The 4-pronged approach that helped a real estate agent make 6 figures

  • Despite getting into real estate during the swell of the financial crisis, Minneapolis-based independent real estate agent Heather Foss came out the other side and now enjoys a six-figure income.
  • Thinking of your business like a barstool, with all four elements — working in the business, working on the business, growing the business, and improving the business — present and balanced is key for Foss.
  • For Foss, success stems from authenticity and being yourself across all of your marketing and interactions with clients.
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If becoming a real estate agent at the height of the financial crisis seems like a recipe for failure, Heather Foss, an independent real estate agent in Minneapolis for over 10 years, is proof of the contrary. Not only did she manage to hold her own, she eventually grew her income to a steady six-figure mark — despite the $48,690 median yearly pay for real estate agents in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For those looking to join a growing industry, who better to learn from than a real estate agent who not only survived, but thrived, during the Great Recession that drove many real estate veterans out of business?

From call center employee to real estate agent

After graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Foss took a job in a local call center, where a coworker sitting next to her told her how much money (tens of thousands) he was making flipping houses on the side — a sum that was significantly more than either of them were netting from the call center. Foss eventually took advantage of the company’s policy to pay for their employees to go back to school and got her real estate license.

The day she passed her real estate test she quit her job and started out on the toughest years of her career. “You get licensed and you’re left to your own devices. I was 22 and wasn’t surrounded by any real estate agents” to learn from, Foss said.

Then the recession hit

In 2007 when Foss was first starting out, she described herself as “so naive and green that I didn’t really know that the bottom was falling out of the real estate market, but I did know that I wasn’t having a ton of success.”

As she watched more experienced real estate agents leave the profession, Foss forged through what she now described as “a long three years.” She made it through by helping a company clean and list foreclosed homes and, although she was sometimes making commission on sales as low as $13,000, she was quickly able to say that she had sold 150 homes in three years — a level of experience that typically takes much longer to come by considering that the average number of transactions a realtor nabs in a year is 11. By 2011, she had become deeply familiar with the foreclosure and short-sale processes and skilled at determining the value of homes. 

Once the financial crisis began to wane, business from investors looking to get into the recovering housing market started to rebound. “It was fun to work with people again,” Foss said of the transition. 

Learning to treat it like a business

It was also around 2011 that Foss began to work under ReMax Results, which has a cap on the number of commissions it splits with its realtors, where she remains today. “It encouraged me to do as many deals as I can upfront to hit the split,” she said.

At ReMax Results, one of the brokers she worked with stressed the importance of having a business plan and balancing her days across a four-pronged approach to success: servicing current clients, finding new clients, growing the business, and improving the business. 

In terms of a business plan, for Foss it’s as simple as reverse engineering both needs and goals for the year.

“You pair your personal budget with your business budget and that tells you how much money you need to make in a year. Then you break down how much business you need to do to make that money,” she said. “If you need to do 25 units a year to live, you then figure out how many people you need to be in contact with and how many appointments you need to set over a year to reach that number. Then you can break those numbers down by the week.”

For those starting out who are less sure about how many transactions they need, she suggests using approximate numbers. “If you talk to about 40 people, you should be able to get a transaction out of one of them.” 

The four-pronged approach to real estate

The four-pronged approach is about not just spending all day serving current clients without focusing on new lead generation at all. Foss now sets aside time two or three times a day to check email and then closes it out to help keep her attention distributed.

Finding new clients stems from talking to people, which for Foss means everything from participating in online forums to attending network events and staying in touch with the people she’s already worked with. 

One thing Foss also likes to do is create “avatars” of the types of people she wants to work with and, from there, finding ways to reach people in the demographics she’s aiming for. 

Improving the business for Foss is about polishing and refining her skills. “Continuing education and finding ways to be more efficient — things like improving your website and social media presence,” she said. However, delegating routine tasks to a virtual assistant has been the biggest move she’s made in the efficiency department.

Overall, Foss thinks of it like a balanced barstool: Take one leg out of the equation and the whole thing topples over.

“It’s about distributing your time and attention properly,” she said. “It makes me a much calmer real estate agent. I’m not nervous about one particular transaction or anything like that because balancing those parts for the last three years has produced a steady income.”

Around the same time, Foss began to realize that the best results came from her own marketing and business development efforts rather than pursuing leads through websites that require realtors to pay for a presence.

“Because they’re very cold leads, a lot of times you’re working over six to 18 months to build relationships with very casual customers,” she said. “It’s all money upfront without any success rate.”

She also talked about the pervasive feeling of needing to always be working that came with trying to get her foot in the door through those sites. “If you’re not the first to answer the phone, you mean nothing to them. They’ll just go somewhere else,” she said. Foss has memories of interrupting holidays with family and nights out with friends to try to answer every call possible. It’s not something she misses today, where her own organic marketing efforts — like staying in touch with clients on social media and organizing small events for the people in her sphere — have yielded her a much better work-life balance.

Other organic efforts come in the form of hosting craft nights for friends and previous customers and sending welcome flowers to clients moving into the homes she helped them buy.

“You have A people who do business with you and refer business to you. B people do business with you, and C people might do business with you,” Foss said. “Efforts like these build strong relationships by staying in contact. They can help turn C people into B people and B people into A people.”

According to Foss, it’s all about playing to your personal strengths. Because she feels most comfortable in small groups of around 10 to 12 people, those are the kinds of events she organizes. Some realtors, she explained, host large annual appreciation events for all of their clients while others send out seasonal gifts like pies around Thanksgiving.

She also sees a lot of value in getting her hands dirty in real estate in her personal life.

“Being a real estate agent and having real estate should go hand in hand. The skills you learn on the job should help you build passive income through buying and owning real estate, not just being a sales person,” Foss said. Foss and her husband have flipped homes; bought, improved, and sold their own homes; and dabbled in owning rental property over the course of her career.

“It’s about walking the walk,” she said. “If you truly believe that real estate can build generational wealth and that’s what you help your clients do, you have to participate in it.”

Settling into the growth mindset

Foss has since grown her one-woman show to include a transaction coordinator who handles the paperwork-heavy parts of sales and purchases and also performs virtual assistant duties for her. Having someone around, even remotely, she said, staves off some of the loneliness that can creep in when working for yourself. She’s additionally recently added a buyer-focused agent to her team, something she hopes can help her to move beyond the low six-figure income she’s been steadily at for the past few years “without losing dinner with my hubby,” she said. 

Foss advocates for honesty across the board. “Be honest about yourself in your marketing and in the way you talk to people. That’s how you’ll build rapport quickly,” she said, citing the quick bond her and I had that grew out of discussing our dogs when she helped me buy my house a couple of years ago.

“When you’re genuine, people come to you and trust you,” she said. “You don’t have to pretend to be somebody else.”

This article was originally published on Insider January 9, 2020.

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