In 1997, the brokerage flavor of the month was pre-recorded property hotlines with voice mail. Instead of dealing with a salesperson to get information on a property, consumers could call a recorded hotline and get the details on the listing pressure-free. They had the choice of hanging up or leaving a message. I had such a system, but on one listing there was a glitch with the voicemail. The seller, an imbalanced guy with an anger management issue, had a friend act as a mole, call the hotline and he got no call back. When I was asked to meet with the client a few days later, in about 45 seconds he went from calm to a screaming maniac who assaulted me in his kitchen.
I have never been much of a fan of spies in real estate since then.
Earlier today, on the Active Rain Network, there was a featured blog post suggesting that licensees act as secret shoppers so they could examine the sales and follow up skills of the agents in open houses. Invoking some reality show where CEOs pretend they are janitors or waiters, the author also suggested that a broker like myself could get insight into how my team handles themselves by pretending to be a buyer, perhaps via email, perhaps by proxy.
There are huge ethical and pragmatic issues with such a practice. Let's set aside for a moment the pragmatic, which is the incredible waste of time it would be for a colleague to chase me around thinking they might make a sale with me. We all know the frustration of having a neighbor walk into an open house and pretend to be an interested prospect. And let's set aside the instant loss of respect my 26 agents would would experience if they know I were spying on them.
It's um, wrong. It is wrong (wrong as in against the Code of Ethics) to impersonate a consumer and not disclose my status as a Realtor, and I am pretty sure it is not real kosher with the nice people at the Department of State in Albany to do so either. There are plenty of things I might do to decode the secret sauce of a competitor. I suppose I could have lunch with an ex agent from the firm. Or I could contact a former client who is looking for new representation. But whatever I do, I would do it as Phil Faranda, licensed broker.
The fact that you can learn something by breaking the rules is not justification for the practice. There are no nannycams in real estate, unless you are a client watching your own property. But lying about my status as a broker? Impersonating a buyer when I am not one? Am I supposed to sign a nom de plume in an open house registry? Have a buddy waste one of my agent's time pretending to be a buyer to observe their technique? No way. If I wanted to see how my agents work, I'd simply go out into the field with them, like I do now.
Just as that old hotline was the thing back in 1997, the new thing in real estate is transparency. Just tell the truth. Just be real. You won't give away the store, you'll be so incredibly refreshing that you'll have more people wanting to be your client than ever before. Don't use an alias. Don't even have the pretense of being someone whom you are not. Disclose your identity and your license status. It is the right thing to do, and the public is starved for agents that do the right thing.