Free pie brings customers to properties. But how do you keep them there?


By CYNTHIA ANDERSON, Correspondent

t began with pies. Just before Thanksgiving 2012, Michael Saunders & Co. agent Sandra Maslen sent an email to former and potential customers: Would they like a Yoder's-baked pumpkin or apple pie to go with their holiday spreads? That's how several dozen people wound up at the Lakewood Ranch branch of Saunders on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, having coffee, catching up with Maslen and an associate — and taking home a hot-from-the-oven pie.

It didn't end there. In the aftermath of that simple gesture, several of those same customers have referred friends to Maslen to sell or buy homes. One woman sent her two new prospective buyers, both of whom are closing this month on properties. The bottom line: 50 pies generated $5 million in sales.

Stephanie Gerhard, who has bought a home in Mill Creek, was one of the referrals. "Sandra is all about her clients. She cares so much," Gerhard said.

Maslen will hold a housewarming party for Gerhard, her husband and their two children in their new place in a couple of months, after the kitchen is remodeled.

"She's amazing," Gerhard said.

To Maslen, it's simple. "I'm relational, not transactional," she said.

Indeed, according to Walter Molony, spokesperson for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), sound relationships underpin almost every successful real estate sale or purchase. "Because the process can become very emotional, you want someone with experience, someone who can look at things with a cool eye. You also want someone you can connect with," Molony said.

"Service and trust," are fundamental to the customer/agent relationship, said Kent Ellermets of SRT International Realty. And honest, open communication: Ellermets cites the case of a buyer who loved to fish but was eyeing inland properties: "I had to keep telling him he'd be happier near the water."

Trust and openness, or the lack thereof, are what led Gerhard to Maslen.

"Before her, we were with someone who almost put us in a house that wouldn't have worked," said Gerhard. She said the agent "kept pushing us to make an offer. I didn't trust that she had our best interests in mind."

Gerhard said that Maslen steered Gerhard away from several properties. "She said, 'Look if you want, but I don't think they're right for you.'"

According to Washington Realtor Michael Creel, "A good agent will bring the home's deficiencies to your attention, not remain quiet and hope you don't notice them. You need and deserve a skilled professional to walk through that house and point out any problems they see and give you a fair assessment of the home's value. You can't rely solely on inspectors and appraisers."

A Realtor's reputation, trustworthiness and market knowledge all were more important to home buyers and sellers who participated in a recent NAR survey than what company the Realtor worked for or — surprisingly — his or her fee. (Most transactions in the Sarasota area are done through full-service brokerages, with a standard 6 percent commission.)

Less surprisingly, of survey respondents who used an agent to sell a property, 61 percent did so based on a referral or word of mouth (or engaged the same person they had in the past). The figure for buyers was similar.

The survey also showed that two-thirds of both sellers and buyers contacted only one agent in the course of their transactions — all the more reason to make a sound initial choice.

The experts warn against two common approaches. Don't wind up going with with an agent just because you meet him or her at an open house; realize that in addition to hosting the event, the agent is there in large measure to develop buyer leads.

Similarly, don't just call the number associated with an online photo listing and sign on with that agent.

In the end, perhaps it comes back to trust, compatibility — and pies. "I'm choosing apple," said Gerhard in anticipation of her pre-Thanksgiving email from Maslen, and of the first big holiday in her new home.

As for Maslen, she's thinking of adding hot chocolate and snacks to this year's gig in Lakewood Ranch.


Last modified: April 6, 2013
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