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We are Not Borg

December 09 2013

binaryThere's a kerfuffle going on (isn't there always?) in the real estate industry. One of the largest real estate portals has started experimenting with a system to "rank and review" real estate agents, so buyers and sellers can "search and match up" with one. For some in the industry, rating and matching salespeople is a logical evolution in online marketing: Everyone reviews everything these days - restaurants, smartphones, airlines - in the have-your-say-Yelp-ish world. So why not real estate agents? But for others, marketing agents as "data sets" of listings, closings and statistics seems like the ultimate un-differentiator: turning value propositions into "just the facts" of MLS data.

For me, the idea is bogus, but for a much simpler reason:

We are not Borg.

This isn't just a real estate issue. Salespeople everywhere should be concerned about the "rate, rank and match" trend in marketing and lead generation. It started with websites like AngiesList, TripAdvisor, and Amazon. "Tell us what you think about your purchase" became a norm that can make - or break - products in a fast, powerful, and permanent way. Perhaps you've decided - or undecided - to eat at a restaurant, stay at a hotel, or complete a purchase after seeing how many "stars" or "likes" had been earned from other people (strangers, really). Yet ratings aren't Consumer Reports or JD Powers, who rely upon expert testers to measure comparative performance. Rather, today's internet is filled with feedback from everyone and anyone: expertise notwithstanding.

We're now are at the mercy of the nameless, faceless mob.

The Borg.

To be fair, collecting and analyzing salespeople's performance data sets has a laudable goal: To help consumers evaluate professionals who can get the job done, based upon a track record. To some degree, we all want that (or we think we do): The doctor with the most cured patients. The lawyer with more wins than losses. The plumber who installed less leaky faucets than other plumbers. Surely, sets of compiled data and search algorithms can help consumers match up with "good" salespeople. We can throw in some qualitative material, like testimonials or peer-reviews, and the computer review will be even better.

Actually, no, it can't. The entire premise is wrong, in my opinion. As wrong as Google Glass, envisioning a future where people vacantly stare at data, rather than other people. Not for me. You see:

We are NOT Borg.

What's with all the Star Trek Borg references? It's what jumped to mind when I thought of portraying salespeople according to their MLS data sets, so we can (gasp) generate more leads. (Ah, advertising; you might not think the internet could do anything else.) Chopping up amazing things (people) into chunks of data is dehumanizing. Creating an online cube data sets designated by their rank and position in the collective is ridiculous. Why not just come out and say it: You think agents are all interchangeable. Functional. Scripted. Unsmiling.


And we have to do it, don't we, because someone says it's inevitable. We heard that before: that that resistance is futile because technology must advance: Listings must be distributed everywhere online, they said, so we can sell your own leads back to you. Everyone went along, until some people didn'tsome people didn't. So, too, ratings are coming, they say, whether you like it, fear it or not. Big data is the path to perfection; isn't that the buzzword these days?

I guess it's something I'm just not willing to concede, because:

I am not Borg.

For years, it was worried the internet would reduce the role of salespeople in transactions. No, it was actually hoped. Amazon, Expedia and iTunes exist because some people were deemed widgets in a process a computer could handle. No need for travel advisors or store clerks with mobile search, match and order from Amazon (who, ironically just announced plans to deliver orders bydrones). Consumers wanted it, they said; and in fact, they did. But buying a book or a music file is eminently low risk; a few dollars on the line. As for advice, well, we can turn the nameless, faceless mob into your "recommendations" hive: Reviews from everybody (and nobody) will guide your purchases. If we can rewrite how people find hoteliers, we can rewrite how they find real estate salespeople, can't we? Personal referrals by friends and family can easily become stars and snipes from the collective.

In the future, you'll be referred by the ghost in the machine.

Well, hasn't this already happened to doctors? No, it hasn't. The AMA website doesn't match, recommend or guide. Maybe it's because of legal risk. Or maybe it's because people search for people differently than they search for things. Especially when the transaction is more valuable. For most of us, choosing a doctor, lawyer or accountant is traditionally based upon referrals from friends and clients. I say traditionally, because even after two decades of the world wide web, referrals remain the biggest source of new business for service professionals. Furthermore, our referring friends probably know absolutely nothing about the current sales volume of people they refer. Nor would such data matter. The selection of service professional often goes beyond the data. People seek doctors for bedside manners; lawyers for patience; and plumbers who show up on time. Can these traits be reduce to rating stars? I'm not convinced they can.

Which makes it more important to resist "reductio" efforts online that strip people down to the wires. Nobody hires a data drone. Even if we expand the data points to include personal qualities (like some sort of personals website), we risk turning wonderful people into flat profiles. And it assumes consumers would look "beyond" prominently placed data: Will they read testimonials for a salesperson with zero stars?

Consider previous attempts to do rating work: Klout promised to review and rank people's social influence based upon online activities, measured in many ways, but mostly in volume of activity. The joke was revealed as Justin Bieber ranked higher than the President of the United States. What makes someone effective, influential, important, or helpful isn't merely an accumulation of data points.

People are more than their high scores.

A friend brought to my attention the story of Bill PorterBill Porter, a salesman in Portland who recently died. Despite cerebral palsy, Bill sold door-to-door for over 45 years, and typed up his orders by hand. Once, the State of Oregon rated Bill as unemployable: Their algorithm indicated he could never hold a job with his illness. They suggested he collect disability payments for the rest of his life. Bill never did. In fact, he doggedly lived on his own until just a few months before he passed away. For most of his career, Bill was not well known. Some people ran away from him, as he shuffled down the street. In 1995, a reporter interviewed him and wrote a story of his life. Just a guy who wouldn't be stopped, going door-to-door, one of over 50,000 salespeople at the same company. The story instantly inspired everyone who read it. ABC's 20/20 television show covered it, a book was written and finally a television movie featuring William H. Macy told the story of this amazing salesman.

People were inspired by Bill.

The journalist who captured his story, Tom Hallman Jr, wrote of Bill:

Bill touches us so profoundly, apparently, because he reminds us of who we all set out to be. And where we would like to go. He is, first of all, someone from our own branch of the human family. Almost none of us has the God-given talent or spiritual purity to become one of the remote, larger-than-life heroes who loom over our world. Who are we to measure ourselves against the great athlete, the skilled surgeon or the religious saint?

But Bill is a salesman. Each day, he puts his infirmities aside, screws up his courage, goes out into the world and asks others to accept what he has to offer.

So do we all.

I wonder how Bill would have fared in a future of online ratings and algorithmic matching. I'd bet his sales numbers wouldn't have ranked him very high: He probably wasn't a top producer. Likely he wouldn't have garnered a lot of online reviews. With cerebral palsy, he wouldn't have had the prettiest glamour shot. Yet Bill is someone I'd have enjoyed meeting; I would probably have bought from him. Just the fact that he was still knocking on doors, in an age of e-blasts and online lead buying, says he was the salesman who wasn't afraid to do what it takes to be successful.

A go-getter who got-going, despite the fact that every day the going was really tough for him.

I'd have wanted Bill to sell my home, if he had been a real estate agent.


Not the Borg.

To view the original article, visit Matthew Ferrara's blogMatthew Ferrara's blog.