Profiles in Doing Both: The Resiliency of the American Real Estate Agent

09/30/2010 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you're one of the 11 million Americans who owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth, the last person you probably want to hear from is the real estate agent who sold you your home.

But if you did business with Austin Realtor Steve Crossland, expect your phone to ring. Almost every customer Steve and his wife, Sylvia, have served in the past 20 years hears from The Crossland Team at least once per year. Sometimes, Steve says, he hears an earful of woe and anxiety. But more often than not, he learns something new that he applies to his thriving Texas real estate company.

That's right, thriving. Though business is down sharply from the boom years of the last decade, Steve and Sylvia are hanging tough in what experts agree is the worst housing market in more than a generation. Steve wishes he could say the same for many of his peers.

In case you haven't heard, a significant number of America's 1.25 million Realtors live close to the edge. In Texas, where Steve and Sylvia do business, half of the state's real estate professionals do not renew their licenses every two years as required. Battered by the economy and belittled by critics, many Realtors have simply walked away from the industry. Where have they gone? If your child's substitute teacher can quickly amortize a 30-year loan at 5 percent without a calculator, you probably have a pretty good idea.

But what about people like Steve and Sylvia, who have made real estate their chosen profession? In business for more than 20 years, they are hardly "wave riders" who jump in and out of real estate like some agents. Instead, the Crosslands have made a lifelong commitment to serve their market and customer base alike.

In good times and bad, serious Realtors have improved their performance through ongoing efforts to optimize almost everything they do. Twenty years ago, for example, they leveraged desktop publishing tools to produce attractive newspaper advertisements for a fraction of what they previously could. Later, they developed more sophisticated sales techniques and financial lending skills.

For a while, optimization worked wonders--and not just for the Crosslands but hundreds of thousands of agents nationwide. But then the bubble burst on the real estate market. Not only were real estate professionals unprepared for the economic calamity that ensued, they were also ill-equipped for the technological revolution and cultural upheaval that followed.

"In the past, we held all the keys--literally," explains Steve Crossland. "We were the ones with access to homes and access to listings through Multiple Listing Services. But new technology challenged our value proposition. Suddenly, anyone could list and market a house online. To make matters worse, the economy turned, promoting some people to question home ownership altogether."

This one-two combination punch sent thousands of Realtors reeling. Those who were able to collect themselves were forced to step back and reassess the value they provided. Much like corporate recruiters and journalists before them, real estate professionals began to realize that they had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

That's why Steve Crossland began writing a popular Internet blog. More educator than salesman, Crossland has fundamentally changed his approach to selling real estate. Fully aware that he now relies on the very technology that once threatened his profession, he has nevertheless jumped into the new age with both feet.

"As it turns out, the Internet did not replace Realtors. But it did force us to look at some things very differently," he says. "Customers today have too much information and not enough context. So I have found that they need: someone who can advise them. A cool video of a beautiful home doesn't tell you what the neighborhood is like or the quality of the local schools. A trained real estate consultant can."

To get the most from this latest reinvention, Steve and Sylvia continue to optimize everything they do. Sylvia, for one, makes daily calls to customers old and new. Only this time, she is more keen to share her insights with Steve so he can broadcast them to the rest of the world. By doing both optimization and reinvention, The Crossland Team is carving out a future that some thought to be in doubt.

Austin real estate hasn't been the same since.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.