Reviewing agent performance - the transparency challenge in real estate

by Alistair Helm in

We live in a world fast becoming fixated by feedback mechanisms. I was reading a very amusing article over the weekend from the New York Times entitled “Ouch, My Personality, Reviewed” in which the author obsesses about how her ratings score on Uber is now 4.5 out of 5 and the nightmarish possibility that if it slips to 4.0 then she may not get any more Uber rides!

We seem to be moving from a world where we as consumers, sat on one side of the fence and endlessly filled out reviews about manufacturers and service providers on the other side of the fence, immune to the possibility that those service providers might rate us as consumers. It might just come to the possibility that instead of being told by the call centre recorded message that “this call may be monitored for training purposes” we hear “this call may be monitored to provide feedback as to your response to customer services” - such data being shared with other customer service centres thereby impacting your call-waiting time!

This expansion of customer reviews and ratings has become somewhat of a web 2.1 (whatever happened to web 2.0 and web 3.0??) phenomena - a feedback mechanism that is, we are told pivotable in influencing over 85% of purchases nowadays. It seems (and I know from my own experience) that we check reviews before we buy anything - we check the ratings of cafes and restaurants, hotels and even airline seats. We certainly would not watch a film or listen to music without the collective opinion of as wide an audience as possible. 

So where and how is this phenomena touching the real estate industry? Ask an agent and they will point you to their testimonials - those 14 perfectly manicured and edited references on their website - “from Mr & Mrs A of Blah Blah Street who could not speak more highly of Agent B for their commitment and professional service, how delighted they were to see their house sold so smoothly and efficiently and how delighted they were with the results”. 

Now there is every possibility that Mr & Mrs A were real clients and that they genuinely did rate Agent B highly. The problem is that we as prospective clients looking to appoint Agent B have no context. We do not know when this experience took place - last month or 5 years ago? What and where was the house that the agent sold and what were the circumstances? What was the registered valuation of the property and what was the sale price? How was the marketing plan implemented and what scale of marketing was undertaken? How long was the property on the market and how did that compare with the market at the time? Where there issues and obstacles that resulted in challenges which the agent overcame?

Now certainly I am sure that Agent B would be prepared to provide a contact for Mr & Mrs A for you to call them and chat through, but again playing devils advocate how can you be sure that this client is a fair representation and not carefully curated. Add to which generally most of us, unless you happen to be a HR practitioner, like making unsolicited calls to strangers to get a reference. I wonder actually how many people actually do reference checking of agents?

The fact is real estate is not a business that actually lends itself to social reviews. The activity of service is far too infrequent which leads to too few experiences upon which to provide a rating. The client feedback is always solicited after the completed sale at which time the majority of people are in an elated state as they have got through what has been a nerve racking experience and want to celebrate - so why not show their appreciation for their agent?

It is therefore almost inevitable that all agent reviews will be positive and not just because of the aforementioned celebratory state but because most people transact real estate on such an infrequent basis that it is hard to objectively benchmark.

In someways the better agent assessment should be as I shared in my recent series of articles about selling my home - an assessment of the agents as they pitched for my business. At least making the assessment at this stage would multiply the base of reviews three fold. Ask yourself, would you be interested to meet and evaluate either of the two other agents I reviewed but did not appoint for the service I was looking for given the feedback I provided as to why I did not appoint them?

I know agents might not like this proposal just as they seem to dislike the idea of objective metrics of performance. However there is nothing to fear from not winning a client, as most businesses are discovering in this hyper-networked world of reciprocal reviewing, a negative review is not the end of your business, as long as it is not the only review. People assess reviews on balance and negative reviews demonstrate that there is objectivity in the reviewing process and the person being reviewed is at least human. The other aspect is how you respond to a negative review. Ignore it or challenge it, and it will likely diminish your profile ranking. Respond in an open manner to seek to understand how to improve in the future turns a negative review into a favourable perspective.

I have no answer to the question of how the real estate industry should move to a more transparent interaction for review and rating. I certainly would like to see more objective data around agent performance ideally around the success focused metrics, in addition I think providing a open and trusted platform for clients’ reviews of agent pitches would be a great start. Of course we may at some stage even see agents rate and review their clients.. “Mr & Mrs A could not have been a more helpful and accommodating clients, Mrs A home baking was a delight but I really wish that they could have kept their dog Bruno under better control as every time I visited, it would leap on my lap as I sat down and I was just too polite to tell them .. I hate dogs!”