Social Media Relationships – Are We Friends or Faux?

Friend or Foe by Ohm17

Friend or Foe by Ohm17 / © Some rights reserved.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that good salespeople are good networkers.

They spend a lot of time developing our spheres of influence. They work to become recognized as experts in their geographic areas. They work with spheres of influence that are related to the interests and activities they participate in, and to the communities they live in. They understand how to socialize in different environments and physical contexts. They know how to be charming and they develop real relationships with people in their community based on real shared interests. And yet there has been a lot of conversations recently about online relationships and their place in business.

It started with a really interesting post written by Chris Smith from the perspective of a consumer in the real estate market. His post was answered by counterpoint posts by Rob Hahn titled “If Real Estate is Not a relationship Business What Business is it?”   and  “From the Annals of Wired Straits; More on relationships” . I wrote a post called “Being Without Relationships is Being Without Business” . My friend Ken Brand, REALTOR at Prudential Gary Greene in Texas, and author of a book about real estate sales called “Less Blah Blah and More Aha” wrote a post asking for the opinions of others, and then Inna Hardison wrote a post entitled “My Relationships are not for Sale – My service Is” services reflecting Chris’ original position.

We’re all friends (the face to face kind) we all respect each other’s point of view, we’re all active in the social space , and yet we seem to be divided about the efficacy of social media and the need (or value) of relationship building for business purposes. Why are we such a house divided?

To me, the disagreement centers around the different point of view of the consumer and the professional.

I think Chris is correct.

Consumers don’t want relationships with salespeople or companies. Never have, and probably never will. Consumers want smooth, care free transactions achieving their goals with a minimum of effort or stress . Professionals and businesses however need to establish relationships with people in order to deliver good service in complicated business transactions.

In order to serve a buyer or seller effectively, a real estate professional needs to ask personal questions. To be an effective advocate for the buyer or seller, there needs to be substantial and intimate dialogue about the buying or selling process and the needs of the consumer. For these conversations to be meaningful they need to be open and frank, and require the consumer to have a certain degree of trust in the professional they deal with. In order to help the consumer make good decisions, and achieve their goal of a smooth, care free transaction – the salesperson needs the trust of the consumer .  Additionally, if the professional creates a good relationship with the consumer. they have a basis for trust and a relationship that may extend beyond one simple transaction. In any case, the consumer certainly won’t suffer from an authentic relationship with a professional whose job is to some degree to be an advocate for them.

This question of relationship building becomes confusing because it presumes the generalization  that all consumers are the same, and that all professionals have the same goals when they try to establish relationships with them . In fact consumers are not all the same,nor are the needs of professionals the same in connecting with them. We can easily distinguish 3 types of consumers professionals want to connect with online;

  1. People who need our goods or services right now or real soon  ( the smallest group – but the one that is discussed the most)
  2. People who do not need our services right now, but when they do need our services will need our service directly
  3. People who do not need our services right now, and will not, for the most part, need our services in the future because we are geographically undesirable or impractical, BUT WILL BE EVANGELISTS FOR US BECAUSE WE HAVE BECOME TRUSTED MEMBERS OF THEIR COMMUNITY (this is the largest group – and the one that is often overlooked)

We will establish our relationships with each group differently, use different technologies to find them and interact with them, and will generate varying levels of intimacy in our relationships defined by our mutual goals and needs. But one thing should remain the same – every relationship should be authentic and sincere. People aren’t stupid – they will sense insincerity and dismiss those efforts quickly.

The first group is the target of most of these conversations, and seems the obvious target. In fact, it is the smallest group, and is not always the easiest  group to relationship build with online since they are meeting salespeople online on the phone and face to face every day as they move further along the sales arc. With the first group, our interaction will be more rushed, and stands the risk of being most ephemeral, since there is not a lot of time to grow and nourish it. Whether we connect with them on the phone, online, or face to face, we start the relationship as a milestone to the eventual transaction and may vene be viewed as the consumer’s adversary until we humanize our connection to them.

The second group is simple to identify, and since they are not in any immediate need, allow us to establish trust and relationships at their pace, in venues where they are most comfortable. many of these relationships are the result of trust built by the consumer as they observed your online action at a distance, not initiating contact for weeks, months, or years after they first become aware of your online activities.

Our interactions with this group are not subject to the stresses and time frame of the immediate transaction, and can be built over a period of time. Through comments on local blogs, our own blog posts, our Facebook presence, our use of services like Yelp, Foursquare, Gowalla, Foodspotting etc, we can construct personas that show our involvement in our geographic community in both the online and physical worlds. Our identity and our actions create a reputation that can pre-dispose the consumer to want the relationship with us because we have demonstrated our knowledge that they wish to share and use.

The third group is the largest , and possibly richest group to work with. Our online interaction with them is demographic rather than geographic. Because of the nature of online communities, we are not bound by geography and can connect with anyone,anywhere that shares common interest with us. The relationships that are developed in this arena may be completely outside the business realm. Just as we develop relationships in the physical world through our activities outside of work the participation in online, non-work communities allow you to connect with people and establish mutual respect and trust that can result in business benefits later as they refer memjbers of their communities to you when they have a business need that you can satisfy.

This group is the largest because we can connect with people with whom we share the interests and experiences of our entire lifetime. This common ground, created by social objects (things we have in common with another person) can be military service, our high school or college, the old neighborhood where we grew up, our collections of sports memorabilia or books or movies, our love for 80’s music, jazz, zydeco, etc. These non-commercial relationships, based on these common interests, experiences, or beliefs can generate wild, raving fans who will refer their friends, families and acquaintances to us because they know and trust us as people. By leveraging the power of technology we are able to connect with people all over the world, who though they may not need our services, may be connected to others in our geography that do need our service and would gladly accept an endorsement by others.

In our search for the best way to do business, we talk a lot about online rating systems like Yelp, FourSquare tips, Foodspotting and others, and how we can use the opinions of strangers to make decisions about small and large purchases or influence others to buy our goods or services. We know the power of these “blind referrals”, but we forget how much more powerful it is when someone known to the consumer endorses an individual or business. I love new tech and toys as much or more than anyone, but we shouldn’t allow the noise of the crowd to distract us from the things we know as factual. Connected recommendations or endorsements are the strongest and the closer then connection the more valuable the referral.

A final note on the expectations of today’s consumer. Though they may not want to have a relationship with a salesperson, they do want a salesperson who has a large number of relationships. As contradictory as this seems, it is nonetheless a fact of today’s world.There is ( my friends Inna and Chris notwithstanding) a large percentage of consumers who want a real estate professional that demonstrates their knowledge of the community publicly, and have a substantial online community.

Today I spoke to a real estate consumer in Central Pennsylvania. She was referred to me because the person making the referral trusted me to do the right thing for the consumer. While she was not in my market area, we did speak about her marketing concerns. She was wanted a “tech savvy agent” to market her home using social media. She knew that her current agent syndicated her listing to several hundred sites, but she did not feel that listing the property in that manner was sufficient. In her words (as she relayed them to her agent) , “the days are gone when people would come to you and you would crack open the MLS book to show them property” . She perceived that her listing agent, who had taken lots of good photos, listed the property in many places, and was doing a decent job (in my opinion) of seeing that the property was placed prominently on the web, was just “casting her nets in the water, looking for fish”. This consumer, a pretty tech savvy individual herself, wanted someone who had used interactive media to become identified with her region and was using social media “to drive the fish into the net”.  She made the point in talking to me that in this age of fragmented competing media streams, she wanted an agent who was using local information and high quality content to attract consumers who wanted information about her town by creating a high value resource, establishing relationships with consumers who were attracted to the lifestyle available in her area.

I know that one conversation doesn’t make a study or prove a point, but I don’t believe she was alone in wanting to do business with someone who was working at establishing relationships online in an ethical and authentic manner. What do you think?

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