Bringing value: Associations re-envision member needs in a changing industry

by Jason Porterfield

Joining a professional organization often allows immediate entry into a circle of driven and knowledgeable individuals who share an interest in improving their careers. For real estate agents and brokers, membership in an association can immediately provide the tools, training and resources they need to succeed.

As the real estate industry continues to evolve, associations function as a reliable support system for professionals. For the cost of dues, members take advantage of benefits such as networking events, business tools, discounts and education opportunities.

Associations can also seem unwieldy from the outside. With membership numbers ranging from hundreds to millions, they often have to fight the perception that the voices of individual agents go unheard. Their decades-long histories often make them seem staid and stale, especially compared to more exciting market disruptors. Agents might begin to question membership fees and associated expenses when they look at their individual budgets, particularly when companies like Zillow purport to offer some of the same services, sometimes at lower costs. 

Associations still provide many of the services they always offered to agents and brokers. Now, however, many feel compelled to help real estate professionals remain relevant in a marketplace in which they have to deal with competing, non-traditional business models that aren’t restrained by old ways of doing things. Associations maintain their relevancy by choosing the right tools and the right training to keep their members on top of the market.

Florida Realtors chief executive officer Margy Grant doesn’t necessarily see industry disruptors as a threat to her association’s members.

“When I hear the word disruptors, I tend to see opportunities,” Grant said. “I see an opportunity for realtors to show the consumer exactly what they have to offer and the homeowner’s response. When people talk about it being a disrupter, it’s an opportunity for realtors to expand the opportunity to help a homeowner buy or sell and do it successfully. We consistently provide educational opportunities and informational opportunities. We put out content to make sure they’re up to speed on the latest and greatest of what’s going on in the industry.”

MIAMI Realtors chief executive officer Teresa King Kinney said her association helps agents prepare by providing a powerful MLS system and strong data analytics tools along with outreach efforts intended to help members learn how to use them.

“We have five full-time trainers,” Kinney said. “That’s all they do. Plus, I have three full-time outreach people who also do training and troubleshooting for broker offices, as well as gathering up-to-date information on what they and their agents want and need. Market data and statistics are more important than ever before, any way that it can be sliced, diced and used to target specific markets.”

Communication challenges with a growing base

Keeping up with the needs of agents and brokers presents challenges for associations at all levels. Bob Goldberg, chief executive officer of the National Association of Realtors, said his organization is constantly working to improve lines of communication so that he and his board can understand the mindset of its members. When he became CEO two years ago, Goldberg implemented an executive outreach program to strengthen those ties with members and increase engagement.

“I created a team whose only job is member engagement: to go out and make sure that they are talking, engaging, showing up at meetings and doing a lot of face-to-face things that I think a lot of associations over the years have lost the ability to do,” he said. “We have [nearly] 1.4 million members, so it’s a big task to go out and really get in front of people.”

At the national level, the organization also has to stay in touch with smaller associations that make up the three-way agreement of local, state and national groups. Goldberg saw a gap there as well and instituted a plan to keep staff involved in what’s happening across the country. “I assign two or more of our senior executives and our vice presidents to each of our respective 13 regions around the country,” Goldberg said. “They have responsibility for going out and ensuring member outreach.” 

Florida Realtors provides direct engagement with members that can net concrete results. Members have access to a tech help line and a legal hotline with their dues. These lines of communication can help make the difference in whether an agent can finalize a sale.

“When you think about small businesses and the amount [of money] they spend on either the Geek Squad or other technical assistance, all of that is included in your annual dues,” Grant said. “Same with our legal hotline. If you have a question about a real estate transaction, we’re not giving you specific legal advice. Instead, we’re answering a legal question just to help you over a hump.”

Educating agents

An association’s focus on education is often two-pronged, as both an effort to maintain professionalism among the ranks and to help fill the many gaps that exist between licensing classes and the actual practice of real estate. A 2018 survey by NAR found that 29 percent of its members had fewer than two years of experience in the field.

Overall, Goldberg noted that with business-minded members, it’s important to demonstrate a clear return on the investment of dues dollars. “For us it’s all about ‘how do we make our members more profitable’?” he said. “How do we help improve their ROI?”

MIAMI Realtors provides more than 4,000 seminars and events each year, giving members access to learning opportunities in English and in Spanish. The seminars include teaching members how to use the MLS at advanced levels, how to work with commercial clients, tax training and sessions about contracts and legal issues.

“We have 7 locations right now, soon to be 8 locations,” Kinney said. “These are not branch offices. These are full association offices. Anything that you can do at our headquarters or at our biggest offices, you can do at any of our offices. They all are set up for training, and most of them have their own computer labs so that we’re the only Association anywhere down here that does hands-on computer training for our members. We train on all of the products and services that we make available.”

Hearing members’ voices — the positive and the negative

Keeping every member of an association happy at all times is an impossible task. But that doesn’t mean member complaints go unheard. 

Goldberg appreciates it when members make their dissatisfaction known. “I love it when members love what we do,” Goldberg said. “I love it when members don’t like what we do, because at least they’re engaged.”

He regularly communicates with realtors on social media and personally responds to nearly anyone who contacts him within three or four days, whether through email, texts, calls or social media platforms like LinkedIn. 

“I feel it’s our obligation as an association,” Goldberg said. “I’ve made the same request of my staff: Get engaged in social media. … We’re here to be stewards for our members. We’re their association. Our job as key staff is to be out there, listen to what our members say and help answer their questions.” 

Florida Realtors has a volunteer committee of practicing real estate professionals that helps make decisions regarding where to invest dues money from the association’s approximately 187,000 members. The committee can make recommendations to the board of directors, thus giving a representative voice to agents across the state.

“They can sit in a room and make recommendations and then our board of directors will make that decision,” Grant said. “It’s fantastic to sit and watch them evaluate it, because they know their market and they’re able to tell us what they need and what works for them.”

Kinney said that her association offers enough free tools and resources that there’s generally something for everyone to like.

“Occasionally we’ll have somebody pop up and say, ‘Why do you have three tax programs? Why don’t you just have one?’” Kinney said. “Well, first of all, because we can. And secondly, because some tax programs are better for some users, and some are better for others.”

Adapting to new challenges

Technology is constantly changing the face of real estate and how agents connect with their clients. From the advent of market disruptors such as Zillow and Redfin to the rise of the smartphone, agents constantly have to be aware of new technology, tools and tactics. 

Associations sometimes respond to those changing dynamics in the marketplace by investing in suites of tools that are intended to make members more competitive. 

But developing new technology is expensive and risky. The process is time-consuming and there’s a strong possibility that the end result will be disappointing. The tech might be too hard to use, it may not solve the problem it was developed to address or something better might already be on the market, leaving agents to wonder why their dues dollars should go toward creating such tools.

In the past, the NAR often dedicated its resources to developing technology, such as the Realtors Property Resource program, in-house. Goldberg has shifted the focus to partnerships with outside companies, most notably ending the association’s involvement in the Upstream data management project last December. NAR has created member insight panels to help companies develop useful tech tools with the particular needs of real estate professionals in mind.

“We have a lot of partnerships with companies that we don’t have an equity investment in, and we also have companies where we do have in some cases have a very small equity position,” Goldberg said. “It allows us to help influence all that’s being done so that we can put a lot more arrows in the quiver of providing benefits to our members.” 

Goldberg’s efforts appear to be working. Membership numbers remain strong for the largest association. However, these figures do tend to follow the market, and recently the market has been pretty positive for real estate. In 2012, during the height of the housing crisis, membership dipped below the $1 million mark. While the recession that some economists are bracing for isn’t expected to have such a close tie with the real estate industry as the last one did, any economic downturn could cause members to reconsider their business expenses, and dues dollars certainly aren’t immune to that. Associations that provide real value for their fees can avoid that trap.

“One of the things that helps is that if I have 52,000 people who are paying into a system, not only can I provide it at a much lower cost than almost anybody else but also we can have more tools available,” Kinney said. said. “That’s what we do. We find the best tools available. There may be two that are very similar, but if a new one that we’re looking at has specific things that will benefit the members that the other one doesn’t have, you look ahead.”

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