I’ve been busy researching and writing the November Red Dot, which has now been published. But as often happens, when I’m deep in that project, blogging gets light. I apologize. It appears there are a few things to talk about, but none are more important or more interesting than two recent announcements by NAR and by Zillow.
At the Annual Convention, NAR finally unveiled its Commitment to Excellence program, which they have branded as C2EX.
Just a few days earlier, at the Zillow Premier Agent Summit in Las Vegas, Greg Schwartz, Zillow’s President of Media & Marketplace, announced something called Best of Zillow program. Basically, Zillow will score Premier Agents based on consumer feedback, and then reward (or punish) them appropriately.
There’s so much to think about here, and this may end up becoming one of my signature multi-post series, but in this post, I’d like to focus on the differences between C2EX and PA4, and tease out why these two events are meaningful.
We are seeing nothing short of a transfer of power from the old to the new. Since that transfer is not voluntary, perhaps it is more accurate to call it a taking of power from the old by the new. And because the transfer is not voluntary, we will have more turmoil and more conflict in the short term. But these two announcements, coming so close together, make it clear (or at least, more clear) that there is a seismic shift underway in the balance of power within the real estate industry, all beneath the surface.
NAR is not yet ready to concede power, and Zillow is not yet willing to assume the responsibilities that come with power, so we may end up with a modus vivendi over the longterm.
I do feel the need to make something clear here, although I would expect that it is obvious. So I’ll make it more obvious. Take everything you read here with a shaker of salt, and make up your own mind. This stuff is complicated and complex. I’m pretty knowledgeable about the industry and the players and important trends and so on and so forth, but I don’t have special powers. I’m presenting just my opinions, though I try hard to base them on facts, reality as I see it, and some real thought as to how things play out. But whether you agree or disagree with my take, I think it would be wise to have a great deal of humility about conclusions.
Having said that, let’s get into said opinions.
NAR and C2EX
The Commitment to Excellence program, finally unveiled over the weekend, was NAR’s answer to the problem of professionalism (more precisely, the lack thereof) within the real estate industry.
Again, this isn’t me saying this, or some crazy anti-NAR radical (*cough*some of you commenters*cough*) but NAR itself that said so in its D.A.N.G.E.R. Report:
Masses of Marginal Agents Destroy Reputation
Inman News, in its reporting, quotes
“Too often we as association executives hear our members talking about someone keeping up both sides of a transaction because the other person didn’t know what they were doing,” Marc Gould, NAR’s senior vice president of member professional development, told hundreds of association executives and other Realtors at NAR’s Realtors Conference & Expo Friday.
“Or we hear about members losing the opportunity to get a piece of business because the client was told a whole bunch of crap … and they didn’t get the listing, they didn’t get the buyer client. And it turned out it was false, it was not true.
“So how do you change that? How do you [do] something as a trade association that is going to allow our members to take it back and to own it? This program is going to help facilitate that.”
So C2EX is the answer from NAR:
Right off the bat, NAR has to answer the obvious question: Why is C2EX voluntary? Inman News out and out asks that question while reporting on the initiative:
Asked why NAR itself wasn’t making the Commitment to Excellence mandatory, NAR spokesperson Jane Dollinger told Inman via email, “NAR understands that professionalism is a value that cannot be mandated, which is why we empower Realtors to demonstrate their professionalism and commitment to conducting business at the highest standards.”
But NAR does require biennial training on its Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, a set of dozens of mandatory professionalism policies that members can be disciplined for if they violate them. Why is the Commitment to Excellence different?
“This is a benefit being offered to our members and not a requirement. That is all we have to say,” Dollinger told Inman.
So, two takeaways here:
- Professionalism is a value that cannot be mandated; and
- C2EX is a benefit of, not a requirement, of membership. It exists for members.
We’ll return to this.
The gist of the program is that a REALTOR member can go to the C2EX website and take an online multiple-choice quiz that purports to evaluate her professionalism. After said evaluation, C2EX would recommend a series of next steps to improve professionalism.
This is straight from NAR itself:
To get started, log in to www.C2EX.realtor and take the self-assessment that measures your proficiency in each of the elements of professionalism, known as the C2EX Competencies. Based on your results, the platform will generate customized learning paths, recommend experiences, and provide tools and resources to increase your knowledge and enhance your skillsets.
Suppose you ace the evaluation, complete the customized learning paths, take on the recommended experiences, and increase your knowledge and enhance your skillsets. Then what?
Once a REALTOR® completes the Action Steps and Learning Prospects in their REALTOR® C2EX Journey for a particular competency, they will be awarded one of the C2EX Excellence Badges: digital insignias provided as recognition of a REALTOR®’s high level of achievement in one of the REALTOR® C2EX Competencies. These success measures will allow REALTOR®’s to promote their progress and receive encouragement along the way.
Achieving C2EX Excellence Badges unlocks new C2EX Action Steps and Learning Prospects which moves a REALTOR® one step closer to the REALTOR® C2EX Endorsement: an award given to a REALTOR® for achieving excellence in all the REALTOR® C2EX Competencies. The REALTOR® C2EX Endorsement is a unique market advantage, identifying the REALTOR® as a well-rounded professional committed to providing superior customer service and representing the ideals of the REALTOR® organization.
Once a REALTOR® achieves their REALTOR® C2EX Endorsement, they will be encouraged to complete another C2EX Skills Assessment to unlock new Action Steps and Learning Prospects, and receive a brand new, customized C2EX Journey.
So what form does this “unique market advantage” of the REALTOR® C2EX Endorsement take? Surely NAR would put some of its $38 million a year or so in consumer advertising to brand the hell out of C2EX so that it will be a market advantage held only by those with the C2EX Endorsement, right?
The Consumer Communications Committee will be asked to consider how to promote the Commitment to Excellence program and identify the benefits of working with a REALTOR® C2EX Endorsement recipient to consumers.
Will be asked? They haven’t already been hard at work thinking about how to promote C2EX? They will now identify the benefits of working with a C2EX endorsed REALTOR?
Trying to find a solution to the lack of professionalism problem has been something NAR has formally been engaged with since 2014. But the problem, and the search for a solution, goes back far longer than that. So let’s call it… surprising that the Consumer Communication Committee hasn’t been asked in the last four years. They’ll get on it now.
Best of Zillow
Let’s turn to Best of Zillow. Inman News reports:
Zillow developed the new data-driven system to give its Premier Agent customers a previously non-existent visibility into consumer’s home-shopping search through real-time, anonymous feedback from those consumers.
That same feedback will reward and promote the agents with a track record of making customers happy. Zillow will send surveys to customers at various stages of agents’ relationship with customers, and the score is calculated on a rolling average. As agents get more ratings, older ratings will fall off and no longer be considered.
OK, so far, so good. Zillow is going to do more surveys, collect more consumer data, and then share that insight with Premier Agents. Doesn’t sound that different from a dozen or more similar customer satisfaction plays that have been around forever. RealSatisfied, anybody? Homelight? Redfin has been using Net Promoter Score for years.
Then Greg dropped a bombshell, which I’m certain will be covered during the Q3 earnings call:
When agents consistently score well, they will be designated “Best of Zillow” or “Best of Trulia” on their profile and receive additional marketing benefits. Additional benefits include increased exposure and a marketing toolkit.
“You are the center of the customer’s world, and that’s not changing,” Schwartz said. “Our data and technology alone can’t deliver a superior customer experience. We need you as great agents to make customers happy, and we want you to stand out for that.”
“Which is why, for the first time at Zillow Group, we are linking our future exclusively with the best agents,” Schwartz added. “From now on, only the best will be called Premier Agents.”
For agents who aren’t performing up to customers standards — Zillow will no longer be interested in taking their money. The company wants to be able to tell every consumer who comes to the site that the agent they select will deliver a high-quality experience.
Starting the second quarter of 2019, if agents have a poor rating at the end of a quarter, they will be given a three-month grace period to try and improve their score using Zillow’s online tools and resources. Business consultants from Zillow will be available to agents as an additional resource. [Emphasis added]
I hereby consider this announcement to be the fulfillment of something I noted back in 2015:
Let me translate this into English from Wall Street financialese.
“We’ve kicked out a bunch of low-performing, low-paying, loser agents who don’t respond to customer inquiries, to focus on delivering even more leads and more value to the high-performing winner agents.”
This is exactly the long game scenario I mentioned in the Zillow-Dotloop post. Zillow now has a vested interest in working with the most productive, most responsive, most professional agents. Those are the agents who will spend the most money with Zillow, because they see great ROI. As Spencer mentioned, the agents spending more than $5,000 per month with Zillow grew by 48% year over year! And there’s very little churn among these agents.
And then I argued that this is the inevitable end of increased technology and the Internet:
Zillow has read the tea leaves and has decided to bet the farm on the top 5-10-15% of the producing agents, who have no trouble spending $5,000 per month on Zillow because they have the systems, staff, technology, and the expertise to turn that $5,000 investment into $50,000 in income. The rest of the industry — franchises, brokerages, Associations, MLSs — continue to try and preserve headcount-based business models.
When the entire economic model of real estate is a zero-sum game, where the number of homes sold and the prices of those homes have nothing to do with the industry and everything to do with macroeconomic factors that no one (besides maybe the Federal Reserve) controls… productivity gains for the Best of the Best have to come from somewhere.
For all the Raise the Bar hoopla of the real estate industry over the past decade or so, maybe it’ll ultimately be Zillow that does it for us, over our objections, over much weeping and gnashing of teeth, as the bottom 60-70% of the agent population find themselves completely locked out of the Top Producing Agents Club because they can’t afford the investment it will take to compete with the big boys and big girls.
But that is the future of the industry that Zillow has foreseen, and is now committed to bringing about. And Zillow has put its money where its mouth is. It has actually changed the product lines at Trulia to rid itself of the low-performing, low-producing agents. [Emphasis added]
Well, there you go. Say hello to Best of Zillow. Fail to live up to standards, and you will be removed from the ranks of agents receiving Zillow leads. Okay, but what if you’re awesome?
If you score 90 or higher on the “Customer Experience Report”, then you become “Best of Zillow” with additional marketing tools, a new and different badge on your agent profile, and… see below. If you drop below 90, you lose the “Best of Zillow” benefits.
We might ask why it took three years to unleash this on the industry. There are likely multiple reasons, including growing revenues and traffic to a super-dominant position. But one of the problems that Zillow had to solve is how to figure out who the agents are that aren’t living up to customer standards. It’s not a simple problem when you’re just sending off an email to an agent about a lead.
Premier Agent 4
Enter, Zillow’s new big bet: Premier Agent 4, or PA4. There are multiple sources of information about PA4, but the best one I’ve found so far is this video from The Real Word podcast (via Inman News):
I do hope you listen to most of this episode, despite Nicole White constantly interrupting and talking over Ryan Lazine.
Presumably, all of you reading are in the real estate industry (or at least follow it somewhat) so you know that PA4 is the new “We’ll screen everything, nurture the lead, and hand over transaction-ready connections to you” program from Zillow. It mimics what companies like OpCity (now a part of Move, Inc.) have been doing for a while.
There are two big takeaways from what Ryan relates, at least for me:
- 50% of consumers think that they are contacting Zillow; and
- Zillow conducted some 750,000 consumer surveys and gathered that data before launching PA4.
And as Ryan mentions, even after the 750,000 consumer surveys, Zillow rolled out PA4 slowly, testing them in different markets with different Premier Agents and teams.
PA4 changes the economics of Zillow’s massive agent advertising program in as-yet-unknown ways. But judging by how quickly Zillow announced the changes to its entire Premier Agent base, one assumes that the beta market data is very encouraging. We’ll end up talking about PA4 on these pages so let’s not focus on that for now. The point is that PA4 gives Zillow the process for identifying which agents are and are not living up to customer expectations, since Zillow will now respond to every consumer inquiry, screen them, qualify them, nurture them, and then only hand them over to the agent further down the funnel. Zillow will, of course, reinforce that with the whole Customer Experience deal throughout the process, rather than after the close.
Furthermore, PA4 includes the option to pay a back-end referral fee (Ryan says between 20-30%, or “standard”) rather than an up-front advertising fee. We saw this coming from miles away, of course, and now that Realtor.com with its OpCity acquisition is going to do the same, there’s no reason why Zillow would not.
Combine Best of Zillow and PA4
Put the two pieces together and what you end up with is a system that allows Zillow to make as much, or more, money from only (or mostly) Best of Zillow agents who would pay them when they get paid, as opposed to spending $40,000 a month up front in advertising with Zillow.
On the consumer front, just how long do you imagine it will be before Zillow’s Agent Finder includes a little button that says, “Best of Zillow Agents Only” exactly like Amazon has “Amazon Prime” button?
Now layer on Zillow Homes, the iBuyer program, which works with Premier Agents to both buy the home and to list it for sale. Think that might be limited to the Best of Zillow crowd one day? I do. After all, if Zillow itself is the seller, why would they choose anyone who isn’t great at customer service?
Why would any of us?
C2EX vs. Best of Zillow :: NAR vs. Zillow
Taken merely at face value, the two programs aren’t even the same thing. One is an attempt by a trade organization to do something about the lack of professionalism among its member ranks. The other is an attempt by a company to keep its brand valuable to consumers, and to make more money.
Yet, I see this as the moment when we can say that the transfer of power from the old to the new has begun. Why?
Deciding vs. Discussing
First, let us note that Zillow first tested the referral-fee program in September of this year. Two months later, it announces PA4 and the referral option for everybody.
Second, it’s not really clear how long Zillow has been doing consumer surveys to build the elements of the Customer Experience Report. I’ll bet you it isn’t more than three years, tops. Remember that Spencer was talking about betting on the most productive agents in 2015. So even if the idea of Best of Zillow has been gestating for a while, it’s maybe three years.
Third, they announced Best of Zillow in November. By early 2019, the rewards for Best of Zillow will be implemented:
What do I get for being Best of Zillow?
For being rated Best of Zillow you will receive special badging on your profile, a consumer campaign highlighting the quality of Best of Zillow agents, and access to the marketing toolkit. These rewards, including the Best of Zillow badges will be available on agent’s profiles in early 2019.
In contrast, we know that NAR has been formally pursuing Code of Excellence since 2014. But that 2014 start was the result of a PAG that had been going for at least a year. I know I’ve been talking about Code of Excellence for years, and just about everybody has been talking about lack of professionalism for far longer.
So at the unveiling in late 2018, we get news that the Consumer Communications Committee will be asked to consider how to promote C2EX?
In another year or two, after a series of meetings, and another vote of the Board of Directors, NAR will roll out some sort of program to promote C2EX. By then, Best of Zillow will be a search feature on the mobile app.
It seems obvious that a private business will always be faster than a volunteer-based nonprofit organization. If you want to defend NAR on that basis, that’s perfectly reasonable. But three things about that.
One, so many MLSs and Associations preach the mantra of running the MLS/Association “like a business.” Well, now you can see what that means from a decision-making standpoint.
Two, if you think that a member-driven nonprofit will always be slower than a private corporation, shouldn’t that make you think the nonprofit shouldn’t get involved in things that private corporations do?
Three, if the industry wants better products, services, tools, etc., wouldn’t the industry look to a private corporation that can make decisions quickly and nimbly about those things? Conversely, if the industry wanted democracy, discussion, long debates considering all points of view, then the industry would look to a member-driven trade organization (or government).
But more importantly, the C2EX vs Best of Zillow really highlights just how little power NAR has and just how much power Zillow has over brokers and agents.
C2EX is a voluntary self-improvement program with no teeth whatsoever. Best of Zillow requires a 90+ rating on Consumer Experience Report to qualify. Fall below 72 on the Consumer Experience Report, and you’re booted out of Premier Agent: no leads for you. We don’t want your money. Amazing.
Just… step back and imagine NAR doing something similar. “Measure up to this customer service rating, or your REALTOR status will be revoked!” Can you do it? Because I can’t.
Even more amazing is the statement from NAR spokespeople that “professionalism is a value that cannot be mandated.” Really? So the Code of Ethics is what exactly? Last I checked, that was mandatory, with a full range of procedures for discipline for violating it. REALTORS have to take multi-hour classes on the Code of Ethics just to join, and I have yet to hear of a new real estate agent going, “Gee whiz, tomorrow is the Code of Ethics class! I’m soooo excited to take it entirely voluntarily!” If the Code of Ethics is not about professionalism, then what is it about?
If it is true that professionalism is not a value that can be mandated, then what is the purpose of NAR? Why does it continue to exist?
These are rhetorical questions, of course, because we know what’s going on. NAR didn’t want to change the Code of Ethics, because that would have made more professionalism mandatory, which could have led to a revolt on the part of the roughly 70% of the REALTOR members who join NAR only for the sake of getting access to the MLS (or because their brokers forced them to join), which could have led to all sorts of problems. NAR staff knows they have little power, NAR Directors know they have little power, and all of the NAR Committee members know that they have precious little power to mandate much more than what they already have in place.
Think about this: all of the brokers who are “proud to be REALTORS” and mandate that all their agents become REALTORS in order to join their firm, and who despise and hate Zillow and consider Zillow to be the enemy of all that is good and pure… how many of them will suck it up and participate in Best of Zillow and in PA4? The answer is All of Them. Conversely, how many of them will require that their agents get C2EX Endorsed in order to continue working at their firm? The answer is None of Them.
You know this, I know this, NAR knows this, Zillow knows this.
How did this come to be?
Consumer Focus vs. Member Focus
The answer is simple: Zillow focused on consumers, while NAR focused on members. We see it right here with the C2EX and Best of Zillow announcements.
C2EX, NAR tells us, is a member benefit not a requirement. Listen to the people speaking in the video above and count the number of times the words “I”, “Me” and “We” are used. The consumer is mentioned only in passing.
The difference between that and Best of Zillow is obvious. It’s so counterintuitive that AgentGenius wrote a post questioning Zillow’s business decision with the headline “New Zillow strategy — telling you to take your money and shove it.” That led to Bret Calltharp, Zillow’s Industry Outreach Director, to respond:
The author misses a key point – If you aren’t up to the CONSUMERS’ standards, Zillow will tell you, offer a suite of training and assistance to help the agent turn things around during a three month period and if that doesn’t help, then we part ways. Not sure what is “wacky” about a strategy that real estate consultants and coaches have preached to brokers for years – holding agents accountable for performance and parting ways if things don’t improve. The fact that quality assurance is a “wacky strategy” in 2018 tells me that this is absolutely the right move to make.
It turns out that consumers are not stupid. They know when they’re the focus and when they’re not. They have voted with their eyeballs and feet. They have voted with their attention, to the point that 50% of consumers think that they are contacting Zillow when they inquire about a property.
And it turns out that members, who are all businesspeople, are loyal to their businesses first and foremost. Which means going where consumers lead them.
The Next Few Years
As I’ve said, this is the moment when we’ll look back on and realize that the transfer of power from NAR to Zillow became obvious. But as I’ve also said, since NAR is not ready or willing to concede power, and Zillow is not ready or willing to take on the responsibilities of that power, it will be a while before we see the endgame. And again, to be appropriately humble about this, so many things can happen between now and then. Maybe there’s a grand summit between Bob Goldberg and Spencer Rascoff, and they work things out and come to an understanding. Maybe there’s a huge war, and the government has to step in and pick winners and losers — or mess everything up. Maybe NAR ends up discovering that its REALTOR members are truly more loyal and more committed than it appears today. Maybe Best of Zillow and PA4 end up being total and utter failures, Spencer gets fired by the Board of Zillow, and Zillow gets acquired by someone at pennies on the dollar. Who can truly say?
But I’ve already spent 4,000 words on this essay. There will be more to talk about in the near future about the new Zillow, the new changes, the new direction. And there will be plenty of time and opportunity to look at organized real estate.
For now, let us simply recognize that something important has just happened. It’s a sign of things to come. Things have become clearer. The new is replacing the old.