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REAL Trending Special Edition: Leading Through A Challenging Market

May 29, 2020 6:00:00 AM

As their market reopens, Oller and Whitmarsh found that they made the right decision to avoid any cuts to agent services last March when COVID-19 first hit their market. Find out what those changes were, the new protocols they put in place, and more.

Tracey Velt:

In this special edition of The REAL Trending podcast, we're speaking to real estate leaders on what they're doing to minimize the impact of the coronavirus on their businesses. We'll talk about actions they're taking, how they're preparing for when the country reopens, and more.

This is Tracey Velt, editor and chief of content for REAL Trends. Today, we're speaking with Lori Oller and Amy Whitmarsh, sisters and co-owners of RE/MAX Results in Oklahoma. Welcome.

Lori Oller:

Thank you.

Amy Whitmarsh:

Thank you.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. So, we'll start. Just tell me a little bit about your brokerage and your geographic footprint.

Lori Oller:

Okay. Our brokerage, RE/MAX Results, consists of we've got 85 agents and we're in four locations. We're covering all of Northeastern Oklahoma. Very thankfully, here in Oklahoma, we were actually deemed an essential service. We're currently in phase one of reopening the business. Our offices are large. We've got a lot of square footage.

So, we could have kept them open and been able to spread out quite a bit and adhere to social distancing. But, for maximum precaution, about mid-March, we asked all of our agents to just work from home. We kept one staff member working at each of our locations to continue the support services for our agents. But we did close the door to the public, so.

Tracey Velt:

So, tell me a little bit about how your market is doing? What are your pendings for May? And how has your business been impacted overall so far?

Lori Oller:

Well, okay. So, in March, first of all, the beginning of the year was really strong here in Tulsa. And, in March, the Tulsa market, we were just 9% behind March '19 numbers concerning closed transactions. So, of course, those closings were all pending pre COVID, but you could already see the fallout with delayed closings and failed transactions already in March. So, March pendings were only slightly down, 5% from last year's numbers.

Lori Oller:

But April's numbers, although those haven't been officially released yet, they have us at 22% behind April numbers concerning closed transactions. The most [inaudible 00:02:33] fact though for April is actually pending.

That fell from the 5% I previously mentioned to 36% down below the April numbers of 2019. So, I would attribute that, I guess, to anxiety about the economy, job security, and also the practicality of actually getting out and physically doing the home search.

Lori Oller:

But, in our market, we currently very low inventory as well. We're 30%, 32% actually lower than what we had available last year at this time. So, according to showing time, Oklahoma's showing activity in April had decreased 40% over last year at this time. So, in April, we were very, very slow. Of course, physical showings where were low, but virtual showings were actually through the roof. So, showing time had physical showings already rebounded to near normal levels at the very end of April.

So, new listings were really strong this week and last week. So, inventory shortage has actually been cut from 32 to just 16% behind April numbers, so. And, at our brokerage, thankfully, current pending set to close in May and June are actually exceeding last year's May and June. So, we're hoping that we've already hit bottom and that we're recovering here in Oklahoma already.

Lori Oller:

But, concerning our daily business, that's actually been impacted in a very positive way by all of this. The efficiencies we've adopted like staff and broker meetings, recruiting calls, agent development, all of our office meetings, we've gone online with Zoom calls, which cuts down drive time and wait time without having to sacrifice the importance of that face to face interaction with our agents and staff.

So, we're actually very fortunate that we at RE/MAX Results we were already using Zoom to broadcast our agent development. We've got four locations, like I mentioned. And so, we'll be in one location and Zooming it out to all the other locations. So, we already kind of were familiar with the technology.

Lori Oller:

So, we also were already in the process of bringing our onboarding all online. We had started implementing that, designing that back in January. And then, we started implementing that because of COVID. And that has been great with adoption very high and the activities of the new agents being very checked in. I don't... that's bad words to use, but-

Tracey Velt:

Right. Well, so it sounds like you guys are doing pretty well. I'm glad to hear that. I'm hopeful that companies around the country are doing as well. So, I know it's going to be different in every state for now. So, yeah.

Lori Oller:

Yes. Real estate brokerage is run very tight profit margins. And so, any dip in the market is something that we're all going to feel.

Tracey Velt:

That is, and I definitely about the low profit margins or the slim profit margins of brokerages. So, what business steps did you take immediately to kind of lessen the impact on your company? Did you have to do any layoffs? Did you do a surgical cut of your budget? Tell me a little bit about those business steps.

Lori Oller:

So, with news and times like these, your business sense like really kicks in. And we started thinking of ways to conserve cash. And so, we chatted with our vendors, our landlords about reduced and like creative payment options. We also looked at cutting any non-essential spending. Luckily we have not had to do any layoffs. This was never part of our plan. We truly adore our staff. Okay?

We would have done everything possible to the last penny to keep them in there, not to mention the time,, and money and effort it takes to train new staff members to do it right, to run your back office systems with the confidence to really take care of your agents. It's so expensive to train staff. So, we knew we would make sure that we kept them in place as long as we possibly could. So, we were very thankful for the payroll protection program through that Cares Act. That was so timely and much appreciated.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. So, you did apply for that.

Lori Oller:

We did. We applied and received it pretty quickly.

Tracey Velt:

Okay.

Lori Oller:

But we also knew he wouldn't cut agent services. I think that's a mindset of scarcity. If the market gets tighter and harder to operate in then we need more services and more tools, not less. So, we've moved full steam ahead with our brokerage plans. We've got a new location build out that we're working on.

We've actually grown by six agents over the last 30 days. So, we've been recruiting as well. The mindset of abundance and support is how we lead. So, we truly make decisions at the broker level based upon helping the agents build their businesses, so.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. So, obviously your market is reopening. So, what are you doing to prepare your agents? Do you have new protocols in place? What are you expecting business to look like, showings, or are you planning on doing any open houses? Tell me a little bit about that part of the business.

Amy Whitmarsh:

Sure. Okay. This is Amy Whitmarsh speaking now.

Tracey Velt:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amy Whitmarsh:

So, our market is reopening, restaurants, and businesses like shopping centers, and I think movie theaters are going to hang out a little bit longer. But we the whole time have been preparing the agents for what the economists are deeming a surge from the spring market that would be a normal spring market is going to be hitting us in summer.

And so, during this time, if they've slowed at all, we have been in front of them with tools and resources on how a busy realtor is a lot of times just working in their business instead of on their business.

Amy Whitmarsh:

And so, if they've had any slow time, we've been giving them 30 day plans, 60 day plans, 90 day plans of how to clean up system, make sure that they're public facing, social media platforms and their CRMs are up to date. And, of course, just really encouraging them through this time when they're reaching out to their sphere, which we all know that's how we build a business of repeat and referral clients is to stay in front of them as community leaders, not necessarily reaching out because of real estate, but reaching out to share concern over anything that we can help them do during this time, any needs that we could help meet.

Amy Whitmarsh:

Of course, housing is always on people's minds. So, it's a natural conversation that happens no matter where you are, no matter what time, or pandemic, or temperature of the economy is. People always want to hear about housing. So, in the effort to reach out and to care about people, they're naturally transitioning into conversations about real estate and kind of expressing their concerns about staying on the sidelines, for not listing quite yet, or asking opinions.

But truly trying to be there for people because... showing people that you care and actually doing things to implement. Care packages, we had lots of agents that were creating the hand sanitizers, and the toilet paper, and gift cards for people for food or groceries and just encouraging people too. And that's kind of our culture anyway. So, it's not like we had to really coach them up on that. But, during this time, it's really like, what are their needs first.

Amy Whitmarsh:

But, yes. Absolutely teaching them how to prepare for this surge. And we're already seeing it. Oh my goodness. There's people coming out of the woodwork to get their houses listed. And buyers, because the rates are still so historically low, they're jumping back in. And people have got their running shoes on now. So, as far as, I think you had asked about showing instructions and different protocols.

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Tracey Velt:

Right.

Amy Whitmarsh:

So, yes. To protect our general public, especially our sellers with buyers out there still on the market looking, we basically set up, and we have amazing leadership at our RE/MAX headquarters that speaks into the leadership of our regions and our franchise owners. And we have been so blessed to be able to pass down everything that has been provided to us as a resource.

Amy Whitmarsh:

So, the four question protocol about before a showing happens, so they feel very comfortable, the showing agent asks the questions, have you had a temperature, have you been around somebody with a temperature, have you been around somebody with COVID, or have you flown, before the showing happens. And we added an additional one. It was, is your buyer pre-approved, just to take another safeguard.

We don't have a lot of extra traffic through homes that are just tire kickers at the moment. We really want very focused, approved, ready to go buyers. So, just letting and setting the expectations with our sellers, that we're doing everything on this side of it to protect your interests and your home, signs on doors before showings, drop your shoes at the door, or cover them with your little showing booties.

There's hand sanitizers inside. Wear a mask. Wipe down surfaces or like door knobs as you're leaving. Just extra safety precautions so sellers feel like their home isn't being invaded. But it's still working in the capacity that it needs to to get the home sold. So, for sure those protocols.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. That's good. So, are you actually writing these out for people? Or is it...

Amy Whitmarsh:

Oh, absolutely. They're in PDF style.

Tracey Velt:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amy Whitmarsh:

And our agent services department actually prints those off. So, if they want to, they're classy and they're fun looking. So, they can hang the sign on the door, put it inside the home. And then, there is a supplemental with the questions about who the buyers are and answering the questions, the four questions about... yeah.

So, we've provided all those resources to the. So, they can just plug and play. They don't have to think about it or recreate anything. We are ahead of that game.

Tracey Velt:

Okay.

Amy Whitmarsh:

Trying to say... yeah.

Tracey Velt:

Yeah. That's great.

Amy Whitmarsh:

We're there for them. Yeah.

Tracey Velt:

Well, it sounds like you guys are really on the ball doing everything you need to do to get everybody back going strong and that. So, we'll kind of put the numbers aside and some of the protocols aside. And tell me how you're feeling and how your agents, how you think they're feeling right now about the status of just real estate in general.

Amy Whitmarsh:

As leaders, our expectations that we set and the temperature that we set at the beginning, at the outset was always let's embrace this. Let's use positive... let's take this as an opportunity to grow, and to lean in, and see what opportunities are new, and to create new efficiencies, and change for the better in our businesses and in our industry.

And I really feel like it just comes from leadership to every time you're in front of them on a Zoom call or sometimes we just do, hey, how are you feeling, like what do you need at this time? Or, if it's an agent development call where we're talking, going deep into mastery, and working on our skillset, we're not providing information just to have the information.

We're truly always providing the information for them to grow, and to build their business, and to run it as an entrepreneur, and to master skillsets, and to go deep on what they're really, really successful at to build wide.

Amy Whitmarsh:

And so, I feel like that's always our culture. And so, it was a very natural progression for us to just say, we're going to embrace this. And we're going to say, what can we do to hone our skills and to make this on the other side, exactly what we need it to be to continue? Just the message we always put out there is growing something. And so, we're very agent centric.

It's all about how we can help them build their business. And our theme is, we're a business that builds businesses. And so, that never stopped. And so, the leadership just always has to set the expectation of what message you're putting out there. And we've just never stopped. We all just kind of leaned into it and said, bring it on. We got this.

Amy Whitmarsh:

But I will say, that's not the general consensus around other brokerages. Some have taken a different road and like, hey, let's just kind of sit back and wait this out and see what happens. And that's just never been our mindset at all. And so, I feel like our agents, we've been in front of them I feel like more during this past 40 to 45 days, because there's just so much that we wanted to provide them.

And there is so much that we wanted to get back from them as far as feedback, and support, and resources. And I just feel like it's been extremely positive. I don't know if Lori has got anything to add to that. But I'm feeling good about it.

Tracey Velt:

Okay.

Lori Oller:

I think it's just half glass full... glass half full, half empty, which way you're going to look at it. If you're thinking it's empty, you're putting your head in the sand and you're trying to wait it out. You're thinking business is not happening. If you're thinking glass half full, and you have seen it as an opportunity, and you have leaned into your sphere, and supported, and connected everything you can possibly do to stay in front of people.

So, that first group is going to see a dip in their business. And the second group is going to be perfectly set up for the rebound in the market.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. Great. Well, Lori and Amy, thank you so much for joining The REAL Trends Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

Lori Oller:

Thank you for having us.

Amy Whitmarsh:

Thank you. Yep.

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