This was the question I was eager to answer when last month I undertook a survey to find out from people who had sold their house using an agent. The reason for undertaking the survey was twofold. Firstly for very selfish reasons I wanted to better understand the approach that I would need to take to be a successful agent; and secondly I have often written about the value that agents provide and I felt that the survey would go some way to validate these assumption.
The survey was undertaken online and was promoted through this site, my personal database, as well as some degree of Facebook promotion. The survey was just 8 questions long and was anonymous. The survey resulted in 60 completed questionnaires. I would naturally have liked to get a couple of hundred responses but given the specific requirement that participants would need to have sold a property through an agent in the past year or two and without the mechanisms of a large research company, I am comfortable with the scale of the survey. I make this statement up front so as to ensure that there is clarity that statistically this sample size does inherently have large margins of error.
I will go through the results for each question in the sequence that the questions were asked, providing the objective data as well as my comments and interpretation of the results for each.
Question 1 - How did you decide which agent to use?
Facts: The overriding opinion of those surveyed is that they selected an agent based on personal connection. The most common factor was that the agent was the recommendation of someone they knew. The 3 leading results all speak to a connection or experience, either first hand or through a trusted recommendation.
Online research continues to grow in importance as our lives are so normalised in our behaviour to seek answers online and so this choice came in 4th place. Equally the physical presence of an agent through adverts and signboards do inform vendors. However clearly unsolicited letters and flyers appear to have little impact.
My opinion: These results are not surprising when you reflect as I have done over the years, that the true value of an agent is the personal connection that provides you as a vendor with a consultant, an advisor, a sounding board, a confessor as well as a negotiator, marketer and influencer. This speaks to the heart of the real estate process which relies heavily on trust. The key dividing line is the need to have a connection that brings trust and respect but equally establishes a clear professional detachment. An agent is not there to be your friend, they have a job to do, and have legal and fiduciary obligations to you and the buyers as defined by law.
The results also speak to the challenge for new agents – advertising your presence plays a part in building awareness which is so important but without the track record of working with clients this presence offers little until you secure a client who can then become a referral. For the new agent the response on the survey that shows real value is the digital presence to be found when prospective clients go searching for an agent.
Question 2 - Which real estate company does the agent work for?
This question was included more as a validation of a representative sample. The results show the largest respondent group was using Barfoot & Thompson. This does show a degree of Auckland bias as a representative sample of all NZ would probably see this around figure at around 15%.
Harcourts at 13% is a degree under-represented and Ray White at 22% slightly over-represented. Amongst the others were a mixture of regional operators and boutique operations.
Question 3 - When you chose your agent, to what extent did the real estate company's reputation and brand influence the decision?
Facts: This question is pretty clear cut. Vendors choose the agent.
The company they work for; the brand that sits alongside them has a bearing, but in only 1 in 8 of those surveyed did they state that the company was critical; whereas over 8 out of 10 said the company was of little importance or not important at all.
My opinion: This comes as no surprise. The facts are there for all to see, well established real estate agents that move between brands don’t skip a beat in regard to business – the business follows the agent. Agents are the brand, and building and curating that brand is so critical to the success of every agent. There is no doubt though, that a new agent does leverage the company to establish a credibility and support. There is a symbiotic relationship between agents and real estate companies.
Question 4 - Did you just select an agent, or did you ask a number of agents to come and appraise the property?
Facts: Half of respondents stated that they chose their individual and went with that choice without reference to any other agent. Half of respondents decided to interview more than 1 agent.
My opinion: I find this fairly predictable given the answer to question 1 – recommendation or first hand knowledge is largely driving the decision, so it would follow that that person would be appointed, as against the process of assessing a number of other agents.
Question 5 - If you chose to invite a number of agents to appraise your property and present themselves, how many did you invite?
(Ok - I know this result seems to be at odds with question 4 which said that half of survey respondents chose their agent without interviewing other whereas this question now says that this was just 40%. I guess this is one of those issues with survey questionnaires. In retrospect I should have designed the questionnaire better to have conditional questions, my apologies.)
Facts: Whilst 4 out of 10 of those surveyed said that they stuck with the one agent they selected, the majority of those surveyed – 6 out of 10 decided to invite more than 2 and nearly half invited 3 or more.
My opinion: This is the question I was in some ways most interested in. Personally I believe this should be the case when choosing an agent. Property owners should take the time to review a number of agents. Selling a property is a major event and given it is undertaken on such an infrequent basis I believe every property owner should select a group of agents and request they make their pitch to win the business, but also to win the trust and confidence of their future client.
The pitch to win the business should clearly separate the appraisal (the market valuation), from the marketing strategy for the property, from the profile of the agent. This process would allow the property owner to get a sense of who they think they can work with best to facilitate the sale, and which agent has the right manner, approach and capability to succeed to extract the value that resides in the property in a successful outcome.
Question 6 - In choosing your agent what do you think were the most important factors in selecting that agent?
Facts: The top 3 attributes all related to professional capabilities. Likewise at the other end of the spectrum incentive based choice ranked consistently lower.
My opinion: These results again are affirming of the ideal objective process. Choosing an agent based should be based on capability and personal confidence, not being swayed by incentives. However in my few months of experience now at the front line of this industry I have heard (as yet not experienced first hand) agents loosing out in competitive situations to the practice of competing agents 'buying listings' (appraising with a high price to play to the vendors greed) or competing agents offering free marketing or heavily discounted commission.
Now I'm a pragmatist and at the same time I have been a vendor several times over the past couple of years and it is my view that hard earned income should always be wisely spent, and I certainly have never wanted to spend more than I needed on products or services. However I am the first to recognise that when someone heavily discounts a service you have to wonder if the service will match the value. Additionally when it comes to marketing there is no such thing as 'free'. Marketing is core to the process of selling a property and it has to be considered as an investment, the more you put in the greater the output - ideally that being in the outcome of multiple competing buyers attracted to a beautifully presented property, some being motivated to buy even though they were not actively looking; rather than just selling to the current active buyer in the market.
Question 7 - Did you research the agent online before appointing them? - if so which sites
Facts: Three quarters of all survey respondents researched the agent online before they appointed them.
There is a clear focus to review the agents own website and the real estate companies website, not surprisingly Google comes a close 3rd to those top two choices. As to the use of property portals Realestate.co.nz and Trade Me are represented well, however Homes.co.nz should feel well please with an 7% - one in 14 respondents used this service to research agents. The level of just 8% who researched the Real Estate Authority agent register is low at just 1 in 12 - its main purpose though is to verify the license for the agent and to highlight if any substantiated complaints have been made against the agent.
My opinion: I think it is encouraging to see 75% of respondents undertaking research online. The bias though is to search the agents' own marketing platform which certainly provides a profile, however it tends to heavily skew to current listings and a portfolio of prior sales. This information is useful but I sense there is more that people could find out of value about an agent using more independent platforms. In saying this I am alluding to LinkedIn; at just 12% this platform's share of research is very low. Selecting an agent should be thought of as recruiting an agent to undertake a job - sure the job may only last a month or so, but in the scheme of things it is a recruitment for a role. No recruitment agent in today's world or employer for that matter would not undertake a LinkedIn search for a candidate profile, so it should be for real estate agents.
Interestingly amongst the 'other' options in the survey question, a single respondent did said Facebook.
Question 8 - At this stage of the sale process how would you rate the service you have received from your agent on a scale of 1 to 100?
Facts: The median rating of the service of the chosen agent was just on 8 out of 10.
My opinion: As some one offered in responding to this question, the better question might have been more refined as to "how you would rate the service you received from your agent, as against your expectation at the start of the process". This was a very good point and may assist in interpreting this result.
Is 8 out of 10 good? or should it be 10 out of 10?
I think any service based relationship that involves a complex and emotional interaction of such significance and risk will lead to tested interactions. This is only to be expected. If an agent acts professionally, more so in today's far more challenging property market, then a result of 10 out of 10 on a survey of 60 respondents would be unrealistic and show the survey to be flawed or biased. I think 8 out of 10 is great.
The distribution chart above though is illuminating. Fully 90% respondents gave a score at 5 out of 10 or above. The big question lies in those 6 respondents who rated their agents below average (below 5) and the single respondent who rated the agent a 1. I would hope that these respondents shared their feedback with the agent. We all need feedback, people hate giving it but in a service based business we need it more than ever, especially in a profession where trust is so key and referral business is so critical to success.
Since publishing this article earlier this morning I have had a number of emails all asking the same question "What would you do differently now you have these research findings?"
The short answer I would change nothing. I guess the reason for undertaking the survey was to affirm my feelings or intuitive sense of the process. I remember from my early years in product marketing it was drummed into me that you should never do any research unless you had an outcome or hypothesis you wanted to test. So I tested the hypothesis and proved that my suspicions were correct. As a new agent you need to build your brand and work hard to make connections. The analogy that has come to me is of an old fashioned London bus - those ones where there was an open platform at the back so you could jump on and off. The bus is full of prospective sellers and equally a large number of experienced agents who are all engaging with vendors. I am the guy trying to grab hold of that rail as the bus speeds along - hoping I can hop on and get a chance to pitch my offering; there are many buses but they are all speeding along and I don't want to break my arm trying to hop on board.