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If outstanding customer care is important in any market, it’s critical in today’s fast-paced and demanding environment, notes Mary Anne LaHaye, the force behind the successful, five-person LaHaye Team, an Abio Properties unit serving upscale Contra Costa and Alameda counties in Northern California.

It’s the high-touch experience, LaHaye maintains, that makes clients feel valued, reflects your high standards and keeps the referrals coming.

For this dedicated team, rated in the top 5% of real estate teams in Contra Costa County for three years running, customer care begins with the expert staging of a property before it is listed and continues throughout every stage of the transaction and beyond.

That’s because in any market, says LaHaye, citing industry figures, a staged home will, on average, sell 88% faster and for 20% more than a non-staged home. That’s an advantage her team wants to bring to their sellers—and it’s a bonus appreciated by many of today’s buyers, who are willing to pay top dollar for a move-in-ready home.

Barbara Pronin: So, let’s start with a little bit about your background, Mary Anne, and what launched your real estate career.

Mary Ann LaHaye: I was born and raised here in Northern California, and I’ve always been drawn to real estate. But I took a job after college in pharmaceutical sales because I was terrified of the commission-only structure. Eventually, though, I had the good fortune to come under the wing of our family REALTOR®, who was a great friend and a great mentor, and who gave me the confidence to make the leap. I started in the business 22 years ago, and four years ago, I brought a team of four with me to Abio Properties. Abio is a great home for us. We love the company culture and camaraderie and the can-do attitude that just makes us better and better.

BP: What’s your team structure like?

MAL: Julie Sullivan, who has been with me for 16 years, is both a buyer and listing agent who is just phenomenal on both sides—she mostly works in Contra Costa County, which is primarily upscale. Raquel Louie—aka our soft-hearted barracuda who excels in negotiation— works wonders in Alameda County, which is a little less affluent, although many properties there start in the low millions. Then there’s Travis Harrell, a referring agent who’s been with us for seven years, and our transaction coordinator and my assistant, Debbie Murrell, who helps us keep it all together.

BP: How have all of you managed to hold it together during the challenging COVID-19 market?

MAL: It has been a challenge, but you don’t maintain a multi-million-dollar business unless you know how to turn challenge into opportunity. We’ve had great communication all along, even when it was mostly virtual, and we’ve been flexible enough and innovative enough to help our clients meet and exceed their real estate goals, both when the market slowed at first and then when it heated up.

BP: You mentioned that home staging is one of your differentiators. Can you tell us more about that?

MAL. Sure. This is something we’ve been doing for years because it gets the best price for our sellers. We begin by walking the property to evaluate what’s needed to make it show at its best, whether it’s removing clutter, changing out some of the decor or furniture, rearranging a room and maybe even painting the walls, especially if the house is vacant. At the very least, we remove personal items like family pictures and create an ambience to help buyers see themselves and their families in the surroundings.

BP: How do you manage to do all of that?

MAL: We maintain two storage areas full of classic and trendy furnishings, artwork, and decor pieces, which we change out frequently so that we stay current—and we work as a team to make the process quick and seamless.

BP: How is there time to do that today, when houses are flying off the shelf?

MAL: We do it all pre-listing, so that the home is ready to bring top offers from the moment it goes on the market—and we can show that it does, based on the comps.

BP: That means you have a lot of happy sellers.

MAL: Yes. We don’t do any farming, per se. We don’t need to. We rely primarily on our SOI (sphere of influence)—buyers as well as sellers. Our business is almost all by referral.

BP: How would you characterize your approach to success in real estate?

MAL: Be the most knowledgeable and the most prepared. Preparation, without doubt, is 80% of success.

Barbara Pronin is a contributing editor to RISMedia.