Making online Realtor ratings work: It's all or nothing at all

I applaud the Houston Association of Realtors for launching a Realtor rating program. It’s another progressive move from Bob Hale. The spirit behind this is commendable.

But here’s the thing: Realtor ratings will never be useful to a consumer unless there are no conditions, no agent filters, and 100% commitment to let the chips fall where they may.

HAR’s effort relies upon agent involvement. They determine which of their clients receives a survey and can thus cherry-pick deals on which they feel confident in receiving a favorable rating.

Creating a site where consumers rate their agents is an obvious and compelling opportunity. It is – theoretically – of huge benefit to consumers and good agents alike. In practice, it has been heretofore mostly meaningless.

Sites like Incredible Agents, AgentRank, HomeThinking, and Agentopolis lack the command and control structure to make this work. They can’t mandate participation, and thus end up with a handful of usually glowing reviews. There are just too many transactions spread across too many agents to build the sort of critical mass you might find for “New York City Hotels” on TripAdvisor.

So how do we make agent reviews meaningful? This may not be the answer you want to hear, but it needs to be done by the broker.

How? Exactly as Redfin does it. They require a review on every transaction, directly surveying the consumer. They then post the unfiltered results on the their website.

You will notice that most of the reviews are positive. But not for the same reason positive reviews dominate the other sites. It’s because Redfin enforces standards and rewards performance against them.

I have always been struck by the irony of a venture-backed company standing out as the exemplar of long-term thinking in this business. A company with investors notoriously impatient for an exit with a longer view than private firms with decades-long histories? It’s a testament to the Redfin’s steadfast vision, but an embarrassment to just about everyone else.

It would be interesting to see a “traditional” company bust out with something like this. To say:

“I don’t care if it makes my top producer nervous.”

“I don’t care if I lose some low-end agents with fat splits.”

“I do care about building trust, which will build my brand, which will sustain me for years to come.”

I know that’s not easy. In fact, it’s terrifying. But I have no doubt that it would be ultimately rewarding.

Note: Matthew Burrus, who heads communications for HAR, emailed me and commented below to point out that participating agents cannot “cherry pick” transactions. If they do not wish to display a rating (members are able to view ratings before they are published) they must opt-out of the program. However, I question whether or not agents will permit a less than favorable review for the sake of remaining in the program and my general concern remains.