Consumer  Listening  in 2010: A Challenge to Embrace or a Pain to Avoid?

Virtually every marketing writer and demographic expert in the American print, broadcast and online media has declared this to be the decade of the consumer. The absolute power of consumers and their unrelenting use of that power to change everything “consumer” makes it clear that real estate brokerages must quickly complete their transition from agent centricity to consumer focus.

So how are we doing with this objective? How many brokerages have adopted consumer centricity based policies or guidelines? How many firms are using internal or external resources to track consumer behaviors in their marketplace? How many brokerages are downloading their agents relative to the demands, preferences and expectations articulated by their customers every day in every way?

A recent poll of 72 brokerages conducted by RECON Intelligence Services suggests that while the industry claims it understands the need to be consumer centric, its behavior suggests a slightly less aggressive posture. Only 15 of the firms surveyed indicated that they were collecting data from their agents and 22 indicated that they were monitoring external sources and/or sharing/reporting information regarding changing consumer behaviors to their agent panels. This result carries dire consequences for an industry that is currently vulnerable to the whims and perspectives of a consumer that continues to have a less than positive sense regarding real estate professionals.

A number of firms and organizations within the industry that lay claim to an active consumer interactive program use surveys to generate their numbers. Ooops. A consumer survey makes a very negative statement regarding the firm’s knowledge of whom to listen to consumers in 2010. It’s a major part of the challenge. Consumers are changing everything in the business equation. If you aren’t following your consumers, you might not know that listening has replaced surveying as the No. 1 exchange media.

Consumers have grown wise to the fact that the real skill set in surveying isn’t communications, but rather in crafting a surveying instrument that will generate the result sought by the surveyor. In other words, today’s consumer is not interested in having someone put words in their mouth. They feel totally competent expressing their opinions, preferences and demands without the assistance of some sharp-witted researcher who can design a survey question that sounds remotely like “when did you stop beating your spouse?”

Marketing staff across the industry continues to complain that consumers and insiders refuse to participate in their survey processes. All too frequently, this failure to respond is interpreted as proof that the consumer or insider simply has nothing to say. Obviously it is quite the opposite. They do have something to say and they want to say it in their own words.

The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) has recently published a book entitled “Foundations of Listening.” A quick read for those responsible for understanding consumers, the book describes the current art of listening complete with excellent case studies. Traditional marketers need not panic, however. After seeming to commit itself to a new way of interacting with consumers, the book concludes by pointing out that the old-time survey still has its place.

The fact is that millions of real estate consumers freely give their opinions and senses about a massive range of real estate experience-related issues. That speaks volumes about both their need to be heard and the brokerage’s need to hear them.

The world of social media has gifted the real estate industry with an avalanche of consumer opinion and preference. The only question is whether the industry wants to tap into this wealth. The first step to asking the question is recognizing that this stream of consciousness is a blessing, not a curse. It is a gift not a burden. It is our customers caring enough to share with us how they feel about the current brokerage value proposition and experience.

If this message catches your attention, initiate the process of setting up a consumer listening program in your brokerage. Carefully monitor social media for comments regarding your agents and services. Use your blogs to comment on your value proposition and carefully listen to consumer response. Take advantage of LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Ming, Bebo, BigTent and

Set up a system to capture and categorize what you are hearing from your consumers. Convert that information into improved services and value. Use the same social media channels to report back to consumers relative to your response and solutions. Use the whole system to create powerful consumer brokerage relationships. Encourage your customers to rate your services and remember that rating is the new advertising.

This is exciting stuff. It moves brokerage management from a reliance on anecdotal stories, guesswork and incomplete conclusions to an exacting science of listening, analysis and action based upon the known. This is our destiny and we can do it.