Yelp! ….. I’ll Never Tell You How Good I Really Am….

I hate being a dinosaur. I feel like I’m becoming a real estate dinosaur, but I’m resisting. Next year I’ll hit 30 years in this business here in Mammoth (Where does the time go?). And all 30 years will be very different from each other. And despite being a classic “late adopter” in many things including marketing and tech, I haven’t done so bad. I was desktop publishing in 1987 when everyone laughed at me for owning Apple products. I had one of the first DSL lines in Mammoth (and still have it). My blogsite is almost 10 years old and I was writing real estate related “posts” for the local papers long before there was the internet here in Mammoth. I guess if I’m late to a party, I’ll try to have a good time when I get there.

And now I’m increasingly being sucked into the social media world because it is becoming a significant real estate marketing mechanism. And with it I am being advised that I need to gather “testimonials” from my clients. Testimonials are those glowing reports and snippets from clients about the quality of service an agent provides. (Maybe I am just a little concerned I might not be able to coerce any of my past clients to say something positive.)

I see real estate people using them more and more. The funny thing is that they are all positive, almost like an adoration society or cult following. I think some of these agents should start their own churches. I wish my life worked that way; being everything to everyone. And all the time. I tried this for many years, but it didn’t work out so well.

These radiant testimonials are most often timed when the buyers or sellers are on the “high” of just closing a transaction. But I have a different perspective. What would the testimonials be like about a year later? Or five years later? That is far more important to me. I have this silly personal problem known as a long-term perspective (and if you really know me I’m the last guy who should have one). I would like to know that time has proven that the buyers I represented made the right purchase. And not that they were simply “sold” a property. Being educated about a major purchase just seems so unappealing to so many people these days. And those testimonial spewing sellers may be elated, but are they confident they got the right price, and that nothing will come back to “bite” them?

Or maybe a year later those buyers come to realize they seriously overpaid for the property? I see it all the time. Today it almost seems like buyers think because they have cash to spend that it is okay to spend more than the property is worth. There are times when that makes sense, but not for just some run-of-the-mill property. Or one that has serious incurable defects, or defects of any nature. In the “old” days buyers with cash wanted a discount, or some other leverage in the negotiation. That’s so 20th century. And even though we’ve been through droves of appraisal reform in the past eight years, it remains a dubious science and art form. But who cares as long as good testimonials are generated?

Speaking of negotiations, some buyers ultimately discover that some facet of the transaction could or should have been negotiated differently? How would that affect the glowing testimonial down the road. I see this all the time too. Their agent ignored something that would later compromise their ownership. I see agents today less focused on the ramifications of the transaction and more focused on the awesome testimonial they can generate (and of course the commission check they need to pay for their Zillow advertising). Capturing the testimonial is the new prize.

One area that I’ve seen this lately; in the last decade many buyers were sold single family residences  because they were told they would make “good rentals” and they would generate plenty of nightly rental income. Then the Town cracked down on the long standing ordinance. Oops. Many of these owners eventually liquidated out of these properties. Maybe the agents got glowing testimonials on both sales? I also see it with new listings that (when you check the records) were just purchased just 2-3 years ago. What happened? What was missed? But more glowing testimonials….

I’ve worked with these agents that have stacks of awesome testimonials; some are really good salespeople, some are physically beautiful, and some are incredibly charming. And at the close of the transaction, or the crescendo of the deal, they ask for a testimonial. I know I’m old school, but it is tacky. But it telling of our modern age. They’ve become like “participation trophies.” I really want to know what they think later on down the line (Why did he let me buy this piece of crap?).

Or maybe I’m unmoved by all of this because I’ve had the burden of supervising lots of agents in the past. “Supervising” is a legal role for many real estate brokers in the state of California. But like many things it has mostly gone by the wayside. It is still a legal requirement, but nobody (including the regulatory bureaucrats) seems to think it is relevant anymore. It used to be that agents were taught and challenged to act within the law. And to be critical thinkers. That is what supervising was about. And to always be monitoring liability issues; primarily the liability of the buyers and sellers in the transactions, and potential liability for the brokerage company. Again, so 20th century. For me, a glowing testimonial sounds the alarm that something was missed.

Another problem with having all of these glowing testimonials attached to your name is you have to live up to that performance level. I certainly try to give 5-star service but not all real estate transactions go smooth. If they did who would need the help of good agents? They can be (are) a minefield full of problems. Sometimes those problems can get shoved under the rug or simply ignored. Sometimes not. Sometimes the brilliance of an agent’s work is questioning something that could be a problem, or anticipating the problem long before it becomes a problem. An unaware buyer or seller might not like that there is an issue to resolve, but better now than a bigger problem in the future (like after the escrow has closed).

These kinds of issues can create friction between an agent and a client, or between the agents and the clients. I’d rather piss somebody off but do the right thing than pretend everything is “good.” Hurt feelings aren’t the best thing to bring to a real estate transaction. But then again I haven’t been working for glowing testimonials. Maybe I’ll change.

I was involved in a transaction with one of the agents that heavily promotes his testimonials. It was enlightening. I was representing the seller. A minor thing went sideways near the end of the transaction. It was about a couple of missing items from the personal property inventory that could be replaced from one of the local thrift stores. It was then that he divulged his primary goal. “I want my clients to have delightful experience in this transaction” he said…. It was then that I knew we have very different goals. See, my little secret was I would have never let one of my buyers purchase this property that I had listed (and I didn’t sell it to the sellers). My goal is for my clients to have a delightful experience owning the property. And when the day comes that they want sell, the choice they carefully made years ago will be rewarded with the best opportunity to liquidate. But that is just my ridiculous long-term thinking again. Silly me.

The funny thing about the agent with all the testimonials is he doesn’t even own a piece of real estate in Mammoth. How good can his insight really be? For the same reason I’m skeptical of doctors who smoke cigarettes. And I don’t even like restaurants where I’ve seen the chefs and cooks in the back smoking. I’ve owned and managed so much different property in town that I know that the transactions are the easy part. It is the owning that is the challenge, and should also be the pleasure. I’ve experienced the yin and yang of Mammoth real estate from the ownership and management standpoint. I also know that real estate transactions are expensive and difficult to unwind. Testimonials are cheap and flutter in the wind of the internet. Changing your mind because you made a mistake is expensive.

My immediate reaction about testimonials is that they are pathetically shallow. Some are even tacky. But in this age of social media an increasing number of buyers and sellers are going to take them seriously. The age-old adage of caveat emptor (buyer beware) still rings truer than ever. Okay, so beware. If you do business with me in the future, I’ll be sweet as pie until I get that glowing testimonial in my hot little hands. After that, who knows what will happen…..

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