“We all had a very turbulent year,” said RISMedia President & CEO John Featherston as he opened the 25th Annual Power Broker Forum during the REALTORS® Conference & Expo last week. And out of this turbulence, according to the forum’s broker panelists, came rapid advancements, which will make their firms more resilient than ever heading into 2021.
“What we went through was unprecedented,” said Michael Saunders, founder and CEO of Sarasota, Fla.-based Michael Saunders & Company, “It was like falling off a cliff with no ropes.”
Much like her fellow broker peers across the country, Saunders ramped up virtual communication with managers and agents to keep everyone connected and informed, so that they could, in turn, engage with consumers. “We learned that consumers need agents more than ever before, and agents need their brokers more than ever before,” she said. “Agents had to become knowledge brokers.”
In order to support agents and staff during the height of the pandemic’s fury, Joe Horning, president of Wisconsin-based Shorewest REALTORS®, used PPP funds to prevent lay-offs and to make investments in the business, such as billboards with community-based messages and ramping up social media.
“We boosted every single active listing and focused on providing more tools and technology, and refreshing agents on the tools they already had,” said Horning.
Brokers also increased training efforts in 2020, which will, no doubt, pay dividends in 2021.
“We quickly pivoted to take all communications online,” said Sharry Schmid, president of Minnesota’s Edina Realty. “Agents craved information, so we got creative in delivering training virtually.”
Now, as the trials of 2020 come to a close, and uncertainty colors the outlook for the year ahead, brokers intend to move forward with many of the strategies developed during the pandemic still central to their game plan.
“These issues that were generated by a public health crisis, there’s an argument to be made that they have made the industry stronger,” said co-moderator Joe Rand, chief creative officer of Howard Hanna | Rand Realty and executive director of the Broker Public Portal by Homesnap. Rand asked panelists to share which strategies will continue well after the pandemic has receded.
“Solid technology was critical,” said Saunders, “and we learned that that was part of our future. We didn’t focus on rolling out new technology, but rather looking at the technology we already have, and now (agents are) using it and seeing the value.”
“We’ll continue to do our training and host our monthly top-agent roundtables, and we’ll do more and more on video,” said Horning. “We’re having better turn-out for meetings when people can attend remotely.”
Brokers will also approach the year ahead with a new-found appreciation for flexibility. From virtual open houses to digital communication, Schmid said an open mind remains paramount; “Being nimble has been our weekly theme.”
Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic fast-tracked agent knowledge and skill levels. “It catapulted our agents five years ahead to what they needed to know to be in this business,” said Saunders. “And our agents knew they had to lean on us to hone these skills.”
As much as the experiences of 2020 fast-forwarded technology adoption, it also underscored the value of relationships like never before.
“The pandemic has shown us personally and professionally how important technology is, but also how important the personal touch is,” said Schmid. “You always hear stories about tech companies coming in to take over, but we thrive on human interaction. Going forward, it will be a hybrid of both.”
Featherston also asked the panel how the events of 2020 will impact company culture in 2021.
Horning used the pandemic experience to lean into his firm’s family-business culture, keeping the vibe lighthearted and down to earth. Agents got to track the progress of his “COVID beard,” (“which got pretty gnarly”) during video meetings, and he showed old company commercials from the ’50s and ’60s. He’s kept the personal touch prevalent ever since. “This week, we sent out 200 baskets loaded with goodies. My broker and I walked around our support center and handed out e-gift cards to local entities. It’s all about patting them on the back to let them know we’re here and they’re not just a number.”
Saunders also zeroed in on her company’s core values. “We’re a culture of gratitude,” she said, “which is more important than ever. This is the time when it shows.”
While panelists’ cultures will remain people-focused, they will be driven by technology from here on in. “We made a five-year technology leap in three months,” said Rand. “This makes it easier for a big company to build culture. We had 1,400 people on a call recently about our new brand. We were able to get everybody, and that’s something we never would’ve been able to do live. There’s an intimacy to video conferencing that people didn’t appreciate prior.”
Schmid agreed; “Video technology allows managers and agents to have conversations more often. In a lot of ways, they’re feeling more connected.”
“No good thing came out of COVID except the realization that we need each other more than we ever have,” added Saunders. “And people have choices now about where they live.”
As with any great trial, true leaders always emerge, and the COVID-19 pandemic proved no different. As Rand said, “This year, the water receded and you could see who was wearing a bathing suit. Good brokers shined brightly.”
Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas to [email protected].