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By Maria Patterson

RISMEDIA, Jan. 4, 2008-To the outside observer, home warranties may seem like just one small part of the real estate business-an add-on, an after thought, icing on the cake. But David Sobel’s approach is entirely different. As national sales manager of Chicago-based Home Warranty of America (HWA), Sobel embraces the home warranty business as an integral part of the overall real estate picture. For HWA employees, it’s not just about selling a warranty, therefore-it’s about becoming a knowledgeable consultant on all aspects of the real estate business. Here, Sobel shares the strategy that he believes sets his company apart.

Maria Patterson: It all starts with the product, so first, tell us what differentiates your product in the marketplace.
David Sobel
: All HWA warranty programs cover the buyer for 13 months. All other national providers cover the buyer for 12 months. As we all know, Murphy’s Law applies to this product and things happen after the expiration date. We help real estate professionals and their clients with that additional month. HWA offers warranty programs in 49 states and has different products for different regions. If you compare apples to apples-our program versus a competitor-you will find that we provide more covered items standard with an additional month of coverage. We’re constantly enhancing our programs to provide more and more value to the real estate professional and the customer so that we can help the agent through the transaction…and beyond.

MP: So how does your team emphasize the value of the HWA warranty to real estate professionals?
: We educate real estate agents to offer the customer a choice of warranty programs from different warranty companies. This helps reduce liability for the real estate agent. When an agent offers just one program, it increases their liability dramatically, whereas if they give the customer two or three brochures, they can say, “Here are two or three companies; pick which one you want.”

MP: That sounds highly unusual for a service provider! You don’t require exclusive relationships between agents and your company?
: We tell agents, “If you want to use us exclusively, that’s fine, but here’s what’s best for you: offer your customers a choice.” You can’t practice risk reduction and reduce your risk by preaching one company. We believe our product coverage and service is superior and that consumers will choose us. In addition, customers search the Web for all things during the real estate transaction, and if the agent provides one choice and their client searches the Web and finds a better product or service, then the customer may not feel their agent is offering the best product or service. In the end, we are confident our product, service, and team will stand out to the real estate professional and their clients.

MP: How do you train your team to go beyond just selling warranties in order to form stronger relationships with clients?
: We train our salespeople and customer service representatives to help real estate agents sell more real estate and make certain the transaction is fast, simple, and easy with HWA. Our salespeople are trained to provide solutions to problems that agents are facing in a changing market. Each week, we have a sales call and part of what I do is educate the sales forces on issues agents are facing now. We have a different topic each week-the credit crunch, foreclosures, etc. We are constantly educating our team on changing market conditions and what opportunities are available to agents now, like first-time home buyers or the Hispanic or Asian markets. If we can help solve problems for real estate agents and create solutions for their business challenges, they will come back to us.

MP: In this service-oriented day and age, how do you ensure that your level of service is a step ahead?
: It all starts with our hiring process. We are very selective about who we hire and bring into the organization. We have a complete profile of who we are looking for and we use personality testing to find the right people. If we hire the best salespeople, customer service reps, etc., we know we can provide excellent service not just business to business, but business to consumer as well.

MP: How would you characterize your sales team then?
: I believe we have the best sales staff in the industry and we empower our salespeople with our technology. We have a Web-based program that we developed ourselves. We are the only organization out there where our salespeople can walk into a real estate office, get asked a question on a contract or policy, and be able to go online at any computer and view every single note that has been made on that contract, or answer any claim question an agent or broker might have. Our salespeople don’t have to make a phone call to track down an answer; they don’t have to go through three different layers to get the information they need. They are empowered with that information right in the field.

MP: What other benefits do you provide to real estate professionals?
: One of the benefits they can use in their business is our client follow-up program or drip marketing program. Many warranty companies offer a drip program, but it’s limited. What HWA has done is recommend to real estate professionals that they use a drip marketing program from a company that specializes in that. What we then provide is a supplemental program where the real estate agent doesn’t have to do anything. If they give us their warranty business, we will market to their home warranty customers on behalf of the agent. We send the marketing pieces out for them-they don’t even have to upload contact information. We let them know when we’ll be sending a marketing piece out, so that they can follow up with their client base afterwards.

MP: Why is it important to handle this marketing component for the real estate agent?
: We understand that real estate agents are there to sell real estate. We can coach them and educate them on how to get some new business through our marketing program. Everyone gets reactive referrals where someone calls you out of the blue because they received your magnets, calendar, etc. Those are fantastic but rare, and you can’t rely on that only to grow your business. You have to take all your drip marketing and make some proactive calls. We’re sending marketing out for them and saying, “Here’s what you do next.” That only increases the value of our program for them.

MP: How else are you using technology to better position HWA?
: First, we’re launching a new Web site and enhancing several features to make it more user friendly for the real estate professional. We’re looking to have the site ready in mid 2008.

In 2006, we also launched a seven-minute Web presentation about our company and our product. Many agents wanted information on our programs but were not in the office to receive this information. HWA leads the way in this industry with an entertaining and interactive presentation so the agents can get the info they want to educate themselves on our company and product at their leisure. The feedback we have received and responses have been excellent and we are going to continue to provide agents and brokers more information with this tool.

MP: I understand you are launching some exciting new products in February. Are the details still under wraps?
: Yes, they are! I can tell you, however, that our new products will offer even more coverage, which will provide real estate professionals with a better tool to offer their clients.

MP: Why is the longevity and strength of your leadership team a key part of HWA’s current and future success?
: Our executive staff and the key people in our company have been with us from the start because we provide a terrific environment to work in and we are growing even in this marketplace. When you provide a great product, superior service, and work to constantly improve on that, it creates a terrific atmosphere to work in. We are all striving to get better and do more. Most importantly, we listen to our customers to meet their needs and expectations.

MP: What about home warranties in general-is the adoption rate increasing?
: The percentage of home warranty sales to the number of real estate transactions is definitely increasing due to more competition in the marketplace, and more real estate agents getting involved in selling other products and services. The change in the marketplace is good for home warranties; with less transactions, the value of our product increases. With houses on the market longer, agents can use home warranties as a tool and protection for sellers and buyers.

MP: Where does the future of the home warranty industry lie?
: The future of our industry lies in the constant challenge of providing great service, balanced with the price of our product. We have to continue to educate the consumer on what this product really provides. We have to enhance our product but keep that price point where it’s affordable.

In every down market, you have to work harder and you have to work smarter. We’re expecting double digit growth in 2008. We have great salespeople and in this type of market, the best salespeople with the best product and service wins. We’re very confident that we’ll continue to grow and increase market share. RE

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