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The Truth About OfferGen & Telephonophobia

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Telephonophobia
For the Gen-Y readers: that round thing with holes in it is called “the dial”. I know you’ve never seen one in the wild.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Andrew Flachner of RealScout, who penned this article on Inman recently:

The answer to me, and to many real estate veterans, is obvious. A strategy that directly focuses on producing more transactions, while providing more value to the client, is far more rewarding, both financially and professionally.

“Offer generation,” the strategy of systematically and scalably converting clients into transaction offers, is the direct result of this realization. It will benefit the industry to have the same thought leadership, financial investment and technological innovation garnered by lead gen to be redirected to “offer gen.” We need to focus more on generating offers and less on generating leads.

I couldn’t agree with Andrew more on the concept and the philosophy behind this “OfferGen Movement”. But I thought I’d write this to point out the obvious truth about OfferGen, and make a suggestion or two (that will go ignored by the Powers That Be, of course).

The Epidemic of Telephonophobia

Telephonophobia is described by About.com as a sub-species of social anxiety disorders:

If you have social anxiety disorder, some of the same anxiety-causing elements of a social situation (speaking first, anticipating someone’s response) are present whether you are physically in front of a person or connected to them over a telephone line.

Again, a phone fear or true phobia isn’t a given for everyone with social anxiety disorder, but it can be an additional concern for some.

Some of the symptoms of telephonophobia include:

  • feelings of anxiety when making or receiving calls
  • delaying making phone calls
  • worrying about bothering the other person
  • worrying about what you will say
  • worrying about embarrassing yourself
  • avoiding making calls or having others call for you

That sounds like a whole lot of real estate agents to me. It must be. Because there’s no decent explanation for why half of all online leads go completely unanswered! From that linked-to article on Weichert:

Posing as consumers, researchers inquired about listings on broker websites, Zillow.com, Realtor.com, and Trulia.com. Reaching out to 384 brokers in 11 states, we found:

  • 48% of inquiries went unanswered
  • Average response time was 15 hours
  • Call-back attempts averaged 1.5
  • Email contacts averaged 2.07

Average response time was FIFTEEN (15!) hours? So half of the responses, when the agent bothered responding at all, was longer than 15 hours. Why bother?

Maybe The Leads Suck? Or Maybe…

When I pointed this fact out to Andrew, he explained that one of the reasons why agents suck so badly at returning phone calls is that they’ve been burned by low-quality leads from websites and portals. Said agent might have started out by promptly returning all inquiries, only to find out that only a few out of the hundreds were even remotely ready to purchase within the next 30-60 days. So they begin ignoring web leads, unless they sound like “hot prospects” that are ready to rock and roll immediately.

There’s a lot of truth to that. But then again…

If telephonophobia amongst real estate agents were limited to just dealing with online leads, we might chalk that up to the leads being terrible. But fact is, REALTORS themselves complain constantly about some other REALTOR on the other side of the deal being unresponsive. We’re not talking about leads here anymore. We’re talking about a buyer agent who calls the listing agent with a question, and cannot get a return phone call. We’re talking about listing agents who call the buyer agent with a counteroffer during negotiations, and can’t get a response back. We’re talking about buyers, actual Mister and Missus Buyer, who want to make an offer on a property and cannot get their buyer agent — supposedly their fiduciary — to return a goddamn phone call for three days.

That has nothing to do with crappy online leads; it has everything to do with behavior, training, incentives and a culture of tolerance of the intolerable within the industry.

Technology Can Help, But It Cannot Solve

Andrew, being a technology guy, thinks that what is needed is a technological solution to the problem:

Offer generation is not only about this 5 percent. The other 95 percent of your prospects — the referrals, repeats, walk-ins — also require the attention, investment and technology crucial in converting them into offer-writing clients.

He suggests this model:

image4

That seems correct to me, and his suggestions are solid. I’m also confident that there is no shortage of technology solutions for capture, search, funnel, and even offer (NuOffer anybody?) So far so good.

Where we might part ways, I think, may be here:

Offer gen requires a strong first impression. Despite ubiquitous advice about contacting a lead within minutes, time and technology constraints often prevent agents from putting their best foot forward with new leads. Too often, even legitimate leads are neglected — and therefore wasted.

This lead “leakage” is financially painful and is the first thing that must be addressed in a successful offer gen strategy. Successfully capturing a lead is all about demonstrating agent value early in the homebuying process, and the trick is to experiment with tactics that are automated, yet personal. [Emphasis mine]

So we’re obviously in agreement that the critical problem is lack of responsiveness to leads. He thinks the issue is time and technology constraints. The solution, therefore, is to implement tactics that automate the response, but in a personal way.

I’m fine with automated responses; I get enough of them from a whole variety of companies when I submit a question, or an inquiry, or even a lead. What I’m not fine with are automated responses that are attempting to fool me, the consumer.

An auomated email that simply says, “I got your inquiry, but I’m busy right now. I will email or call you back as soon as I can” is absolutely fine. It doesn’t have to be personalized, it doesn’t have to be anything… as long as you then actually call or email me back. What’s not fine is an automated email that tries to make me think that the agent in question actually wrote the thing.

Why Is Automation Like That No Good?

There are a few reasons why I’m opposed to such automation. Two are pragmatic, and one is idealistic.

Pragmatic One: Nothing Automated Can Really Sound Human

The first reason is that no matter how good automated technology is, it falls short of an actual human voice. You can read up on the Turing Test if you wish.

If a good first impression is critical to Offer Gen, then I submit that getting caught out as a fake human impersonator is not exactly productive. Better to be an automated response that is proud to be an automated response, and then follow up with a real response promptly.

But if you start it off with some human-sound email, and then I find out the whole thing was computer-generated, good luck getting me to trust you in the slightest bit.

Pragmatic Two: Conversion Is About Listening

My second point is that conversion — Offer Gen — starts with and is sustained by listening. Effective sales techniques always, always, involves listening to the customer first to establish needs, wants, objections, concerns, etc. It’s far more important when you’re talking about someone’s home.

Technology may have evolved to a point where computers can “listen” to a human being, but such technology is at its earliest baby-step stages. At best, we’re talking about triggering keywords or some such. There is no actual comprehension, no actual understanding, of what the consumer is saying, is not saying, and is saying between the lines. Only human beings can listen to other human beings.

If conversion is the goal, if Offer Gen is the goal, then I would submit to you that the most important element is for the REALTOR to actually listen to what the consumer is saying, understand that buyer or that seller’s needs and wants, ask further questions to bring out the unspoken needs and wants, and craft a response that makes it obvious that the REALTOR understood. It’s not a hugely difficult skill; all of us have it to one degree or another. It’s called “having a conversation”.

Idealistic One: So Much For Honesty and Ethical Behavior

Leaving the practical to the side, I think it’s a bad idea for an industry plagued with horrible negative stereotypes of the dumbass agent who talks and talks and talks and lies through his teeth just to get a deal done so he can make his commission moolah to start off the relationship with a lie. And pretending that the automated email came from a real person is just that: a lie.

Consumers always cite “trust” as the number one factor for why they chose a particular REALTOR or another. And if engaged, there is a fiduciary relationship of trust between the buyer/seller and the agent. To start off that relationship with a falsehood, no matter how automated, strikes me as bordering on the unethical.

Idealistic Two: Do Your &#*%&@ Job!

Finally, and I got kinda heated over this issue when on the phone with Andrew, there is a special ethical duty for listing agents.

It’s one thing for a buyer’s agent, who spends a bunch of cash on Zillow or on her website, to then ignore buyer inquiries for fifteen hours, or let half of those go unanswered. It’s her money, and if she wants to throw it in the trash because she doesn’t want to pick up the phone, that’s her business (or lack thereof).

It’s a whole different ball of wax when it’s the listing agent, who has been hired to sell a family’s most important asset, who fails to return phone calls promptly. Note: I mean it when I say “phone calls”. If you are my listing agent, and I have hired you to sell my home, and I’m expecting to pay huge sums of money (3% to you, 3% to the buyer’s agent) that often goes into the tens of thousands of dollars, then you know what? I expect you to call back every single random-ass Zillow lead who wants to know more about my house. Emailing back a response is actually not good enough for me, unless the prospective buyer has specified email only. I expect you to do so as soon as humanly possible, and no, that isn’t fifteen hours later. I don’t care that 90 out of 100 such “leads” end up being people not ready to buy. I don’t care that you think Zillow leads are crap. I didn’t list my house with you so you can get leads off “your listing”; I listed my house with you because you promised to do everything in your power to sell my home as quickly as possible for the most money possible, given a particular market.

If you’re the listing agent, then it ain’t about you, darlin’. It’s about me, and my family, and our home, and our future, and our lives. Do your %*&#@$&% JOB! And that job most definitely includes responding to inquiries and “leads” and other agents calling you and whatever else, in a prompt, timely way.

In fact, Offer Gen should be your obsession if you’re the listing agent. Because the only way you serve your client — your client — is to generate offers on his house. Buyer leads are nice, and I don’t mind you getting them as a side effect of you doing your job to generate as many quality offers as possible on my house, which I have entrusted to you. But don’t tell me you give a damn about generating quality offers when you can’t be bothered to call back or email a potential buyer.

Suggestions, Sure To Be Ignored

So while I’m on board with the overall concept of focusing more on “Offer Gen” and less on lead gen, I rather think the cornerstone of such an effort needs to be on getting real estate agents — at least REALTORS, with the vaunted Code of Ethics — to be more responsive to consumers. Technology can certainly help, but it cannot solve the problem of telephonophobia and the consumer anger and consumer derision of real estate agents that it creates.

Two suggestions, then, to help solve the problem:

1. Responsiveness Needs To Be an Element of NAR’s Code of Ethics

Responsiveness is a key element of professionalism, particularly in the eyes of consumers. Since buyers and sellers rarely get to see, or even understand, all that a good REALTOR does behind the scenes, the most important element of customer satisfaction and appearance of professionalism is communication. We all know this.

Accordingly, I’d like to suggest that maybe Article 12 should read…

REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations. REALTORS® shall ensure that their status as real estate professionals is readily apparent in their advertising, marketing, and other representations, and that the recipients of all real estate communications are, or have been, notified that those communications are from a real estate professional. REALTORS® shall respond personally to all inquiries from the public as promptly as possible, and in no event later than within the same business day. If a personal response within the same business day is impossible, REALTORS® shall notify the public through automated means which will identify clearly the time and date by which they will respond, and provide the name and contact information of another REALTOR® whom the member of the public can contact in the meantime.

Have a similar provision under Duties to Clients and Customers and Duties to Other REALTORS, that mandates prompt responses to inquiries, phone calls, emails, etc. Then start bringing Ethics charges against people who are averaging 15 hours to respond to a simple online inquiry, or failing to call back the buyer agent on the other side, or… you get the picture.

2. Publicize and then Compete on Responsiveness

That’s what NAR can do. Brokers, of course, should start simply firing non-responsive agents. Start publishing the firm-wide average in responsiveness, and start driving that number down way, way, way below 15 hours. You could literally run a marketing campaign that says, “Call ABC Realty! We return phone calls, unlike those other guys!” I say competing on responsiveness is a perfectly valid strategy, and one I endorse wholeheartedly.

If you truly care about responsiveness, about Offer Gen over Lead Gen, about client service that is prompt and personal… you’re a great broker, a great agent. And it is your moral duty to take business away from those others who suck, and make the rest of you look like used car salesmen.

In Closing…

I guess to summarize my overall thoughts, they are these:

  • Obsession with lead-gen over client service is truly one of the sicknesses of this industry.
  • If the “OfferGen” movement can help practitioners take a steap away from leads, leads, leads and towards service, service, service, I’m all for it.
  • The cornerstone of any “OfferGen” strategy has to be prompt communication and responsiveness.
  • Technology can help, but it cannot solve, the problem.
  • Automated fakery technology actually makes the problem worse by (potentially) camouflaging those agents who don’t give a crap about responding to buyers, sellers, clients, and other professionals. We need less cover-up and more sunshine.
  • If you are the listing agent, you have zero excuse for failing to be responsive; your job is to sell the client’s home, not to capture, qualify, search, and funnel leads. You are not only getting paid handsomely for that work, but you are the fiduciary entrusted with a family’s largest and most emotional asset.
  • If organized real estate and the brokerage community were to get serious about responsiveness, there are things they can do to show that seriousness.
  • It is the moral duty of good brokers and agents to take business away from crappy brokers and agents. The homeowner and the home buyer deserve your superior, more responsive, service.

Onward! Defeat telephonophobia in real estate today!

-rsh