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By Barbara Pronin

RISMEDIA, April 23, 2007-A funny thing happened as the real estate market shifted from frenzied to flat. Many agents found that a passion for the business, good basic skills and a commitment to excellent customer service are the keys to success in any market…and that a slight shift in strategy may be all it takes to put a slump behind you for good.

For Russell Nolting, who switched his business focus from commercial land development to residential real estate only three years ago, the experience has been a great adventure, a rude awakening, and a valuable object lesson.

"I joined the National Association of Realtors in 2004, just as the residential market was heating up," said Nolting, broker and president of Nolting Real Estate in Chesterfield, Mo. "It was good timing, and in my first year I did a respectable amount of residential business."

Like many of his colleagues, Nolting subscribed to the basics of real estate marketing; aggressive prospecting, local advertising, and building a sizable contact database. "Everything was working, the phones were ringing, and I was feeling pretty good," he recalled.

But last year, as the sizzling market slowed and the phones rang less often, Nolting decided to make a fundamental shift in the way he conducted his business. In a move that may have seemed counterproductive, he slashed his extensive contacts database from more than 5,000 names to 60.

"Referrals seemed more important than ever, and you're not likely to get a referral from someone who doesn't really know you," Nolting said. "So I looked at each name in my database and I asked myself, can I have a 10-minute conversation with this person? If the answer was no, out they went. I wanted to talk to people who knew me, and knew I would do a good job for anyone they referred to me."

Working the phones with people he knew made all the difference for Nolting, whose business last year grew to five times his first year's production – and it's working for the agents he has subsequently hired and trained to use a similar approach.

Nolting also looked at his marketing methods and made another important change. "I really take a personal approach to client appreciation," he said.

Last November, as a thank-you for referrals, he hired a photographer to take professional family holiday portraits. He frequently loans out his carpet-cleaning machine to save clients the cost of renting one. Recently, he made a deal with a local gardener to offer discounted spring gardening service – and sent a basketful of flower bulbs to every person who has referred business since January.

On the East Coast, which early on felt the brunt of last year's slowdown, Michael Dolan was not prepared for the steep fall-off of business. Dolan, a Realtor with Century 21 Ed Nugent Realtors in Piscataway, N.J., came into the industry in 1999.

"Prices were going up every year, and there were always plenty of buyers," Dolan said. "Business was good and I guess I assumed it would always be that way. But when things slowed down last year, everything dried up and I really had to hunt for business. It was months before I found my niche, but I finally found what worked for me."

What worked for Dolan was a focus on the expired market; sharing practical advice and market savvy with previously discouraged sellers.

"For me, it became more important than ever to really know the market," he said. "To keep sellers realistic, but even more than that, to keep buyers and sellers informed. It's crucial to be competitive, but it's also crucial for clients to trust your judgment – and they can only do that when you are totally honest, have your finger on the pulse and bring value to every negotiation."

That, Dolan said, is what brings referrals, which now make up the bulk of his business.

In Greenwich, Conn., Joann Mancuso took another approach. "I met my partner, Kathryn Clauss, in real estate school six years ago," Mancuso said. "We decided from the get-go to work as a team, and it's worked wonderfully for us. Our clients get two hard workers for the price of one, and they get the best that each of us has to offer."

The team, based in the Greenwich office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, focuses on the high end market – a strategy, Mancuso said, that has kept them busy right through the recent downturn. (Among their current listings is a $3.9 million Greenwich property owned by a world-famous singer.)

"Luxury properties are bought and sold regardless of the state of market," Mancuso said. "But they may take a year or more to sell, and because we have a sophisticated clientele, we need to take a sophisticated approach. We bring an aggressive marketing plan to the table, front-loaded with property exposure in major publications worldwide – and we develop programs that promote their property in a manner that fits their lifestyle."

The pair may host charitable and/or promotional events right in the client's home. For one client, a musician and patron of the arts, they staged a gala to raise funds for a young composer while showcasing the client's elegant property to a select list of invited guests.

"When it comes to marketing, we have two sets of skills to help us think outside the box," Mancuso said. "We don't promote ourselves. We don't even have our photos on our stationery. Our goal is to promote the property, and our clients know we go above and beyond to do that."

In California, which saw inventory swell and prices fall throughout most of 2006, there is no shortage of high-end property – and at a median price hovering around $500,000, even the average home may be considered high-end. Home prices are rising even as sales lag, but for many West Coast Realtors, the trick to breaking out of a slump is doing what they always did – but more of it.

David Gruver, who came into the business as the market was heating up, still wonders at the ups and downs he has seen over the past couple of years.

"At first, my production zoomed so high, so fast, it was almost too good to be true," said Gruver, an agent with Prudential California Realty in Brea, Calif. "And I guess it was, because for several months last year, everything just suddenly stopped."

Gruver used the downtime to take additional sales training available through his company. Then he challenged himself to take a grueling approach to traditional farming methods. He made more calls. He sent more mail. He sat open houses for his colleagues – a practice he continues today because" it's a great way to meet people." Most important, he said, he took a deep breath and started knocking on doors.

"It isn't easy," Gruver admitted. "You get a lot of rejection. But you learn to get past it and move on."

Gruver stayed with it, and the steady cold-calling – and organized follow-up – began to pay hoped-for dividends. Today, he's working hard to keep up with referrals and provide the best in service to every client.

None of the sales professionals we interviewed for this article resorted to discounting commissions. As Gruver noted, "When homes are moving slowly, sellers know they need quality representation. If you can prove you are the one to provide that, you don't need to think about discounting."

As important, all of those interviewed reported an upswing in business this spring. "Once the holidays were over, the phones started ringing," Dolan said. "There's good value out there, and buyers know that. I expect to be really busy."

Seven Strategies For Shaking A Slump

The agents we talked to agreed that great customer service leads the list of ‘must have' slump-busters. But here are some tips for moving forward, even in uncharted waters:

• Shake it up – Change your routine, alter your schedule, try something new every day. Brainstorm with a colleague, take a rival to lunch. Be alert to new ideas.
• Put a toe in the water – Seek training from your broker or company on an area you haven't tried. E-team sales? High-end marketing? The list goes on and on…
• Create a focus group – Chat up your closest circle of friends. Ask for help with prospecting. Sometimes, the best ideas come from people outside the business.
• Get into community – Sponsor a safety fair. Support a youth sports team. Mount a recycling event. Meet new people and do some good…what a winning combo.
• Partner up – Team with a colleague to offer clients the benefit of two sets of skills. Host a reception to introduce the team…or a seminar for first time buyers.
• Walk the beat – Knocking on doors takes resolve and persistence…but it can pay off big time. Put on your walking shoes, swallow your pride and hit the pavement.
• Say it like you mean it – Be creative in saying thanks for referrals with special gifts or events. Give your imagination free rein. One referral leads to another.