NAR’s Organizational Realignment and Core Standards: Part Deux

MandatoryCoreStandardsHi intrepid readers. Notorious Junior here to do a follow-up report to Notorious Senior’s parsing of the NAR Organizational Realignment and Core Standards project, Part 1. (Part 1 didn’t appear on this site, so if you missed it you’ll need to play catch up by jumping over to Rob’s site and reading the first part.)

So why isn’t Rob handling his own follow-up promises? Well, he’s been kind of busy lately, being chased around by the Audubon Society for talking smack about Black Swans and other aviary oddities.

Plus, I recently attended the certification training for Core Standards Facilitators hosted by NAR in Chicago and came away with a renewed respect for NAR for taking on such a project and for the staff for figuring out all the nitty-gritty details that will need attending to in order to make this thing work. So these are my thoughts.

First, a little background.

NAR president Steve Brown appointed a PAG (presidential advisory group) to study how NAR could make itself, and its state and local associations of Realtors (AORs), better, more targeted to the mission of helping Realtors be successful in their businesses. The PAG report was published this past April and at the May REALTOR® Party Convention (and political rally, congressional lobbying party, and general governance meeting – oh, yes, and trade expo) the NAR board of directors acted on the recommendations by adopting the Core Standards by which all state and local boards will be measured.

The criteria for success are in six categories.

  1. Code of Ethics (strengthen and streamline)
  2. Advocacy (politics and policy influence)
  3. Consumer Outreach (promotion, publicity, charity work, fund-raising, etc)
  4. Unification Efforts (refers to alignment of services at all three levels, rather than unifying boards, i.e. merging them, which was not the intent)
  5. Technology (boards need a website; they’re cheap; get one now)
  6. Financial Solvency (pretty self-explanatory – don’t let your bankruptcy be a surprise)

Most of the criteria are going to fall into the “Duh, don’t we already do that?” category. But there are some sleepers in there that are going to keep some AOR CEOs awake at night. As you toss restlessly, keep in mind the ultimate purposes of this project:

KEY GOALS:

  • Every member receives services they deserve, regardless of geography or structure.
  • Every association contributes to the strength of the whole. Locals, state, national are all working together
  • Every association must be capable of delivering the standard services. Those that cannot now must find a way to do so or else.
  • Every association is highly functional and delivers member value – size is not the issue. Functionality is the goal. Small boards can be highly functional, while some large boards may not necessarily be that functional.

Despite what Dale Stinton told the AEs at their annual institute in Baltimore (as Rob reported his best recollection), the official line is this is not about culling the herd (of crappy boards) through mergers or defenestration. This is not just about getting rid of small boards (although everyone admits that the smaller the board the harder it will be for them to meet the standards tests). It is, instead, all about service to the members. Mergers may be a side effect, but if the service levels can be achieved without mergers at all, the Realtor mission will have been accomplished.

I was surprised to hear that many (hundreds) boards are so small they can’t afford one full-time employee. They exist solely to exchange listing information through an MLS that may be a PC on a modem line in the president’s garage. Those will be the first to die. Those that cannot make the grade on their own because of size, inefficiency, or just plain incompetence will have a number of options available to them short of termination with extreme prejudice.

  • They can fold into another board as a local chapter, thus keeping a portion of their local identity.
  • They can joint venture with other boards to share service costs and jointly present programs that meet the standards.
  • They can hire services to be delivered on their behalf, either from other AORs or outside vendors, although this might entail some increased costs.

What they cannot do is continue to slide by on good looks and charm. The days of the AE or board president cajoling the state AE in order to not have to meet the board’s RPAC quota are over.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the major areas and point out the highlights of the upcoming requirements.

Code of Ethics (COE)Rob's version of COE Justice

My notorious friend jumps on his high horse about the lack of teeth in the Standards around the COE. Rob would like a Judge Dredd to go out and find those desperado Realtors, given them 48 hours to ‘splain themselves (even if their name isn’t Lucy) and then shoot them on the spot if they don’t straighten up, clean up, and fess up.

But the purpose of this section isn’t to force Realtors to be more ethical. It’s to make sure the AORs are doing their best to educate the members that (a) there is a COE, (b) they are expected to follow the COE, and (c) in cases where someone is harmed (whether that’s another Realtor or the general public), try to facilitate a resolution short of a full-blown professional standards marathon inquiry.

Through years of evolution and expansion, the Code of Ethics and Arbitration Manual is now over 250 pages long, chucked full of due process and rigor and quite frankly is a total PAIN to follow.

The three options, of Code of Ethicswhich the boards much pick at least one, all intercept the complaint before it enters the formal ethics process. Mediation can resolve disputes in a short time. An ombudsman can intervene early and get the parties to negotiate a settlement even before mediation. And many states (NAR promises to publish details and examples) have a fine system in place that allows a member, when s/he gets caught with a hand in the cookie jar, to say a couple of hail Mary’s and a mea culpa, pay a fine and get back to business. The fines can be substantial and a couple of them should be a deterrent to further mischief. But if not, the board can still throw the manual at them later (which, at 250 pages, has got to be painful).

Advocacy

Just a couple of comments on this topic because for the most part Rob is right on in his analysis. Advocacy may be the saving grace for Realtor Associations, their raison d’être. Of all the services an association can offer, keeping good politicians in office and bad laws out of the books is the most noble.

NAR has put some substance around the metrics** of Calls for Action. They publish the response rates for each association and the Y-o-Y change so one can easily see the trend. My former state, Arizona, is dead last (8.8% response rate) among les États (there are a couple of territories and one District doing worse, but then there are a couple of territories with fewer members than the Black Hills, SD association with about 300 warm bodies, so we won’t pick on them until they grow up). But other states like IN, OH, NH, and VA  have equally abysmal response rates, all 10% or less. Top dogs in the political arena are North Dakota (surprise) and Iowa (no surprise) with 32% or more responses to CTAs.

Funding Advocacy

RPACThe RPAC requirements are interesting as well. On the one hand AORs must include a voluntary contribution line on their dues statements, and in so doing imply that the payment of the contribution is anything but voluntary. Members can line-out that RPAC item and pay the dues amount only, but there is no requirement in the policy that requires AORs to explain this to the members. It will be interesting to see how those associations who accept only electronic on-line dues remittances handle the option to allow members to remove the RPAC amount from their “shopping cart” before they check out.

Yes, this procedure is an admission that most Realtors don’t understand the importance of strong, well-financed political action by their trade association. That’s the other part of the requirement, that the boards go further to explain, to educate the members why this is such an important part of the Realtor mission.** After all, this is why they changed the name of the spring meeting from Mid-Year Governance Conference to REALTOR® Party Convention. What remains unanswered, and prickly, is that end-around loophole. If the board doesn’t want to include the RPAC line item in the dues statement, they can just write a check on behalf of all of their members. But where does that money come from?

Unless the board has a for-profit subsidiary feeding money into a separate contribution channel, as Notorious #1 conjectured in his modest proposal <here>, then the check the AOR writes is coming from the same bank account into which dues dollars are deposited. And that co-mingling is the basis for separating out the RPAC item as voluntary in the first place. It will be interesting to see where the challenge to this comes from and how loud the screams are, or if the membership will look at this situation with the same laissez-faire “Meh” and yawn that greets most association political efforts.

Then there’s the POWER Thing.

Yes, the plan as first published (or at least first interpreted) smelled like a power grab by state and National, forcing locals into compliance or threatening them with termination either through dissolution or merger.

The truth is, and I saw this first hand in Chicago, the purpose here is not to consolidate power, not to cull the herd of weak Swanepoelian Wildebeests, but to strengthen the associations, and to align them at all levels toward the common purpose and Realtor mission – better, more productive members.**

Cajoling is just one option. Mentoring is preferred. The states can show the locals, and the national show the states, how to mobilize the membership and instill them a sense of pride in supporting the political actions of their PAC.

And therein lies another problem – whom do you support? And do your members agree with your decisions on whom to support? And if not, how do you either (a) do what the members want or (b) quit taking money from the Reds and giving it to the Blues (or vice-versa).

The better solution, in my opinion, would be some variation on Rob’s proposal to raise RPAC money not through voluntary donations but through unlimited corporate contributions allowed by Citizens United v FEC. But NAR isn’t ready to go there yet, so we’ll continue down this path for a bit longer, and work harder to explain it to the members.

These are just two of the six major areas that have detailed requirements for compliance. To quickly touch on the others:

Consumer Outreach

Boards must do four meaningful** consumer engagement activities annually, but can’t do the same thing four times. Examples are promoting market statistics and/or real estate trends and issues (e.g., release through press releases, interviews, etc. of MLS statistics, local market statistics, NAR research reports, local/state analysis of NAR statistics, etc.); promoting the value proposition of using a REALTOR® and/or engaging in community activities which enhance the image of the REALTOR®; engaging the public** in legislative/political issues that impact real estate and related issues; and organizing human assistance like a Habitat for Humanity** project or fundraising for the benefit of charitable/community organizations.

These are all pretty self explanatory and really easy to hit out of the park. Realtor associations love these kinds of activities, so no challenge here.

Technology

If you can believe this, there are some organizations out there that don’t have a website. The bar for what constitutes a website is pretty low (one page with links to state and national websites), so this hurdle should not be much of a problem. The Kansas Association of REALTORS® will sell you a copy of theirs for $45/month. If you don’t know your HTML from your URL or your DNS from your TLD, give them a call. And the AOR must use email (or some other internet channel like Twitter or Facebook) to communicate with members. My advice – stick with email. It’s free (Google) and verifiable.  

Financial Solvency**

There were early concerns that locals would have to show the states their balance sheets to demonstrate solvency. Some locals don’t want the state association to know that much detail about which coffee can in the back yard has the buried cash. Fortunately, they will be able to keep their money under the mattress and free from state level prying eyes. The states will monitor only the reports from the auditors or CPAs about board financial condition and only from boards with $50K in revenue or more. (By the way, if your board has less than $50K in annual revenue, what in the heck are you paying your staff with? Bartered chickens?)

Unification Efforts

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky and where the CEO insomnia syndrome might set in.  Unification refers to alignment of services at all three levels of the association, rather than to unifying boards, i.e. merging them, which is not the intent of this section. The particulars are designed to get the three levels of Realtorism to work in concert with each other, to compliment the other levels, avoid duplicate of efforts and ensure that services to which member are entitled are delivered regardless of which level delivers them.

  1. AOR must have access to legal counsel**. This can be the state association in-house counsel or an outside attorney. But if you use an outside attorney, be sure it’s someone who understands your business. Realtor Associations are unique creations, unlike other businesses or trade groups. Representing one is not for the faint of heart. There is no requirement that you use the lawyer but if you need one you better have his/her phone number close by. There are firms that represent multiple associations across wide geographies. Contact me if you want some names.
  2. AOR CEO, President (or Chair), and Treasurer must certify in writing they have been filed all necessary corporate docs, reports, and tax returns.Alice meets the Cheshire Cat
  3. Board must have a business or strategic plan in place, including advocacy component.** The BoD must sign off each year that plan is in place (even if plan is for multiple years). This makes sense. As the Cheshire Cat once said, If you don’t know where you’re going “it really does not matter which way you go.” NAR has certified a whole cadre of strategic planners ready to help you put your plan together. <Click Here for the Roster>
  4. Chief staff person must have minimum six hours of professional development each year. (Hold on to your passports small board CEOs – you don’t necessarily have to travel for this.) The state AOR must provide these opportunities which can be virtual web-based online classes that you can take in your jammies.**
  5. NAR will survey members as to their understanding of the value provided by their associations at all three levels. Locals MUST promote these surveys.**
  6. Locals maintain a list of LFROs and may solicit them for voluntary contributions to PACs.** What’s an LFRO you ask? That’s the acronym du jour for Limited Function Referral Organizations, those holding companies that brokers set up for their part-timers so they don’t have to pay REALTOR® dues. NAR would still like them to contribute to the RPAC even if they aren’t members.
  7. State AORs must provide locals list of non-member licensees twice each year. The implication here is that the locals will then chase down the brokers of these agents to impose the dues formula on their non-member agents or force them to move the licenses to a non-Realtor holding or referral company. But the standard doesn’t require the locals to do anything more than they already are. It only requires that the state give them the list, not that they act on it. **

By now you have noticed a few provisions with double-stars appended and some of you have been sent looking for the footnote to which those stars refer. This is that footnote. Those provisions of the standards that are *starred* currently have no teeth. There is no measure of success, or of progress, against which to measure compliance. How does the state know if the local met the standard if there isn’t any scale by which to pass or fail?

That’s because there is yet one more missing piece to this puzzle. The PAG report tantalized you. The standards adopted by the NAR BoD enlightened you. The FAQs prepared by NAR staff enlightened you and clarified things. Now the missing fourth piece sure to raise your resistance if not your ire: the measurement criteria. NAR staff is still working on that. There are six squads of staffers putting together the “how much” to go with the “what” and the “why” and we hope to see their report soon.

Examples of missing measurement details:

  1. What if you hold a town hall meeting to engage the public in political dialog, but one person shows up? Have you met the requirement of “meaningful” consumer engagement?
  2. Yes, NAR publishes the Call to Action response rates, but what rate is sufficient for a state to pass the test?
  3. If an AOR pours its heart and soul into educating the members about RPAC, and they still think it’s a lousy idea, has the AOR met the test of “explaining the importance” of the program? Explaining is not the same as persuading or convincing.
  4. A bake sale to raise charitable donations is not the same effort as building a Habitat for Humanity house. Do they count the same under the community involvement test?
  5. The financial solvency test has no guidelines. Will there be minimum reserves required? What happens if the AOR depends on MLS revenue more than it should? Is that acceptable in the eyes of the auditor?
  6. Merely certifying that the AOR has a strategic plan in lace does not require the board to actually follow it. Does a ‘shelf registration’ count in meeting this test?
  7. What constitutes professional development for the association CEO? Would a self-directed online Power-point lecture on Facebook for Dummies qualify?

That will surely be the fodder for Part 3 of this series, which I will probably bounce back to Notorious the Elder since by that time I hope to be on the road facilitating understanding and compliance. Either that or traipsing around in a shroud like Dr. Jack Kevorkian at Halloween passing out cyanide capsules to those miniature associations who are sounding the death knell after just reading the requirements and finding they don’t have much to offer beyond MLS. Don’t fret, small board AE or president. Instead of dying, you can become a Chapter of your larger neighbor and keep your name – just as soon as NAR defines what a Chapter is and the process for becoming one (coming soon, they promise).

I’m working on a website geared toward shameless self-promotion as an approved Association Merger Facilitator to guide associations and their MLSs through the process. I’ve got the shell and some bare bones information posted now. If you just can’t wait to get started and are interested in a quick one-day outside audit of your current status and what areas  you might have to work on to pass inspection, give me a call. Contact info is found at www.NARCoreStandards.com. There’s also a link there for the current FAQ list from NAR that goes into more detail. That should get you started.

For this post:
Cause – Our organizations are out of alignment
Effect – We must hang together or we will surely hang separately.

This post also appears on Notorious R.O.B.

The Impossible Dream or a Glorious Quest?

This “thought” by Steve Murray of RealTrends appeared in his October 31 email newsletter and was posted on his website the next day.

State of Unrest

Why is there so much angst between Realtor associations, MLSs and brokerage firms?

By Steve Murray

“The whole is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs and South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much.” -Kingston Trio “They’re Rioting in Africa” lyrics

Sounds like the current state of our industry, doesn’t it? The level of angst between local, state and national Realtor associations, MLSs, brokerage firms and national realty chains has risen to new heights. Everyone is unhappy with everyone else in some fashion. Of course, there are exceptions (though hard to find).

It occurs to us that this is what happens when the pie shrinks (revenues generated by the industry and the lack of growth in membership). The fight becomes one where everyone invades someone else’s turf (mission creep). It happens in other industries as well.

What is needed is a group of wise people from the various constituencies to gather and come up with a way to co-exist. A new road map is needed. A map that lays out how the market place can be made clearer and more efficient. That would be a worthy goal. It behooves these leaders to find some solutions before external forces develop their own path (pocket listings anyone?).

We may be wrong, but it seems like we are creating fixes on the run when what is needed is a full examination of how we are organized, whether that still works as intended and are there new structures and rules that are needed that reflect today’s reality.

Just a thought.

quixote-windmillI agree with Steve that left unaddressed these problems will merely create an environment ripe for invasion by yet other “external forces” that can send the industry in directions no one wants to see it go.

I was reaching for the phone to call Steve and offer my assistance in assembling the right people in the right room at the right time to try to solve these issues. But then I stopped.

My pitch to Steve was going to be, “You bring the brokers. I’ll bring the MLSs.  We both know a couple of influential association executives who could bring the Realtor organizations at all levels. Let’s get everyone in the same room at a large round table (think either King Arthur or Paris Peace Talks – no “sides” so everyone is equal) and hash this thing out. Sounds easy. But the doubts crept in as I put down the phone.

What would we talk about? Well, for starters, there’s the list of grievances prepared by The Realty Alliance and aimed at the MLSs and their Realtor Association owners. Many are superficial or apply to only a few isolated situations and could easily be fixed by taking a couple of people out to the wood shed. Others are but the tip of the iceberg and the most recent artifact of a much deeper malaise.

There’s an underlying current of doubt, mistrust, and apprehension that courses through these discussions. It sits like a mastodon in the room, ancient is his repose and invisible to any and all who choose to look around or through the hulking question that challenges every professional in the business: “How do we make this industry better?”

How do we elevate the practice of real estate to a level of professionalism that will foster trust from our clientele and confidence from our fellow practitioners?

How do we reform our trade associations into support organizations that work to the benefit of ALL parties in the transaction – buyer, seller, agent, broker – and not just two or three of the participants?

How do we construct a matrix of interrelationships where all of the pieces not only connect but support all the others and through those connections make the whole of the structure stronger?

How do we build a platform from which to lobby for laws, policies and regulations that promote and sustain the concept of home ownership as a cornerstone of economic prosperity where one’s home is one’s castle and in most cases the basis of one’s family wealth? Could such a platform be supported by both red and blue ends of the spectrum, left and right wings of the parties, and all shades and wings in between?

How do we stop the bickering between the parties which seems to be consuming far more energy and effort than could possibly be justified by the results? There seem to be no results – just continuing misunderstanding, finger-pointing, and ill feelings.

Could any of this be done at a level (national, state, local) and with enough support from all quarters to truly make a difference in how real estate brokerage framework is structured? Or are we too far gone, too deeply mired in our current morass to come up for air long enough to have civil discourse about these problems?

What is needed here is far more than just another real estate conference with panel discussions and break-out sessions where lots of platitudes are spoken but nothing is accomplished. We need something more akin to a constitutional convention with delegations from each of the constituent “states.”

we-the-people-9The assembly would need more than just a couple of days, but certainly less than the nearly four months it took the founding fathers to draft, debate, and adopt the new structure of an entire nation.

But the next step would be the trickier one. How do we ratify such a new structure? In 1787 it was fairly easy, even with 13 independent minded states joining together for the common good. On a simple yes or no vote, each state decided could it go it alone or would it be better off joining with its confederates to become stronger through union and common purpose. This time it’s trickier. One no vote by one vital “state” would/could undermine the entire effort. This truly needs to be all for one and one for all.

In the end, all the states joined. They joined for purposes similar to those which the real estate convention would be asked to address: to form a more perfect industry union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the benefits of home ownership to ourselves and our posterity.

Is this the impossible dream? Or are we as an industry up to the task? And if so, when can we start the quest?

For this post:
The Cause: an impossible dream?
The Effect: a glorious quest!

What did the lion mean by that roar?

Following on my post about the Broker/MLS conflict at CMLS, as promised The Realty Alliance (TRA) has published their list of complaints and Gregg Larson, Clareity Consulting has it posted with his commentary on their blog at http://clareity.com/Lion with Big Stick

By far the most commented article is the Inman News coverage of the event. Nearly 100 comments as of this writing and they’re all over the map.

And this morning Greg Robertson posted his take on the whole debate on Vendor Alley.

Most of these authors and comments are focused on the surface issues – complaints about specific MLSs and their practices – while ignoring the underlying reasons that TRA is so angry. The issues run far deeper than MLS public websites or white-labeled iPad apps. The main issues for TRA are fundamental disagreements with the way MLSs and Realtor Associations are structured, not how they’re managed. There are hints at this underlying problem in between many of the superficial nits being picked at in the TRA list.

Here’s my take on the list published by Clareity for TRA.

There were a few things that jumped off the page/screen at me as being Batman/Robin moments: Holy Jumpin Jehoshaphat!

#1, top of the list, first on the hit parade: Tying MLS participation with products/services that should be optional and go beyond the founding MLS principles (data, cooperation/compensation) … unfair, and likely illegal.

Comment: HOLY D-O-J, did someone mention illegal? This one clearly came from the spring discussion about core services (particularly lock boxes and public MLS websites). But there’s more here than just those two. What about tying MLS participation to Realtor Association membership? That has been decoupled in two federal circuit districts but failed similar court tests in others. TRA sees MLSs as protected by the political and financial prowess of NAR but out of control of NAR as evidenced by their expansion into numerous for-profit areas in which TRA feels they should not compete.

#5, Subsidizing associations by over-charging for MLS services and passing extra revenue to associations.

Comment: HOLY SWITCHEROO! Rather than raise board dues and risk backlash from Realtors who don’t see the value of the association’s efforts, they raise MLS fees because agents can’t do business without the MLS, so agents are powerless to complain or resist. This revenue stream is the main reason local Realtor associations maintain their control over the MLS (see #1 above).

#33, Allowing consultants to steer them (MLSs) to being overly entrepreneurial.

Comment: HOLY U-EYLOUIE! Turn the boat around. I’ve worked in two major MLSs and been involved in numerous consultant guided strategic planning sessions over the past decade and the advice from said consultants, across the board, has been pretty consistent: innovate, extend service, be more than just an MLS, provide value, expand, grow, prosper, consolidate, think of the consumer as your customer (because if you don’t, someone else will). As Gregg Larson said in his commentary, ” Clareity and half a dozen other consultants, along with numerous vendors, are guilty of introducing seductive new technology and services that the MLS can license for all its members.” Apparently TRA feels all those consultants at worst were wrong, or at minimum weren’t preaching to the correct choir.

#44, Viewing its customer as the agents or the consumer public.

Comment: HOLY BILLPAYER! Most MLSs would look at the agent as their primary customer because most MLSs charge the agent directly for services. And on behalf of the agents, many MLSs look at services from the vantage point of “What’s good for the consumer is good for the agent.” Apparently the TRA brokers see the relationships slightly differently.

#•, Having a bias against participants that make up a significant percentage of market activity and skewing benefits toward those with a smaller percentage of market activity.

Comment: HOLY LEVEL PLAYING FIELD! This may be the oldest complaint in the book, stemming from the first time an MLS ever considered a service that was thought to be good for all, regardless of whether some could have (or had) paid for it themselves. It stems from the Three Musketeers mentality of a trade association – All for One and One for All – regardless of rank, size, financial prowess or need. That worked OK when the association was handling public relations or government lobbying on behalf of the industry as a whole. It fails when those who benefit are only the ones who cannot afford the tools necessary to compete in the open marketplace, and those tools are paid for by the ones who can afford their own.

And the pièce de résistance: The ideas being tossed around for possible implementation are broad-based, not restricted to The Realty Alliance, but have been incubated by a number of global networks and brands representing firms of all sizes and business models, of which The Realty Alliance is just one segment.

Comment: Global Networks? Like Leading Real Estate Companies of the World? You can’t get much more global than that. Leading RE closed $272 billion in sales in 2012, 36% more than Coldwell Banker ($200 billion).

Those who think TRA is going at this alone are missing the nuanced references buried in the published statements and in the verbal appeal Mr. Cheatham made at CMLS.

Brands of all sizes and models? That could embrace the Realogy brands, Keller WilliamsPrudentialBerkshire/HomeServices and RE/MAX. A coalition of just those five would represent over half the agents in the US, and according to Leading RE’s numbers over 90% of all sales transactions. Now that’s clout. Any association or MLS that thinks this group is just restating the same ol’ same ol’ without any teeth behind the growl is going to be in for a rude awakening. If these five or six groups are in agreement on a course of action and act in unison to preserve their business, anyone who feels they are doomed to failure because the remainder of the industry won’t follow is missing one major point: THEY ARE THE INDUSTRY.

So let’s unveil the threat. What are the consequences of continuing the attitude as usual at all levels of organized real estate?

Realty Alliance CEO Craig Cheatham summarized in broad brush strokes what is being considered.

The Realty Alliance and some other large brokers and franchises have invested money in R&D on a project that could dramatically affect MLS and several vendors that were in the room know the details of this project but are under NDA so they are not talking about it. And no, technology is not a hurdle.

Ingredients: big money (some of it already spent); broad base of support; input from tech vendors/consultants (chosen not only for their knowledge and skill but also for an inordinate ability to keep their mouths shut – there has been absolutely no leak anywhere as a result of the NDAs); dramatic effect on MLS; and no tech hurdles.

I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks. But whatever it is that’s under consideration as the alternative to the current structure must assuredly incorporate:

  • Broker ownership and control of the listing maintenance and distribution processes
  • Disconnection between Realtor associations at all levels and MLSs (this piece alone is worth another post – coming soon)
  • No disruption in current business pipeline (perhaps a parallel system, at least for some overlapping timeframe?)
  • “…several… options that have never been available before.” Didn’t see that one coming, did ya? That tells me this is going to be BIG. Really BIG. No matter what it turns out to be.

For this post:
Cause:  You’re speaking too softly.
Effect:  I’m carrying the  big stick.

This post also appears on Notorious R.O.B.

The next lion . . . the next hill

lion-zoo

The Council of Multiple Listing Services held its annual conference in Boise, ID this past week. In keeping with the high standards of excellence (which may be redundant, but I liked the phrase) of past conferences, our host, Greg Manship from Intermountain MLS, the local host, and his staff put on a top notch program. Many of the panels actually discussed real industry issues which in the past has not always been the case. That’s not a ding on CMLS. It happens at every industry conference. The panelists talk but ignore the multiple elephants that roam around the room.

Not this time.

One discussion on Friday led to much “chatter” in the halls, an unhealthy level of speculation on what was really being said, and a healthy level of panic and paranoia as MLS CEOs tried to figure out what to do next.

Let me explain.

The panel was titled Eliminating MLS and Broker Conflict, moderated by Bill Yaman of Imprev who did a masterful job of mediating as well as moderating. Panelists were Gregg Larson, CEO Clareity Consulting, Brian Donnellan, COO and CFO of MRIS, and Craig Cheatham, CEO of The Realty Alliance (TRA). Craig’s comments were the most impactful.

Suspicion, suppositions and speculation are the staples of much discussion in the inner circles of MLS leadership. MLSs seem to be overly concerned with identifying the next biggest threat to their continued existence and through that to the prosperity of their broker participants. But as the old adage goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

The Realty Alliance is an affiliation of about 70 major independent-minded brokerages, both non-aligned and franchise affiliated, that meet periodically to exchange views on industry issues and best brokerage practices. There are some huge players in this arena and collectively they represent over 100,000 agents, more than 10% of current NAR membership.

They have been involved in the debate over many MLS rules as modeled by mother NAR. It was impetus from TRA members that caused the MLS policy committee and eventually the NAR board to reconsider and then reverse their policy regarding “recognized search engines” being allowed to index IDX listing displays. Senior executives from both TRA and Realogy, this time working in unison  rather than opposition, served together on the multiple (no pun intended) presidential advisory groups that wrestled (albeit unsuccessfully, due in no part to the herculean efforts of the members) with the nuances of policy surrounding the extension of IDX rules into social media.

So it surprised some in the audience to hear that TRA had a laundry list of grievances they wanted MLSs to address. In uncondensed form Craig said then list ran 48 pages single spaced. My first question to myself was why so many and why now? Hadn’t TRA members aired many of their issues in the usual forums? Certainly not all of their grievances applied to all MLSs, so why we’re they not talking to their local MLSs about particular local issues instead of to a conference in general?

The answer to the latter was “They were talking” – not only at the local level but at the state and particularly the national levels as well. But there was a sense in the air that the time for talk was over, that TRA members had resigned themselves to the realization that talk was not only cheap but ineffective, that trying to have their voices heard and change policy from the top down through the established channels was a fruitless endeavor. How we got to this position requires a bit more explanation.

A Brief History of Chaotic Times

At the spring NAR in Washington DC, NAR modified its definition of “Core Services” (those that can be included in the base monthly fee of all participants whether they use such services or not) to include public facing MLS websites. TRA was not alone in their opposition. They were joined by many franchisors who felt MLS were (a) being unfair in charging all members for service that only served some of the members (listing agents, not buyers agents), (b) competed with similar efforts by brokers to publish compelling content and attract consumers, and (c) generally expanding their charter and mission “which introduces vagueness and inappropriate objectives.”

The process by which this policy was adopted was contorted, contentious, and (in the minds of many, not just big brokers) counterproductive. But it was adopted.

Subsequent to that, TRA published a guidance paper telling MLSs TRA’s Fair Display Guidelines would have to be followed in order for TRA firms (optionally) to allow their listings to be included in such a public website or not. Most industry observers felt these were fair guidance so there was little debate.

But the unexpected consequence of the debate over public websites was a resurrection of a number of grievances that TRA felt were unaddressed. Had there not been the huge turmoil at the national level over the co-issues of franchisor syndication and MLS public websites, perhaps TRA would not have piled on with more, “Oh, and while we’re at it, they do this too . . .” items.

Don’t shoot the messenger

To Mr. Cheatham’s credit, he explained to the audience that he was just the messenger and didn’t have a dog in this hunt except to deliver the message from TRA in unambiguous language. And he almost succeeded in delivering the message in cool, measured carefully crafted statements without interjecting distracting emotional appeals. I say ‘almost’ because as the Q&A session progressed, it was clear from the emotion in his voice that he felt very strongly about the points he was making as he summarized the gist of the 48 pages into a series of quick bullet points.

Among them (and I’m doing this from memory since I can’t type as fast as Craig speaks) MLSs should not site license products that compete with brokers offerings to their own agents; MLSs should not introduce new services without a courtesy notice to (better yet, a discussion with ) the brokers; MLSs should not block data feeds to the brokers or agents (it’s their data and they need it for their businesses); for those MLSs that do provide full data feeds they shouldn’t charge participants a second fee to receive them; MLS CEOs should not take it upon themselves to make decisions for brokers in any regard without proper due diligence and research; and MLSs should consolidate more to eliminate overlapping territories that force brokers to join many MLSs. There were more. CMLS has asked for the list and will publish it if they get chance.

Craig went on to explain that in the months since the public website debate TRA had contributed significant resources into studying these problems and gauging the feasibility of several options should the MLSs not be persuaded to change their tactics. He described in broad concept the “red button” analogous to the one that follows the president around and is connected to the nuclear arsenal.

And in a statement that some saw as a thinly veiled threat, Craig concluded with, “You have 10 days.” (Insert audible audience gasp here!) Subsequently it was proffered that the 10 days referred to the time until TRA meets again to make decisions on next steps, not 10 days until the bomb drops. (Insert audible audience Phew!) Even with that clarification, the “bomb” concerns persisted.

What kind of bomb?

What could that bomb possible be? Rob Hahn, 7DS Associates, posed a question to Craig by reading a comment appended to one of Notorious Rob’s essays on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of MLSs changing their focus away from B2B and toward B2C fearing it may trigger a revisit of the public utility question. He quoted from the blog comment:

And now you know why, when the Realty Alliance met this year, the major topic of conversation was all about finding a path out of the MLS by the largest brokers in the country. . . . and now you know why the largest brokerage firms in the US are all telling NAR the three way agreement needs to end, or at the very least be significantly modified, or they are going to find a way out of NAR completely.

and then asked Craig to comment. Craig did not comment directly, saying only that he could not confirm or deny speculation about the content of debate or discussion of options within the closed meeting room. He wasn’t being coy or playing games.  It was clear that he was under specific instruction from TRA as to what he could discuss and what he could not. However, most in the audience probably felt that was as much a confirmation as they could expect, but a confirmation none the less.

I’m sure most MLS CEOs in the audience were either confident the bullets weren’t meant for them or were in total denial that such complaints could apply to them. After all, the conference is composed for the most part of CEOs who know what the heck they’re doing or they wouldn’t be there. So I asked the panel whether there was a way to figure out, as an MLS leader, whether this list applied in any way to their individual system. Would Craig be willing to share not just his list of grievances, but the individual MLSs to which each applied if he had that info. Such level of detail was not available, so in the absence of detail Gregg Larson suggested all the MLSs, not just those in the room, call all their largest brokers, especially TRA brokers, on Monday and ask the Ed Koch question, “How am I doing?

So the countdown clock is running. T-minus seven days (perhaps less by the time you read this) and counting toward the next debate and perhaps a decision on what changes MLSs, Association owners, and even NAR need to make to to address avoid potential disruptions in the status quo.

What might that decision be? Speculation ran rampant in the halls, ranging from pulling out of IDX and syndication so their listings wouldn’t be seen on an MLS public site to pulling out of MLS altogether to demonstrate their total frustration with the institution and what they feel it is becoming.

But I can’t imagine all of the TRA brokers pulling listings off all internet marketing sites. Their sellers would revolt. Their agents would revolt. Maybe they’re thinking of interconnecting all of their own broker websites to create a mini-network within the Internetwork, so a consumer could search anywhere in the country where there is a TRA affiliate?

Then again, the answer might be right under our nose if the commenter on Rob’s blog is an informed source.  If there have been discussions between major brokerages and the highest leadership levels at NAR about changes to the three-way agreement or decoupling mandatory NAR membership from participation in what are now all-Realtor MLSs, then all the discussion about public websites and IDX indexing will seem like a bunch of children’s playground nattering.

I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to reading about the results of the meeting.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that I had a feeling something seismic was about to occur in our industry. But honestly, I didn’t think it would happen this soon after making that prediction. (Heck, I haven’t yet finished the full post on what that shock wave might look like.) This might not be “the event” but I’d put money on TRA making some serious moves between now and the annual NAR convention, this year in San Francisco in November, if they don’t see some demonstrable sign that the MLSs, the AORs and mother NAR are willing to open negotiations and address these deficiencies in earnest. Otherwise the descending lion might just be having an MLS sandwich for lunch.

billchee“There is a high probability that the Realtor organization will lose control and direction of the MLS as it currently exists. I view the current MLS situation as a few Chihuahuas fighting over a bone, unaware that a hungry lion is coming over the hill.

– Bill Chee, April 26, 1993 in Washington DC.

In the meantime, tempus fugit MLS execs. Time to start dialing for brokers.

~bb

For this post:
Cause:  A failure to communicate
Effect:  Duck and Cover 50’s style

This post is also available on Notorious R.O.B.