- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

When it comes to conducting business, Realtors are among the leaders in technological innovation and access.

They use a Multiple Listing Service, virtual house tours and real estate Web sites that seem to cover everything from obtaining a mortgage to closing a sale.

When it comes to maintaining their business, however, most Realtors prefer doing things the old-fashioned way.

"You want that chest-to-chest contact," says Dale Mattison of Long & Foster's Chevy Chase office, "and you want the home buyer to feel comfortable with you as a person."

Realtors who are clear about their roles and obligations have the most success with maintaining a comfort level with their clients, thus leaving open the possibility of repeat business and referrals.

"You have to treat your customers the same way you treat a close friend," says John Pagones, who has spent 20 years with Chatel Real Estate Inc. in the District. "You really have to work at establishing a good, honest relationship."

That today's Realtors place such a premium on repeat business should come as no surprise. According to the National Association of Realtors, more than half of home buyers either choose a real estate agent they used previously or follow a recommendation of a friend, relative or neighbor when choosing a real estate professional.

Further, in a 1999 survey, the National Association of Realtors found that 65 percent of home buyers would definitely use the same real estate agent in a future transaction. An additional 20 percent believed that they might use the same agent, while only 8 percent were sure they would use a different agent in the future, the NAR survey said. Significantly, these figures were consistent for both first-time and repeat home buyers.

Ensuring that a customer returns to the same Realtor he or she used before, in addition to being good business, helps maintain the fundamental relationship between customer and Realtor.

"We want to become your family Realtor, just as you have a family doctor," Mr. Mattison says.

So how do Realtors keep that relationship going? Obviously, they can't simply wait for the year when the client is ready to put his house back on the market. Instead, a Realtor uses a variety of methods to ensure frequent and regular contact.

"It's really about keeping in touch," says Ruth Howell of Century 21 Howell and Associates in Annandale.

Access is important. And in these days of cell phones, access has never been easier. "A cell phone is a part of life these days," says Mr. Pagones. "I don't know of any Realtor who doesn't have one."

Throughout the year, most Realtors make at least a couple of calls to former clients just to check in.

"I check in to see how things are going," says Mr. Pagones. "You never know, there might be something I can help them with."

And of course, there's e-mail.

"I collect e-mails every morning," says Mrs. Howell. "But nothing substitutes for personal contact."

Despite the ease with which e-mail can speed a message to your door (or at least to your computer), most Realtors still depend on "snail mail" for the most basic of their regular contacts with customers the congratulatory card.

Mrs. Howell automatically enrolls all her clients in Century 21's Preferred Client Club, which sends out congratulatory cards five or six times a year. Her office also sponsors an annual holiday open house.

"The holiday party gives us important face time with clients," she says. "There's really no substitute for face-to-face contact."

Such frequent contact has proved advantageous for Howell and Associates, the majority of whose business comes from repeat customers and referrals, Mrs. Howell says.

In fact, the Realtor-client relationship is so good that Mrs. Howell often deals with the grown-up children of folks to whom she first sold a home 10 or 12 years previously.

"We try to keep up with people," she says. "We even keep up with people who have moved away."/pOther Realtors have their own methods for keeping in touch.

"We send out a monthly news-letter so the homeowner can keep abreast of what's going on in real estate," says Mr. Mattison. "We include interesting articles from various newspapers and note birthdays and anniversaries."

In the end, though, whether you send a card, a newsletter, or both, it's all about keeping your name before the public. Real estate offices are often high-profile presences in neighborhoods, participating in everything from community days to Little League sponsorship.

For example, Howell and Associates also maintains a close relationship with Easter Seals. Every other year, the firm sponsors an art auction at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus with proceeds going to Easter Seals. To prepare, just about every past and present client gets an invitation and a call from a broker.

"We believe in giving back to the community," Mrs. Howell says. "And it's a great way of keeping our name in front of people."

Often, Realtors are associated with a particular neighborhood or community. Mr. Mattison frequently finds himself involved in both ends of a transaction in certain Washington neighborhoods.

Today, many Realtors strive to do more than simply sell houses. They work at adding ancillary services, functioning in much the same way a concierge would in a luxury apartment building or hotel.

According to the National Association of Realtors, three quarters of home buyers received recommendations from their real estate professional about providers of related services or products. And more than 90 percent of home buyers who received at least one recommendation purchased at least one product and/or service based on the recommendation given by a Realtor. These included professionals related to home inspections, title insurance, mortgage lending, appraising and termite/insect inspectors.

Need a plumber? Your Realtor probably knows the name of a good one. Want some painting done but don't know which one is the best? You just may want to ask your Realtor. After all, his or her reputation is riding on the strength of that painter's expertise.

Of course, there are some intangibles associated with repeat business and frequent referrals. In the Washington area particularly, there are a number of wives of prominent politicians (or former politicians) who are in real estate. Some of their business may come less from services and expertise than it does from the cachet of associating with the wife of a major public figure.

And then there is the most intangible thing of all personality. That's not something that can be measured by a survey or a scale, but it is something that figures greatly into the decision to stick with a Realtor or try someone else.

"They know they're well taken care of because they know us," Mrs. Howell says. "We speak their language."

In the end, despite the bells and whistles of Web sites and personal communications, it is the little things that count. And some things are best done the old-fashioned way.

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