Strategic Architect - Part 2

An Experience Named Eric

Many industry decision makers and leaders believe that the challenge of the century for the contemporary American real estate industry will be its willingness and ability to create and deliver a real estate transactional experience that meets the needs and expectations of the broker, the buyer, and the seller.

Over the past years this column has presented and commented many times on the subject of consumer experiences. It has discussed a wide range of both positive and unsatisfactory consumer real estate experiences. Hence, it is with the greatest of satisfaction that we now get to tell this story of an absolutely spectacular real estate service experience.

What is a real estate service experience? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes an experience as something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through. For the purposes of this column the term experience is used to describe the sum total of the elements, both intentional and unintentional, presented to a buyer or a seller as they make their way through a real estate transaction from search to contract, from contract to closing and from closing to ownership.

There are many industry insiders who find the whole subject of real estate service experiences to be a non-subject. These folks believe happenstance, luck and environmental factors rather than professionalism and brand management determine what matter of experience any particular consumer might have on any given day.

There are others however who believe that a perfect real estate experience is the result of a carefully considered series of well planned, properly executed and masterfully managed tasks, interactions and challenges.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 1.58.12 PMWith these thoughts in mind it must now be disclosed that the real estate adventure that is the subject of this column is not just any random series of events but rather a very special and unique series of events that this author and his wife went through over the past 90 days.

The adventure began during our annual visit with our son and daughter-in-law, Jared and Edith, who live in Fort Lauderdale. One afternoon our long-standing thoughts about owning a second home suddenly turned into actions as we noticed an open house sign three doors down the street. We met the agent holding the open house and preceded to make every effort to impress him with how sophisticated and worldly we were.

Since there was no danger that we might be talked into purchasing this particular property we found ourselves feeling safe about engaging the agent with respect to our fantasies about owning a second home. The conversation resulted in a great relationship with the hero of this story, a Better Homes and Gardens real estate agent named Eric.

Marlene and I are, by any standard, an agent’s worse case scenario. We believe we are immune to persuasion and influence. We have the bad habit of overvaluing our expertise. Moreover, we are genuinely convinced that we can master any subject within seconds.

Eric appeared to take no notice of this behavior and began what turned out to be a long and detailed explanation of owning second homes in south Florida. Within minutes we were in full learning mode. Images of agent ranking and rating just evaporated as he demonstrated a truly impressive knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the marketplace and our needs. In response to our sense that condo’s were not our style we spent the next day viewing a number of single-family properties while Eric gently evolved us to an understanding that, heaven forbid, condos were created for people just like us.

The following morning was spent viewing condo units. Within two hours Eric demonstrated that he had been listening to us by finding a unit that didn’t just come close but in fact met every single requirement we had been describing through our constant babbling with one exception – the attached boat slip was 38 feet instead of 30.

This is where the real adventure began. It turned out the seller had made a number of tactical errors in his acquisition and improvement of the property during the previous year. He had paid too much, bought the wrong unit and had invested in the wrong improvements. He had compounded his mistakes by selecting a listing agent who had interpreted Christmas in south Florida as the perfect occasion to take a two-week vacation abroad leaving his secretary in charge.

The next three days were a nightmare of unavailability, inaccuracy 635919107976039503-ThinkstockPhotos-501750012and a general state of unwillingness to face reality. We went through four offer rounds only to be met with increasingly level of resistance. Throughout these long hours Eric was constantly available being very professional, responsive, encouraging and reassuring. Unfortunately our efforts were of no avail. This seller was convinced he could be made whole.

Over the following month Eric stayed in communication providing us with options that all failed to capture the special nature of the initial unit. One afternoon Marlene arrived home and announced that it was time to bang on the seller’s head and make the deal happen.

Eric responded with what can only be described as a heroic effort. Three more offer rounds later he got the seller (and his new listing agent) to come to the table. Upon reviewing the seller’s closing requirements Eric’s superior negotiation skills became very apparent.

But the trauma was still not over. It was during the pre-closing period that Eric demonstrated a whole new array of skills. The seller had demanded a 10-day closing period that no mortgage provider could match. Eric came up with ideas for interim financing, arranged for all the inspections, made us safe and the deal was closed.

Dollarphotoclub_97556501After the closing Eric stayed with the project. He arranged relationships with a super mortgage company that actually worked with us on a Sunday night, a dynamic plumber who understood the idiosyncrasies of the south Florida contracting scene and a world-renowned air conditioning contractor who understood that a six-week delay wasn’t going to work. Each of these services saved us from costs, delays and hassle.

Nobody had to tell Eric how to create and execute on a superb consumer real estate experience. It was just something that he did. We still believe in rating and wish there was some way we could give Eric a solid ten across the table.

best-choice-siding-materials-contractorsWith respect to all of the Eric’s out there, we thank you. For those consumers who are just beginning the search, keep in mind that the right agent can make all the difference in the world.

Full Circle on the Consumer Experience

This column’s first two articles of 2016 explored the relatively narrow band of issues being generated by the emerging premium agent movement being championed by the national portals, and the industry’s growing vulnerability presented by the questionable influence and impact of the subpar “facilitator” agent. This third article of 2016 will revisit the question of the consumer experience issue, first raised at the beginning of 2015, as it relates to the two issues raised above.

All three of these subjects have been on the industry’s priority agenda for the past eighteen months. The fact however, is that the industry’s current disruptive environment is making these factors even more relevant. More specifically we are seeing a classic case of convergence. Three formally marginally related issues are coming together to create a major shift in procedures. Understanding this new environment is a prerequisite to appreciating the dangers being presented.

There are two types of disruptions currently impacting the real estate industry and marketplace. The broadest reaching disruption is called innovative disruption. This is the change that occurs when new digital technologies and business models affect the value propositions of existing goods and services. Virtually every aspect of the American economy is currently being subjected to innovative disruption. Every time there is a significant digital or technological advance, the value in place of all systems that contain that technology in its previous configuration is automatically changed. The best-known and most quoted disruptive process is called digital disruption. These occur when competitors use innovative disruptions as competitive business advantages or weapons systems to improve their market positions or propositions vis-à-vis their competitors. In a relatively high tech, competitive and complex industry such as real estate there is always a high number of each form of disruption occurring. This rate of change can seem quite chaotic for those businesses and participants caught in the middle, with neither a disruption plan nor a developmental road map.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 5.01.38 PMHow does the contemporary consumer experience fit into this converging environment? In the traditional real estate sector, consumers almost unanimously elected to work with an agent and used one of several processes to select that agent. Once selected, the consumer proceeded through a buying and selling experience almost exclusively designed or selected, and certainly executed, by that agent. Depending upon whether that agent was a counselor or a facilitator the menu of services “experienced” by consumers was subject to a massively wide spectrum of agent selection or, in the alternative, default. In this traditional system a consumer pretty much got what they got, with little ability to select or self design a specific real estate experience.

To its credit this system for several generations met the needs of the civic generation consumer who was, in all likelihood, selecting an agent that they were either related to or familiar with through some manner of community connection. This system was also deemed acceptable by the Boomer Generation that tended to be better financed, thus less vulnerable and, in the event of a crisis, were either an attorney themselves or had a close relationship with one. Unlike today, litigation at that point in time was a socially and economically acceptable option.

It was the arrival of the new “X” or “Y” generation consumer that spelled the end of the traditional Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 5.04.15 PMsystem. Today’s “super” consumer is more informed, sophisticated and communicative than any of their predecessors. They fully understand that a consumer experience is now something that is investigated, determined and/or negotiated, prior to entering into the transaction. They come into the marketplace having sought the wisdom of their peer group through various social medias. They monitor the experience they are having in real time, and stand prepared to take immediate action in the event that the experience being delivered differs from the experience they negotiated for and expect.

These considerations now bring us to the new real estate market and transaction experience. In today’s real estate marketplace and culture there is an increasing awareness that there is a right way and a wrong way to execute and/or deliver a consumer experience. Moreover, there is an understanding that a proper experience includes dozens of factors and components, many of which involve external and third party resources.
Today there is a rapidly expanding movement within the industry to take the consumer experience to the nexScreen Shot 2016-03-04 at 5.13.24 PMt level through the automation of consumer experiences. Increasingly, automation includes the use of technology to monitor and/or to evaluate both mandatory (using transactional standards) and optional (selected by the consumer) elements. The current emphasis on transaction management (a primary form of automation) will soon lead to “branded” consumer experiences such as Nordstrom’s in the clothing industry and Ritz Carlton in the hospitality industry. The expressed interests of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and even the soon to be experienced Upstream project, will all contribute to this
consumer centric movement.

This movement will, over the next few years, impact the marketplace and transaction in many ways. An immediate effect will be felt as consumers become more and more familiar with “branded” experiences and begin to demand similar experiences from brokerages and agents who have no formal experience model. One of its most dramatic impacts will occur as branded and automated programs become legal standards that courts begin to interpret as community standards. Recall that during the medical malpractice era of the 1980’s courts routinely adopted standards developed and implemented by medical schools such as UCLA, Stanford or Harvard as community standards in such places as Minot, Mount Pleasant and International Falls.

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In any event whether by intent, judicial declaration or marketing genius some combination created by the current disruptive forces sweeping across the national real estate marketplace will converge to create a national standard. This convergence will raise questions regarding the roles of both organized real estate and independent brokerages. Ultimately universal standards will emerge. These are issues that the industry should consider in advance of the pain, suffering and loss of litigation and regulation.

Do You Know What Your Real Estate Consumers are Reading?

A recent edition of this publication focused on a number of industry current trends and forces that, taken together, strongly support the idea that moving forward brokerages are going to have to take a much more activist position regarding the activities of their agents, most especially with respect to the quality and nature of the services and consumer experiences they are delivering.

The industry disrupters driving this issue were identified as highly motivatedimages consumers, national portal premium agent programs, the high probability of definitive “independent contractors” litigation, potential CFPB regulatory initiatives and the increasingly dissatisfied “counselor” agent sector. Taken together they deliver a clear message that is best represented by the CFPB motto, Flight into Quality.

Given the potential seriousness of this situation it has become critically important that brokers, executives and managers began the process of understanding where the objectives of these disruptors come together in the marketplace and what sources are impacting the opinions and impressions of today’s consumer.
Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.42.55 AMConsumer Reports
is a publication that has been published and distributed monthly by the Consumer Reports organization since 1936. The organization currently has over 7.3 million subscribers and a twenty-one million dollar annual testing and evaluation budget. The organization and its publication are considered to be one of the leading consumer influences in the country.

The March edition of Consumer Reports featured an in-depth piece on the real estate marketplace entitled The Real Estate of Real Estate. The subtitle spoke to its contents; new population patterns, lending practices and housing preferences are changing the rules, whether you are buying, selling, renting or remodeling.

Every broker should read Consumer Report’s twelve-page hyper-real estate focused piece. The rational behind this suggestion is not that the piece offers the final truth of the matter; the fact is that accuracy remains an illusive concept in most real estate publications. The benefit to be derived is that the millions of Consumer Reports subscribers that do read it will believe that is the gospel truth (“there are no lies on the Internet or in Consumer Reports”). They will quote it in conversations with their peers and with real estate agents who (1) will not have read it and (2) often draw their comments, assessments and opinions with 1990’s era myths and misconceptions. Even worse these agents are also likely to take the opportunity to establish their intellectual superiority by disputing what the article has to say in favor of the hundred of myths and misconceptions that all to often make up real estate knowledge for the “facilitator” agent.

This takes us to one of the most critical points in today’s consumer/agent relationship. For most of the past three decades consumers have had a high level of vulnerability to the opinions and knowledge of so called “experts” and professionals. This is simply not the case today. Millennial Generation consumers undertake a level of education and orientation that previous generations would never have dreamed of. The first undertaking of these consumers when approaching a significant transaction is to establish the credibility and voracity of their service vendor. Real estate agents who are discovered to be “BSing” a consumer will suffer grave and immediate consequences including dismissal. Of even greater consequence is the fact that this consumer will share this information with their peer group and will include the brokerage in their summation. This is just another reason why brokerage firms must avoid this situation by gaining a higher level of control over their agents.

So, by way of example, what information gained from reading the Consumer Report (CR) pieces might lead to consumer discord. Consider the following:

  • Here again Zillow, Trulia and Redfin come off as being the experts. The most prominent NAR quote is by Lawrence Young who suggests, “the tiny house movement is tiny.”
  • Real estate is a good investment. CR cites Robert Shiller who says that U.S. home prices have barely appreciated over the past 120 years.
  • Millennials as a group don’t want to own homes. CR reports on a survey of 1500 millennial consumers who overwhelmingly report that they want to own. The articles quotes that “Millennials are sick and tired of rent increases.” The article cites the number reason for millennial non-ownership as their inability to save up a down payment.
  • The number one thing Millennials want in a home is to be amidst restaurants and entertainment. CR suggests that the number one factor is to be near friends and family.
  • Only couples are searching for homes. CR reports that over the past two years 21% of buyers have been single women and nine percent have been single men. These statistics are expected to increase.
  • Millennials are ideal candidates for fixer uppers. Wrong, while Millennials are interested in “personalizing” their properties they are deathly opposed to renovations and big projects.
  • Home buying is easy. CR goes to great lengths to establish the fact that home buying is a very complex process that is filled with loopholes and ambushes. CR compares it with learning to play chess.
  • All brokerage firms charge six percent. CR quotes Zillow data that suggests that this isn’t even close with 63% of agents having lowered their commissions and that over half charged commissions of 4 percent or less.
  • Photos in the listing aren’t important. CR quotes Zillow data that suggests that listings with less than nine photos were twenty percent less likely to sell within 60 days than listings with 22 to 27 photos.
  • Decluttering, depersonalizing and staging can add up to 3% additional value to the home according to Redfin.
  • The article provides a fairly credible analysis of, Redfin, Trulia and Zillow as consumer friendly real estate tools.
  • CR gave big credit to Zillow’s new “price this property” feature that provides consumers with the ability to conduct their own “CMAs” including the incorporation of hyper local information that agent CMS’s may have missed. The importance of this feature to brokers is not its accuracy but rather its potential to provide consumers with a false sense of expertise that they may use to de-value agent expertise.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.03.35 AMThe point of these observations remains the same. The traditional real estate industry are experiencing sustained digital disruption. Brokers, executives and managers must keep current with what their consumers are learning, thinking and opining. Consumer “realities” are becoming more important in determining the success and value of professional real estate services especially in the face of alternative programs being provided new entities such as Redfin and the national portals. In the same vein brokerages must be sure that their agents are not lessening their (or the brokerage’s) service value proposition by unnecessarily relying on legacy-based information that has not had the benefits of having been updated.

Digital Disruption Prepares to Strike Again

No less than five issues of this column in 2015 raised concerns and awareness regarding the continuing march of digital disruption across the industry’s landscape. With that in mind it is with mixed emotions that we start out 2016 with yet another example of how digital disruption has already or will, over the short-term future, change virtually ever aspect of the traditional real estate and transaction.

The would-be target of this report is a tradition that, while it has long been controversial within organized real estate and the overall marketplace, has over the past three years reached a state of almost open warfare within the agent ranks.

The object of all this attention is the longstanding unwritten rule of the REALTOR® culture that an individual who has applied for membership, paid their dues and sworn to uphold the Code of Ethics is entitled to full faith and credit with respect to the real estate industry and marketplace. It then followed that no other REALTOR® regardless of background, training or credentials would be discussed within the circle in terms that would suggest that they had any higher status or ranking than the newest recruit.

This tradition continues to play out in the industry’s representation of itself to both consumers and the marketplace. Over the past few years research conducted by such industry notables as Steve Murray of the Real Trends organization have established what everyone, including consumers, already knew, that being that only about twenty percent of REALTORS® (AKA the counselors) ever reach levels of unquestionable expertise and skill while the remaining eighty percent live out their REALTOR® experience as facilitators.

This situation appeared to be acceptable to all, including American consumers, until the Internet enhanced technology and the real estate market crash of 2005 began to more dramatically demonstrate the true cost and pain of professional mediocrity. By 2007, with the increased incidence of foreclosures and short sales, real estate had actually become an intellectually challenging activity. By the beginning of this decade a clear and compelling case had been made with respect to the damage caused by agents that don’t commit the time, energy and intellect necessary to be a counselor.

Interestingly the initial human cry was not raised by consumers but rather by the counselor sector itself who had discovered that unqualified agents were not only sabotaging significant numbers of would be deals by lacking the knowledge necessary to properly represent their clients, but, perhaps even worse, were, through their incompetence, requiring the counselors to do a lion’s share of the work to close the deal. Even worse, in some cases, even causing high performance agents to compromise their professional standards as they leaned overboard to save transactions.

This situation first broke the silence barriers of the professional societies in 2012 when the counselors, totally disgusted by the non-productive and unprofessional behavior of the facilitators, decided that the only solution to the dilemma was to withhold listings from the MLS in a strategy that ultimately became known as “off MLS marketing.” In some markets across the country this practice impacted close to 30% of the marketplace. The refusal of organized real estate to either deal with the crisis or abandon its “headcount” philosophy raised additional hostility on the part of the counselors, causing damage that is still being felt at local levels.

The good news at that time was that the situation remained generally within the realm of the family. But now, even that refuge appears to be about ready to dissolve forcing the industry come to grips with its long-standing “one size fits all” approach. The focus of this new concern is what some call the portal sector’s “premium” agent programs.

A number of current industry and market factors are being credited with bringing about the premium agent phenomenon. Agent rating and ranking, long considered a major insider “no no” has become ubiquitous. A wide range of portals, alternative brokerages and websites are now providing consumers information regarding which agents perform and which not so much. The basis of agent performance has now gone far beyond basic production metrics into programs that measure skills such as communications, neighborhood familiarity, lifestyles and negotiation skills. Consider that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now routinely collects and publishes thousands of consumer comments and yes, complaints, from consumers who have fallen victim to unqualified facilitator agents.

But perhaps even more impactive is the fact is that over the past six months the prevailing agent attitude about professionally interacting with one of the national portals has changed from abject rejection to close to enthusiastic acceptance. This change has been driven, in part, by the fact that more counselor agents have come to realize that portal leads, once seen as junk on a stick, have matured to become a significant professional opportunity. This change of status has in turn been driven by the fact that some portal leads are now being delivered with a number of very sophisticated tools that provide participating agents with greatly improved odds of closing on the lead.

The industry has now come to understand that the secret to the successful conversion of any lead, portal or otherwise, is competence and the ability to process the lead and assist the client correctly. The industry is increasingly aware of the fact that success in real estate is not about being lucky, or an agent’s personality or about outfoxing the client, but rather it is all about “doing it right.”

The events discussed above to this point would have been purely academic, as it has been for years, but for one additional factor. There is reason to believe that at some point in 2016 one or more of the programs promoting a “premium” agent status will undertake aggressive marketing efforts to finally break the golden bond in the consumer’s mind and establish that there is in fact a premium agent and that failing to use this species can cause a very personal form of disruption.

While it is a matter of supposition with respect to the full ramifications and impact of this upcoming confrontation, some things are very clear. Consumers demanding the services of counselors over facilitators will cause untold disruption within the ranks of organized real estate at the very point in time is can least afford it. This disruption will continue within the brokerage sector especially within those firms that are owned and most sensitive to publicity. One cannot help but wonder whether or not facilitators and counselors will be able to exist together in a fully transparent environment.

While the counselor agent will probably be the ultimate beneficiary of these circumstances, there will be some pain all around. Brokerage, association and MLS leaders would be wise to begin the solution discussion process. In the same vein they would be wise not to build their solution around an attempt to deny or to distract their audience with trite and unfounded claims and counter arguments. This is the new world and lots of smart people have the ability to respond in very large ways. It is time to be really smart and competent.

If Your Firm Has A Story, Now Is the Time to Tell It

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.23.21 AMOne of the most amazing business events of 2015 took place in Orlando, Florida in mid-October when over 2,500 of the most creative minds and imaginations in North American commerce gathered to conduct the annual Association of National Advertisers Masters of Marketing Conference. The meeting was alive with new ideas, old relationships and new challenges. It was a good decision to be there.

Even more interesting was the meeting’s similarity to that held by the REALTORS® in San Diego. The marketing culture and the REALTOR® culture find themselves in very similar situations. They both find themselves being violently disrupted by forces far beyond their control and influence.

If you heard the story in San Diego, then you also heard it in Orlando and visa versa. The consumer is now in control. They have elected to reject and be combative with respect to the thousands of unwanted, intrusive, arrogant, and wildly expensive advertising messages marketers hurtle at them each day.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.28.00 AMConsumers are communicating in a loud and clear voice that they do not want to hear the voice of any meaningless irrelevant message. They are using every opportunity to “ad block” or “ad skip” to block the din. Regardless how advertisers attempt to mask their brand message with emotions, humor or even patriotism, consumers have developed an almost sixth sense about who is attempting to fool them.

Consumers are rejecting these messages and are increasingly punishing advertisers who assume such a childlike consumer response. Consider Delta Airline’s childlike, if not overwhelmingly naïve, belief that by adding humor to the pre-takeoff message, passengers will somehow become transfixed, suffering through its robot like wording without recalling that the aircraft is dirty, the staff is nasty and punitive and the flight is going to be 30 minutes late for reasons that everyone understands were the direct result of arrogant management.

The real estate industry is going through the same experience. Consumers are rejecting the legacy service value proposition in favor of alternative information and service options. High performance agents are now rejecting the tired messages of “head count” centric real estate and the decisions of too many brokerages to cling to the business models of the past.

Unlike the real estate industry, that some suggest seems to be denying both knowledge of Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.30.07 AM
and responsibility for its woes, the advertising industry understands that (1) it is living in a crisis of its own creation and (2) unless it resolves these, its immediate future is clearly in peril. The advertising industry has conduct the credible research necessary, not to justify its mistaken processes, but rather to resolve its disruptive issues. With this information in hand it has come to grips with the fact that its first rehabilitative step must be to go back to its customers and clients and explain that the marketing environment has evolved in a manner that will require an immediate and significantly “different approach” to public relations, communications and advertising.

This different approach must shift the focus from “brand” marketing (the senseless messages that fill pages, signs and commercials decals) to what the industry will refer to as “content” marketing.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.31.07 AMContent marketing isn’t new. It has been around for a long time in the form of advertorials and infomercials. What is new is that the marketing industry’s long standing favoritism that suggested glitzy brand marketing with its clever slogans, flashy graphics and cool music was the highest and most manipulative form of the art. Content marketing was traditionally perceived as a lower form of expression better suited for senior and health care marketing.

The rationale behind the content marketing movement is common to every industry and/or business sector that deals directly with the consumer. The primary function of traditional marketing was to stimulate consumers into doing something that they probably didn’t want to do, but would do if properly medicated. Then came the major economic events of the first decade of this century and suddenly everything was different.

Today’s consumer has no time, patience or resources for food without nutritional value, information without factual foundation or services that aren’t. Today’s consumer is demanding absolute transparency and integrity. They have seen their incomes and financial options decline. They are witnessing an alarming decay in the quality and value of almost every product they use. They are watching with increased awareness as their overall lifestyle and quality of life continued to demonstrate a precarious slide. More than anything else they understand that the only way to survive and prosper within these trends is to gain the highest possible level of knowledge, experience and insight possible.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.36.01 AMThese then are the three components of what consumers will now demand from the business sectors and entities from which they seek goods, services and information. This will become the standard by which marketing, advertising and those who cause it to be placed will be judged.

The essence of content marketing is the art of telling a relevant and compelling story. There is an immense difference between glib messages and meaningful stories and that difference goes to the very core of the consumer’s present concerns. What knowledge, experience and insight all have in common is transparency. Transparency in turn requires intimacy and some level of caring or passion that in turn requires some level of meaningful relationship that in turn requires accountability. Most businesses have for decades avoided this simple but telling cycle in favor of the glib brand message.

When advertisers such as real estate brokerages use brand messages rather than content to stimulate consumers, they are essentially saying that they are not interested in having a relationship. The boomer consumers missed this connection because they didn’t want to have a relationship either. The X generation was intimidated out of relationships. The boss generation today is the Millennials, and they are demanding a relationship.

The key message to real estate firms and agents is “start telling your story.” If you don’t have a story that can be shared it is because you have been doing deals not creating relationships. If this is your mantra then your fate is sealed relative to the largest consumer generation in history.

Nothing in any culture throughout history has created more stories than humans and their housing challenges. These stories and those who tell them are intense, intimate, interesting, challenging and often inspiring. They surpass hot air balloons, retrievers, champagne colored signs, magazine references, illusions of wealth and certainly agent centricity every day of the week. Start telling your stories today.

Real Estate Transactions Are Now On the Top of the Stress List

It may or may not come as a surprise to most real estate professionals that it is now public knowledge that, with respect to stress, participation in a real estate transaction is now on par with death, terminal disease, divorce, airline travel and computer repair.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 9.43.26 AMAn article published in the October, 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Journal by Leonard L. Berry from Texas A & M University and Scott Davis from Rice University reports that services such as cancer care, airline travel, computer repair and home buying and selling can trigger powerful human emotions. Even more surprising is the fact that the vast majority of the entities and individuals delivering these services are not sensitive to the level of stress their consumer experience generates. Nor are they provided with the training necessary to either demonstrate sensitivity or reduce the amount of stress their performance is largely responsible for.

By this point some readers will be rolling their eyes and not so subtlety pointing out: Hey, what’s new? This is the way it has always been, this is the way it will always be and as a hyper busy real estate professional I can’t be responsible for the client’s mental health. Buck up consumers!

While there may be no lack of support for this macho position hopefully there will be a few souls who will want to better understand the big picture because there is one. Lets start with a few facts. First, this is not our parents real estate marketplace. A strong argument can be made to support of the idea that as a market we are in the last vestiges of that era in which real estate agents and sales representatives have the absolute power to design and deliver the consumer real estate experience. From a consumer and regulatory perspective we are now in an new era in which the only thing that matters is what experience the real estate consumer gains from their buying, selling and transactional experience and how they can customize that experience to make it a positive one.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 9.52.00 AMThis effort is not without support and facilitation. Leading the charge are the new generation consumers themselves. As a starting point they are no longer in a mood to be victims of provider centricity. They have ceased to see their physicians or their real estate service providers as the center of the civilized world. Empowered by the “Internet of everything,” their peers and friends, they enter the transaction fully prepared and committed to avoid the transactional woes of the old experience.

The second level of facilitation for consumer centricity will come from new age regulators such as a federal agency known as “the Bureau.” Twenty-five years ago this term would have been applied to the awesome powers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI). Today the term “Bureau” applies to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a five year old agency that has already earned its bones by bringing order to such high annoyance consumer experiences as student loans, car loans, payday loans, credit cards and, most recently and currently the consumer mortgage experience.

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The “Bureau” is absolutely data driven. Not the data represented by tens of thousands of old musty files hidden away in a basement, but the data of an agency whose primary data mentors in 2010 where Google and Apple. Every one of the consumer complaints either generated or received by the Bureau has been captured, verified, analyzed, catalogued and stored in a system that allows for fast reference and almost instant incorporation into the initiatives necessary to respond to the consumer’s plight.

A review of the Bureau’s recent activities relative to the real estate industry discloses a systematic approach to preparing to regulate all real estate industry activities including those of brokers and agents. The Bureau has already moved to regulate the appraisal, title, mortgage, the transaction sectors and even the allied business elements of the brokerage sphere. Essentially the only element required to close this regulatory circle is pulling in the brokerage and agent. When that moment comes, and in all likelihood it will, the Bureau will be armed with an overwhelming amount of sterling quality evidence in the form of both its own investigations and observations and literally hundreds of thousands of direct consumer reviews (read complaints).

Yet another source of facilitation and support for a consumer-centric movement in real estate may come from the federal and state courts in the form of judgments and decisions impacting the long standing status of the real estate professional as an independent contractor. While the basis in law of such actions have to date been in agency law, there is a strong likelihood that as these actions work their way up the judicial and regulatory ladders, issues regarding public safety and consumer rights will began to enter the case. The recent decision by the Oregon Public Utilities commission determining that Uber driver/partners are in fact employees brings the national score to two in favor of employee status and two against. There are at least two lawsuits also pending on the subject.

Still another source of documentation regarding the possibility of less than stellar consumer experiences being delivered can be found in the records of on and off line agent ranking and rating programs. Not all consumer reviews are converted to numeric scores and numbered star rating scores, as is the case with the Houston Association of REALTORS program. Some agent ratings are used to populate very precise databases regarding specific agent behaviors. Industry wide there are well over 1.5 million such reviews. These databases may ultimately come back to haunt the industry and its participants.

Returning to the initial focus of this column, what should brokers and agents do to lower their vulnerability to the side effects of what is clearly a highly stressful and unsettling consumer real estate experience? The primary answer to this inquiry is very simple. In some way demonstrate that the brokerage or agent gives a damn.

The easiest way to meet this basic test is to undertake some manner of rehabilitative behavior. When theScreen Shot 2015-11-13 at 10.18.47 AM moment comes and one must defend one’s self the simplest solution is to be able to establish with a dedicated file that the brokerage and its agents were knowledgeable and sensitive to the problem. Set about identifying the specific emotional triggers that are set off during the consumer’s experience. Determine which have to exist and which are merely manifestations of an agent’s power. Develop tactics for responding quickly and effectively when intense emotions arise. Enhance the consumer’s control over the real estate buying, selling and transactional experience. Train agents and others within the brokerage who are in regular contact with consumers to respectfully communicate with clients and customers to strengthen their confidence. Most important of all, establish a record of not being too busy to assist.

These are disruptive and difficult times. They call for appropriate levels of management and behavior modifications. Don’t wait for the knock on the door. We can do this.


Avoiding Secondary Disruption With Strategic Design

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A significant number of past commentaries from this column have discussed the various aspects of digital disruption both from the perspective of being and disrupter and being disrupted. The fact is that disruption is a primary factor affecting almost every aspect of the current brokerage scene. Most compelling brokerages are either in the process of responding to disruption or creating innovative disruptions of their own. Sometimes these disruptions are external and impact the brokerage’s competitive position in the marketplace. In other cases the disruptions are internal and impact management and operations.

While disruption, as a business factor for real estate brokerages, is too new to have evolved a classic tactical or response pattern, certain matters are already clear. Chief among those is the absolute necessity that firms adopt and implement their own strategic and innovative course rather than adopting a response strategy that forces the firm to respond anew to each incursion of internal disruption and/or external market or competitive forces as they occur. With few exceptions response strategies equate to being led around by a leash with a blindfold. It is hard enough to anticipate the challenges of one’s own strategic intent let along trying to track and prepare for the unknowns of another’s.

The essence of strategic design requires taking a “total” or “big picture” approach. Brokerages that have a strong articulated strategic intent, set and maintain their own course. While the activities and actions of the market or competitors may require occasional course corrections they do not result in major shifts in strategic course or tactical deployment.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 1.48.53 PMThe first requirement for brokerages seeking to adopt strategic design as their Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 1.53.13 PMlead business strategy is the designation of a specific individual to be the firm’s Chief Design Officer (CDO). While such a title may sound arrogant and expensive the fact is that while the strategic design concept requires group participation it will not respond to group command. Someone must have overall responsibility. This is not to suggest that such a responsibility is, for the small and medium firm, a full time position. It does, however, suggest that this responsibility is best held by someone other than the senior executive or managing broker/owner. Strategic design programs work best when the senior executive is available to support the program from a distance by mediating the conflicts that naturally follow any plan that requires significant change.

The second requirement for a successful strategic design program involves implementing a program that addresses the full range of the firm’s strategic intent rather than on a crisis-to-crisis basis. Some of the best brokerages in the country are in the process of addressing disruption on a piecemeal basis – a little here and a little there. Something in this office and something else in another office. A little upgrade to recruiting, a bit of transaction management, a few agent ratings, a new age manager here next to a 30 year expert in the downtown office, a new website that almost addresses the shortcoming of the old one, and perhaps a thought about regulatory compliance. This approach to disruption will ultimately leave these firms even more vulnerable to the ultimate disruption of an alternative brokerage model that will “Uberize” the real estate industry by offering a completely new A to Z consumer and financial experience. There are now several entities in the market that are making those kinds of noises.

In a strategic design scenario the brokerage, under the oversight of its design chief, creates a vision, master plan, and blueprint that addresses every aspect of the firm’s operations three or four years out. Most firms will attempt to implement this change process over a twenty-four month period. One of the key tactics here is to ensure that each action item undertaken will fit precisely into the ultimate overall strategic design. During this period a change in any of the elements will require an adjustment in all of them in order to allow the entire design to work as a productive and profitable system. In the piecemeal approach each of the individual segments may be absolutely perfect but if they cannot come together as a relatively flawless system they will not be management or accountable. This is why the industry at this point in time is so vulnerable to an ultimate disruption scenario. Existing systems that reflect, “how we have always done it” are neither flexible or nor defendable in the face of disruption.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 1.46.59 PMThe third requirement that must be met has to do with the fact that in most cases strategic design project also require major changes in the corporate culture. Many brokerages have, over the past decade, spent fortunes purchasing new technologies. Unfortunately they have found that new technologies laid over legacy cultures are neither effective nor generate an acceptable return on investment. Sometimes a successful strategic design process is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Experts like Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s Chief Design Officer suggest this culturalization process involves several stages.

  • Those responsible for the strategic design process must never forget the “dark day of the innovator.” Investing the time and effort to create innovation through disruption and design frequently creates a situation in which the rest of the team is unable or unwilling to either recognize or celebrate the genius of the innovations being introduced. Self-confidence and faith are a must.
  • It is not unusual for significant players within the brokerage to suggest that the status quo is working just fine and that the suggested disruption will never work. These issues must be addressed head on often with terminations and new hires.
  • Even when the significant players are on board with the strategic design process there will be lessor players in the brokerage environment who will openly or secretly reject and attempt to sabotage the new design. The brokerage’s boomer generation agent contingent is often a nexus for this level of “opposition.”
  • When the brokerage environment appears to have reached a critical level of support for the strategic design, it is often still necessary to move the process forward by playing the “trust me” card.
  • Although the members of the team may appear to be, at least tentatively, in place and supporting the process, it is still important to have embedded a number of “quick start” elements that will demonstrate early success and confidence in the program.
  • Finally, there is a moment in time when the process turns the corner and ownership of the innovations become more or less universal. It is at this point in time those who have been dragging their feet suddenly want to offer suggestions relative to how the innovations might be made even more effective. This is known as the “confusing day of the innovator.”

Strategic design has become a key feature in many leading business entities. It offers a proven methodology for meeting the threats and realizing the opportunities of disruptive innovations. This is yet another example of the age-old axiom that the perfect defense is an optimum offense.

Management Migration: A Sign of the Times

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 8.39.39 AMThe conclusion of the industry’s recent round of summer presentations and articles provides an opportunity for reflection and consideration regarding what lies ahead for fall and winter. As has been the case for the past few years, increasingly dramatic transformation continues to occur. Issues regarding the control and processing of listings and other real estate related data, the emergence of the hybrid brokerage culture, the continuing demise of MLS organizations and REALTOR associations, the sharpening of the consumer expectation and the industry’s almost myopic focus on all things ‘portal’ provides the framework for this ongoing discussion.

Certainly one of the most significant dynamics currently driving the industry is the almost universal sense that little or no change will be initiated or driven by the traditional brokerage element. With few exceptions, like great fortresses along the Maginot Line, they stand bravely facing out toward the forest, awaiting their fate at the hands of those that will carry the day forward.

Yet, under the umbrella of the forest there is a great deal of activity. Record numbers of more aggressive agents are abandoning these fortresses seeking refuge, safety and success with brokerage organizations that appear to be preparing to take both a leadership position and the advantage of the evolving marketplace environment. Many of these agents are entering into new brokerage relationships that involve levels of compliance, accountability and discipline that would never have been possible in the traditional sector.

These agents may constitute the first wave of the new movement. If that is the case the second wave is likely to consist of the brighter and younger managers who are increasingly recognizing that their futures are likely to depend upon getting onboard and up to speed with a brokerage that is preparing to align with the trends, emerging rules and realities of the new industry environment.         Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 8.41.51 AMIn July of this year I found myself engaged in a riveting discussion with a group of clients, all of whom are very successful brokerage management executives. The conversation worked its way through a number of interesting issues before coming to rest on the subject of management careers in the real estate industry. It was at this point that one of the participants assumed the leadership position and sharpened the group’s focus by sharing the fascinating story of her recent career changes.

This individual is no ordinary soul. Her career achievements include being both a longtime super high production agent and a record-setting large office manager. She has recently executed a really interesting career strategy that involved a number of rather dramatic tactics. As I listened to her story it occurred to me that hers was really the story of our current industry. I hope the reader will find the following thoughts both interesting and beneficial. In order to avoid irrelevant complications, this individual’s name and current and past relationships have been purposefully omitted.


What went wrong with your former brokerage relationship?

“I was observing fast moving changes in the industry and the marketplace not so much by following industry events as by listening to my better agents. Many, especially the younger high performing, were very aware of how the industry was changing. Increasingly their conversations evolved to asking what their brokerage was going to do to get on the new track.”

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“At the same time I was attending management meetings where I observed no such discussions at all. I saw no apparent interest or willingness to change business strategies or tactics. Attempts to exercise basic leadership energies and perhaps get the senior team to consider alternatives were quickly rejected. As I became more engaged I couldn’t see that there was a plan in place or a process to get one started. It seemed to me that the ownership and senior management was not committed to future success but rather merely surviving the storm.”

How did your former career relationship make you feel as a professional and an individual?

“I was concerned for my agents but even more frustrated at not being able to work with my team to take advantage of opportunities that were so obvious. I was unable to find a way to be effective. The message of senior management seemed to be to stay the course and everything would be good.”

Through what process did you set about getting your career back on a course that you deemed to be appropriate and meaningful?

“I tried hard to convert my influence into leadership for positive change. I offered to become a change advocate. I offered to use the offices under my management as examples. When these efforts failed I made the decision to take my career in a new direction.”

At what level of detail did you negotiate your new position?

“I searched for firms that seemed to have a clue about what was happening in the current marketplace. I made the decision not to associate myself with those for whom retirement was the next stage of their career. I was focused on finding a position with a firm that not only understood the industry’s direction but also had a business plan that would allow them to take advantage of the new environment. I wanted to be with people who were looking to success ahead not behind. I understood that it takes more than a plan to succeed but I also understood that a team cannot succeed without a plan. I believe that my career is now back on track and that my talents are being used to their greatest extent and appreciated.”

What advice would you share with others in like circumstances?

“For someone who is in my former position I would say you have to follow Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 8.45.49 AMyour heart. If you are in conflict with your best feelings it is probably time for a change. Search for that place or that relationship that you feel that you can make a difference. Our world and our industry are changing as we know it and those who don’t change with it are going to be left in the dark.”

“Success moving forward will require a partnership based on emotional relationships between brokerages and agents.”

With each passing month our industry becomes more focused on objectives and destinations that are inconsistent with “how it has always been done.” It has become more than clear that over the near term future the changing industry and market environment, its productive agents and those who manage will demand a business model that conforms to the new expectations. While there is no certainty of success in this environment, it has become obvious that without an innovative and adoptive business plan and wide spread collaboration, accountability and support success will likely be impossible.

What Is The Deal With the Millennials?

Brokerages are currently being challenged in their efforts to capture a commanding share of what some in the industry are trying hard to classify as a “Millennial land rush.” The fact of the matter may be that the current situation may not constitute a land rush at all but rather a generation playing out its unique developmental destiny.

The industry’s conference and literature environments are currently awash with presentations and articles about the consumer behaviors of the 80 million Americans between the age of 18 and 34 that comprise what is generally known as the Millennial generation. While much of the information that is being shared is simply a rehash of extremely limited professional and previous offerings, there is one new publication that meets everyone’s five star test of relevancy, accuracy and power.

Last week the Pew Research Center, a unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts, issued what is probably, at this point in time, the definitive report regarding the Millennial Generation and their current interactions with the housing industry.

The Pew Charitable Trust is an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), foundedScreen Shot 2015-08-11 at 10.11.16 AM in 1948. With over US $5 billion in assets, its stated mission is to “serve the public interest by improving public policy, informing the public, and stimulating civic life.” It is, by any criterion, an amazing fountain of knowledge that matters.

The Pew report is entitled More Millennials Living With Family Despite Improved Job Market. The report contains a revealing analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data regarding this increasingly important demographic. For real estate professionals seeking to effectively work with this group the following insights will be essential.

  • The post great recession economic recover has now been in existence for over 5 years.
  • Despite this history fewer individuals within the 18 – 34 years old group are currently living independently in their own households than in the height of the recession in 2007.Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 10.12.44 AM
  • The employment economics of the Millennials are also recovering nicely. In 2015 Millennials with a college education will make an average of $51,000 while those with a high school diploma and “some” higher education will make about $30,000. These statistics suggest that income is very close to having recovered to pre recession rates. Some experts suggest that what the Millennials lack is not adequate income but rather the ability to live on the same level as their boomer parents.
  • 51% of Millennials with a college education are running their own households as opposed to 43% of those without a degree. These statistics are somewhat below pre recession rates.
  • The data also suggests that while the repayment of education related debt is a factor in deciding whether or not Millennials live independently it is not as critical a factor as previously thought.
  • The latest census data indicates that there has been no significant increase in the percentage of Millennials living with their families since 2007.
  • Neither is being “doubled up” (either living with parents or having a roommate) significantly increased since the recession.
  • Of special interest to housing and real estate professionals is the fact that in 2015 only 25 million Millennials head up their own households compared with 25.2 million in 2007 despite the fact that there are some 3 million more individuals in this demographic group. This has had a very negative impact upon the housing market. There is no evidence that household formation rates in 2015 have significantly increased over 2010.Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 10.13.58 AM
  • Another demographic factor impacted by the recession was college enrollment. During the 2010 – 2012 period there was a dramatic increase in enrollment but those numbers have retreated over the past three years. Despite media stories that suggest that higher education doesn’t “pay off,” the evidence provided by the Pew report differ dramatically and suggest that education, even with student loan debts, remains one of the best investments a young individual can make.

The relevance of the information presented in the Pew report is something that every real estate professional should study and apply to their own unique business. They should beware of the stereotypes and generalities that are currently being peddled as contemporary marketing savvy. Many are nothing more than short-term observations that their authors are attempting to convert into long-term marketing wisdom.

What the Pew report was not charged with, and did not comment on, are the vast number of philosophical, lifestyle and cultural factors that are now formatting the lives of the 18 to 34 year old set. The factors that are contributing to the hesitancy of the Millennials to engage in certain housing decisions (e.g. purchase) are complex and significant. They go well beyond how agents are interacting, what they are saying and how they are presenting the issues connected to owning one’s own home. They are not all about economics.

Perhaps the most significant of these factors is that many were raised by the most complex of all generations; the “boomers.” Only history will disclose the full impact and force of having boomer parents. Boomers themselves demonstrated the impact of having “civic” generation parents. Most couldn’t escape that oppressive environment fast enough. The Millennials are demonstrating just the opposite behavior. The basis of this attraction and relationship may well be the foundation of the real estate industry’s challenge with this demographic.

It is becoming increasingly obvious (Supported by the Pew Report) that the impact of the recession on the Millennial generation may be far less than previously assumed. A strong case can be made to support the idea that what is happening relative to this generation and its housing decisions may well be a product of the culture in which they were raised. Consider the fact that nearly 50% of Millennials who have purchased a residence received significant funding support from their families. What expectations will these actions by Boomer parents carry into the future? Given the economic realities of upcoming retirements, is it possible that Boomer parents will demand repayment of these grants at the very moment that the Millennials are feeling the heaviest burdens of raising families?

It is way too early and there has been far too little history connected to the Millennials for real estate professionals to believe that a dependable set of Millennial centric rules and procedures have emerged. Caution is the key here. Do some homework and closely track emerging research such as that recently contributed by the Pew organization.

The Potential Perils of Being Out of Control

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 9.12.57 AMThe American residential real estate industry is currently going through a quiet but particularly dramatic phase of its contemporary history. Brought about by the now almost two year old announcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that, effective August 1, 2015, it would be developing and enforcing a new set of lender mortgage disclosure and RESPA audit rules the various segments of the industry are demonstrating a number of reactions and responses.

Over the past two years the mortgage and title sectors invested significant energies and resources into creating processes and procedures that will ensure that its business practices will be in compliance with the new rules. Both deserve a hero’s medal for the millions of dollars and human resources that they have invested into making sure that the return of regulation to the industry is accomplished with as little disruption as possible.

The fourth player in this historic drama, the real estate services or brokerage sector, has also executed on a number of significant reactions and responses. Instead of acknowledging the new rules and doing their best to comply, by and large the brokerage sector has elected to effect a combination of ignoring the rules and denying any potential impact or liability.

In its defense the brokerage sector was, to some extent, relying upon representations by its advisors in organized real estate that nothing in the Dodd Frank consumer protection act of 2010 applied to them. For much of period since July of 2013 brokerage sector inquires were met with an absolute assurance that there was a specific provision and a political promise that nothing in the CFPB program was relevant to brokerages and agents.

This convenient reality remained in place until early spring of this year when inquiring minds began to realize the significance and probable impact of the new regulations and altered RESPA procedures. By early April the alarm had been sounded and, while even then the majority of the brokerage sector refused to consider the ramifications of the new regulatory threat, significant numbers of firms undertook to respond to the threat posed by the Bureau’s efforts to protect the real estate consumer.

What became relevant at this point was the internal experience of the brokerages that made the decision to respond to the new CFPB rules as they undertook to protect their consumers, agents and stockholders against the very significant downside of interacting with a regulator that is (1) consistently demonstrated over the past 48 months its commitment to make all elements of the real estate transaction safe for the American consumer (2) following an unfaltering course of notice and focus in that direction and (3) armed with both enabling legislation and a demonstrated willingness to use its ability to levy significant financial sanctions ($5,000 per day per file fines) against offending and non-complying parties.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 9.40.19 AMIt is sufficient to say that as brokerages have attempted to affect some level of control over their transactional operations they have discovered what many have always known. After decades of deferring command and control, they now find themselves almost totally unable to exercise even the most minimal impact over they’re most basic processes and procedures. Even when faced with the certainty of failed audits, immense fines by an agency who gets to eat significant amounts of what it kills and the high potential of lawsuits from engaged consumers whose lives become disrupted because of non-complying transactions, the internal constituencies of many brokerages refused to submit to even the most basic of best practices and transactional safeguards. It would appear that the industry’s traditional adage that “I don’t need no stinking boss” has risen to become its nemesis and “Achilles heel.”

For many brokerages going through the process, the findings have been nothing short of horrifying. The broker’s almost total lack of control coupled with the refusal of agents and, in many cases, managers, to comply with management systems and internal rules has been alarming. One of the more classic examples was a firm that discovered that the local MLS records reflected over 500 listings attributed to the firm that it didn’t know existed.

What makes these brokerage experiences even more alarming was the recent release (May 15, 2015) of the courageous NAR DANGER report. This document, commissioned by NAR and totally unrelated to the CFPB and its current initiative, the first of its kind in the industry, skillfully documents the concerns of dozens of top industry executives and decision makers that this very thing might happen.

Many within the industry saw the recent CFPB decision to defer rule enforcement by 90 days as some manner of political or strategic victory. Those who are most familiar with what is happening here realize that the delay will only serve to amplify the existing circumstances. The bureau will be that much more prepared to execute on its mandate, the mortgage and title sectors will be that much more competent in their compliance and the brokerage sector will be that much more unprepared to protect itself and its consumers.

What then can a brokerage that has not undertaken or been able to effect actions to protect itself do at this late moment with only 90 days remaining in the countdown? The simple answer is due diligence.

One morning or afternoon on a date after Saturday, October 3rd, your receptionistScreen Shot 2015-07-17 at 9.17.06 AM may look up to see one or more individuals introducing themselves as being from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They may announce that they are present to conduct a TTILA/RESPA audit.

What happens from this point forward may have everything to do with the size of the fine that will ultimately be levied on your brokerage. This moment in time compares rather nicely with being pulled over for a traffic violation. Why do some drivers receive citations while others depart with a warning? As any officer will tell you it has everything to do with the driver’s respect and common sense. Enforcement discretion is never awarded to jerks.

Just as a significant percentage of drivers pulled over elect to respond by being hostile, argumentative and even combative so will a like percentage of brokerages fall into the same trap. The operative assumption on the part of auditors is that the treatment they receive is very likely to be the same treatment that the brokerage will give to a consumer with a problem.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 9.22.58 AMGiven these circumstances how should the brokerage respond? Leaving CFPB personnel standing in the lobby while contacting the broker, calling legal counsel, asking for a search warrant or demonstrating a belligerent attitude is not the right answer. The first contact, and all subsequent contacts within the brokerage, whether they have been there for ten-years or just happen to be walking by, should respond as if the brokerage is prepared for such an audit. To a great extent the auditors will judge the brokerage on the basis of what due diligence is in effect.

If the auditors’ request to see the firm’s TILA/RESPA Audit procedures file and the response is that “there is no such file,” what does one imagine will be the response? Does, “Oh, no sweat, we will come back next week” sound correct? If the brokerage doesn’t respect the law or the consumer enough to have such a file then there is really nothing to discuss, it is now just a matter of how much the fine is going to be.

What should be in this magic file(s) is the evidence of what efforts the brokerage has made to comply with the new rules. This effort is referred to as “due diligence.” It is the sum total of the efforts made by the brokerage to prepare for an audit. One doesn’t have to be an expert on fires to prepare for a possible fire. Initial due diligence is nothing more than common sense and respect. It is time for the industry to demonstrate these qualities. We can do this.


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