Thinking outside the block: Unlikely lessons in leadership from real estate

by Mark Jones

Real estate agents. Come on, be honest, do you trust them? Is there anything a discerning entrepreneur, marketer or business leader could glean from the time honoured tradition of marketing and selling property?

Well, I for one didn’t see this lesson coming. But I’m here to say not only does this traditionally maligned profession offer a lesson or two, it’s a graphic example of that worthy adage – sometimes the best ideas come from outside your industry.

In my case, I’m the CEO of a brand storytelling agency – we help marketers grow their companies using the power of story. I’ve also spent a large chunk of my career as a journalist.

So there it is: marketing and journalism. Right up there with real estate and lawyers as perfect fodder for stand up comedians and backyard barbeque tales of outrage.

Here’s what got me thinking – the experience of successfully selling our home in Sydney’s hot real estate market this summer.

I wasn’t on the lookout for marketing leadership and customer experience inspiration, but there it was. A successful sale (hooray!), and a timely reminder in the value of making sure you “get” your customer.

Here’s the experience distilled into a few valuable lessons:

Client first, agency second

Real estate and marketing agencies exist exclusively for the benefit of clients. End of story. It’s not hard to find examples where this model is inverted when leaders start drinking their own Kool-Aid. But consider the reality.

Realtors are agents in a very practical sense. They stand between you and the sea of hungry property buyers, sorting out the tyre kickers from the serious buyers and negotiating the best outcome.

Likewise marketing agencies are valuable intermediaries between the brand and customers, or target audiences. We facilitate, guide and deliver a return on marketing dollars invested.

Know what to say, and when

If you’re not a good communicator, it’s game over. Real estate businesses rise and fall on agent performance and ability to communicate. Consider the demands we place on them: available 24×7 with quick responses to phone and SMS, formal reporting on a weekly basis, polished negotiation skills and clear expectation setting.

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Marketing agencies face the same demands and more, particularly as the demand for solid ROI metrics becomes more acute.

Give me advice and don’t be shy

It almost goes without saying that consultants should consult. Have an opinion and apply your expertise. Don’t keep asking clients what they’d like you to do. Direct and guide is infinitely more valuable.

It’s a tough balancing act for a real estate agent. What’s a property actually worth, and will the market actually support that price? A good agent keeps a clear head, doesn’t oversell or over promise, and lets the market of buyers do the talking.

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In marketing, we face a similar dilemma. Exactly what results can the client expect from your marketing and communications activities? Consider the typical factors: budgets, customer data, creativity, and execution. Seasoned agencies need the right mix of experience and data to set clear expectations, leaving plenty of room for surprising clients on the upside.

Do great work, and let your reputation do the rest

Next up, word-of-mouth marketing. It’s the lifeblood of real estate. Our agent came recommended by a close friend, and we ended up having at least six other friends in common. That dynamic is a brilliant motivator: the agent can’t afford to let us, or the wider network of friends down.

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So too in marketing. Marketers move companies and inevitably they invite agencies to follow. Happy clients also recommend agencies to industry friends and partners. If you’ve forgotten to foster this dynamic through case studies and testimonials, for example, it’s time to put it higher on your agenda.

Stick to your guns on pricing

Finally, the money conversation. If ever there was an industry fighting margin erosion, it’s real estate. Some agents will drop their commission pretty quickly to get a listing, and others won’t.

In our case, we did get a discounted commission rate, but only at the lower end of our agent’s narrow band. The pitch to us as clients was simple and surprisingly effective: I’m at the top of my game, here’s the evidence, and I have a staffing cost base that supports my ability to deliver for you. I can’t go any lower than this rate otherwise your services will be affected. Fair enough.

The marketing parallels are obvious. Having a clear understanding of your cost base and ability to discount is one thing. The better mindset is knowing your value, demonstrating that value and sticking to your pricing guns.

Then all you have to do is make the magic happen – and keep your eyes open. Fresh ideas are only an industry away.

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