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From “How Did We Do?” to “How Are We Doing?”

It happened toward the end of a business lunch at a popular restaurant.  There it sat, hidden from view between a glass of Diet Pepsi and a bowl of salsa – a small printed note on a card in a plastic stand. A simple question: “How are we doing?” Every one at the table immediately assumed that it read, “How did we do?” but that was not the case. The card asked, “How are we doing?”and went on to provide instructions for texting the restaurant manager. We immediately transmitted a text stating, “All is fine except the manager didn’t stop by and say hello.” Within 60 seconds the manager made an appearance and received an enthusiastic round of applause from those at the table who immediately began to consider the ramifications of this development for the real estate industry.

Two days later, the local newspaper carried an interesting front-page story about a major community event that included a midway with various rides and attractions. The story reported that local teenagers had created and populated a rating system that covered various midway activities. The rides had been rated on the basis of ride time, intensity, “nausea” scale and fun. The “take your chance” amusements had been rated on the basis of required skill, integrity, honesty and hustle.

These two events clearly demonstrate a major dynamic that is impacting today’s business world and consumer experience. Boomer generation adults, focused on their day-to-day lives, are not assimilating the vast level of transition that is occurring around them.When they do, they see it as an annoyance rather than a social adaptation.

The majority of individuals currently engaged as sales, service and professional providers are put off by consumers who want to create a more inclusive and transparent experience, especially when high-dollar expenditures are involved. The above-referenced restaurant, in business since 1973, has developed a level of consumer centricity that extends to providing a consumer the ability to summons a manager in the event of an unhappiness involving the purchase of a $6 margarita during the actual purchase! (Oh, by the way, both the card and its holder were provided by the Pepsi Corporation, which has apparently discovered that assisting its customers in becoming more competitive is more valuable than making an extra five cents on a soft drink). This quick response option is rapidly becoming a consumer demand, especially when a $50,000 automobile and/or a several hundred thousand-dollar home is involved.  Customer service experts tell us that, unless difficulties in the consumer experience are solved immediately, they will ultimately grow to encompass the entire experience. Behavioral psychologists tell us that the vast majority of service providers will choose to ignore these moments rather than deal with them.

Accordingly, in 2013 many industries are still battling the contemporary consumer’s growing demand for transparency through rating. Their objection tends to arise out of their sense that it is beneath their “business dignity” to be judged like a “common cow at a livestock show.”  The Canadian real estate industry provides an interesting example. This group recently adopted, virtually without review, debate or discussion, a program of contemporary reforms that would have caused a revolution in the United States. But, interestingly enough, despite enacting literally dozens of radical changes, this group specifically rejected the concept of consumer rating.

This position demonstrates classic denial on the part of professionals who refuse to recognize that today’s consumer considers the opinion of their peers the most dependable form of information available when trying to choose which professional or business to work with. It is a refusal to accept the fact that creating and participating in rating activities has become second nature to today’s Generation “X” and “Y” consumers, hence the teenagers enjoying the midway.

All of these factors tie into a larger picture that Trendwatching.com called the “Virgin Consumer Experience” in its February report. Trendwatching points out that as the speed of innovation and creativity within the consumer space increases, more and more individuals find themselves adapting a new set of rules, protocols and procedures as they work their way through a totally new consumer experience. Today’s consumer is being directly impacted by an environment that includes the dazzling levels of choice offered by 19,000 new apps that Apple says are added to their store every month, the 18,000 projects on Kickstarter that were successfully “crowdfunded” in 2012, the 1.2 million patents for innovations granted in China alone, or the 480,000 companies registered in the UK in 2012.  The shear volume of these events guarantees that every consumer experience will be touched or impacted.

The growing phenomenon of “substitution” also plays into this scenario.  Think about how many times each month every consumer discovers that a favorite product or experience has been compromised and/or sacrificed in favor of corporate profitability. Containers are smaller, ingredients are compromised, automobiles have less and less steel, and more (expensive to replace) digital components, clothing has less cotton and wool and more man-made fibers, airlines become rude and callous commodity transport systems and the 20-year refrigerator has evolved into a five-year maintenance nightmare.

The real estate service system also engaged in substitution. With no service standards in place, agents routinely substitute service quality on the basis of market volume, attitude and revenue. Just a few months into the current seller’s market, the market is already awash with stories of agents who will not return calls or negotiate terms.

Assaulted by these realities each month, consumers become more and more savvy, resistant and combative. The Anheuser Busch Company currently finds itself in the middle of a class action lawsuit suggesting that its product isn’t as “Stout” as represented.

The bottom line of all of this is that every consumer, no matter how powerful, affluent or experienced, is finding him or herself a “virgin” in the new marketplace. Unlike consumers of old, today’s consumer isn’t given to taking whatever happens as the “way it is.” Today’s consumer is quickly learning to separate the chaff from the wheat. Today’s consumer is learning to play a whole new game of response and intimidation. Vendors and businesses who elect to take advantage of today’s consumer will find that social media and the Internet have given them a whole new way to be powerful and influential.

Brokerages that elect to ignore this growing risk-inflicted market environment do so at their own peril. The early warnings provided by that classic legal letter of old will no longer materialize. Consumers will no longer stew about their situation for months with a majority ultimately electing to stand down and stay dumb. Every brokerage must monitor social media and the Internet and be prepared to respond immediately to threats as they emerge. This is not our parent’s consumer, it is us. The mantra is a simple one: “How are we doing?”

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