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Commentary by Bradley B. Miller

RISMEDIA, June 18, 2008-We live in an era where many industries are scaling back or eliminating their customer service efforts, the airline industry for example. As is somewhat indicative of our industry, we never really grasped the concept of formal customer service. That’s the bad news. The good news is, our customers never really expected it from us-until the Internet.

The Internet certainly has changed things in real estate industry. When we joined the revolution a decade ago by placing our listings to be viewed on the Internet, something changed with the way we communicate with our customers. I remember when a buyer wanted to look at homes for sale they would call a Realtor® and schedule a time to come into the office to look at a book, the bi-weekly MLS Book, the Holy Grail that was never allowed to be viewed outside the presence of a Realtor. If they had any questions about a property, wanted to schedule a showing or even map out a list of properties, their Realtor was sitting right next to them and could accommodate their requests. So how do we handle all those requests for information or simple questions today when they originate from the Internet in an online form fill that is e-mailed to us?

In 2007 there were 55 million occasions when a consumer took the time to fill out an online form and submit it to a Realtor from a real estate website. How in the world can over 1 million Realtors give rapid, consistent and professional customer service response to every one of those 55 million leads? Several top 25 brokers, Long & Foster, Weichert, and Baird & Warner, have built in-house call centers or customer service departments to handle their online leads. If you are fortunate enough to be an agent at one of those firms, then you already know the benefits to both buyers and sellers to have such a service.

If you are like most agents or team leaders, however, you struggle with how to properly respond and give customer service to every e-mail lead that comes to you. If you are a broker without such services in-house, how can you protect your brand from being damaged without an organized effort to respond to those leads? Not responding to an online lead from a consumer today is the equivalent of not answering your phone 10 years ago.

Before we decide how to tackle this problem, we need to first look at the expectations of our consumers. Here are a few statistics that help us measure the service we need to deliver in order to capture those consumers as clients:

– 48% of online leads are never responded to
– 87% of consumers chose the first agent who responded to them or the agent who the most responsive to them
– 27% of first-time buyers expected an instant response from their agent, compared to 5% of repeat buyers and 23% of Internet buyers.
– 52% of first-time buyers expected a response from their agent within one hour, compared to 19% of repeat buyers and 46% of Internet buyers.
– 60% of first-time buyers expected their agent to respond within two hours, compared to 29% of repeat buyers and 49% of Internet buyers.
– 90% of first-time buyers expected a response from their agent by the end of the day, compared to 84% of repeat buyers and 83% of Internet buyers.

Source: California Association of Realtors Research Report 2007-2008

The common theme among those statistics seems to be responsiveness. Most Realtors never signed on to be “24 hour customer service reps” for leads that usually don’t result in a quick sale. Think about it, we as consumers ourselves expect our efforts of filling out an online form to be rewarded with a rapid and professional response. Often we are sending those forms to providers, like utilities, cable or cell phone vendors that we actually pay every month and we are entitled to a response. When we go to a retail website for questions about a $50 purchase we too usually gravitate towards the retailer that responds to us first. A consumer’s demand for customer service grows exponentially when they are inquiring about buying or selling a $200,000 house and it should.

If you are a broker or agent/team and you want to pursue the Internet consumer, there are really two different ways, absent of doing nothing, to implement a solution and when you do, you can expect to see a measurable ROI on your investment.

Option 1: Hire in-house personnel to handle your online leads.

If you are an agent or team leader, this means a new assistant for approximately $30,000 annually. The problem here is you will most likely only get 40 hours a week in response coverage, in addition to vacation, holidays and sick days which results in an inconsistent service to your consumers.

If you are a broker, the costs are even greater but the economics of scale are advantageous. Most likely you will offer the new service through your RELO Department but to do it effectively, you will need to add more personnel and technology. The goal would be to have enough personnel to cover consumer requests for 94 hours a week, 360 days a year.

Implementing an in-house service will grant you control over the service and is certainly more effective than a random response to online leads.

Option 2: Outsource your customer service to a vendor.

In nearly every instance whether you are an agent/team or broker this solution will be far less expensive than trying to build something in-house. An average agent/team can expect fees ranging from $10 to $12 per lead depending on the lead volume you have. A broker can expect fees ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 per month, again depending on volume. An outsourcing solution almost always brings returns well in excess of 100%. There is some direct control lost in outsourcing but the hours of coverage and the measurable returns far outweigh any negatives. We are an industry full of agents who outsource nearly every function of our business that isn’t related to our core strengths, selling homes. Considering expertise in customer service should really be no different.

A delta does exist in today’s environment for where we find and how we engage our buyers & sellers; if we want to continue to grow and prosper we must find a way to bridge that gap. Implementing a customer service solution at some level does get us there.

Bradley B. Miller, GRI, CCIM is a former broker/owner of a real estate brokerage in Champaign, IL and is currently the founder and CEO of 1CAVO. He can be reached at 303-362-1832/303-815-0245.