I know this isn’t news, but most Real Estate Agents are crap. Most Suits, too.

I’ve spent the last couple of months looking for a house. What a dispiriting experience. Not the house bit. I like houses. What’s dispiriting is having to deal with real estate agents. It’s bewildering how quickly and consistently they’re able to diminish what should be a great experience.

Because buying a house should be great. A bit nerve-wracking, yes, because there’s always an element of risk involved.  But still great because it’s all about potential – something that should improve your life, the thrill of finding something perfect, or, for that matter, something completely unexpected.

Which makes it a lot like the process of buying advertising. It’s a similar experience, commonly laced with similar disappointment, because Suits seem to make exactly the same mistakes I see real estate agents making.  Here are a few:

They don’t ask questions. And they don’t listen.

I’m amazed how often real estate agents open a conversation by talking about either themselves or the house I’ve just entered.  I’d expect them to start by asking about me, for the rather obvious reason that they, and the house, can only be relevant when they understand what it is that I’m looking for.

I’m looking for a house to solve a specific problem – the problem of my family and its related schools, hobbies and unnaturally extensive wardrobes – and only when an agent understands the specifics of my problem can they usefully talk about the property. Which you’d really want to do because when referenced against my need it sounds less like a generic house I don’t know and more like a specific house I might want to buy.

The same thing is true of suits.  Your job is to make clients feel understood, confident that their very specific problem is about to be solved by the combined intellectual and creative weight of your agency.  Which means the client needs to feel like the focus of pretty much every conversation before, during and after. Because clients see what they expect to see.  If they believe they’ve been understood, they’ll approach an idea on that basis, actively looking for the ways in which the idea demonstrates that understanding.  But if they don’t feel they’ve been understood they’ll approach the idea on that basis, actively looking for reasons why the idea (or the agency) demonstrates a lack of understanding. And, not surprisingly, they’ll find what they expect to find.

Which means your job is to always be asking relevant questions, listening to the answers and demonstrating your agency’s understanding..  This also has the added benefit of making you seem smarter.

They don’t know the product.

When I talk to a real estate agent I know they didn’t design or build the house they’re selling.  But I do expect that they know a lot about designing and building in general and have an excellent working knowledge of the specific house they’re selling – like when additions were made or insulation installed.  Most don’t.

I also expect that they have a really good working knowledge of the suburb – its schools, bus routes and parks, its recent sale prices, its cycle tracks and creches. Most don’t.

If you’re a suit I expect you to know a lot about the job at hand. If we’re building a website, I expect you to know quite a lot about that process. And I also expect you to know a lot about my category, my competitors, my previous activity, my target audience and how hard my job is.

They compensate for this by pretending to know what they don’t know.

At the same time there are things that I don’t expect a real estate agent to know about. And it makes me nervous when they pretend they do. These are things that become really important if I’m seriously considering buying the house they’re selling, very specific issues requiring the expert knowledge of someone like an architect, a builder or a lawyer. I’d prefer an agent not try and bluff their way through those issues. But lots do.

If you’re a suit there are also questions clearly outside your remit. There are creative directors, agency producers, directors, photographers, programmers and all manner of very highly-skilled specialists who know more about elements of the project at hand than you do. And as a client I don’t think it’s weak that you need to consult them.  In fact, I think that’s your job.

They don’t believe in what they’re selling.

It’s a real estate agent’s job to believe in the property they’re selling. (I realise sometimes this is hard and that not all houses are created equal.)  But they’re selling the house on behalf of people to whom it’s the only house that matters.  It’s alarming how easily you can tell when someone doesn’t believe in what they’re selling. It’s not clever to betray to a potential buyer that perhaps the sellers are a little misguided, a bit too ‘close’ to the property, maybe too emotionally attached.  That’s a betrayal. But I saw several agents do exactly that.

I also get really annoyed with real estate agents who are more interested in working out whether they might have a shot at selling me a different house rather than focusing on what they should be selling. They’re the ones who can’t wait to tell you that they also have five other properties in the area. They’re focused on making a sale for themselves, not for the owner of the house. To a degree you see the same thing with suits who want to be seen as the solution.  They’re not focused on selling the idea at hand, more on making sure that the client believes that they can find the answer. So at the first sign of a client reservation, they’ve abandoned the idea they should be selling and started thinking about what other idea might be easier to sell.

If you’re a suit, it’s your job to sell the idea you’ve been entrusted with. You need to believe in it.  Again, not all ideas are created equal, but the one you’ve got right now is the idea that’s deemed right by your agency.  It’s not clever to suggest that the creatives are a bit too attached to the idea, that the planner’s missed the point, or that it’s not quite the answer you would have come up with and that you’re the person who can make sure the clients gets the ‘right’ idea in the next round of creative.  But I’ve also seen plenty of suits do this.

What you’re supposed to be selling is the idea your agency’s recommending. You’re part of the agency, so that makes it your idea too.

So that’s my experience over the last couple of months, one I would bet is shared by the majority of people who have ever bought a house. It’s not one I’ll look back on with great fondness.  It’s a process that should have been enjoyable let down by basic stuff done badly.

And I dread to think of the number of times I’ve had a variation on this conversation with agency clients, people who went into the creative development process optimistic that not only would they make an ad they could be proud of, but that they’d enjoy the process of doing so.  Instead they found the process dispiriting and got an answer they begrudged. Which only reduces the chances of getting a great ad made next time.

(I’m feeling a bit depressed now.  But this is cheering me up.)

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I know this isn’t news, but most Real Estate Agents are crap. Most Suits, too.

5 thoughts on “I know this isn’t news, but most Real Estate Agents are crap. Most Suits, too.

  1. Michele says:

    Howdy!

    Interesting post. Got me a bit confused tough. It first says that for real state agents (or suits), listening to the client’s needs is more important than talking about the house. Then around two paragraphs or so later, it says that it’s annoying when they are interested in what you want to buy, instead of focusing on selling the house.
    As someone who is flirting with the suiting idea, I wonder what I should take from this post: should I listen or should I sell? A bit of both?

    1. Philip O'Neill says:

      Michele

      Good point. I didn’t make that very clear.

      The issue for me is that the listening needs to precede the selling.

      In the first instance I find it frustrating when I walk into a house and the agent wants to talk about him/herself or the house before knowing anything about me or what I’m looking for. They’re selling something that’s not relevant until they know what I need. The failing I often see with suits is the desire to get to the answer before they’ve understood the question. It’s usually well-intentioned, but they’re so keen to demonstrate what they know, or the experience the agency’s had, that they don’t wait to understand what the client’s issue actually is.

      My second point was more about the agents who are transparently interested in positioning themselves as a salesperson, rather than focusing on the house they’re supposed to be selling. They’re the ones who can’t wait to tell you that they also have five other properties in the area. They’re focused on making a sale for themselves, not for the owner of the house. To a degree you see the same thing with suits who want to be seen as the solution. They’re not focused on selling the idea at hand, more on making sure that the client believes that they can find the answer. So at the first sign of a client reservation, they’ve abandoned the idea they should be selling and started thinking about what other idea might be easier to sell.

      Thanks for your comment (I’ve updated the post to make it a little clearer).

      And good luck with the suiting thing.

      Philip

  2. Michele says:

    Thanks, Philip.
    Very useful advice.
    I’m sure I have the listening thing sorted, now all I need is a job with ideas to sell. 🙂

  3. Ian Howarth says:

    I think Michele’s point is very insightful. It cuts to the heart of the issue faced by both real estate agents and suits: doing the right thing for the buyer isn’t always going to be the same as doing the right thing for the seller.

    The advantage for the real estate agent is that while they have only one house to sell (from the vendor’s point of view) they have a multitude of potential buyers. So qualifying each buyer quickly means they can redirect the large “no” crowd appropriately, and sell to the small “maybe” crowd instead.

    But the advantage of the suit is that while they have only one concept and only one potential buyer (plus the equivalent of the buyer’s wife, parents, lawyer and father-in-law to say no as well), they do actually get to design the perfect house for that client.

    Which is where the listening comes in. And for the suit, the art of communicating the desires of the client to the creatives in a way that highlights the possibilities instead of the mandatories.

    1. Philip O'Neill says:

      Ian

      I understand your point:

      ‘So qualifying each buyer quickly means they can redirect the large “no” crowd appropriately, and sell to the small “maybe” crowd instead’.

      But I think the issue is with the ‘maybe’.

      If you’re a Real Estate Agent you should be trying to get as many people as possible to believe the house you’re selling ‘maybe’ the right one. And if you’re a Suit you should be finding as many reasons as possible why the ad you’re selling ‘maybe’ the right answer.

      My point in relation to Real Estate Agents is that I don’t get the impression that that’s where the effort is directed. My experience was that if I didn’t immediately demonstrate great and gushing enthusiasm for the property I was rather too abruptly unqualified and moved to the pool of ‘people I might be able to sell a different house to’.

      My point in relation to Suits is that their job is to sell the solution the agency deems correct to, as you say, the one client who needs it. So the job isn’t about qualifying the buyer, it’s about qualifying the solution, broadening the pool of reasons why it’s the right answer. Again, my experience is that if said client doesn’t immediately demonstrate great enthusiasm for the idea being presented, many suits are too inclined to unqualify it and move it to the pool of ‘ideas that are hard to sell because the client didn’t immediately think they were right’.

      I just think everyone needs to be trying much harder to grow the ‘maybe’ crowd.

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Philip

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