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REAL Trending Special Edition: Leading Through A Challenging Market

Jun 19, 2020 12:05:19 PM

Jessica Averbuch, CEO and owner of Zeitlin Sotheby's International Realty, Tennessee 

When COVID-19 hit, Averbuch scheduled one-on-one calls with all of her agents. Now that the market is reopening, that strategy has paid off. Find out more about how she is leading her team through unprecedented times. 

Tracey Velt:

This is Tracey Velt, Editor in Chief of Content for REAL Trends. Today, we're speaking with Jessica Averbuch, CEO and owner of Zeitlin Sotheby's International Realty in Tennessee. Welcome Jessica.

Jessica Averbuch:

Well, thank you for having me.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. So, so much changes day-to-day, but let's talk about some of the business steps that you've taken to immediately lessen the impact of the coronavirus on your company.

Jessica Averbuch:

Sure. Well, Tracy, we very quickly responded as soon as the situation started escalating. Before there were any kind of official orders firstly, with the safer at home then the stay-at-home, before any of those things happen, the very first thing that we did as a company is get our staff working remotely. So we were, I would say overly cautious. We really depend on them.

They're the engine of our company. And we really wanted to protect them personally in terms of their safety and to get our team working remotely. So that meant going out, gosh, this feels like it was over a month ago, that weekend immediately and buying a dozen laptops and then quickly getting everyone set up with dual or in some cases triple monitors, which is really key to being able to work well digitally and not relying on paper in any way.

Jessica Averbuch:

And then setting up our accounting office from home was another very key move. So the ability to be able to deposit checks and cut checks at home, getting everything that wasn't already electronic when it comes to billing digital, those were really our initial kind of priorities.

And we did that very, very quickly so that all of our systems were able to just keep moving because the market we're in the middle of the spring market. And so there was a lot going on. And so we very quickly were able to really set everybody up remotely so that the engine could keep on cranking.

Jessica Averbuch:

And then another thing I should mention that we did that I think has been really helpful is we immediately put in place a daily Zoom staff meeting. It wasn't something that we've done in the past, but because our staff who is used to working in an out-of-office environment was all of a sudden put into this at home environment.

We felt like that connectivity was really important and just having really clear communication channels, starting with everybody's work day, giving them a forum to be able to talk.

Tracey Velt:

Tell me a little bit about your broker, how many offices and agents do you have?

Jessica Averbuch:

So we have three offices and about 160 agents and I believe 20 staff members, full-time staff members.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. So you said that you're communicating through Zoom, and how are you communicating specifically with your agents? Are you doing videos or virtual meetings or phone calls? How are you communicating one-on-one to them?

Jessica Averbuch:

Well, just like we started that daily staff meeting, which was a new thing for us, the very first thing we did that week that our staff worked remote, which I think was well over a month ago is we started a biweekly company-wide meeting and that was a Zoom meeting where all of our agents and all of our staff were having the opportunity to come together on Tuesday and Thursday morning for a quick 15-minute company-wide updates.

And it has been unbelievable. It has really been the highlight of this whole experience. Our participation on those calls has been somewhere between 85 to 100 people on every single Zoom meeting. And there has been so much to share. And so it's company updates, industry updates, just really keeping them abreast of this rapidly changing situation.

Jessica Averbuch:

And we did that in addition to the regularly scheduled weekly sales meetings and any other training or education opportunities that we had on the calendar. So we didn't cancel anything, but we've added to it.

And we've just, we're doing everything in its Zoom format, which has been really awesome because on any given day, I feel like I connect with at least 100 people. And that connectivity I think is what's keeping us feeling connected and positive and in the know, and so it's been truly incredible.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. That's so important. I think Steve had a quote that said, "If you think you know your agents, think again and get to know them even better." So yeah.

Jessica Averbuch:

Yes. And actually, I'm glad you mentioned that. So I really was talking about our meetings, we're trying to, we don't want our agents to get stuck. And so we want to continue to focus on the fundamentals of ninja, all the different skills training that we do.

We didn't want this to be something where we put anything on hold, but we also knew that we needed to offer even more kind of opportunities for information sharing, but that's just one part of it.

Jessica Averbuch:

So the other piece that has just been an absolute highlight for me has just been the one-on-one conversations. So I try on any day to reach out to somewhere between five to 10 agents and I'm just calling and checking on them, how their family's doing, how they're doing.

I mean, this is not, working from home is... Most agents get into this business because they love people, and so to put them in a situation where they have to be socially distant, I think it is not a realtor's natural habitat. It just, it doesn't feel right.

Jessica Averbuch:

So just really offering a lot of emotional support for our agents has been, and it's been the most rewarding conversations because I'm finding myself on the phone with people and what would normally be a five-minute conversation is turning into a 30 or 40-minute conversation and it's more personal and it's just been very special to be able to really connect and support each other through a really scary time.

Tracey Velt:

So obviously this is different than the 2007/8 downturn, but what did you learn during that that's helping you lead through this current time?

Jessica Averbuch:

Oh my goodness, so much. So where we were in 2008 is we have a family business. It was started by Shirley Zeitlin 41 years ago. And my husband and I are her niece and nephew, well, I'm her niece by marriage. And so we started buying the company from her in 2007.

And so that was really an unbelievable way to get into the brokerage business when it was just in a free fall. And it was, I've always said that was a really valuable experience. We knew that that was something very important for us to understand just the cyclical nature of our business, but that recession was truly unprecedented and just like this situation is.

Jessica Averbuch:

So the first thing that we learned was you immediately freeze your spending. I mean, we just said we're pushing pause on absolutely everything that isn't essential. And we're really doing what we did the last time, which is trying to do things that impact our agent's belief, that so that they still have all the support and resources that they need, but really looking right now at things related to our office environments.

So decommissioning computers, just very quickly renegotiating contracts on anything related to our office space and the equipment and support that's there. So that's quickly what we got into.

Jessica Averbuch:

I heard an expression early into this maybe a month ago, which is if you're not overreacting, you're under-reacting. And so we're really just trying to act quickly and do everything we possibly can just literally going through our P&L and looking for everything that's kind of on the table right now, and trying to just kind of shore things up as much as we can first.

But I mean, this is a health crisis and none of us have a crystal ball to understand the impact, the financial impact that it will have, but all of the fundamentals for our business were so strong and in our city that we really feel that having that support to get us through this, we feel very optimistic about what business will be like on the other side, just knowing all the things that we have going for us in the middle Tennessee region and our just optimism about just the ability our region has to be able to bounce back from this. I am happy to share-

Tracey Velt:

So, tell me a little bit about where your market is as far as reopening and how business is right now.

Jessica Averbuch:

... So our area, Greater Nashville is in what the mayor is referring to its phase two of reopening. The plan was to move to a phase three this coming week, and they have put that on hold right now, because locally, our number of cases are increasing. And so that's where we are.

I mean, a lot of businesses have opened up and certainly all you have to do is get in the car and drive around and see that people are resuming a lot of their activity. But from a reopening standpoint, we are in a holding pattern right now based on the increased number of cases.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. So what about your offices specifically and real estate? How is it going? Have you experienced like the V-shaped curve that they said was going to happen or are things slow?

Jessica Averbuch:

Well, things are not anything but slow, which has been such a silver lining and so reassuring. So certainly there's been an impact in our market. We had major weather events in tandem with the pandemic. And so of course there's an impact on sales, but it has certainly not been as extreme as what we feared. So our market's down 22% in terms of just looking at last month, year over year, but our agents are extremely busy.

Our pending sales are up from last year. Our median prices are up and our inventory is down. And so with all that activity, what that means is that we've got a really competitive market right now. So a lot of multiple offers, a lot of backup offers, a lot of site unseen offers. So it's a very, very active marketplace right now.

Jessica Averbuch:

And I think that we are all, to be honest, just sighing with relief that the market really seems to be leading the way in terms of the economy, the housing market and home is more important than ever.

And we're seeing a lot of that in terms of our buyers and sellers being focused on making the moves they need to make this season. And that coupled with very low interest rates obviously is that's very helpful.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah, definitely. So what are some of the steps that your brokerage is taking to protect consumers and agents? Did you come up with any new protocols for showing properties or open houses or, and what are those if you did?

Jessica Averbuch:

Absolutely. So we are being very cautious in really focusing on protecting our staff. So our offices are in a very limited reopening. Our agents can use the office as they need to, but we're not hosting meetings, we're not hosting closings. And we're really just trying to have the office opened with a minimal number of people in there.

I'm already hearing stories of cases and workplaces that have reopened. And so we're being extremely cautious. And I love the expression that we've adopted, which is we are data-driven not day-driven. And so we are just continuing to monitor the data.

Jessica Averbuch:

And when it comes to our agents, we've just really put a lot of time and energy into education, keeping them informed and helping them understand how they can continue to practice in a safe way.

So everything looks different today. If you walk into our offices, it looks different from the plexiglass shields that we all are getting used to seeing to lines on the ground so that people will establish a safe distance from one another.

Jessica Averbuch:

And in terms of showings as a Sotheby's International Realty affiliate, we love the specially branded PPE package that they've put together. And it's become a new norm that when you list a home, you have a basket of PPE there and you always leave the lights on and to try to minimize the amount of exposure that could happen when you have people touring another person's home.

So everything's different, but at the same time, we've all adjusted and everybody's, it's amazing how flexible we can be and still very, very productive.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. So I know you took a lot of actions early on when the stay-at-home mandates were just being established. You mentioned one-on-one calls with your agents. So tell me a little bit about how that has gone and the benefits that you've seen from that.

Jessica Averbuch:

Yeah, that has certainly been one of the highlights of this time. The idea of a quarantine and everybody having to retreat to their own homes, especially for our industry that is so relationship-oriented and people in real estate are people people. And so that was very scary in the beginning.

And it's just amazing that what's happened is we're more connected than ever. We have more programming, social, and educational. We're having more conversations. Those conversations are a little bit longer. We're talking about things that we maybe didn't have the time for the space to talk about in the past. And so the level of just connectedness within our company has been nothing short of inspiring.

Jessica Averbuch:

And early on, I was carving out several hours each day for conversations, and it's just kind of taken on a life of its own because instead of me being the one who's always making those calls now, what I find is, is that our agents are just calling me and saying, I don't have a problem.

My hair's not on fire. I'm not going to ask you questions about a deal. I just want to check in with you and see how you're doing. And so that's been amazing because we're connected and we're talking.

Jessica Averbuch:

And one of the things that I started doing early on in our company-wide meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, is I start those meetings with a success story, because, everybody was having different experiences out there. And while some agents were having successes, other agents were having a lot of disappointments and a lot of challenges. And so I wanted them to feel inspired and also hear what's going well and why.

And the awesome thing now is every Tuesday, Thursday, after I share those stories at the start of our meetings, I start getting texts and phone calls and emails from our agents saying, here's my success story. And so it's just taken on a new life of its own. And it's really special that we've found a way to get to know each other even better and to support one another through all of this.

Tracey Velt:

That's great. I'm glad to hear that. Now you had mentioned that it was a challenge to close the offices and go to remote work, but you said it was easier than the challenges you're facing now. So what challenges are you facing right now?

Jessica Averbuch:

I think at the time, while there was a sense of panic and so much fear, we had set up a sense of purpose when we went to remote working. We quickly figured out what we needed to do, and we did it. And it was swift and I think everyone was on the same page. I think now, as we all know all over the country, that there's just a very wide range of thoughts about our current situation.

And so emotionally, psychologically adding people we're just not on the same page. And so it's very challenging right now as we towed the line of how do we support our agents and make the right decisions when it's just so hard to know what the right decisions are. And so, I don't have all the answers to be perfectly frank other than that we will continue to be data-driven. We are making a lot of investments into our company so that we can be nimble and also provide the utmost value to our agents.

Jessica Averbuch:

And what gives me kind of peace of mind and helps me sleep at night is knowing that we're doing all of these things to help our agents and our clients and knowing that there really isn't a right answer when it comes to what that looks like right now. So all you can do is focus on doing the right things, the things that you know are the right thing to do. But there's no question, this is much trickier right now. And even within our local market from county to county, the mayors are handling it differently.

And all you have to do is get in the car and drive around and you see a noticeable difference in kind of people's day-to-day lives. You might drive through one neighborhood and most people that you see walking around have masks on, and you might go to another part of town and it seems nobody has a mask on. So we are certainly going to err on the side of caution when it comes to our offices and really keep things positive and productive while we deal with the reality of this very confusing, uncertain time.

Tracey Velt:

Great. Well, it sounds like you're doing a lot of great things. I'm glad to hear your market is bouncing back and that things are going as well as they can right now, so.

Jessica Averbuch:

Thank you. Thank you so much. And I have to say that one of the things that we're certainly experiencing that we haven't touched on in this conversation is that that mass migration they're talking about out of certain markets is very, very real. And whether we're monitoring our website traffic, or looking at where our business is coming from, there is so much business coming from out-of-state.

So even though we are still facing challenges related to travel and what's safe, it is not stopping people from making these moves, whether it's to get closer to family, to get to a less congested environment, whatever their motivation is, it's not stopping people.

And I think that's, there's certainly the silver lining of all of this is that everyone is living their life and really focusing on what's most important to them. And thank goodness, what we do for a living, which is sell homes is more important than ever. And we feel fortunate that we can help people with that.

Tracey Velt:

Oh, great. I love ending on that note. So thank you, I appreciate that. Jessica, thank you so much for joining REAL Trends on our special edition of REAL Trending, our podcast. We really appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to do so.

Jessica Averbuch:

Well, I really appreciate the opportunity and I just want to encourage everyone that we're truly in this together. And so the more we can share and the more we care that's those are the things that are going to get us through this. So I appreciate everyone in the broader community that I know through REAL Trends that have helped us personally, just kind of be up for the challenge of this huge task that we have in front of us.

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