Cover story: How managing brokers recruit and retain top agents

by Edwin Cisneros

As a managing broker, you’re only as successful as the team you build. But when you combine an already competitive industry with a booming real estate market, the process of hiring — and holding onto — talented agents is more challenging than ever.

That’s why finding agents who will stay for the long term, and investing yourself in their personal and professional success, should form the core of any managing broker’s mission, says Chris Arienti, who leads a team of over 100 agents at RE/MAX Executive Realty west of Boston. After all, your agents are your biggest asset. “Without them, we don’t have a business,” Arienti said.

Building that team starts with recruitment, something Arienti has learned to approach with care. Unlike at his previous brokerage, keeping an agent on his RE/MAX roster costs him close to $4,000 a year. That forces him to be more deliberate and finite in his recruiting. “We pay agents to be here,” Arienti said. “We invest in them upfront in hopes of a return at the end, so we have to be kind of spot on with our hiring… We have to really believe they’re going to produce, because otherwise we are literally losing money on that agent.”

When Arienti is looking to hire new talent, a person’s motivations matter as much or more to him than their background. “The deciding factor for me comes down to why they’re getting into the industry. Are they coming to make contributions, do they want to help?” he said. Real estate isn’t about sales, he adds; it’s about guiding people through the biggest transactions of their lives, and the title of sales associate is almost a misnomer. “The product is already there, and we don’t own it, so we’re not selling anything,” Arienti explained. “This isn’t retail. We are consultants, we are advisors, we are protectors, we’re educators.”

Arienti was an educator himself for 14 years before getting into real estate, and he has found former teachers and other public servants tend to make great agents. “Teachers, nurse practitioners, healthcare workers, people who come out of those fields tend to make fantastic real estate professionals,” he said, “because they’re selfless, they’re highly intelligent, and they put other people’s needs ahead of their own. They protect, they care, they educate — those are the qualities I’m looking for. I’m not looking for the next Gordon Gekko.”

Finding a match

Nick Warren, founder and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Warren Residential in Boston, said it can be tricky to tell who will ultimately succeed as an agent. “I’ve hired people who I thought would be home runs and they fell flat on their faces, and other people who I was wishy-washy on and they found their niche and killed it,” he said. So Warren seeks out hard workers with a few core values, including a sense of humility, a willingness to be coached, and an entrepreneurial mindset of self-reliance — meaning they understand the difference between running a business and working a 9-to-5 job. “In this business there’s not a lot of accountability from the top down, it has to be generated from within that person,” Warren said.

Patience and consistency are other traits Warren values — he considers them hallmarks of his best agents. “The sales cycle is very long in real estate — it’s not like you have a next-day sale, you have to be in it for the long game and be patient,” planting seeds that you may not reap for another 12 or 18 months, Warren said. This can be especially crucial during an agent’s rocky first few years. Whether they’re killing it or floundering, the best agents continue with business development and lead generation on a daily basis. “It’s like the gym: You don’t stop going once you’re in shape, you need to stay consistent.”

When it comes to scouting for new talent, managing brokers lean heavily on referrals from their agents. “That is really how I get most of my leads, is from referrals from agents,” Arienti said.

“I am constantly asking my team to help me make the office what they want it to be, and a big part of that is them telling me who they want to include in our culture,” said Ryan Michaud, branch manager and vice president at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in the South End. “For a manager, nothing is better than hearing one of the agents say, ‘I love where I work, you should work here too.’”

Warren sees recruitment as a long-term investment, similar to nurturing a client. “My goal is to essentially prove my worth and value well ahead of when they need to make that decision, to plant the seeds early and nurture the relationship, sometimes over the course of years, and then be there when something goes wrong at their current place,” Warren said. “I try to give them a taste of what it’s like to be here, and if something goes wrong at their current brokerage, hopefully we’re the first call they make.”

Michaud takes a similar approach, offering potential recruits his mentorship or a sneak peak at the office culture. “Sometimes I involve a recruit in office events, so they can see what it’s like to work here,” he said. “If an agent is lost at their current office, I try to become a resource for them and someone they can have for support, before they work here.”

Some of the same perks that drive recruitment often serve to help with agent retention, too. “As a company, we have always had impressive tools and been at the forefront of innovation, so I spend a lot of time showing recruits all that we offer,” Michaud said, including an impressive data stockpile that allows his team to leverage artificial intelligence and visualization tools.

Offering agents the in-house technology and tools they need to run their business is crucial to keeping them successful and happy, according to Arienti, noting that RE/MAX is in the process of overhauling its technology platform. “You don’t want to have to tack on technology” and force agents to pay for outside services to accomplish basic tasks, he said. “You want it all to be in-house. Here’s your entire platform, your app, your website, it’s all seamlessly tied together.”

The changing role of managing broker

Setting up agents for success goes well beyond a robust technological platform, however. Warren finds it’s equally as important to help them with structure and business coaching. “Technology and tools, that can be had anywhere. But the thing a lot of agents are struggling with is that accountability factor,” Warren said.

To that end, Warren recently set up accountability groups in his office. He also offers agents regular business planning sessions where he talks to them about their personal and business goals, trying to pull out tangible targets. “Not just a random number, but what does that number mean for you? Do you want to send your kids to college? Do you want to go on more vacations next year, is it more about work-life balance than money?” he said. “I try to find out what’s important for them, and we craft a plan around that.”

In that sense, Warren says the role of managing broker has changed from when he first entered the business. “I think of myself almost as an incubator for startups, like in the tech world. So my job is to kind of give them the platform and foundation to run their mini business on, and then for them to be able to come to me whenever they want for that business consulting relationship,” he said. “It’s essentially like I have 30 partners and I’m a partner in each one of their businesses.”

Arienti echoes that sentiment. “If we don’t invest in [our agents], they’ll find somebody who will, and they will go elsewhere,” he said. “So that’s the single biggest piece to retention is investing in your agents and being available to them for help, security, education, and protection. And a lot of times it does come down to protection, because it’s a bit of a cutthroat business. So your agents have to feel like you have their back, when they’re on the right side at least.”

Matching the right person to the right role based on their skill set, passion, and motivations can also help with agent retention, says Suzanne Koller, owner-broker of Suzanne & Company at Keller Williams Boston Northwest. “We try our very best to ensure the right people are in the right seats,” she said, with each agent bringing a particular area of expertise to the team. “If you are naturally good at and happy in your role, success will come.”

That approach can also help foster a culture of collaboration as opposed to internal competition. Warren and Arienti say their agents tend to operate within their own spheres, and where there’s overlap, the agent with the strongest relationship to the client will win the business. “I try to build a mindset of abundance, not scarcity,” Warren said, noting that there’s more than enough work to go around in bustling Boston.

The truth about retention

Agents still leave brokerages all the time, of course, but Arienti says it’s rarely due to splits or finances. More often, he says, agents leave because of a personal issue, a major opportunity, or an issue with leadership. “It isn’t easy for an employed agent who’s selling houses to suddenly change all their signs, all their marketing and business cards,” Arienti said. “They don’t want to have to do that, but they will if they’re not feeling valued.”

That’s why it’s so important to really know and interact with your agents, Arienti said. Because once someone is dissatisfied or being courted by another office, it may be too late to stop the inevitable. “Once they’ve been talking to someone and they come to you and tell you they’re leaving, they’re already a foot and a half out the door,” Arienti said. Avoiding that scenario means investing time and energy in each of your agents, whether they’ve sold one house or a hundred. “You invest in their business, you make yourself available to them for questions,” he says, noting that he’ll take an agent’s call at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night — because he knows if a team member is calling that late, it must be important to them.

Warren says he tries to be proactive as well, encouraging open communication. If one of his agents is feeling discontented, “usually if we sit down and I dig deep enough, we can get to the root of that problem and find a solution,” he said. “If you have a problem, come talk to me. I love to hear when you’re doing well but more importantly I want to hear when we’re screwing up and what we can do about it.”

The most important thing you can do as a managing broker is make your agents feel valued, Arienti sai. “You make sure they know that you care. It sounds simplistic, but it really matters,” he says. People increasingly want to feel like they have a purpose at work, he adds. “We need to provide that, otherwise we are not holding on to our agents, we will lose them. And we won’t have a brokerage if we lose them.”

Cover photography by Lindsey Michelle Williams

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