REALTOR® PROfile | Sam DeBord


REALTOR® PROfile

Sam DeBord

Leading His Team in the Right Direction
Seattle Managing Broker Sam DeBord talks technology and relationship-building…

By Bridget McCrea

Sam DeBord

Coming into the real estate industry after spending years in information technology (IT), Sam DeBord had some valuable and early insights into exactly how technology was going to impact an industry that relied largely on close, personal relationships between REALTORS® and their customers. Looking back over his decade in real estate, DeBord, managing broker with Seattle Homes Group at Coldwell Banker Danforth, says that while the basic tenets of real estate have remained fairly constant, the speed of the transaction, communication, and collaboration have increased dramatically.

Staying ahead of the curve…

"If anything, technology has most changed initial consumer expectations," says DeBord, who works with business partner Brian Wiegand and a team of eight licensed brokers. "At the end of the day, once you’ve met a client and explained how the buying and/or selling process works, technology steps in and speeds up the process." In other words, it still takes an early effort at relationship-building for the real estate broker and the client to come together in the first place. And while some of those relationships form online (via social media outlets, mobile communications, or simple email), "there’s still quite a bit of face-to-face interaction that has to happen," says DeBord. "For anyone who thought that technology would somehow eliminate the REALTOR®’s role in the transaction, that fact has been sort of surprising."

Consider, for example, the home that DeBord recently listed on Lake Washington. "It was the proverbial ’social media connection’ listing," DeBord recalls. "I held an open house and ran into a couple that I’d met about three years earlier. When they hadn’t sold their home, we connected via LinkedIn after they saw a blog post I’d written about waterfront properties in the area."

After seeing that post, the potential sellers called and told DeBord that they wanted him to list their home. "We’ve been reading your stuff online for years," they told DeBord, "so we know that you understand the market." As it happens, DeBord sold the home within one week. "We had all sorts of buyers going through the home during that first week," he recalls. "It’s nice to see that technology can sometimes pay back in a very concrete way."

Rising Above the Rest

According to eMerge’s 7 Benefits of Marketing Automation, only 25 percent of agents make a second touch and only 2 percent of those leads convert into houses sold. Only 10 percent of agents will make more than three touches and the agents that make between 5 and 12 touches are the ones "soaking up the sales," eMerge reports. Those numbers send chills down DeBord’s spine. In fact, he’d like to think that his eight person team is one of the few that’s bucking the trend and actually maximizing its quota of online and offline leads. He says his technology background has played a positive role in helping the team achieve that goal—starting with his and Wiegand’s earlier venture, Washington State Realty. "Even then, we did mostly online lead generation," said DeBord. "We had a lot of technology tools and a high volume of website traffic." Both managing brokers, DeBord and Wiegand leveraged technology and handled all aspects of their firm until their business volume necessitated additional help. "For the last couple of years we’ve been hiring additional brokers to round out our team," says DeBord, who divides his time between people and IT management.

"I do a lot of the web development, lead generation, social media, and search engine optimization (SEO)," says DeBord, "basically everything that drives traffic, inquiries, and leads for the brokers who are on our team." Those brokers cover the Greater Seattle market and the surrounding areas, including Everett, Renton, and Bellevue. Because much of their business is generated online, team members work frequently with first-time homebuyers and relocating families that are unfamiliar with the Greater Seattle area. "To accommodate these types of clients," says DeBord, "we have to have a pretty flexible group of brokers who can navigate around the area."

Taking it to the Streets

DeBord, who spent five years working in the mortgage industry before getting his real estate license, attended USC, where he put himself through school on his advanced web development skills. After earning a business degree, he went into management consulting—most of it focused on technology. "We worked with startups during the tech boom," says DeBord, "doing management, IT, and different types of technology development consulting."

Armed with this experience and knowledge, DeBord was able to quickly grasp the relationship between technology and real estate. As noted earlier, he says the speed at which the relationship and transaction take place has sped up significantly as a result of advancements in technology.

"The days when a broker could get away with just checking his or her email at the end of the day are long gone," DeBord says. "You really have to be able to get back in touch with people quickly and let them know what you’re doing, and that they are important to you."

The same diligence has to be applied to the transactional process, says DeBord, who uses e-signatures, transaction management software, and other tools to streamline a process that was once extremely phone call- and paper-intensive. "Customers want to feel like they’re being updated, but even though a lot of the relationship is still face-to-face," says DeBord, "the technology component comes into play because most real estate consumers don’t want to see you at 8:00pm on a Friday night to sign one set of initials on a piece of paper."

Exactly how those customers want to be communicated with can also vary greatly according to their needs and preferences. Some may like to get all of their updates via text message, for example, while others may want email or phone call updates. Still others prefer Facebook or Twitter updates. DeBord and his team have to factor all of these idiosyncrasies into their marketing and business approach. "In the end, we all have to have a baseline set of skills that allow us to work with any client," says DeBord, "and depending on his or her preferences."

At Seattle Homes Group, DeBord says the company uses four websites that generate the majority of the team’s traffic, which typically comprises thousands of visits, leads, and/or registrations daily. And while he and Wiegand divide up the technology duties between them, DeBord says he puts much time and effort into ensuring that his team shows up on Page One of Google search results for keywords like, "Seattle homes for sale." He sees SEO as an ongoing effort for any broker, and "not just a side project that you can do once a month."

"Our SeattleHome.com site is one that the media always highlights as one of those rare real estate broker sites that can actually rank up there with the Big Boy portals," DeBord points out, circling back to the dismal follow-up percentages that real estate brokers have managed to rack up by not responding quickly and efficiently to leads that are generated online. "You can’t just put out a platform that says, ’Please call me, I have information for you,’ and then not respond when they do reach out to you. You’re just doing a disservice to the industry with that."

The Highs and the Lows

As he looks around the real estate environment right now, DeBord is enthused by the number of flexible business models that are available to today’s brokers. There are a wide range of brokerages to work for, he says, and many different roles that need to be filled within the industry. "If you want to be a sales broker on a team, you can work solely with buyers if so desired," says DeBord. "If you want to be a listing broker, you can partner with a buyer’s broker and create a complete team. The possibilities are endless."

Also seemingly endless is the list of tools available to enterprising broker who want to leverage technology to their advantage. In some cases, brokers can rely on the full spread of technology tools put in front of them by their full-service brokers. In other instances, independent brokers may want to handpick from a list of available tools and use them to create their own toolkits. "A lot of brokers are very entrepreneurial and independent," says DeBord, "so the availability of technology gives them a lot of flexibility in very new and valuable ways."

When it comes to identifying the key points that are challenging Washington brokers right now, DeBord sees inefficiencies in the current market—particularly in his local market—as one of the larger obstacles. Fluctuations in housing inventory, for example, can make it difficult for a buyer’s broker to show properties, particularly when inventory is tight. "When we have a healthy and balanced market, you’ve got a few people interested in each house and the transaction flow just seems to really pay off," says DeBord, "not just for buyers and sellers but for the brokers as well." However, when a high number of brokers (and their buyers) are vying for the same thing, and when only a small percentage of them are closing all of the transactions, "it’s inefficient and it can be frustrating for people who are working with buyers."

To help offset some of those challenges, Coldwell Banker Danforth requires all brokers who have less than two years of industry experience to work with a managing broker. That managing broker serves as a mentor for the broker, helping him or her navigate some of the industry-specific challenges that can quickly frustrate a newly-licensed professional. "Most of our agents do come to us with experience," says DeBord, "but we’ve also brought in a couple of people who were basically trained from the ground up."

For that training, the company relies on its local REALTOR® association’s training programs plus those provided by Coldwell Banker. "There’s also a lot of in-person, out in the field work to make sure the new brokers understand the transactional process," says DeBord. "We see this as a very positive thing for the industry as a whole; the more people who have mentors during their first year or two in the industry, the happier our brokers and clients will be over the long run."

Do Something Unique and Superior

Sam DeBord

As Coldwell Banker Danforth’s top-producing team, Seattle Homes Group plans to continue leveraging technology, mentoring its new team members, and serving customers in the way that they want to be managed. "We’re focused on developing the business as a whole and on making all of our brokers even more successful than they already are," says DeBord. "If they’re not selling, then we’re not making money. It’s a joint effort."

DeBord says he and Wiegand will probably add more team members this year, but primarily those who see a long future with the team. "We want to provide the kind of environment for our brokers where they see how we’re dependent on one another," says DeBord, "and so that there’s always positive momentum for everyone who is working here. That makes us all better."

To other brokers and managing brokers that are dealing with market challenges and interested in building a similar business model, DeBord says: Be very specific in your job, but very broad in your outlet. "The more you can specialize and do what you’re best at in your day-to-day activities and focus on what it is you do better than the next person, the more you’ll be able to define what your value is to the end consumer," says DeBord, "and be able to talk about why they should work with you. When you get to this point, you’re really doing something unique and superior."

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