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2009-09-11 21:54:34

Anyone in the Market for a Buggy Whip?


Why is it that some things just won’t go change? There, on my doorstep, was a reminder that some companies still don’t get it. Nearly two pounds of absurdity, neatly wrapped in a plastic bag, and personally delivered to to my front porch, was a reminder that the more things change, the more some things stay the same. Absurd, when you think of it: Who uses the Yellow Pages these days?
The big yellow book of phone listings and business ads is a shining metaphor for those companies whose strategy is to hold on to the past, for as long as they can. Surely, the days when people will need their product will return once the recession is over, right? Then, the Yellow book will return to its rightful place in the home: Namely, as a booster seat for babies eating at the kitchen table.
Home phones. Television guides. Mailbox coupons. Sunday circulars. Newspaper classified ads. Real estate websites that don’t display for sale by owner inventory. The persistence of useless items from yesteryear boggles the mind. It’s almost as if some companies haven’t noticed the existence of cellular phones, that cable systems have online programming guides, email  sales promotions  drive impulse purchases, that owners can put their own homes online, and, well, need we even mention newspapers? For some reason, the people in charge of all of these companies think that if they just keep at it, customers will return someday soon!
Sounds kinda like the real estate industry.
The persistence of absurdity is more than just resistance to change. Sure, change is hard, but it pretty much happens with or without us. And mostly to us. Ironically, most of us do change. If we were to look at ourselves from a distance of ten years ago, Some of us would be pleasantly surprised at how much we have grown. Others, perhaps not so much.
What about those parts of the industry that haven’t changed? Do they matter? Absolutely, as the recession proves. Many of the things we’ve “always done’ are able to bring us out of the market downturn. No matter how much we “keep on” doing them.
How is it possible, given so much that did change, that so many of the most important parts of our business remain mired in the past? Worse, some people are actually trying to “revive” past practices in some sort of traditionalist romanticism that what we used to used to work.
As if I – the modern customer – didn’t exist.
A boom and a bust happened. Not just in house prices, but in norms. Of the 250,000 REALTORS that joined the industry in the last decade, all have left, and more. Where 57% of brokers didn’t make a profit a decade ago, should 43% do this year, we’ll be ecstatic. Yet despite a vast array of new things we couldn’t even imagine back then, like smartphones and social networking, too many unproductive habits circle like yellow albatross. Threatening to drown us.
Ten years ago we were just getting the hang of REALTOR.COM. Back then having one photo per listing was amazing; multiple photos were progressive; video tours science fiction. Today, a decade later, thousands of listings appear online, bereft of images, let alone well-written descriptions, although the agent’s air-brushed image smiles nearby. Absurd, then, that consumer surveys consistently show that multiple property photos and extensive descriptions are the two most important things they wish to see online.
Ten years ago many listings weren’t priced right. Long before the pricing bubble made agents think they could ignore proper pricing practices, the vast majority of expired listings (ie, unsold after months of trying by a REALTOR) could be attributed to mis-pricing practices. Today, mis-pricing is the norm for most inventory, even if we choose to blame sellers’ as stubborn. The fact remains that most of the agents who mis-priced homes a decade ago have long since left the industry. Absurd, that the industry still hasn’t figured out how to institutionalize proper pricing practices for its current practitioners.
Ten years ago REALTORS claimed that the innovation of the lockbox justified the selling agent’s absence at showings. “Selling” a home wasn’t widely believed to require the representing broker’s presence to answer questions or discuss the product’s merits with potential buyers. A cooperating agent could do that just fine, especially when inventory was scarce. A decade later, most listings and empty foreclosures are still left to distinguish themselves amongst piles of similar inventory. Buyers, it is absurdly claimed, will sell themselves on the home.
Sunday open houses are still held, even though Sunday dinners have become a thing of the past for busy Gen X’ers. Silent virtual tours typify real estate portals who seem to think Gen Y’ers will be impressed that – at least – the tours are in color. Managers continue to recruit “new” practitioners with neither experience nor training in the art of sales. It’s expected that California’s REALTOR population will actually grow this year: new recruits will come from the ranks of unemployed accountants, discredited stock brokers and laid off assembly workers. Absurd, to think they won’t make great agents for our client’s most valuable asset.
Which brings us back to the yellow pages sitting on my doorstep. Perhaps no greater bible of uselessness exists today. Yet somebody had to produce it. Somewhere, people sat in a room and convinced themselves that I still needed it. Some of their people actually had the task of selling the space to businesses, claiming distribution to every home meant value to the homeowners. Others had to design it, organize it, print it and actually deliver it. And they all believed that it would work, because  it worked in the past.
None of them, however, actually took the time to talk to me. The customer. Or watch me express how much I “valued” their product – as I tossed it in the recycling bin. Next to the ink-jet printed postcards announcing nearby Open Houses and the latest price-reduced listings.
Perhaps that’s why so many agents still overprice, under-market and fail to simply appear at the sales event for their products. And achieve about the same results as my recycled phone directory.
Of course, the people at the Yellow pages did get one thing right: I do use my front porch to gather information. I usually sit there, watching the sunset, looking up the afternoon movie times on my Smartphone and checking the latest property listings, including For Sale By Owners, on my Redfin iPhone application.
Absurd, to think I didn’t.

(Matthew Ferrara is CEO of Matthew Ferrara & Company, a technology organization that delivers training, consulting and technical support to real estate companies worldwide, including their new "Support on Demand" REALTOR help desk service available at 866-316-4209.)  

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