sometimes, you do want a break. :)

-rsh