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Rainy Hake Austin wants agents to focus on their unique value

In 2020, real estate industry veteran Rainy Hake Austin took her decades of experience to The Agency, where she currently serves as president of the Beverly Hills, California-based brokerage firm. Her four years at The Agency have been some of the most chaotic times in real estate industry history due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the interest rate roller coaster and the commission lawsuit saga.

HousingWire recently caught up with Austin to discuss leadership through these challenging times, as well as the current struggles facing agents and brokers.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brooklee Han: The past four years have been a bit chaotic for the real estate industry. Can you tell me a little bit about the experience of leading a firm during these action-packed years?

Rainy Hake Austin: I have been in the business for almost 30 years now and real estate always has cycles. It has ups and downs, you get bumps and bruises along the way, but in the last four years, we have had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

It is that extreme paradox that, I think, has been so interesting for everyone. As a leader, one of the hardest things, when you are dealing with going from the highest highs to the lowest lows, is just the fatigue.

The most challenging part of the last four years has been dealing with the fact that we have all these agents in hyper-mode dealing with multiple offers with no contingencies and all cash and everything flying off the shelves. And then, all of a sudden, you are going to no inventory, and then things going on with the National Association of Realtors and consumers questioning an agent’s value, agents just feel like they are constantly in this fight or flight mode and having to justify their existence, and that creates this feeling of fatigue inside all of these pendulum swings.

It is an uphill battle going from an environment where agents feel too busy to take a vacation to now this feast-or-famine situation that we have because there is such little inventory. This adds a lot of stress and competitiveness inside of an already challenging market that has a lot of uncertainty in it as well. I think that creates fear and frustration. So, as a leader, I am really trying to keep our agents energized and focused.

Han: What have you done to help keep your agents and brokers focused during such noisy times?

Austin: It has really been about figuring out how to get them to see actionable ways they can progress their business — things that are meaningful and that actually bring the impact of their value forward.

We are in a rising-cost housing market and this is a time when consumers should be really leaning into the expertise of an agent, but we have messaging out in the world that is kind of devaluing the agent. So, we have been really helping our agents use social media and their sphere of influence to have an opportunity to cut through the noise and share specifically the value, not only that real estate agents bring, but that specific agent.

With that, we are really focusing on value creation with our agents, which is first helping them understand their value and then figuring out how to articulate their value. But, in the big picture, we are really just trying to keep agents focused on productive elements that drive their business.

Han: What are you doing to help your agents identify and articulate their value proposition?

Austin: We want agents to be able to articulate their value not only in beautiful listing presentations but also really high-end buyer presentations. We are helping them to discover the opportunity inside of the changes coming to the real estate industry.

In a world where commissions have always been negotiable, agents aren’t just gating their value or weighing it against what others in the industry are offering but really looking at what they do and defining exactly what they offer. That could be additional staging services, helping prep the home for going to market, or creative marketing solutions. We are helping agents to find where their niche is, and then find their voice and perspective to share amongst their clients with tangible things like social media assets, newsletters and email campaigns.

I think, as a company — and hopefully as well as an industry — we all really believe in the value of the agent. There has been talk for many years about displacing the agent. (Information technology) was at the center of the proptech conversation and so many other initiatives, but we believe technology and tools should enhance the human experience, and we believe that the real estate agent will always be in the middle of the transaction, helping consumers navigate what could be the most complex or important transaction of any individual’s life. 

Communicating and demonstrating what a specific agent brings to the table in terms of improving the customer experience is not something that a lot of them have a lot of practice with. You would be surprised how many experienced agents don’t have formal listing presentations — they just kind of walk into a room, and they know what to say and what to do. But when you shift things on them a little bit, like with what is happening right now, you put them on their heels, and they start second-guessing themselves and wondering how they are supposed to address things.

As I’ve said, commissions have always been negotiable, but now that we are discussing them more, it is giving these agents the opportunity to really dive into all that they will do for that client and how they value their time. We have gone through exercises with agents where we make them list out the hundreds of things that they do and come up with an hourly rate for those different tasks.

I feel like, at first, it is about convincing the agents that they are worth what they are asking for, and then helping them build their confidence so that they can go out and demonstrate to the world that they really are worth it. Really, agents need to just go back to the basics and lean into the skills that have helped them get where they are now.

Han: As a leader, are there any skills or ideas that you are really leaning into right now to help yourself as you navigate all of these changes alongside your agents?

Austin: I am really leaning into transparency and authentic communication. I am really focused on making sure that I am building long-lasting relationships that are based on trust. So, for my agents, that means not just focusing on a fad or saying what I need to get the deal and more, but making sure they are building connections with clients. And I, in turn, am focused on doing that with our agents. 

Knowledge is really important right now, probably more than ever before, and knowledge is power. Our agents need to trust that we as a brokerage and that I as a leader are aware of what is going on. So, I as a leader am really leaning into freely sharing the knowledge that I have to help agents better understand what is going on, and then also participating as a thought leader and shaping what is going on — not just watching the industry change and unfold but looking at those places where things maybe aren’t working well, and seeing how to make it an opportunity to change and fix something. 

Han: A lot of what you are talking about sounds like it is really about empowering agents. So, what does that really look like in practice for you?

Austin: It is really about having them feel like they have some control over the situation. My philosophy in general about what I do is that I problem-solve for a job. I solve problems and am a purveyor of exceptional experiences, so I make sure that my staff, my clients, my agents, have as positive an experience in whatever we are doing as possible. 

But being a problem solver, you have you focus on the problems, but if we can help keep our agents focused, every task, every challenge is just a problem to be solved. So, if you use creative problem solving, you get to the root of whatever it is that we are talking about and it allows us to not get so distracted with whatever the new shiny, distracting thing is. So, if we focus on the things that we have control over, that our agents have control over, it allows us to not go down the rabbit hole with all of these unknowns and get paralyzed about the things that we have no control over. 

So, what that looks like is first focusing on people — building relationships with the agents and them building relationships with clients. Then we can provide what they need — the knowledge, the tools to meet their needs and the needs of clients before they even know they need something. 

Han: Obviously there are still a lot of unanswered questions with the commission lawsuits, but three of the settlement agreements have received final approval and the NAR settlement has preliminary approval. What do you feel is this next phase in the saga that we seem to be heading into?

Austin: The benefit of having some of these come to resolution is just alleviating some more of the unknown things. As more things come to light, it helps to mold the direction that things are likely going to go in. But really, it is about taking that step back and saying, ‘How do I have the opportunity to mold things?’

Personally, I try to come from a very centered place of integrity and professionalism, and I’d love to see that expand more throughout the industry. I’d also love to see more female leadership in the industry. The majority of real estate agents are female, but historically, at the ownership, leadership and executive levels, female representation is very minimal. 

I’d also love to have more young people with fresh ideas. I’ve been running luxury real estate companies for many years now, and when I started, I was this young female coming up, which was very uncommon then, and I found great success in having a fresh perspective and different ways of looking at things. So, I would love to see more opportunities for diversity of all sorts to come inside the industry, especially when it comes to thought leadership as we examine and restructure what we do.

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