Real Estate's demons

In 2006, Harris Interactive published a poll listing the most (and least) trusted professions. Doctors topped the list, and were "completely trusted" by only 50 percent of respondents. Real estate agents neared the bottom of list, again, barely beating out stockbrokers and lagging auto mechanics, lawyers and insurance agents.

, press clippings and polls taken in the United Kingdom show estate agents are viewed in a similar light there.

World over, real estate agents are not trusted.

I, for one, trust that the only things polls measure correctly are the respondents’ satisfaction with their own ignorance.

People don’t trust what they don’t know

Only half of respondents in the Harris poll trust doctors evidenced by the second and third opinions we seek out after each important diagnosis. As laypeople, we don’t know enough about health, law, stocks, auto repair, real estate. By nature, we are suspect of those who know more than we do — especially if that knowledge is used to sell us something.

Another recent Harris Interactive Poll shows only 30 percent of respondents say they trust the press. A greater percentage of respondents (41 percent) trust Internet news sites and publicly generated information. People feel they have control over the Web to a greater degree than they do mainstream media.

A common thread among every profession listed in the Harris poll is how each regard things we hold most vital to our existence — our health, money and prized possessions. These things are just too important to hand complete trust over to another person.

And yet, despite this overwhelming amount of distrust, Americans are addicted to medical treatment, to collecting ever more prized possessions, and to a passion for real estate.

Where does the distrust come from? Is it real? Is it affecting how consumers engage with these professions?

When citizens can’t tell real from fake

In 2007, Naomi Wolf wrote an article for The Guardian titled, "Fascist America, in 10 easy steps." With regard to the media, she writes, "” you can have a steady stream of lies polluting the news that is so relentless it becomes increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. It’s not the lies that count but the muddying."

I will argue that this correlates to messaging and marketing as well, and how an abundance of unbelievable, erroneous, gratuitous statements can and will pollute the well of trust for any profession.

This is real estate’s greatest folly. The industry’s greatest foe is itself. Consider the continuous stream of mercury spilled by the National Association of Realtors’ "this is the right time to buy" campaigns into real estate’s Love Canal. And then consider all the other contaminants released by individual companies and agents in the form of grandiose untruths that seep into the consumer groundwater. They see it, hear it, read it, and they honestly and obviously don’t believe a single word of it.

The 7 percent trust factor speaks for itself. And while I believe it correctly measures the respondents’ satisfaction with their own ignorance, in this case the ignorance has been deeply cultivated by the real estate industry itself. Consumers are sprayed with phrases like "Internet Gurus," "Gateways to Tomorrow" and "Expert negotiators" in advertisements and commercials despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of these "Internet gurus" can’t remember their e-mail address or know what a URL is.

The secret

Are agents untrustworthy? Some are, some aren’t. But most paint themselves with the brush of mistrust by adhering to modes of marketing, branding and verbiage that fail to set them apart and distinguish one from the other. 

Untrustworthy agents hear what their clients say. Trustworthy agents listen.

Untrustworthy agents make deals happen. Trusted agents help people buy and sell homes.

Untrustworthy agents work hard and make a case for it. Trusted agents work smart. They perform magic and do it quietly, with grace.

Untrustworthy agents stress about deals. Trusted agents never lose their cool.

Untrustworthy agents are about me and I across all their brand touch points. Trusted agents place their entire emphasis on "we" on "you."

Untrustworthy agents claim they got into real estate to help people. Trusted agents got into real estate to make a living. They are transparent about that.

Untrustworthy agents say what the consumer wants to hear. Trusted agents tell it like it is.

Untrustworthy agents work with anyone. Trusted agents hand-pick clients.

Untrustworthy agents hide behind templates. Trusted agents speak in their own voice.

Untrustworthy agents use platitudes to market themselves. Trusted agents have stopped marketing themselves in the conventional sense altogether.

Building trust

Years of experience is great, as are designations. Continuing education — better yet, self-education — rocks. But none of these things cultivates trust. Doctors and lawyers have experience, designations and education, and at least half the Harris poll respondents don’t trust them.

Trust comes from a deeper place. Sophistication cannot be faked. Honor leaves a long, visible trail and results are easy to quantify. These are the only things that matter and they are wrapped up in something called truth.

The real estate industry will continue to grapple with distrust, and practitioners will continue to fight to prove their value as long as they continue to believe that pulling the wool in over consumers’ eyes is their best shot at redemption.

– Davison